1201 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
Prep Kitchen is quintessentially Californian in that it exalts comfort food by making it seasonal, and in that fusion is foremost. On this menu, you’ll find fish tacos (tomatillo salsa, cabbage, cilantro, avocado crema: $14.95) right next to the lamb gyro (hummus, cherry tomatoes, onion, greens, tzatziki sauce, on thick, soft naan: $14.50). The salads are always changing but consistently delectable, as with the roasted beet and spinach ($13.95), with mandarin orange, goat cheese, almonds, balsamic vinaigrette, and avocado. Located just a few blocks from the beach, you can sit on the patio and enjoy the ocean air wafting over you with each bite.
130 S. Mollison, El Cajon
It seems everything you get at Al Reef comes with a little “extra.” One dish, such as the chicken tikka ($8) easily fills two famished adults. In addition to giant hunks of grilled chicken or beef ($12), you get soup (choice of potato curry or bean), pita, pickled vegetables, fresh tomatoes and onions, and a heaping bed of rice topped with slivers of almonds and golden raisins. A $5 falafel dish comes with six sizable and pleasantly crispy balls floating atop a pool of hummus. The bountiful portions, along with the fact it travels well, make this Middle Eastern fare ideal for takeout to please a hungry party.
3860 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
Named for the national flower of Thailand, Koon Thai Kitchen is a perfect place to start if you’re ready to delve past American Thai favorites such as pineapple fried rice and yellow curry. The Pad Cha Pork Wing ($17) is fall-off-the-bone tender from being slow cooked and then stir-fried with hot and spicy garlic sauce, lime leaves, green peppercorns, onion, bell pepper, basil, and wild ginger. For a twist on Massaman curry and pad Thai, try Khao Soi ($13), a northern Thai dish with egg noodles and chicken swimming in a spicy-sweet curry and topped with a nest of fried noodles.
2401 Camino del Rio South, Mission Valley
Though Bully’s has been known for 50 years as a reliable purveyor of steak served with a side of family-like friendliness, its brunch menu has been flying under the radar. Served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends, offerings include the standards, such as the Gameday Breakfast (two eggs any style, country potatoes, choice of meat and choice of french toast or pancakes, all for $7), but the real excitement is in the Mexican-style dishes, such as the chilaquiles ($11), a formidable iteration of the popular San Diego dish; this one comes with roasted poblano chili strips and shredded, seasoned chicken mixed with tangy tomatillo sauce and served atop corn tortilla chips with a drizzle of crème fraîche and two eggs any style.
928 Ft. Stockton Drive, Mission Hills
Entering this Japanese bar and restaurant feels like you just stepped in from off a side street in Shinjuku. I start with a red can of Funaguchi (premium sake, $13) and an appetizer to share, such as the agedashi tofu ($5) or Masa’s fried chicken ($6). My soba noodle-loving man says Masa’s tem zaru ($12), or cold soba noodles served with dipping sauce and mixed tempura, is the closest he’s come to finding a version as good as those he’s tried in Tokyo. My favorite bowl is the Nabeyaki udon ($10.50), a complex dashi/chicken broth with fresh, thick udon noodles, shrimp tempura, a poached egg, tofu, and spinach cooked right in the clay pot in which it’s served. And like any proper izakaya, it’s open late, till 1 a.m.
910 Grand Avenue, Pacific Beach
This hip “speakeasy tiki bar” offers kitschy-but-cool decor and enough entertainment to make an event out of your meal. Delightful diversions include a hidden entrance through the kitchen of another restaurant, drinks on fire, intermittent flashing lights, and animated volcanic eruptions. As with any tiki joint worth its molten rock salt, the Grass Skirt has an extensive array of exotic cocktails, each served in an over-the-top glass with outrageous garnishes. For example, the Tipsy Tentacle ($14) — with black rum, biscotti liqueur, lime, pineapple, coconut, and banana — is served in a palm tree mug and topped with an entire banana, its peel sliced to create tentacles, above which is a smiley face, with cherries for eyes. The food is largely Korean-inspired, from the soft and chewy bao buns ($5 each) to the kimchi fried rice ($13), all of which is as enjoyable to eat as the space is to be in.
3696 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
A charming and cozy mix of elegant and casual, La Bonne Table’s concise menu offers favorite French classics with flawless execution. The trout almondine ($24) is a ten-ounce roasted trout served whole with wax beans, almonds, and a lemon-butter sauce that is both rich and refreshing. Mandatory French food such as the l'escargot ($9) is also rich, with an exceptional depth of flavor derived from the herbs and garlic butter. Appetizers to share on a hot date include the plateau de fromage ($13) and Ménage à Trois ($14). The first is a selection of luscious cheeses imported from France, and the second is a decadent terrine of foie gras, duck liver mousse, morel mushroom, and black-truffle shavings. Both go well with the freshly baked demi baguette, a sip of burgundy, and a dining experience that transports you to Provence.