The Hake's pudding: warm and cinnamony, under a big swirl of chantilly cream, raspberries, and candied pecan.
4340 La Jolla Village Dr, San Diego
An unabashed fan of Rick Bayless, I was thrilled when Red O finally opened in May. You could make a statement by ordering the tablita for two, a grilled 32 oz. prime tomahawk chop, one-pound Maine lobster tail, and a full array of accompaniments, at market price, but I prefer the smaller plates: carnitas empanadas, little folded pies fried up crackly brown and slathered in avocado tomatillo salsa; or ahi tuna tartare, guacamole, wakami and pickled red onion stacked on crispy tortilla crumbles. Combination plates are a great way to sample several items — I’m partial to crispy short rib barbacoa tacos classically garnished with green cabbage, cilantro, onion, and queso fresco or tangy, creamy goat-cheese tamales, smothered in tomatillo salsa. Do not miss out on the gooey passionfruit butter cake. If you can’t manage another bite, take it home to enjoy later. You’ll be glad you did.
1250 Prospect Street, Suite B10, San Diego
After a ten-month renovation in 2016, the Hake now boasts an expanded bar, double the dining space, and a gorgeous panoramic view of La Jolla Cove. Joan Villaneuva’s newly revamped bar offerings include the standout Niama, a tequila-based riff on the Negroni. Executive chef Aarti Sanghavi’s seasonal menu uses local ingredients cleverly enhanced by the flavors of Mexico, Eastern Asia, and India. Favorite small plates include opah chorizo: mild opah dusted with chorizo seasoning, thin, curly celery ribbons, tangy tamarind vinaigrette, and a perfect 63-degree egg. Or the shrimp and pork tamal: sweet shrimp and rich pork belly steamed in smooth masa, under a splash of tomatillo cruda and crumbled chicharón. Shareable large plates are scrumptious, too, especially the pork tenderloin: perfectly moist medallions and crispy Japanese sweet potatoes poised atop little pools of maple crème fraîche and epazote chimichurri. Save room for the Mexican chocolate bread pudding: warm and cinnamony, under a big swirl of chantilly cream, raspberries, and candied pecan.
2266 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego
Simple fried chicken gets an upscale makeover at Richard Blais’s casual, family- and dog-friendly venues by using free-range Jidori poultry and eggs, as well as top-quality produce sourced from local farms. This is chicken to chomp on — the meat is well seasoned down to the bone while the crunchy crust stays on bite after bite. Six dipping sauces are available, ranging from Argentine chimichurri and kimchee barbecue to the house specialty “cracksup.” I also love the cool, creamy lime mayo, shredded Napa cabbage, and pickled Fresno chilies on the Coop DeVille sandwich; the sweet umami maple miso butter, bacon, cheddar, and fried-egg-topped Señor Croque; and chicken oysters — delectable thumbnail-sized pieces of back meat, brined in pickle juice and lightly fried, ready for a drizzle of lemon juice and spicy mustard seed tartar sauce. (Also at 407 Encinitas Boulevard, Encinitas.)
2265 Flower Avenue, San Diego
Brothers Miguel, Jorge, and Victor Fernández cook up some of the best slow-cooked, meltingly tender Tijuana-style birria de res I’ve had north of the border. I especially enjoy topping the generous mound of beef with luscious nervio (tendon) or lengua (tongue). Be sure to give it a good dunk in the excellent consommé that comes alongside. If spicy is more your style, opt for the Chupacabra, lightly fried housemade tortillas piled high with birria, melted queso, onions, and serrano chilies. Top marks for outstanding service as well — the staff is informed and happy to make suggestions if you’re not familiar with any menu items.
4820 Newport Avenue, San Diego
Vivian Hernandez-Jackson combined her Le Cordon Bleu credentials and her Cuban heritage to create Azucar, a pretty, cozy little place to satisfy your sweet, savory, or caffeinated cravings. If it’s lunchtime, I’ll go for the Cubano — slow-roasted Cuban-style pork, thinly sliced ham, swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles pressed crisp and golden brown; or pastelitos de carne — all-butter puff pastry stuffed with picadillo, a soft, fragrant stew of ground beef and tomatoes, raisins added for sweetness, and olives for salt. But really, the desserts and pastries are the stars here, and none satisfies my sweet tooth like Divina, a spectacular combination of moist white chocolate cake, passion fruit curd, and raspberries finished with toasted marshmallow frosting.
4717 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
When your hankering for beef phở hits, head straight for Phở Hòa, where you can choose from 24 variations on the theme. As with great ramen, the star of the bowl is the broth made of beef bones, oxtails, charred onions, ginger, and Vietnamese spices slowly simmered overnight to rich, clear perfection, then poured over tender, slippery noodles. Garnish using a little or a lot of ultra-fresh Thai basil, mung-bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai chili and lime, then sip and slurp your way into phở nirvana. Just don’t expect anything else because, other than 20 or so exotic beverages and a few simple desserts, it won’t be there. No spring rolls, no chicken, shrimp, or pork. Don’t even ask. Do ask for a cà phê sữa đá, though. It’s iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, freshly made at your table using one of those little stainless-steel drip filters.