San Diego “…is a true hotbed for the slow food movement…the antithesis of the fast food epidemic,” says Maria Desiderata Montana in the Food Lovers’ Guide to San Diego. Executive Chef Trey Foshee (George’s On the Cove) dubs the atmosphere California Modern.
A city of neighborhoods from trendy North Park to luxe La Jolla, San Diego’s educated population generally knows the difference between a GMO and grass fed Wagu burger or at least care. Not that the national leaders of industrialized cuisine are absent from San Diego’s streets, it’s just that they’re outnumbered by local brands.
From the rustic refinement of La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Lodge to the local spunk of Rubio’s citywide Fresh Mexican Grill, there’s a locally owned venue in any price bracket for all residents to patronize in this southern California urban county, and they seem to happily do so often. Nestled close to the source of some of the best foodstuffs in America and with enviable good weather, San Diego is a dream location for restaurant owners and patrons. Sea, cliffs, beach and mountain vistas abound, the climate begs for outdoor dining and the region’s relative affluence blend to create menus of imagination and freshness – California Modern.
The Artisan Table at A.R. Valentine, The Lodge at Torrey Pines, La Jolla
It’s always nice to have a dinner that exceeds expectations! The Artisan Table at the beautiful Lodge at Torrey Pines, La Jolla, is an opportunity to experience creativity in progress. Every Thursday Chef Kelli Crosson creates a four-course menu that in reality consists of multiple dishes per course – up to four or five – highlighting the finest of the season. Although no dish is an experiment, the staff and chef Kelli willingly seek feedback since some recipes may end up on A.R. Valentine’s seasonal menu. A recent dinner paired butter poached lobster with mango, avocado and the exotic finger lime. Duck, Russian style, was rubbed in a variety of spices, roasted appropriately rare and served with a medley of autumn vegetables. A salad platter was brimming with red and golden roast beets, grapefruit and Humboldt Fog cheese (pictured). Wine pairings are included in the pre fixe. Tables of eight diners share family style on the heated terrace overlooking the pool, golf course and ocean. Get to enjoy great food, a beautiful setting and make new friends.
The MED, La Valencia Hotel, La Jolla
Simple elegance defines the MED in La Jolla’s venerable 1926 pink La Valencia Hotel. Despite the Andalusian interior of the landmark hotel’s main dining room, this being southern California, guests at the MED frequently choose the extensive heated veranda overlooking the hotel’s gardens and pool with a view of the Pacific. The menu reflects its name in offering such Mediterranean traditions as seafood paella for two – heavy on the seafood and light on the rice. Succulent grilled guail top a bed of butternut squash risotto garnished with pomegranate seeds (pictured). But chef James Montejano makes a twist on a North American seasonal favorite, creamy pumpkin soup, by adding lobster and a dollop of foam flavored with Chinese five spice. Moving with the times maintains a timeless classic.
Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, 190 locations in southern California
According to local legend the fish taco was introduced to America in the early 1980s in San Diego by Ralph Rubio – he’s very much alive to confirm the story. After spending college breaks on Mexican beaches consuming this easily prepared yet flavorful taco, Ralph realized what others now must wonder, why weren’t they being prepared in the USA? The traditional fish taco is a beer-battered white fish fillet – Rubio’s uses wild Alaskan pollack – topped with shredded cabbage, salsa and a creamy white sauce served in a soft corn tortilla (pictured). Two hundred million tacos and 190 Rubio’s locations prove Ralph was correct. Although a Rubio’s location may appear fast food and the patron orders from the counter, a varied Mexican menu is prepped to order using local sustainable ingredients.
Karl Strauss Brewing Company, San Diego/La Jolla
The grandfather of San Diego craft breweries is only 25 years old, but Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner had an idea at the cusp of change, and it didn’t hurt that Chris’ cousin was Karl Strauss. Local craft breweries are ubiquitous in America today but that wasn’t the case in the late 1980s. Like Karl himself, their beers are steeped in the traditions of age-old German brewing techniques. But to the partners, beer is part of a convivial pub atmosphere and dining at a Karl Strauss pairs well with their beer. The menu’s not simply well prepared pub fare such as BBQ pork with their Red Trolley ale BBQ sauce and thin crust wood fired pizzas. A steaming bowl of Cioppino was rich in seafood with a balanced tomato herb broth (pictured).
The Shores Restaurant, La Jolla
Many southern California coast restaurants have a view of the ocean but only a few are actually on the beach. The glass walls of The Shores stop where the sand starts. Clearly within view, as you munch on a fresh kale salad with dried cherries (pictured) or a pastrami and Gruyere with pickled cabbage on onion bread, a family builds sand castles. The tree shaded beach, pounding waves, clean white lines of The Shores interior and the fine food make for a sophisticated beach picnic atmosphere.
The Spot, La Jolla
A classic American pub is a classic in La Jolla. The Spot’s owners chucked chilly Illinois for balmy La Jolla in the early 1980s but brought a hearty mid-western sensibility to southern California fare with pastas and BBQ. Yet ensconced in the heart of Prospect Avenue restaurant row, The Spot’s eclectic menu has surprises beyond classic stuffed burgers. Cajun seasoned lamb chops on thin sliced fried onion rings (pictured) and a trio of grilled mahi mahi tacos are popular along with an extensive beer selection. The convivial staff is unobtrusive but free with informed advice when asked.
George’s On the Cove, La Jolla
The views are the same whether dining on the broad terrace or in the glass walled dining room of this multi-level La Jolla fixture. Iconic Pacific Ocean vistas, especially at sunset, on the La Jolla coast provide the foil for George’s On the Cove’s California Modern menu. Chef Trey Foshee combines the eclectic available abundance of fresh foods with southern California ethnic influences in creating dishes both familiar yet pack zing. Grass-fed beef burger with blue cheese and caramelized onion jam and sesame-crusted tombo with bok choy, oyster mushrooms, leeks and miso-soy vinaigrette (pictured) bring east and west together.
Great Maple, San Diego
Interested in warm maple bacon donuts (pictured)? Many San Diegans are since they’ve made lines around University Heights/North Park’s new Great Maple restaurant since Spring of this year. Reservations are strongly recommended even for breakfast. Among the many traditional cafe items made in house – pies – Great Maple cures and smokes its own meats and fish. The bacon on the donuts is as fresh as the dough. The menu follows tradition and then takes a left turn. English popovers and poached eggs with tarragon hollandaise sauce share the menu with fried fresh goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms and a killer BLT with Great Maple’s thick cut smoky bacon. This is serious comfort food.
Carnitas Snack Shack, San Diego (North Park)
On busy El Cajon Street several blocks from the heart of North Park’s restaurant scene Carnitas Snack Shack is as unassuming a building as its name. The small brightly lite somewhat garish space for placing orders doesn’t mitigate a newcomer’s impending sense of questionable street food. But the lines of people, the menu and then the attractive, landscaped semi-covered dining area remind you you’re in southern California. The beef for the burritos comes from Neiman Ranch, fresh goat cheese from Nicolau Farms in Modesto, and their pork from Salmon Creek Farms (“the most humane treatment of their hogs that we could find”). The sustainable fish tacos were moist and the salsas piquant. The layered roasted beet salad has little to do with carne but everything to do with California Modern cuisine.
Industrial Grind Coffee, San Diego
When San Diagans “eat with their eyes” they must be more focused on the product than the space. Industrial Grind Coffee looks makeshift wedged between two equally unassuming commercial spaces. But its pleasant relaxed simplicity with small semi shaded sitting spaces in front and back is offset by the complexity of their coffee. Industrial Grind doesn’t just brew they roast their beans. Fair share, organic and every other coffee buzzword is covered and the taste proves the words work. Their cold coffee is an entire pound slowly cold filtered to produce a smooth intense brew that’s refreshing. Industrial Grind Coffee’s partners/roasters/baristas are women armed service veterans from this military friendly city.
La Jolla Open Aire Market, La Jolla
Started over a decade ago by two women as a private non-profit to raise money for a school library, the La Jolla Open Aire Market has grown into a celebrated Sunday morning event with over 150 vendors. The farm stands offer everything from exotic mushrooms, heirloom tomatoes to freshly picked squash blossoms. Yet it’s beyond a mere farmers market with as many food purveyors and craftspeople. Corn dogs probably will not be found but there’s non-GMO fresh caramel corn, Egyptian fare, wood smoked brisket along with elaborate salads made by Lotus World Foods (pictured). Entire grass-fed lambs can be ordered to be custom fabricated. Jewelry, original art and treasures brought up by divers from the sea are all part of the market every Sunday morning until 1:00 p.m. on the grounds of the La Jolla Elementary School.
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