Follow Me Foodie to California (San Diego & LA) – Round 2!
Follow Me Foodie to Bali straight into Follow Me Foodie to California with a break in between in Follow Me Foodie to Montreal! I don’t mean to rub it in, but I just want you to click on those posts in case you missed them! All of them were delicious on different levels and although I live on the West Coast, it was nice to be in a warmer part of it in December.
It was an impromptu trip to California and I spent most of my time in San Diego with another quick side trip to Los Angeles (LA). It was my last global foodie adventure of 2012 and it was the perfect way to wrap up the year. It was actually quite cold in California this year so I had to eat a few more meals to stay warm – no problem.
I’ve been to California several times, but it’s just such a massive state and each area is so different. In terms of “foodie cities” I’m most impressed with San Francisco and LA, and many like to think it rivals Portland and Vancouver’s food scene on the West Coast. I feel like I need to give a shout out to Napa Valley as well, but it’s too small, narrow and limited in variety to be the culinary leader. Mind you I haven’t explored all of California and I kind of listed the “given food cities”, but they got their reputation for a reason.
When it comes to ethnic cuisine it is better in cities with a large immigrant population, which is a trait that dominates the West Coast. For Asian food on the West Coast of North America I think it is fair to say Vancouver takes the crown, but when it comes to anything Latin, Mexican or South American then you better go further South. So when I’m visiting California I actually like to explore their Latin restaurants as well as Californian cuisine – the Asian food is likely better at home (Vancouver, BC).
Californian cuisine is different from general “American cuisine”. The State is so culturally diverse (like Vancouver) that it defines its own cuisine by drawing from techniques and ingredients that are predominantly local, but also global. Some of the population has always supported “farm to table” and the use of local ingredients, but it is only in the last few years that the concept has become a leading philosophy in the culinary scene.
Generally speaking Californian cuisine is very similar to Pacific Northwest cuisine which is what we experience up North (duh!). It is not really paying ode to traditions and authenticity, but being open minded to accepting new flavours and ideas… and they use more avocados. The further South you go they also do not have to worry about seasonal ingredients as much (damn their all year warm/hot climate).
The whole West Coast is relatively liberal in thought and palate and while everything does not always work or taste good, it is always interesting and ever changing. There is a degree of creativity that is unique to West Coast ingredients and tastes; and it can’t be replicated elsewhere without the mosaic of cultures they/we are so lucky to have. Almost every developed country likes to think of itself as a “melting pot of cultures”, but it is all relative and California is still one of the most diverse in the US.
Follow Me Foodie Legend
No diamond – Not recommend (Under 29%)
♦ – Okay, not necessary to try. (30-49%)
♦♦ – Good, with some hits and misses. (50-69%)
♦♦♦ – Very good, dining itinerary worthy. (70-89%)
♦♦♦♦ – Excellent, make a trip out for it. (90-100%)
♦♦♦♦♦ – Follow Me Foodie Must Try! (Bonus marks! 100%+)
Follow Me Foodie to San Diego!
Follow Me Foodie to California – San Diego! (Round 2 – Part 1/3)
Oof. Look at the seals. Now look at me. Now back at the seals, now back to… THE SEALS! Yeeaah, don’t look at me. That’s basically how I felt after every meal in lazy San Diego and after Christmas and the holidays it’s more whale than seal. It was a very happy holidays and I can’t complain about eating well.
I’ve written about Follow Me Foodie to San Diego in 2010 and I still have lots more to explore, but I’m getting to know it better. It is a very laid back city even in the context of the West Coast where it is all generally laid back. It is pretty much where many retired people in California like to make their home. It is gorgeous and relaxing and slower paced than the rest of California even though it is the second largest city in it.
Certain areas are really wealthy so you can find fine dining, but it is not a fancy or fine dining city and it is much more casual and “surfer-friendly”. Being close to the Mexican boarder there is a significant Mexican population and therefore lots of Mexican food or Mexican influences in the food. I considered tacos the “sushi” of Vancouver there. Since it is on the coast it is known for their seafood and stereotypically fish tacos, but coming from Vancouver I’m spoiled. Brunch seems more popular than late night dining and pubs with good vibes are popular but it is not really a foodie destination yet in the grand scheme of things.
In a food competitive State like California it doesn’t portray itself as the culinary leader or a “foodie city”, but it’s beautiful and affordable. There are certainly some great restaurants and cool neighbourhoods, but for the most part it is a place to just relax (ideally with a craft beer instead of wine). It’s also perfect if you have a family and young children (hello San Diego Zoo, Seaworld and Lego Land!)
**Note: This is a quick summary of San Diego and there will be more to come with individual posts on some of my favourites.
Restaurant: Isabel’s Cantina
Cuisine: Breakfast/Brunch/Californian/Latin American/Asian Fusion
Address: 966 Felspar Street, San Diego, CA
Phone: (858) 272-8400
Price Range: $10-20 ($15-20 mains)
Owner and self taught cook Isabel Cruz owns a few very successful and popular restaurants in San Diego which quickly become local favourites. Her style is very eclectic fusing Latin, Asian and Californian ingredients and flavours. I only came here for brunch so I can’t speak for the rest of the menu, but the brunch was fresh with good ingredients, relatively healthy and great value. The brunch was simple, but not boring and I would be curious to try dinner. It is a quirky restaurant and it reminded me of funky eateries in Portland and Austin, Texas. She was also the one to open local favourite brunch spot The Mission, which she sold, but it more or less carries a similar menu to Isabel’s Cantina.
Menu features/highlights (breakfast/brunch): Pancakes ($7.50-9.50), Coconut French Toast – grilled cinnamon bread on a palette of blueberry puree, accented with an array of fresh berries. ($8), Crispy Dragon Potatoes – crispy rosemary potatoes grilled with jalapeño onions, tomatoes, black beans, avocado, cheese, sour cream and salsa ($8.50 + marinated tofu or chicken +$ 3; beef +$ 4), and Chicken & Apple Sausage Burrito – A wheat tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions, chicken apple sausage, chipotle cream and cilantro, served with rosemary potatoes and Amalia’s sauce ($13.50) if available. The home made Thai peanut sauce is also great. The Avocado Scramble – scrambled eggs with avocado and cheese, served with jalapeño potatoes, black beans, and a tortilla ($9.50) is the house favourite and it was good, but simple enough to do at home and I enjoyed other items more.
Pros: Solid brunch, quirky vibe, fresh, local, eclectic, healthy, lots of variety, family friendly
Cons: Very good food, but might not be blown away if you have read all the hype.
Tips: I can’t speak for dinner menu, but it’s moderately priced even though the ambiance is quite casual.
Restaurant: Sushi Ota
Address: 4529 Mission Bay Drive, San Diego, CA
Price Range: $30-50+
From local to media recommendations this is supposed to be “the best sushi in San Diego”. It’s highly acclaimed and “the best sushi South of Los Angeles” as said by many trustworthy sources. And in that context it might be true. It’s unassuming and located in a strip mall and the line up starts before it opens. The food is relatively traditional and it could be one of the best in San Diego, but I found it just okay. Being from Vancouver, BC, where Japanese food is plentiful and excellent it would be considered average to good Japanese. I wanted to do omakase (chef’s menu) at the sushi bar, but I didn’t know you had to reserve seating for it, so I ordered omakase a la carte which wasn’t omakase at all.
Menu features/highlights: I have a feeling omakase at the sushi bar is the way to go. The sea urchin was great. The things I tried: Ota Sashimi – sea urchin, tuna, Spanish mackerel, Yellowtail, Amaebi, Salmon, tuna belly ($44) and the Osusume Sushi – Squid, tuna belly, red snapper, Yellowtail, Spanish mackerel, salmon, surf clam, salmon roe, sea urchin, eel, negitoro, umeshisoyamaimo ($27).
Pros: Traditional Japanese, could be “the best” in the context of San Diego.
Cons: Traditional in the context of San Diego. Good, not great and pricey for what it is. Omakase a la carte was not omakase at all.
Tips: Make reservations. Try to do omakase at the sushi bar because I have a feeling that’s the only way to experience how good Sushi Ota can be. I didn’t get to try that, but the a la carte menu did not blow me away.
Restaurant: Carnitas’ Snack Shack
Address: 2632 University Avenue, San Diego, CA
Price Range: $10 or less ($8-9 burgers/sandwiches)
@$#%. This was it. This is a place you come to really eat. I want this in my own hometown. I loved this! Holy crap do they know how to do pork right. This was probably my favourite dining experience in Follow Me Foodie to San Diego – Part 2. Maybe it was because I had no expectations, but the food was just done right and done well! It is sophisticated yet casual and approachable. It bothers me when people say “everything is good”, but out of what I tried everything was good, but not only good it was excellent! The only thing I wasn’t feeling was the Candy Cane Bacon Mousse. If you love the pig, than pig out here! I have to admit I was dying of thirst an hour later and it was salty, but I didn’t care. I wanted to come again and I rarely ever want to repeat a restaurant when I’m visiting a city for a limited time and want to try new places. I included Carnitas’ Snack Shack in my Follow Me Foodie Favourites & “Best of” 2012. See my full post here.
Menu features/highlights: Pork Sandwich – pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pepperoncini-pickle relish, shack aioli ($9), Shack BLT – bacon, crispy ham, lettuce, tomato, shack aioli, toasted brioche ($8), Pork Belly App – braised duroc pork, sweet-spicy glaze, frisée salad, apples, radish, lemon vinaigrette ($8), Steak Sandwich – sliced ribeye, jalapeno cheddar bread, tomato, pickled serranos, chipotle aioli ($9), Sea Salt Seasoned Fries ($2.50), Bacon Brittle Ice Cream Sandwich ($5)
Pros: Daily menu. The food is fabulous and very well executed. Good quality, locally sourced and fresh ingredients.
Cons: Can be pricey for its context. Sells out of popular items.
Tips: It sells out of popular items so go early. It’s pay at the window and self-serve so you’re not going for ambiance or service, you’re going for the food.
Restaurant: California Modern at George’s at The Cove
Cuisine: Modern American/Fine Dining/Seafood/Vegetarian
Address: 1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA
Price Range: $50+ ($30-50 mains)
When it comes to fine dining in San Diego this is where seasoned palates fulfill their haute cuisine cravings. Executive chef and partner Trey Foshee takes Californian dining to a modern level by using inventive techniques and exotic ingredients. Most of the menu is local with some global influences and the presentation is near flawless. Simple flavours can comes across as under seasoned at times, but he really lets the ingredients speak for themselves. The food is delicate, prepared carefully and seasonally inspired and it is coming from the hands of a passionate chef and well trained team. I listed it in my Follow Me Foodie Favourites & “Best of” 2012 Recap.
People often think of the roof top dining at Ocean Terrace and George’s Bar which are both located upstairs and sister to California Modern, but California Modern is the gastronomic highlight for serious food and wine enthusiasts. I would consider it a special occasion place, but it is appropriate for a nice evening out and the dessert menu is worth coming back for alone. Although I tried Chef’s Tasting Course (6 courses) I feel like I barely scratched the surface and his special TBL 3 dining experience is what I want to go back for. See my full post here.
Menu features/highlights: “Fish Tacos” – hard to explain, just try it ($16) I didn’t get to try this, but it is the popular favourite. Dishes from the menu include: Grilled Local Octopus –
potato, parsley, uni, seaweed, ikura, aioli ($16), California Lamb Loin and Shoulder – charred eggplant, pumpkin, pine nut risotto, “lamb caramel”, pomegranate ($40). For dessert, the ever so popular Doughnuts & Dips – cinnamon caramel, pumpkin custard, maple yogurt, orange mallow crème ($16), Carrot Cake – citrus, brown butter, lavender raisins, carrot ice cream ($10).
Pros: Local ingredients, seasonal menu, great view, good variety, beautifully presented food, excellent wine list
Cons: Flavours can be a bit mild, some dishes are better than others, can be pricey
Tips: Chef is very passionate about vegetables so I would recommend vegetarian menu items although it is not a vegetarian restaurant. Plan ahead for TBL 3 (Table 3) which is the ultimate food and wine enthusiast experience at George’s at The Cove. Reservations are mandatory and only available Monday-Thursday dinner for TBL 3.