Comic-con banners are up again throughout downtown San Diego. Aside from which panels to attend and what to limited edition collectors items to buy, the question when your stomach starts rumbling is where to eat. Instead of resigning to the overpriced, unappealing meals at the convention center, there are a lot of eateries downtown worth checking out and they serve everything from right-priced meals to totally legit cocktails. Previous years, I’ve just listed my 10 favorite places but this year my list is broken down into subcategories like grocery stores, cheap eats, healthy eating, gluten-free and restaurants with amazing cocktails.
For the longest time Ralphs was the grocery store closest to the convention center and I still highly recommend visiting this place to stock up on drinks and snacks, plus they make sandwiches and a variety of hot foods. In recent years, they’ve converted their patio to a quick service center, selling soda and prepacked sandwiches. And what other place is open 24 hours? I recommend applying for a Ralphs card before the convention to save a few bucks. 101 G St.; 619-595-1581
The newest grocery contender downtown is Jimbo’s. Located almost across from Ralphs, it’s a health-conscious grocery found in Horton Plaza but they also have several hot food areas offering customized burritos and wok’d dishes as well as a salad bar. Go here if the same old food at Ralphs is looking a little tired (which it tends to do after a few days). 92 Horton Plaza; 619-308-7755
For a hot custom-made pizza with unlimited toppings, Pizza Studio is worth a visit. It’s one of many customized pizza concept places hitting San Diego but this is the closest to the convention center. A 11-inch thin pizza is $7.99 but bargain hunters looking for something cheaper can’t go wrong with a margherita, pepperoni, veggies lovers, white or island pizza creation for only $5.99. For added savings (and if you think you’ll be hitting the pizza train often), sign up for their rewards program that awards free pizza. Gluten-free crusts are available for an additional $2. 119 Broadway
Another favorite is The Kebab Shop. It’s a bit more of a walk away from the convention center but the promise of spiced lamb- and chicken-filled schwarmas or döners (flat bread) meet you at the end for $6.99 each. For a low-carb option, order their döner box that omits the bread completely and is filled with your choice of filling including lamb, chicken or falafel with assorted greens. There is no additional charge to add rice or fries to the box. Also look for their wide selection of fresh salads at the front for those looking for healthy sides. 630 9th Ave.; 619-525-0055
My go-to Mexican restaurant joint downtown serves up burritos, tacos and plates piled with carne asada, carnitas and shrimp to name a few. But if you haven’t had a California burrito yet — a flour tortilla filled with carne asada, cheese, sour cream and fries —make it a priority; despite the name, you can’t find it anywhere else in California. Also good is their breakfast burrito (served until 11 AM) and starting at $3.85, it’s a deal. It’s filled with egg, cheese and your choice of ham, bacon or sausage. If you start your day with this, you’ll probably be full until evening. 202 Park Blvd.; 619-269-6055
Impressive Restaurants with Great Cocktail Programs
One of the hottest places in town is found in Little Italy, an adjacent neighborhood to downtown that can be accessed by the trolley or cab. Self-proclaimed foodies that have never missed an episode of Top Chef should put this restaurant by Richard Blais at the top of your list. It’s pricey but it’s an unforgettable meal that starts with a number of amazing cocktails like Devil in Disguise (rye whiskey, crème de mure, ginger and bitters) followed by thoughtful and delicious plates using foraged ingredients. I recommend ordering the carne crudo asada and saving room for their riff on the East Coast snack cake, The Yodel. Read my preliminary Zagat write-up here. 2228 Kettner Blvd.; 619-269-9036
This restaurant is new to the downtown San Diego scene and after one visit, I’m infatuated with all their drinks and the food is amazing to boot. A sample of their impressive cocktails includes The Death of Daffy with duck fat rinsed genevere yellow chartreuse, fresh thyme and orange, Cointreau and absinthe, and my favorite, the Flux Capacitor (pictured above) with gin, rosewater, violet liquor, lemon, honey, maraschino and dry ice. It’s served in a beaker for two people. The small plates are just a delicious. Here’s my full write-up about the restaurant on Zagat. If you’re even considering, make reservations now. 369 10th Ave.; 619-550-1262
Find this sandwich shop with hip cocktails inside Petco Park. The sandwiches are on the pricey side starting at $9 for their take on sausage and peppers. Personally, I like the B(E)LT ($11)with pork belly, egg, heirloom tomato and butter lettuce on sourdough. If you’re looking for a cocktail with your sandwich, this is the place to go. Their house drink, Rare Form Whisky cocktail with bourbon, housemade cherry cordial, Kirschwasser and chocolate bitters is a delicious beverage to sip on while taking in the decorated space and portraits. Their happy hour menu is from 4-7 PM Monday through Friday with discounts on cocktails and beer. 793 J St.; 619-255-6507
Inside this super luxe hotel is a classy restaurant serving up familiar cocktails using superfruits. Essentially, it’s a healthy drink while you get your buzz on. Look for new takes on piña colada with raw pineapple juice and rum infused with banana peels, Tequila sunrise with raw beet grenadine, mango and key lime and, my favorite, a Big Island Ice Tea with hibicius flower tea and miracle fruit cane sugar that gets progressively sweeter as your drink it because of the miracle fruit. All drinks are $12. While you’re there, check out the rest of the menu items like chicken in a biscuit and turducken pate. 326 Broadway; 619-744-2077 Other notable places for drink: Neighborhood (there’s a secret entrance to Noble Experiment) and get a taste of the San Diego craft beer scene from Stone Brewing Company’s downtown tap room (next to Rare Form).
Add Tender Greens to your list for satisfying salads, sandwiches and drinks from locally sourced farms. It’s sort of a cafeteria setup where you can watch them make your food but I assure you everything there is amazingly delicious. Order a big plate with their grilled medium rare steak as a salad with baby arugula, tomato and balsamic vinaigrette for a complete meal. 110 Broadway; 619-795-2353
A number of restaurants offer gluten-free items on their menu but for a refreshing item, you’ll love Blind Burro’s delicious and refreshing jimaca taco frio ($12). Sliced jimaca subs in for tortilla and it’s topped with cold cooked shrimp, mango salsa, lemon-serrano crèma and avocado slices. It’s so good that I forget it’s gluten-free. Other notable restaurants with gluten-free menus include Cowboy Star, Fine Foods Downtown, Toast Enoteca & Cucina, Jsix and Puesto. 639 J St.; 619-795-7880
If you’re not rushing off to the convention center, I recommend heading to Café 21, The Mission, or Café 222 for breakfast. The eclectic breakfast at Café 21 includes delicious tiramisu pancakes (pictured above), The Mission has unforgettable French toast and Café 222 is known for their waffles. If you’re not up for starting the day sweet, all three places have a great selection of savory options too. Note: None of these places take reservations.
Are you looking to browse what the restaurant scene in San Diego is like? Visit my other write-ups on Zagat San Diego where I count down the best Tijuana-style hot dogs, chocolate chip cookies and do a breakdown of the Filipino dessert, halo-halo.
So my 40th birthday came and went without much fanfare. I didn’t want to make a big deal about saying goodbye to my 30s but when you break it down to the bare numbers, it’s kind of epic. But seeing my amazing friends who are well seated that decade made the transition a lot easier.
Facebook friends wished me lots of nice birthday wishes and not surprisingly, quite a few said wished me an extravagant meal to celebrate. But it was quite the opposite.
Instead, Paul did expressly what I wished. We stayed a few nights at Lake Tahoe not straying too far from the water and more importantly, I ate whatever was available without having to dissect it for future reference. Toting a dog along for the trip also played into the decision of where we ate and made our choices somewhat limited. So we ate on the beach with a dog always nearby hoping to catch what crumbs we dropped or even a prime piece of food. And it was perfect.
Popcorn is one of those items that I feel guilt-free about eating. Cheese popcorn and kettle corn rank at the top of my favorite food groups with the added benefit of giving me some very extra needed fiber in my diet. On Zagat San Diego, I recently did a round up of popcorn desserts. I devoured popcorn panna cotta (pictured above), tried caramel popcorn and still dream about the brown butter popcorn ice cream served with a salted caramel ganache. (Read the roundup here.)
But no restaurant that I knew of incorporated it into cookies. Trader Joe’s used to sell a tub of their version of kettle corn cookies but I never saw them after my first sighting. So instead, I sought out to make my own using a basic chocolate chip recipe and adding the sweet and salty crunch of kettle corn.
It’s not too far off when you consider Momofuku’s compost cookies folding potato chips into batter. With this recipe, mixing the popcorn into the batter is the hardest part followed by dropping them onto the cookie sheet. But if it’s well mixed into, you’ll be rewarded with a chunky yet soft chocolate chip cookie with a nice salt component. I imagine that it works especially well with a nice caramel popcorn too.
Kettle Corn Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes 18 large cookies
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips
4 cups kettle corn
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Cream butter, sugars, eggs and vanilla extract. Add flour, baking soda and salt and mix until well combined. Stir in chocolate chips.
Fold in popcorn one cup at a time making sure not to break popcorn kernels.
Using a cookie or ice cream scoop, drop batter on a baking sheet lined with parchment or Silpat mat.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until batter is lightly brown. Remove from oven and cool for a few minutes.
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
Before the month gets away from me without a post, I had to write about another cronut find. Just when I thought I had seen the last of any new cronut sightings popping up, I received an email about a few seen at San Diego’s Finest Donuts.
They are only available on Friday after 9 AM with a few varieties available. According to the lady working behind the counter, the flavors rotate and they make about a batch of 60. The rest of the selection looked pretty standard with sprinkled, frosted and glazed filling out the rest of the display case. Doughnuts starts at $.85 for buttermilk, plain, twists to $1.50 for fritters, eclairs and cinnamon rolls. Heads above everything else are the cronuts at $5 each.
At such a steep price, I opted for just one of the three varieties on display. (I forget what the other two were.) The Elvis cronut is filled with sliced bananas, peanut butter, whipped cream and bacon along with a few standard doughnuts that Paul really had to get.
First off, it’s a beautifully decorated donut with a dried banana chip on top. Attempting to cut the cronut in half kind of ruins it. You can still see the layers after it’s cut but the peanut butter, whipped cream, sliced bananas and bacon squeeze out of it.
Disastrous spillage aside, I really enjoyed it. Never having had anything remotely like it, I liked the combination of peanut butter and bananas with a bit of smoke and salt from the bacon. Elvis was onto something! It could have done without the whipped cream but with so many ingredients going on, the cream was a bit lost. My biggest qualm about cronuts in general is that oil tends to accumulate at the bottom. This one didn’t suffer from any oiliness. The flavor combination may not work for some – Paul thought it was weird but has never had bananas and peanut butter together – but if you’re looking for a cronuts, San Diego’s Finest Donuts should be the first place to look.
San Diego’s Finest Donuts
3458 University Ave.
San Diego, CA 92104
Related: San Diego’s Cronut Contender: Azucar’s Cray-Nut, Paris Baguette’s Croissant Donut, Peterson’s Cronut, K Sandwiches’ Glazed Croissants and Whole Foods Del Mar Croissant Doughnuts, V.G.’s Cronut.
Lately, I’ve been plagued with a sweet tooth and my only solution of late is to go out and buy something. There’s always the occasional cookies from Sprouts (Paul loves them), frozen yogurt from Yogurtland is always an option (except the one near is always a mess) and more importantly, I always make sure to have ice cream in the freezer. But lately, I haven’t made anything from scratch in months. You’d think that working from home with give me loads of time to bake but I don’t have it. Then the baking bug hit me this Sunday.
I’ve been craving lemon desserts and wanted to do something with the Meyer lemons from our patio tree. Some research led me to lemon pudding cake described as a lemon angel food cake with a lemon sauce on the bottom. And it only required lemons, eggs, flour, sugar, milk and very little butter.
On the fly, I reduced the sugar and if I had some foresight, I would have also shifted some confectioner’s sugar on top. But the cake is a dream. Baking it in a hot water bath creates a luscious lemon sauce on the bottom but light-as-air cake on top. It’s pretty freaking amazing that one batter creates a sauce and bakes a cake on top.
Lemon Pudding Cake
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
1½ cups milk
Heat oven 350 degrees F.
In small bowl, combine flour and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together butter, egg yolks and sugar. Beat in lemon juice and zest until well combined. Mix half of flour-salt into eggs alternately with half the milk until everything is thoroughly combined.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold egg whites into batter and pour into 8-inch baking dish.
Place baking dish in pan of hot water and move into the oven. Bake for 40-45 minutes (rotating half way) until top of cake is browned.
When I saw the signage going up on Kearny Villa Road, I was excited. I was never thrilled to travel to Santee for a cherry limeade on hot days. And there was a time (very long ago) when I went to the Orange County location twice in one day just to eat. Now it’s basically in my own backyard.
But it has some problems that need working on. Namely the indoor signage.
What’s with the multiple television screens with 10 point type? I’m not a young chicken any more but I struggle just to read it. Secondly, the menu handout by the cash register doesn’t help. It has no prices and lists things not on the screen menu that making me cross reference between tv screens with the handout. It’s maddening. And I’m sure it’s not me. I see other people struggling with the confusing menu.
Last but not least, I think it would help to see a ring up of all the things I entered as well as final price. I’m used to that kind of stuff and like to see how everything adds up to $13 when all I ordered was a cherry limeade with large tater tots.
Other than that, it’s a pretty nice location with modern roll up garage doors and I love the super friendly staff the refill my drinks. But I’ll never park in the carports especially when it’s busy since the drive-thru lane blocks cars from leaving.Too bad I never like the hamburgers – or even the new pretzel dog – but it sure beats going to Santee for some delicious tots.
One quick look at the calendar today and I realize the only time I blogged was earlier in the month – and only to poke fun on Dominique Ansel’s copycat cookie shots. But I poke fun at a lot of things like food photography – I’m like that. My lack of blogging doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing anything, just not here. The huge, gigantic amount of time I’ve been spending has been at Zagat San Diego. Since last year it’s been a whirlwind with a steep learning curve and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. And if you’ve spent any amount of time with me lately, I’ve confessed that my eating schedule doesn’t feel like my own. One promise I had made to myself was to continue posting here at least once a week – it’s a promise I’ve failed to keep. Initially, I wanted to keep my two separate blogging lives apart but after weeks of consideration, I’ll tease to some stories I’m proud of with interesting backstories and/or particularly memorable food. I hope to make it a weekly thing. Here’s a tease to what I’ve been eating lately.
Juniper & Ivy
Earlier this month, I checked out Juniper & Ivy, a Richard Blais project. Fact: Paul has a chef crush on him because of his cooking style and his hair. The preview party was a great introduction to his food and when I went in for an actual restaurant visit a few days later, I was blown away. And check out dessert. For the Yodel (Hostess’ version is a Ho-Ho), a waitress pours hot chocolate over a chocolate cylinder revealing cake, white chocolate mousse and hazelnut brittle. The rest of our awesome meal is here (including their not-so-secret burger) and my interview with Blais. He’s super nice.
Bertrand at Mister A’s
I haven’t been to Bertrand at Mister A’s in years but they serve an great happy hour that starts on Sundays. If you don’t go there for the food (like their kobe sliders at the top of this post), go there for the view. There’s a dress code but it seems to be a bit lax on Sundays. (Paul sneaked in wearing shorts and I had on flip flops.) The happy hour menu doesn’t include dessert but this dragonfruit sorbet on top of tapioca is burned into my mind. If it’s served right as the sun sets, it looks like it’s on fire. A look at the pretty food here.
Requiring almost no research was my post on the best 24-hour doughnut shops. Yes, the best. I planned to run it in conjunction with Dunkin’ Donuts opening up downtown which I visited once and the lines were just a bit too much. Yup, I’m still into doughnuts.