Old familiar ways

“I have yet to find a place that delivers the same level of pleasure” as the Wine Vault, says Ambrose Martin.
  • “I have yet to find a place that delivers the same level of pleasure” as the Wine Vault, says Ambrose Martin.

Forty years in, you start to feel it. Unless you’re a certain sort of hardy soul — I’m looking at you, Ed Bedford — the thought of finding a new place to eat is no longer automatically thrilling. You hear Paul Simon singing about how he leans on old familiar ways, and you nod in sympathy. You start frequenting your favorites until they become old standbys. You maybe start looking closer to home, East County’s lackluster rep be damned. Grace and I have eaten well in San Diego. Here are ten of our favorites.

Wine Vault Bistro

3731-A India Street, Mission Hills

Fancyish Dinner — Chef’s Tasting Menu at Wine Vault & Bistro

For years, this white-walled, cement-floored, barrel-ceilinged room (and its covered patio) has been our first thought, restaurant-wise, when we have a little bit of time and money on our hands. I have yet to find a place that delivers the same level of pleasure, in terms of variety of flavor and consistency of quality, for the money ($35 for five courses, $20 more for a flight of five paired wines). For example: Tempura Fried Soft-Shell Crab | Tomato Jam | Sweet Corn Purée | Fresh Fava Beans, paired with 2010 Two Sisters “Courtney’s Vineyard” Chardonnay (3 oz. pour). Imagine four more courses like that, precisely prepared and portioned, and there’s a happymaking dinner.

Antica Trattoria

5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa

Italian Away from Home — Antica Trattoria

So often, when we go out, Grace gets fish. “I don’t want to eat anything out that I can get at home,” she says. “And fish is tricky and expensive.” But pasta and sauce? Pasta and sauce she knocks out of the park. So she almost never orders it. The one exception is Antica. We’ve been going there since it opened, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had better “homemade” fetuccini. Now and then, I give in and get the steak, or the veal, or some such. And Grace gets a pasta, and she’s right every time. The sauces are a big part of it; we like to play “Guess the stock” at the base of each one. Never too fussy, never too simple, always balanced and clingy. The wine list is solid and reasonable (stick with the Italian reds) Don’t let the strip mall location and goofy signage fool you; inside its high ceilings, hushed conversation, and serious pasta.

Alchemy

1503 30th Street, South Park

Late-Night Bite — Alchemy

Yes, “late” is a relative term, but we keep stopping in here before heading home. Yes, the full-menu service stops at 10 p.m., but for the next two hours, you can get the Staff Meal stew. And if you make it in before ten, you can get one of San Diego’s top-five burgers ($13). Get the fried egg on top for $2 more. Or maybe you’ve already eaten and just want something to go with your Alchemist Mule ($9) — a genius adult soda-fountain drink made from grapefruit-lime cordial, ginger beer, and you choose the booze. If so, try the roasted beets with warm goat cheese, tarragon, pecans, and zippy horseradish ($8). It’s four years in for Alchemy; it’s not trendy any more and not yet an institution, but still a great neighborhood joint — warm and welcoming. You can try to get the table in the back corner, under the copy of Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife that’s glued to the ceiling — but only if we’re not there.

Mario's de La Mesa

8425 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa

Sit-Down Mexican — Mario’s de la Mesa

When I go to Mario’s — when I walk into the vaguely prettified space and ask for a booth among the old timers and families with kids ordering cheeseburgers — I am not interested in debating the finer points of Gringo-Mex. Or any other sort of Mex. I am interested in the dry-roasted shredded beef that goes into the Machaca Sonora style ($11.95). The crispy chewiness of it. The caramelized tips of the striated strands. The marrow-rich backbone it provides to the burrito I build from my platter of rice and beans and peppers and onions. I am also interested in the speed with which it is invariably delivered. I am interested in being a happy gringo. I mean, it’s amazing what they do with their broad swaths of carne asada ($12.95), and the chunks of pork on the carnitas rojas ($11.95) are as tasty as any. But it’s the machaca that I plan on serving at my daughters’ weddings. Hey, I’m paying.

Chin’s Szechwan Cuisine

8260 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa

Sit-Down Chinese — Chin’s Szechwan Cuisine

The Yelpers like to point to the price. Yes, Chin’s probably charges more for its Moo Shi Pork ($12.95) than some places. But there are nights when I’m willing to pay more to eat in a restaurant where Sam Spade might walk through the door without causing a stir. This isn’t just about cloth napkins and deep banquettes. This is about the stamped intricacy of the ceiling panels, the inverted jewel setting of the chandelier, and oh yes, the attentive service. This is about feeling like you’ve gone somewhere, even though you’re twenty steps from Fletcher Parkway. But it isn’t just the decor. It’s the flaming pot on the pu pu platter ($14.50), the papery jacket on the egg rolls ($3.95), the pop and sizzle under the Lin Ko Steak ($14.95), and a $20 bottle of sweet Gewurztraminer.

Special section:

Sandwiches are the best thing to eat

D.Z. Akin's

6930 Alvarado Road, College Area

Reuben sandwich — D.Z. Akins

Grace: “My first thought is always the same: This is not going to fit in my mouth.” There is simply too much mounded meat, sliced and stacked and topped with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut and packed between slices of grilled rye bread. (About that meat: you can get it with pastrami or smoked turkey, but I always opt for the melty-tangy corned beef.) But — one bite at a time, and in defiance of common sense and human physiology — it always does fit in my mouth. Or at least half of it does. I have never eaten an entire D.Z. Akins Reuben ($13.95, but $9.95 on Tuesday or Thursday) in a single day. Probably because I’m also eating the fries — the pillowy soft mushy kind with the pale gold exterior. I could get slaw, or potato salad, or macaroni salad. Or a three-bean salad. But who am I kidding? It’s a Reuben. I’m not gonna live forever.”

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