I’m usually at a loss when asked what the “best restaurant neighborhood” in San Diego is. The truth is, we log in some miles going to our favorite places. South to Chula Vista for Mariscos or National City for Filipino, East to El Cajon for Chaldean or Turkish treats, North to Rancho Peñasquitos for Thai, up to Mira Mesa or over to City Heights for Pho. The effort and cost is worth it to us as we get to enjoy the diversity of cuisine that our home offers. The Missus once saw a bumper sticker that read “Will travel for food,” which I’ve been searching for ever since.
2244 San Diego Avenue, Old Town
The understated, clean, “austere-zen” décor of Sushi Tadokoro reflects the sensibilities of the Itamae and owner Take-san, who uses classic Edomae-zushi, what we call nigiri sushi as a base from which his creations expand.
Take-san seems to remember every dish that was ever served to us, our preferences, and designs a perfect meal for that season, day, and weather. He knows the Missus loves his Ankimo; seasoned and steamed monkfish liver, much like a pate. And that we really enjoy shiromi, “white flesh fishes,” often “painted” with nikiri, his personal soy sauce blend. We will often be lucky enough to have engawa, the collagen-rich, slightly sweet, dorsal fin muscle of the halibut, or mebachi-zuke, Bigeye Tuna quickly marinated in a soy sauce mixture.
Make a reservation for early in the evening, before the place gets busy. Ask to sit in front of Take-san. Sit back and leave yourself in his hands.
131 Jamacha Road, El Cajon
Our favorite strategy at Sultan Kebab & Baklava is to get a variety of meze (small dishes), such as saksuka, a tomato, roasted potato, onion, and eggplant; antepezme, a mildly spicy red pepper and tomato spread; and patlican salatasi, which most will know as baba ghanoush. Served with warm lavas, it’s a wonderful start. The Missus will usually get a lahmacun, a flatbread topped with a spiced mixed meat, and I will either go with the mildly spicy Adana kebab, or the mixed grill, Karisik Izgara, a carnivore’s delight with lamb, chicken, and the beef urfa kebab. Served with rice, coban salatasi (Shepherd’s Salad), and tabuli salata, it’s usually enough for the both of us.
The owner is a very nice gentleman, who you might recognize from Sunday’s Hillcrest Farmers’ Market, where he mans a kebab stall. The service is very mom-and-pop and casual. You may have to wait a bit for your food, but I doubt you’ll leave hungry.
3065 Clairemont Drive, Clairemont
13223 Black Mountain Road #2, Rancho Penasquitos
We call Sab E Lee the “game changer” in our household. When the little shop opened in the summer of 2008, things changed. We suddenly had spicy Issan Thai food like what is served, well, in Thailand. Imagine that! Before then, it was basically the same Bangkok-based, “Royal Thai” style dishes, much of it dumbed down, that was served everywhere.
Our favorites haven’t wavered over the past five years. We love the Grilled Dark Larb, Bamboo Shoot Salad, Nam Tok, and our usual choice, the Spicy Raw Beef salad — finely diced raw beef coated with nutty toasted sticky rice powder, topped with pungent raw garlic, which heightens the spice. Yes, at a heat level 7 it is quite potent, but it is also quite refreshing as well. The pungent fragrance of the salted (preserved) fish fried rice might put off some, but it is a wonderful savory carb-fest. The Issan Sausage when eaten with the provided herbs, chilies, and cabbage becomes a nice start to a meal.
4706 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Clairemont
Ramen Yamadaya is a chain that was established in Torrance in 2010. In July of 2012, they opened a shop in a strip mall on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. The ramen served here is the style of Hakata, a district of Fukuoka. The soup is the rapidly boiled, slowly reduced, white and thick, tonkotsu broth and the noodles are the straight and thin type, a hallmark of Hakata-men. I always order my ramen one way here. Even though Yamadaya claims to use 120 pounds of pork bones to make a single pot of broth, I still find it a bit thin. Luckily, you can order a “kotteri” (extra rich) bowl. I add some nice fatty buta kakuni, simmered pork belly, to my bowl, and finally ask for the usually overcooked noodles extra firm. The end result is a tongue-coating broth that isn’t too salty, rich, fatty pork belly, and noodles, usually too soft for our taste, but acceptable.
4240 Kearny Mesa Road, Kearny Mesa
Santouka, the chain from Asahikawa, “the coldest city in Japan,” has made its home in the Mitsuwa Marketplace Food Court since 2008. The broth here is also the rich, milky tonkotsu-style soup, which also tends to be on the more salty side. Like Yamadaya, I order my ramen one way only here, it’s the shio (salt) seasoned broth, which is also the least salty. The proprietary noodles at Santouka are curly, with a nice chew, holding well to the broth. I get my bowl tokusen toroniku, with a plate of all the garnishes and toppings on the side and, most importantly, with toroniku, braised pork jowls, full of soy-swiney goodness.
770 Sycamore Avenue, Vista
On the East side of Black Mountain Road, attached to Lucky Seafood Supermarket is Pho Lucky. Here it’s all about the broth for me; on the best days it’s a light brown in color, hints of anise and clove rise from the bowl, and dots of oil are spread all along the surface of the soup. You’ll catch a touch of sweetness from the scalded onions along with a decent mild beef flavor. My favorites among the protein choices are the brisket and beef tendon. In fact, Pho Lucky makes my favorite version of Bo Kho (Vietnamese style Beef Stew) in San Diego, which is full of wonderful beef tendon.
9170 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Mira Mesa
Right across the street is Pho Cow Cali. Here it is all about the meat for me. The tougher cuts like flank and brisket are usually well-flavored if a bit chewy. The tripe here is usually prepared well, crunchy, without the off taste of an ill-prepared version. They have recently started offering a filet version of pho, with beef tenderloin as the only protein. If you do order that, make sure to get the meat on the side, so you can control how long the protein is swimming in the soup. The broth here is lighter than Lucky’s version, without the strong anise tones, but still has enough of a beef flavor to please.
4425 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
In spite of the name, we don’t visit “Grandma’s” on Convoy for the various soondubu (tofu stew), nor the Korean BBQ, which is passable at best.
For us, there’s a short list of dishes we enjoy here. “Hal-muh-nee,” grandmother in Korean, does a nice Dolsot Bi Bim Bap, the ubiquitous stone bowl rice dish. The key is to not mess about with your rice until it forms a nice rice crust. Then you can go for it. Add in some sweet-tangy-spicy cho-kochujang and enjoy. On special occasions we’ll order the jokbal bossam, steamed pork belly and simmered pig’s feet served with ssamjang (seasoned bean paste), daikon radish and oyster kimchi, raw garlic,and chopped Serrano peppers, all to be wrapped up in napa cabbage leaves and devoured. During the winter the Missus craves the seolleontang, belly-coating beef bone soup, which you season yourself with sea salt. Most of the entrées come with stone bowl rice. You are also provided with a carafe of water. After consuming most of the rice, you’ll be left with the bits stuck onto the bowl. You drizzle as much, or as little of the water over the rice, loosening it from the bowl. Some folks add a good amount of water, creating a version of scorched rice porridge. I just pour enough to loosen the crispy, nutty, rice crust from the bowl, creating a crunchy treat. They call this nurungji; its good stuff.
4646 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
About every month or so, my friends and I try to get together for happy hour. We usually get the weekend started at Crab Hut on Fifth avenue.
So why Crab Hut? Some of it has to do with familiarity. Most of the folks working there have been doing so for a good long time. We know them by name; Wilson, Mai, Khanh, Vinh, and Christine immediately come to mind. The benefit of low turnover becomes apparent when you inquire about what is available on any given day; is the shrimp today from Ecuador or Peru? Crawfish, from Louisiana or Sacramento? What varieties of Carlsbad Aquafarms oysters do you have today?
The menu is full of Cajun-inspired seafood fare, but for happy hour, I just get my fix of oysters and chicken wings; “naked,” sauce on the side. Usually washed down with a couple of pints of local craft beer. Simple, but just the thing I usually need after a tough week.