I have more restaurants in my repertoire than a jukebox has records, and I love to go on new foodie adventures. But despite the myriad options at my disposal with the extensive selection of restaurants in San Diego county, there’s just something about the following that keep me going back, again and again. If you’re going to find my number-one food companion (my husband, David) and me out and about, chances are it’ll be at one of these joints. These are my top ten haunts, in the order of the time of day you’re likely to find me there.
350 University Avenue, Hillcrest
Because Bread & Cie is just up the hill from our home, all the people who work there are always smiling, and it’s the closest thing we have to a European-style bakery in our hood, Bread & Cie is our go-to for grabbing a quick, yet relaxing breakfast. David tends toward the quiches, ordering a tall pie-slice of either the ham and cheese or spinach and feta quiche. My dad and sister Jane tend to meet up with us here when they can. Without fail, Jane orders the cheese plate (she offers up her French bread and grapes to the table, and sometimes even allows us a smear of the apple/walnut/onion brie that is central to the dish). My preference is for the breakfast sandwiches, either Croque Americaine or the Artichoke Frittata Panini.
3709 Convoy Street #101, Kearny Mesa
Around 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning is my ideal arrival time at Emerald Restaurant. Sundays are too insane, and that’s about the time that more variety starts flowing from the kitchen. Shrimp dumplings are a must on my table, as are the soy sauce noodles; I also have an affinity for the sweet-savoriness of what we call “footballs,” but are actually deep fried, sweet and chewy rice dumplings filled with chopped pork and veggies. A brunch with jasmine tea and shrimp shumai shared with friends is a great way to start a weekend. We’re delighted when friends are available to join us last minute when the dim sum urge suddenly strikes, but we have no problem doing dim sum for two.
4646 Convoy Street #116, Kearny Mesa
Though I fancy several spots along Convoy (including but not limited to Tajima, which still has my vote for best ramen in town), chances are if I’m hitting the 163 North, I’m heading for a hot pot of spicy boiling tofu with banchan at Tofu House — tasty Korean food fixin’s such as spicy cucumber and odaeng (sweet fishcake, which cuts the heat from 3-pepper level broth). It’s cheap, it’s delicious, and it’s easy, if you get there early enough. I shoot for 11 to 11:30 — after that the lunch rush and that poorly designed parking lot gets a little too “I might have to kill someone” annoying.
1549 El Prado, Balboa Park
There is certainly something magical about the Prado at dusk, when the lights on the patio start to flicker and the air begins to cool, but if you find us here, it’s likely for a relaxing midday break. Any excuse to walk through the park, smell the flowers, and stroll by the lily pad pond is one I’ll take, but the best visits include lunch at the Prado. For me, that means a glass of rosé, and the Farmer’s Mix salad with grilled chicken. If we’re extra hungry, David and I will share the spicy calamari fries, or begin with a bowl of soup (my man prefers black bean, but my favorite is the tortilla chicken soup). Usually the adventurous one, David steps out of character here and remains consistent by always ordering the pressed arugula salad (strawberries, candied walnuts, asiago in sherry-shallot vinaigrette) with added skirt steak.
2608 S. Escondido Boulevard, Escondido
Ah, for the true escape. David and I call Hacienda de Vega, a historical house-turned restaurant, our “oasis.” A waterfall off the rooftop falls into a shallow pool surrounded by flowers, and it is along its edge that we are usually seated. When we have a particularly hard morning and find we don’t get a break for lunch until 3 or 4 p.m., we head north to unwind with a Hacienda Margarita, which happens to be my favorite margarita in the world, no exaggeration. This place also boasts the best fajitas I’ve tasted, with choice of seasoned grilled meats, and unique specialties such as the Sabana Invierno (thinly sliced beef tenderloin grilled and smothered in refried beans and Manchego cheese). I have never walked away without feeling relaxed, refreshed, and satiated.
4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights
People think because Small Bar is a bar, it’s just about the drinks, but they’re wrong. Sure, Small Bar serves a mean barrel-aged Manhattan, but when we head to the tiny communal table-filled joint, we’re thinking food. The fried pickles are made in-house, and are perfectly crispy. Great for snacking on, but when I want more of a meal, I order the street tacos (firecracker carne asada with a cooling slice of avocado and a bit of cotija) or chicken sliders (three different speeds: tangy, sweet BBQ, bacon jam with ranch, and Coke & Guinness BBQ with red onions). Everything I’ve tasted from the menu has featured fresh ingredients and been downright delicious, which makes Small Bar a great grub hub.
505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill
Cucina Urbana is a great spot for business lunches, mostly because you can actually walk in and get a table, but it’s also perfect for winding down casual country Italian style, with a bottle of red, a salad, and gourmet pizza. Sometimes I veer from my usual (fig and gorgonzola pizza with caramelized onions, candied pecan, arugula and syrupy aged balsamic) and opt for the frequently changing but always solid fish dish. Chef Joe makes a lovely limoncello beurre blanc, which he once served on pasta with wild mushrooms. I was disappointed to see that item disappear from the menu, but when you keep it seasonal, things change, and for each lost favorite, there’s always an exciting new one to discover.
3731-A India Street, Mission Hills
I’ve never tasted the same dish twice at Wine Vault & Bistro, with its weekly (sometimes daily) changing menus, but everything I’ve had was hand-crafted cuisine at its finest, for the ridiculously low cost of $20 for three courses (with an additional, and also very reasonable $15 for wine pairings). It’s tricky to know when to go, they’ve got somewhat wonky hours, but for first timers, I suggest making reservations in advance for a Thursday or Friday night for the 3-course, and even further in advance for one of the special 5-course tasting menus on Saturdays.
3687 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Just like its sister restaurant across the street (Hash House), the food at Tractor Room is BIG, both in flavor and portion size. The upside is all the leftovers we end up taking home to enjoy the next day. I find myself going back time and again for a few of my favorite appetizers, which work well as meals. The crispy elk sausage ravioli in a demi glace cream is rich in a foodgasm sort of way. The warm wild boar and mashed potato spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce are served on a pile of contrastingly cool greens. The baby bibb salad is great to share, and the burgers are served with addictive criss cross fries. I wouldn’t know about the desserts, I’ve never made it that far — but the skillet cornbread (which arrives on every table) is sweet enough to hit that spot.
3175 India Street, Mission Hills
If I had to choose only one haunt, it would be Starlite. Partly because I can walk there from (and more importantly back to, heh heh) my place, but mostly because of their consistently great menu, which includes my favorite burger in town (Brandt beef, gruyere cheese, and caramelized onions on a brioche bun). The vegetarian entrée changes frequently, and each seasonally informed iteration is so full of complex flavors that even us meat-eaters don’t feel there’s anything missing. Tapas Tuesdays are great for tasting an array of small plates, and every week they’re different but always tasty, and made from mostly locally sourced, high quality ingredients. Of course, no meal of mine at Starlite is complete without a Holly Golightly, which is basically a Manhattan with a dash of maple liqueur.