While I enjoy trying new places, I still tend to gravitate toward the familiar. I don’t want to have to guess whether a restaurant will have friendly service, a comfortable space, and satisfying food — I want to know. So, when anyone asks me what I “feel like” for dinner, I draw my suggestions from around 30 top-of-mind establishments. Depending on the time of day and my mood, my options are numerous, from a bowl at my local fast pho peddler to a drawn-out, multicourse meal with paired wines. Here’s a sampling of my many standbys, from the recently opened to long-running mainstays.
4646 Convoy Street #116, Kearny Mesa
The interior always seems to be evolving (new tiles on the wall, new bench seats, new table arrangement, each addition another sign of subtle, gradual improvements), but Tofu House’s scalding cauldrons, with spicy, lava-hot soft tofu stew served at a roiling boil, are as deeply satisfying as my first bite here many years ago. David and I don’t look at the menu because we always have and always will order our respective favorites. Mine is the Dumpling Tofu Stew ($8.99), into which I crack one of the eggs from the tiny basket on the table. The parking lot is a nightmare during peak times, so I aim for early lunches here, closer to when doors open at 11 a.m.
4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington
Unlike sister restaurants Cucinas Urbana and Enoteca, Sorella (which means “sister” in Italian) pushes pasta, and I don’t mean the spaghetti-and-meat-sauce kind. Here, each noodle is hand-crafted daily, a task overseen by chef Daniel Wolinsky, who trained under notable Italian chef/owner of a three-star Michelin restaurant, Massimo Bottura. The menu will frequently change, but my current favorite is the Triangoli — little pasta triangles filled with goat cheese and marscapone, with eggplant, fresh fig, and almonds in a sweet and savory brown-butter balsamic. David and I like to sit at the bar and watch the bustle as we share a bottle of rosé, a salad or the polenta board, and a pasta dish.
2933 Adams Avenue, University Heights
The fish and chips and lobster roll at Beerfish are on par with many of the good examples my Boston-bred man and I have tasted in New England, from Maine to Martha’s Vineyard. Thick, fresh cod filets are tender and moist inside the crispy batter, and the fries — satisfying crunch on the outside, creamy inside — are the kind you fight over. Instead of the cold-mayo version, the lobster roll here is served warm, the meat having been tossed with brown butter, and presented in a classic griddled bun with chives and lemon — technically “Connecticut-style,” save for the chef’s special sauce. The long picnic tables outside, along with the selection of premium beers on tap, make this patio one on which we could hang out with friends for hours.
10330 Friars Road, Mission Valley
This small space is family-owned and -operated, with a sushi master at the helm. Kazumi-san has been crafting gorgeous plates of nigiri and styling sushi rolls for 50 years. Here, pride is taken in the tiniest details, from the kawaii clock on the wall (that blooms into a flower every hour) to the placement of a dollop of tobiko on an expertly carved slice of yellowtail. The prices are surprisingly affordable for such high-quality fresh fish, but don’t let that deter you from sampling what comes out of the kitchen. The vegetable tempura is crispy and rich, and the bento boxes are plentiful and pristine.
441 Washington Street, Hillcrest
Brazen BBQ Smokehouse & Bar
Brazen’s Baby Back Ribs are by far the best that either David or I have tasted, and that includes BBQ joints in a handful of Texas towns. They’re tender and lean, with a beautiful smoke ring, the mark of authentic barbecue. The service is extraordinarily friendly, as though a contagious smile was a prerequisite for hiring. Platters are easy to share, and leftovers keep well. For dine-in or takeout, we always get those tasty ribs, along with a few sides to share, my favorite of which is the Cowboy Beans and the Texas toast, which I dip into the spicy/tangy B.R.A.G. sauce, an acronym we may never fully know, as it hints at the sauce’s secret ingredients.
2820 Roosevelt Road, NTC Promenade, Liberty Station
Do not expect any semblance of typical Italian food when you step into Solare. Sure, chef Accursio Lota hails from Sicily, but his dishes reflect a refinement and artistry that transcends the regional fare. He likes to dabble with molecular gastronomy, and occasionally the menu reflects this (as with the cantaloupe infusion in a fish crudo appetizer). The pastas are made fresh in-house, and the flavor combinations can be delicate (paper-thin lasagna filled with grass-fed lamb, eggplant, and fresh mint) or bold (braised beef cheek and mushroom ravioli in a Vin Santo and Modica chocolate sauce).
4622 Park Boulevard, University Heights
For fresh, Mediterranean-inspired share plates with friends, we pull up a seat on the indoor/outdoor patio at Madison. Here the cocktails are harmoniously blended (my favorite is the spicy and refreshing Umbrella, with St. George Green Chile Vodka, cucumber, lemon, and club soda), as are the ingredients on each plate. This place is also home to one of my favorite salads — the Heirloom Salad: ripe, juicy tomatoes and watermelon tossed with mint, capers, and feta, served atop bread croutons with a savory side of soppressata slices. David’s favorite dish is the Skirt Steak, which comes with guacamole, quinoa chopped salad, and a citrus yogurt sauce.
2265 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach
3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro
This is my secret spot for buying wine by the case, because the selection is interesting, and the prices of my preferred labels are unbeatable (that is, for club members; it only costs an email address to join). The premium provisions make for a great pairing. We often time our visits for lunch (or brunch if it’s the weekend) with our need to restock the wine shelf. I vacillate between ordering a salad and a cup of soup (a creamy rich, wild-mushroom version) and the grilled chicken breast sandwich, a tender, generous breast with boursin, basil pesto, and sun-dried tomato tapenade on bakery-fresh baguette. All with a glass of rosé, of course.