Monday, 30 November 2009
Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - San Diego
Before I begin a rundown of the food highlights of my recent trip to San Diego, it's probably worth reminding myself to not get too carried away. Yes, I ate very well, in a number of places, most of which were on the "dirt" side of "cheap" and one or two meals (usually involving fried meat patties) rank up there with some of the best food I've ever eaten anywhere. But with the benefit of a glorious climate, some of the friendliest people on the planet and an attitude to service that was never anything less than bend-over-backwards perfect, you tend to come away with a warm happy glow from even the most modest snack. I'm sure after a few weeks of blazing sunshine smiles and fresh seafood sandwiches I'd be craving the London drizzle and a Tayyabs, so take much of the following gushing enthusiasm with a pinch of salt....
The first night, and heavily jetlagged, I found myself in Hodad's, a burger joint in an area of town called Ocean Beach. Nestled amongst the crumbling hippie hostels, cavernous strip-lit surf shops and dive bars, Hodad's has been serving what it modestly calls the best burgers in the world since the late 60s, appropriate as the area itself seems also to have changed very little during the last 40 odd years. Sat in a boisterous, eccentric room with walls plastered in car number plates and with locals queuing patiently outside serenaded by bearded buskers, we tucked into onion rings and bacon cheeseburgers, the former crispy and fresh and towered so high they blocked out the light, the latter, well, just about perfect. The bacon at Hodad's is stripped, boiled then pressed and fried into thin crispy patties which taste almost like ham confit - not just a fantastic concentrated flavour but a lovely range of textures, which sit very well with the soft beef soaked in slimy cheap Kraft cheese. This may seem like a criticism of the cheese - it isn't, as anyone who has ever had a Roquefort or mature cheddar monstrosity from any number of misguided "gourmet" burger joints in the UK will hopefully tell you. Burgers like this, flamboyantly unhealthy, planet-sized, groaning with cheese and salt and grease and beef, could not exist anywhere else in the world. And if they did, they certainly would not cost $6. I was in love.
At the Little Italy Farmer's Market I ate freshly scooped-out uni, bought some of the nicest (and most expensive) tomatoes I've ever known, and gorged on a beef brisket sandwich. It was a good day.
Since trying the USDA steaks at Goodman back in August, I had been understandably eager to try the famous grain-fed beef at what would hopefully be at slightly less of a premium than the examples flown over to Mayfair. However, it seems that good beef is expensive even this close to the source, and these two fine-looking dry-aged rib-eyes, from Iowa Meat Farms, cost nearly $60 - that's almost comparable (thanks to that bloody exchange rate) with that charged at places like Jack O'Shea's in London for their Black Angus. I wish I could tell you that they were worth the money, but I can't - not because they weren't, but because I completely cocked up the cooking procedure and managed to bake them to a uniform grey before I'd had a chance to sear. Blame an oven that falsely reported its own temperature, a steak-cooking method nicked from the Food Channel which was far too fiddly, and me. Mainly blame me. But all was not lost, because in this Land of the Free, Home of the Beef, you don't have to travel miles across town to an artisan butcher, nor pay a small fortune, for some excellent cow. Costco, the wholesalers (sort of a US equivalent of Macro but a thousand times better), sell a huge range of extremely fairly priced steaks and ribs, and not just the cheap cuts either - I bought two USDA prime New York Strips (what I think we would call sirloin) for little more than $20. And this time, ladies and gentlemen, I did those dry-aged beauties proud - cooked perfectly (even if I do say so myself) on a white-hot skillet and a brief spell in a warm oven to rest. They were amongst the very best that steak can be - beefy, metallic, gorgeously shot through with rich fat and with a satisfying thick crust.
Without going into too much detail, other eateries in San Diego and environs worth a mention are:
- Donovan's Steakhouse, which although not up to the standard of Luger's (or even Hawksmoor/Goodman in terms of the steak itself) was nevertheless a hugely enjoyable way to spend my birthday evening, and they can mix a fine martini.
- El Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla, where you point at the bit of fresh fish you like the look of and they stick it in a sandwich for you. Kind of like London's Fishworks, only not crap.
- Mariscos Godoy, in Chula Vista, a completely bonkers Mexican restaurant which served seafood dishes soaked in cheese and cream (what's not to like) while an enthusiastically voluble mariachi band bashed away in the background. In the interests of keeping this post to a vaguely readable length I can't go into everything we ate, but one of the dishes was called a 'crater', and was a kind of thick fish soup served inside a hollowed-out lump of volcanic rock so white-hot that the soup reduced itself over the course of the meal and was still too hot to touch after we'd paid the bill and left. It still wasn't the craziest thing on the menu.
- Encinitas Café (in Encinitas) which for sheer old-world Americana and character is hard to beat. I had bacon and pancakes and poached eggs, washed down with something called a 'malt', which tasted like Horlicks ice-cream.
Amazingly, it took until my final few hours before the flight back from LAX to make it to a branch of the legendary In 'N' Out burger. Not so much a fast food restaurant as a widely established cult, In 'N' Out are famous for two things - being the first drive-thru restaurant to make use of two-way speaker systems for ordering, and for having a 'secret' menu which isn't advertised in store. The 'secret' menu (not so secret really, as it's clearly listed on their official website) has probably helped create an extra frisson of exclusivity around the chain, but really there is no mystery to the overwhelming popularity of In 'N' Out - they are simply very, very good. From a refreshingly tiny 'non-secret' menu I ordered a Double Double (that's two patties, two slices of that lovely slimy Kraft cheese) and fries, while my sister ordered an 'animal style' (some sort of onion and cheese sauce) hamburger. Very much in the (correct) Hodad's style, this was a supremely accomplished burger, generous in portion and flavour. Crunch was provided, rather than the bacon slice at Hodad's, by a slightly extra toasted brioche bun lid, but what this burger did have going for it over Hodad's was the price - a paltry $2.99 for what must be up there with the best burgers in the world. And this from a chain! Quite a large chain too. Is it too much to hope that one day we'll see one of these in London? Of course it is - by the time the In 'N' Out Kings Road opened they'd be forced to add rocket salad and ciabatta buns and low-fat mayonnaise. You're more likely to see a Tayyabs on Manhattan Beach.
Which brings me nicely back to my first paragraph. Yes, San Diego was lovely, and it's hard not to be charmed by such a beautiful county and people as consistently pleasant as their weather, but on my second night back in London, my circadian rhythms still slightly off-kilter, I was invited to the christening of Tayyabs' new basement room. After piles of lamb chops and seekh kebabs, bowlfuls of dry meat and gorgeous chunks of spicy slow-roasted lamb, I was reminded that for the benefit of a better climate or a decent burger there will always be something else I'd have to give up. Cold, wet, noisy and dirty London may be, but there's no place like home. It's good to be back.
Donovan's Steakhouse 7/10
El Pescador Fish Market 7/10
Mariscos Godoy 8/10
Encinitas Café 7/10