Friday, 10 January 2014
Cheese and Biscuits on tour: San Diego 2013/2014
I used to travel fairly frequently to the Costa Brava for my holidays - twice a year usually, always to our family's little apartment in L'Escala to revisit the same beaches, the same bars and the same faintly disappointing restaurants. It was never less than fun (and relatively inexpensive), but you would be well advised to set your expectations pretty low before eating anywhere that wasn't Can Roca - in a part of the world popular with undemanding British tourists since the late 70's, nobody was trying too hard to be any good. After a couple of years doing half-hearted roundups on the blog I noticed not much was changing or improving, and I quietly stopped writing about the place.
Something tells me that isn't going to happen in San Diego. Of course it's unfair to compare the restaurants of a major world city to a largely rural area of North-East Spain, but given how us Brits are constantly fed the line that the Catalans spend their mealtimes in idyllic medieval boltholes sipping rosé and eating calçots (which I saw on a menu literally once in 15 years of visits there), while American food is dismissed as processed, unsophisticated junk, the dissonance is still worth addressing. The restaurant scene in San Diego, while certainly having strengths in certain areas, is as dynamic, innovative and value-for-money as almost anywhere you could think of, and the bar and beer scene is world-class.
Anyway, mindful of the fact that regular followers of a London restaurant blog won't necessarily be wildly interested in everything I Did On My Holidays, here's a brief roundup of the highlights of my latest trip:
A brand-new North Park restaurant that does a respectful but still recognisably Californian take on the London gastropub. Above is stuffed pigs trotters, which gives you some clue where they're getting their inspiration from, but the star dish was a brilliant cassoulet using fantastic local sausages and confit duck. A cracking beer list too, but then that goes without saying - just assume for anywhere that isn't a tiny hole-in-the-wall taco joint that the beer list is far and beyond anything you've seen outside the most specialist London outlets.
Mastiff Sausage Company at Thorn St Brewery
The picture above neatly sums up all of San Diego's strengths in one go - a flight of fantastic microbrewery beers, accompanied by some top-flight street food (in this case a snappy bratwurst and homemade pickles) for little over $10.
Porterhouse from Iowa Meats
A slight diversion from the bar/restaurant thing but this piece of meat is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was bloody delicious - whatever your thoughts on the whole USDA cattle-raising methods, the size of the fillet side of this porterhouse is quite something to someone used to the leaner grass-fed British cuts. But this is also significant as the only purchase made during the trip where the service was less than amazing - in fact, the butcher I was assigned via ticketing system at Iowa Meats was unpleasant, lazy and rude, openly complaining when I asked for a cut of meat not already on the counter before literally wandering off and serving someone else. A similarly incompetent but not quite as openly aggressive colleague finished the job. Still, good steak.
OK I've been here before. But it's still good, using all grass-fed beef, and they do a tuna burger now too.
Lefty's Chicago pizzeria
The pizza pies here are good, and cheap, but I fell in love with the hot dog, served with a mound of pickles and salad in a soft bun.
I'm going to do a more thorough report on the breweries of North Park in due course, but an evening at the stunning Hess brewery can hardly be bettered. You can specify "nitro" (nitrogen) in your beer for extra smoothness (smaller bubbles).
A whisk(e)y bar in humble North Park that wouldn't be out of place in the grandest of Mayfair hotels. The powerful and unique house cocktails are $5 a piece from 6-8pm, but don't leave without trying one of their rare American micro-distillery whiskies (that's whisky, not bourbon). I tried a Balcones Brimstone from Texas, which was smoky like an Austin BBQ rather than a Scottish peat bog. Who knew?
An unreconstructed mom & pop burger bar, and none the worse for it, the menu here is as big as the portions, and the portions are huge. A decent budget burger (American cheese, salad, soft sweet bun and cooked-through beef that did a job) and crinkle cut chips. Some slightly worrying right-wing propaganda on the wall, but it all added to the hillbilly vibe.
If you think the waits for certain popular no-reservation London restaurants are long, then check out the queue for the tacos and tamales at Cuatro Milpas. If I'm going to be brutally honest, I didn't think the menu here was quite as accomplished as my beloved Tacos El Gordo, but they were still very, very good, all tortillas made in-house from an open bakery at the back, and served with a smoky oaxaha (I think) chilli oil sauce. The pineapple Fantas in this picture are because they had "no water". That's a first.
This picture of our Christmas Day cheeseboard is just to prove that the cliché about there being no decent cheese in the USA is increasingly untrue. What's more, some of the best weren't imported - Big Rock is a satisfying, salty blue from Paso Robles that compare well to many good European cheeses. Midnight Moon, though labelled from California, is actually made in Holland. It's good, though.
Point Loma has two main seafood restaurants perched right in the harbour - Point Loma Seafoods is the largest and most famous, but was closed on New Year's Day so we ended up at the rather less impressive but still somewhat decent Mitch's. My shrimp sandwich was pretty good, and it's hard to beat the view, but a tuna melt was pappy and unpleasant. Still, there's always the possibility you can feed the leftovers to the sealions.
This place deserves a full review, but given I am almost definitely going to make a return trip in March, I'll leave it until then. From the same chef that brought us the wonderful Mision 19 (Javier Plascencia), I should have been confident that the food at Romesco would have been stunning. As indeed it was. But large menus still scare me, as do fusion restaurants, and having to pick from a good 100 or so Spanish-Mexican dishes like "fiduea tacos" and "albondigas al chipotle" from this new place in La Bonita just made me wonder if certain cuisines aren't better left unfused. I needn't have worried. The odd misfire aside (croquettas which were more like fishcakes), the food at Romesco is stunning - cochinita pibil yucateca was a rich, glossy pile of slow-cooked pork served with fantastic table sauces inside soft steamed tortillas, and roast bone marrow was like the finest deconstructed beef pie. Not expensive either, considering the swish surroundings and quality of food. As I say, I'll be back.
Another day, another unbelievably classy North Park/Normal Heights bar. The cocktails here, made with house bitters, are as good as you'd ever hope for, the service stellar and the beer selection (predictably) knockout. Even better, although Polite Provisions don't have a kitchen themselves, they share a building with meatball specialists Soda and Swine, where you can soak up the booze with a chorizo chipotle sub and (pictured) dirty fries.
Belching Beaver brewery
Yet another North Park microbrewery that you'd feel blessed to have as your local. The beers are even more experimental here than usual for San Diego (they do one that tastes of peanut butter, and a Milk Stout that's like toast and coffee), and you can again specify a blast of nitro to make it more creamy. Food is supplied by Crazee Burger next door but I'm afraid I wasn't a fan. Strange, isn't it, how the worst burgers photograph so well (see above), while the very best:
If anything, Carnitas has improved from its already impressive position on my last visit. The house burger is still the best in town (quite an achievement in San Diego) but this time we also tried the slow-cooked pork belly, every morsel of which was silky and soft and drenched in a marinade of sweet molasses.
I think I'd better stop there. Apologies to those of you not in the least bit interested in a collection of bars and restaurants 5,000 miles away and rest assured that from a quick glance at the diary there'll be plenty of London things going on in the next few weeks. But if you have the time and the means (British Airways are very good and fly direct from Heathrow for upwards of around £600) there is no reason why anyone who enjoys eating and drinking would not have a ball in San Diego, even if they didn't have the added attraction of a new nephew (say hello to George, above). The only regret you'll have is not staying longer.
I haven't scored anything above as nearly everything would get 8, 9 or 10. Just take your pick