Chefs, restaurateurs share their dining preferences
By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Forget the notion that chefs and restaurateurs who work 60-plus hours a week never have time to indulge in San Diego’s teeming culinary scene. Though perhaps not as frequently as the people they feed, and rarely on weekend nights, it’s practically an industry requirement they break away for meals presented by their competitors and colleagues.
With their discerning palates always in high gear, we asked several movers and shakers in the business what dish sent them over the moon in 2015, and what restaurant they haven’t yet visited that sits at the top of their bucket list for the year ahead. They are listed alphabetically.
Molly Brooks-Thornton, general manager and sommelier at Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant, 2202 Fourth Ave., Bankers Hill, 619-231-0222.
Favorite dish: “It was the Tiger Bomb brunch sandwich at Tiger! Tiger! It’s made with pork belly, arugula, Gruyere, a sunny-side egg and aioli — a great way to start the day, and it makes more sense to me than a pastry because it has all the major food groups in it.”
Must try: “Since I’m becoming more of a connoisseur of ramen, I plan on going to Izakaya Masa in Mission Hills. It’s the first thing out of people’s mouths when you ask them where the best place to go is for ramen and Japanese cuisine in general. They’re also open late, which is important when you work in the restaurant industry.”
Johan Engman, owner of Breakfast Republic, 2730 University Ave., North Park, 619-642-0299. Owner of and Fig Tree Café, 416 University Ave., Hillcrest, 619-298-2010. Additional Fig Tree locations in Pacific Beach and Liberty Station.
Favorite dish: “The brisket with the house sauce at Brazen BBQ was the most amazing thing I had last year. I don’t know how exactly they make it taste so good, but I’ve been back a couple more times for it.”
Must try: “I’ve been hearing from industry people with very good palates about the Wine Vault & Bistro on India Street. It sounds like they always come up with new menus paired with wines, and I’m a big fan of that.”
Jean Francois Fays, executive pastry chef at Le Parfait Paris, 555 G St., Gaslamp Quarter, 619-245-4457.
Favorite dish: “I loved the trout almondine at La Bonne Table in Hillcrest. It’s a simple dish but the technique of flouring and seasoning the fish must be very subtle before cooking it in the pan with butter. Then you have to deglaze the pan with lemon juice. This place really has it down for making it right.”
Must try: “I’m anxious for Madison on Park to open soon in University Heights. We consulted with them about their dessert menu and what we saw on other parts of the menu is going to be top notch. There’s an awesome Italian fish dish on it, some good pasta dishes and excellent cocktails.”
Stephen Gage, executive chef at Underbelly II, 3000 Upas St., North Park, 619-487-9909.
Favorite dish: “For sure it was the clam chowder fries at Ironside Fish & Oyster. I call it ‘the fat kid’s dream.’ It’s much like poutine, but with thick clam chowder poured over the fries — a straightforward appetizer that’s very satisfying and filling.”
Must try: “A good friend of mine, Davin Waite, will be opening a small noodle shop in Oceanside right next door to his other restaurant, Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub. He’s very talented and always thinks outside the box so I’m super excited to try the food at his new place.”
Lety Gonzalez, head chef at Uptown Tavern, 1236 University Ave., Hillcrest, 619-241-2710.
Favorite dish: “I can’t stop thinking about the Scotch egg I had at Soda & Swine’s newest location in Liberty Station. It was perfectly soft boiled and wrapped in chorizo and panko crumbs. I’ve had Scotch eggs in other places, but this one melted in my mouth and I didn’t even need the aioli served on the side.”
Must try: “I’ve never had the opportunity yet to try Solare Ristorante in Liberty Station. They have an authentic Italian chef who I follow on Facebook and Instagram. He goes to all his purveyors every day for fresh ingredients.”
Christian Graves, executive chef at Jsix, 616 J St., East Village, 619-531-8744.
Favorite dish: “The ceviche at Nine-Ten in La Jolla was one of the most delicious things I had last year. Chef Jason Knibbs used chocolate clams, a variety from Mexico, in what was almost like a tomato base. It was ocean-water bright and with perfect acidity.”
Must try: “I’m looking forward to trying Brian Malarkey’s new restaurant (Sea Salt & The Herb Box) that he’s opening in Little Italy sometime in 2016. I understand it’s going to be Southern California cuisine mixed with food retail products. And I haven’t tried the Crack Shack in Little Italy yet. Fried chicken is kind of my weakness.”
Sam Khorish, co-owner of Heat Bar & Kitchen, 3797 Park Blvd., Hillcrest/North Park border, 619-546-4328.
Favorite dish: “After living here for 20 years I finally went to Bronx Pizza for the first time, and the thin crust blew the socks off my feet. I got their white pizza with ricotta, basil and olive oil, and another one that I customized with tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni and jalapenos. That’s the one I still go back and get. It’s the best pie in town.”
Must try: “I’ve been dying to go to Chef Patrick Ponsaty’s restaurant in Escondido called Belamy’s. He won the ‘Master Chef’ title in France last year, and I had his food at Lowe’s Coronado when he worked there, and loved it.”
Brad Kraten, executive chef at Saltbox, 1047 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter, 619-515-3003.
Favorite dish: “The tonkasu ramen at Ramen Yamadaya, which recently opened Downtown on Broadway. It had a rich broth, thicker-than-usual pieces of pork belly, and the egg was cooked just right with a little runniness in the center. I’ve been to other ramen houses in San Diego, but they just didn’t hit the mark like this place.”
Must try: “We had our annual meeting last year at Juniper & Ivy, although I was too tired to go that night. It’s on my list because our chefs who attended the meeting have all been recommending it.”
Aldo Negrete, executive chef at Rare Form, 795 J St., East Village, 619-255-6507.
Favorite dish: “It’s not a fancy food, but it was the lobster roll from Ironside Fish & Oyster. The buttered brioche was fresh and crispy and the lobster was juicy and cooked perfectly. On top were some really nice crispy shallots.”
Must try: “I’ve been hearing amazing things about the cooking techniques used at Catania in La Jolla. They’re supposedly doing whole roasted fish and making delicious pizzas — simple Italian food but done right.”
Russell Rummer, executive chef at Croce’s Park West, 2760 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill, 619-233-4355.
Favorite dish: “It was the char-grilled Akaushi ribeye at Island Prime, which was one of the best steaks I think I ever had in my life. It literally melted in your mouth.”
Must try: “What I am most excited to try is Richard Blais’ Crack Shack. I can’t wait to see the combination of his fine-dining training in a fast, casual atmosphere. And I love chicken with eggs!”
Martin San Roman, executive chef at Dobson’s Bar & Restaurant, 956 Broadway Circle, 619-231-6771.
Favorite dish: “It was the lamb belly taco at Aqui es Texoco in Chula Vista. They cook the meat for 24 hours and add broth made from the juice of the lamb. They also put in fresh cilantro and raw onions. I love their fresh green tomatillo salsa with the taco.”
Must try: “I’m hearing good things about the food and the beautiful view at Coasterra. They can seat up to 500 people and I want to go with a big group of family and friends to see how they do Mexican food.”
Randy Smerik, owner of Solare Ristorante, 2820 Roosevelt Road, Point Loma, 619-270-9670.
Favorite dish: “The albacore two ways at Bracero in Little Italy blew me away because of the incredible blend of freshness, flavors and textures that were magically put together. It had wonderful citrus from lime, crispy eggplant, and jalapeno ponzu for a final wrap up.”
Must try: “I’ve been wanting to try Sushi Tadokoro in Old Town because I heard their sushi chef is on fire and that he’ll make whatever you want. My son went there and sent me incredible photos of the food.”
Kevin Templeton, executive chef at Barleymash, 600 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter, 619-255-7373.
Favorite dish: “It was at Carnitas Snack Shack. I went there for a band meeting and we ordered everything off the menu, and the meatloaf sandwich was my favorite. It had bold flavors and came with a big slice of meatloaf on nice focaccia bread. My close second was their triple BLT.”
Must try: “I’ve heard nothing but great things about Kettner Exchange. I rarely get out to dine and when I do, it’s usually to hole-in-the-wall, no-name places. This is one of the higher end restaurants that I want to try.”
Hanna Tesfamichael, chef-owner of Hanna’s Gourmet, 2864 Adams Ave., Normal Heights, 619-280-5600.
Favorite dish: “A humble, but memorable meal I had last year was at Zimology 21 in the Gaslamp Quarter. Their chicken and waffle is to die for. The waffle was very light, and the chicken was moist inside with the perfect crunch outside.”
Must try: “The next restaurant on my list is Meze Downtown. I’ve looked at their menu and see they put twists on traditional Greek food with untraditional ingredients, which is my kind of thing.”
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.