If you’re looking for honest, solid food Ritual Tavern, only a few months old, might be your place. It’s on 30th Street, a few blocks north of Lincoln. Buzz and pals made two visits to taste some of its small menu. Not fancy, but homey with dishes made with mostly local, organic ingredients. You might call the place a neighborhood Slow Food eatery. Owners Michael Flores and Staci Wilkens (alums, along with chef Glenn Farrington, from The Linkery) strive for dishes made from sustainable and organic ingredients. Niman Ranch provides their meats and Farrington makes his own catsup, mustard, pickles and slaw to avoid high-fructose corn syrup and other additives usually found in commercial brands.
A northern version of gumbo that adds carrots to the usual southern trio of onion, green pepper and celery is thickened with roux and the bites of spicy sausage, chicken and shrimp mix well in the bowl with organic wild rice. It’s a zippy, hearty dish that is just terrific, as a dish, regardless of whether it can be called gumbo in the strictest sense. A dish should be good on its own merits and this one is. Farm-raised catfish and house-made chips are light and crunchy though the fish could have used a moment more in the fryer to give it a firmer texture. A perfectly cooked medium-rare lamb sirloin flanked with fresh chard and potatoes du jour is the highest priced item on the menu ($19). There’s a delectable bread pudding with homemade bourbon sauce and a seasonal fresh fruit (apple and pear one night) that hit the spot–albeit with an unexpected heavy crust.
An extensive list of beers and a small eclectic group of wines by the glass make good beverage choices. You’ll find gluten-free dishes and the kitchen is willing to adjust a dish to meet your needs. That said, it can impact the kitchen and service. One night all went well, another time salad and entrees arrived together. One could argue it’s food you’d make at home, simple and tasty, but why bother if you’ve got a neat little tavern nearby.
Buzz loves this taco shop and market in Solana Beach. It’s the closest thing to crossing the border without the hassle and it’s just around the corner from Fidel’s and Tony’s Jacal and up the street from the race track. Located in a small strip mall along with a deli and pizza place, Rudy’s opens at 7am so you can get your Mexican fix on breakfast burritos, tortas, tacos and more. It’s a favorite of the local workers and there is a small area for seating (you order at the counter) in the small market that sells fresh tortillas and other staples. Buzz loves the small street tacos ($1.25) and the burritos ($4.50 average) and chile rellenos ($3.50) that fill the tummy quite well also. The carne asada, cabeza, al pastor, carnitas and lengua (yes, tongue) are all terrific. 524 Stevens Ave., Suite 1, Solana Beach, 858-755-0788. Open daily.
Good fresh sushi can dent a budget so a couple of enterprising guys, grads from UCSD, Andrew Berlin and Gino Thiers, figured they could serve innovative sushi by deleting the customary sushi bar, thus saving on overhead. They created Sushi-Fix, in Carlsbad, a mostly take-out and delivery place, with a small sit-down area, in the Vons shopping center, just a few signals away from La Costa and the Forum shopping area. Thiers sold his share to Berlin and moved to San Francisco leaving Berlin solo. Their second location in Little Italy at the corner of Cedar and India Street is larger and perfect for the urban neighborhood.
A couple of things I really like about Sushi-Fix: you can order half rolls (4 pieces instead of 8) so you’re able to enjoy a greater variety of flavors; though they use surimi (imitation crab), you can substitute real crab for an additional $1.25 per roll; and they present many of the rolls a bit differently by putting some main ingredients on top instead of in the rolls. For example: the Red Head roll is shrimp tempura with crab and topped with spicy tuna and tempura shavings. The Cobra roll has spicy tuna and avocado with unagi on top and a slather of eel sauce. A salmon skin handroll is crunch with the skin, cucumber, avocado and spouts and a simple salad of peeled, seeded, halved and thinly sliced cucumbers with a light vinegar dressing makes a good counterpoint to the various rolls. Two pieces of hamachi (yellowtail) sushi are fresh and buttery…the rice under each piece is without the dab of wasabi, which is served on the side with pickled ginger so you can add your own level of heat. Most of the specialty rolls run $6.50 to $9.50 for 8 pieces, figure about half that for 4 pieces. Nigiri for 2 pieces runs $2.25 to $2.95. All the food is very fresh and made to order–just in the kitchen–not in front of you. If you do eat in, it’s on paper plates. 7720 El Camino Real, Suite B, Carlsbad, 760-632-8787, 1608 India St., Little Italy, 619-237-7878 www.sushi-fix.com.
Tucked a half a block off El Cajon Boulevard on a quiet residential street, the popular Mama’s Bakery & Lebanese Deli features two unique things: a sajj (picture a large inverted wok) and made–while-you-watch cornmeal specked flatbread (a mix of whole wheat and white flour) that cooks on the sajj. Here you eat on a small unadorned patio, or as many do, take-out. You order at the tiny counter and your food is delivered from the window on the patio. The flatbread wraps include everything from fried eggplant to turkey and cheese. Baba ganoosh is heavy on tahini, so not my favorite. A spinach pie is the flatbread wrapped in a triangle with sautéed onions, spinach and ground sumac (a dark wine colored, slightly sour flavored spice) and the makanek wrap melds spicy Lebanese sausage, pickles, hummus, tomato and lettuce in the flatbread—both filling and satisfying. Prices range from $3.49 for the pies to $4.99 for many of the wraps. There are also plates of meats, stuffed grape leaves and falafels from $7.49. 4237 Alabama St., San Diego, 619-688-0717. Open daily from 10 a.m.
Little Italy is one quintessential neighborhood with a unique mix of retail, residential and restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. The heart of this bustling area supports pizzas, empanadas, sushi and a corner pub, Princess Pub & Grille.
Lots of outdoor seating makes for good people watching as throngs of tourists and locals walk their dogs and kids along the street, especially on weekends. The Princess website boasts that it is the original British pub in San Diego, having opened in 1984. Inside you’ll find a large bar with comfortable chairs, lots of pub “stuff” on the walls for décor, and a lot of noise especially with the music turned up and people talking over it. It’s a happening place with a good vibe. Their menu while featuring fish and chips and bangers deviates to also include such things as baby back ribs and blackened Pacific salmon Caesar salad with Parmesan, not exactly my idea of authentic English pub grub. But as my sidekick remarked, they cater to a broader clientele given the location.
We ordered fish and chips and determined the chips, while thickly cut, were too soft and less flavorful than Shakespeare Pub & Grille in lower Mission Hills. For me, the fish batter also could have been crisper. The side of curry sauce for the chips is long on hot chile in the mouth, and reminds me of chile rather than a distinct curry. A meal of chips and curry is $6.50. I did like the Scotch egg as it was served warm, wrapped with flavorful sausage meat, cut in half and served with Branston pickles (a a finely chopped crunchy chutney of carrots and other vegetables flavored with vinegar, onion powder and lemon juice). 1665 India Street, Little Italy, 619-702-3021, www.princesspub.com.
One of my favorites for authentic pub experience, is Shakespeare Pub & Grille, located upstairs among the mini collection of restaurants on India and Washington Streets that include Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Middle Eastern and a wine bar and bistro. This very English pub sports dark wood tavern décor, wrapped with windows and simple wood tables. Out on the umbrellaed wood deck, my pub crawling pal and I sat on green plastic patio chairs and noted the dull roar of the I-5. The noise isn’t bothersome–consider it a version of white sound and inside seating can be noisy.
The menu includes shepherd’s pie (a melange of ground beef, vegetables topped with mashed potatoes and cheese), fish and chips (homemade), a few sandwiches, roast beef and bangers and mash (that would be potatoes and peas), among other things, none of which will bust your budget. Tap and bottled beers along with a full bar, make this venue a good hangout on a hot afternoon.
English chips typically are thick, not the skinny, limp wisps we call fries here in the states. At Shakespeare, those chips are long, crisp, thick and fleshy, and a meal at $4.95. Curry sauce can be ordered separately for $1.50 and must be something the English picked up when they owned India. This mildly spicy dipping sauce comes in a bowl and is a nice change from the usual catsup or malt vinegar. Scotch eggs are served hot or cold, and our server said typically they are cold. Now I happen to like cold sausage, but if you don’t, order it warm, as the sausage is wrapped around the hardboiled egg. Branston pickles with the quartered egg and sausage make a good mouthful. My half pint of black and tan (Bass and Guiness) washed it all down quite nicely. 3701 India Street, Lower Mission Hills, 619-299-0230, www.shakespearepub.com.
The Imperial Beach pier is home to The Tin Fish, with their other location in the Gaslamp next to the train tracks and the Convention Center. As you walk on the pier you get a spectacular view of the Coronado Islands, Mexico and to the north, Coronado.
The food is simple. You order at the counter, they call your number and you sit outside at tables or stools or inside. If you’re outside, watch that you aren’t sharing food with the greedy pigeons that pounce on your paper plate if you leave for even a minute. A half order of fish and chips (their most popular dish) brings three long pieces of cod fish, lightly breaded so much so that it reminded me of frozen fish sticks (they aren’t). They are good, along with hand cut, homemade, thick non-greasy crinkle fries and coleslaw with a vinegar-based dressing. Pier End, Imperial Beach, 619-628-1414
The T shaped Ocean Beach pier has my vote as a fabulous cheap date. Here you fish without a license, enjoy great views of the ocean and beach and just chill out from the city’s chatter. A bit more than midway to the T, stop at the Ocean Beach Pier Café owned since 1990 by the same family that owns the Fatboyz Pizza Mission Beach. This barely 20 seat wood and windowed room, outfitted with wood tables, captains chairs, a few patio chairs, and nautical pieces you can purchase, is just plain sweet. Sit at a window table and watch surfers below, or take in the coastline view north.
They open daily at 7 a.m. and serve breakfast all day. Don’t expect real plates, it’s paper and plastic all the way. Lobster fans will find an omelet and or taco, and the menu features a huge platter of nibbly nachos that two of us made a meal. Lemonade hits the spot in place of alcohol (it caused too much trouble on the pier) and white clam chowder comes in a bread bowl, (a smaller version comes in a small roll bowl). The rich chowder is creamy and filled with clams, potatoes and no thickener. Weekends, I’m told, there’s a wait for mango or blueberry pancakes. Scrambled eggs can be tricky if they are overcooked and dry. I had a single scrambled, perfectly cooked, egg with some really good homemade thickly sliced and cut crisp potatoes served with fresh salsa. Late in the day it made a perfect light dinner. Food can be ordered to go if you want to wander down to that T and watch the unobstructed sunset. 5091 Niagara, Ocean Beach, 619-226-3474.
Point Loma Seafoods, dockside in Point Loma (behind the Vagabond Motel) is the place for fresh fish and seafood. In this cash only casual place you’ll find retail cases with smoked fish, including albacore, salmon and local yellowtail, sushi made to order, live lobsters, shrimp, housemade tuna salad, oysters, mussels and an array of fresh fish.
The place loads up at lunch where the small menu features salads, fried combo plates and swell fish tacos. Two tacos, each wrapped in two corn tortillas, refried beans, fresh salsa on the side and a slightly vinegary white sauce, at $9.95, is a meal for two. A generous portion of lightly breaded Alaskan cod (though on my visit it was a tad dry) fills the tortillas, topped with crunchy green cabbage and a sprinkle of cheese. Sit outside, near the docked sport fishing boats, and eat with the gulls staring you down for a crumb. Cash only. 2805 Emerson St., Point Loma, 619-223-1109.
Downtown is Richard Walker’s Pancake House in the Pinnacle building on Front and Market Streets, next to the future Children’s Museum. This is the place for solid Midwest breakfasts and a few lunch items (they close at 2:30 p.m.). The restaurant seats 30 outside on Front Street, and another 50 inside a compact room. The contemporary design, high ceiling, wood trim and tall windows that face the street, give the place a comfortable open feeling. You’ll find a menu filled with omelets, waffles, flapjacks, as well as some more unusual griddle cakes of buckwheat, wheat germ or potato, German pancakes and more.
A substantial veggie omelet is light and fluffy. The eggs seal in the chopped tomatoes, sliced mushrooms and broccoli flowerets, all of which keep their shape and flavor by not being overcooked. The omelet is golden from a quick finish in the oven. Refreshingly, there’s a choice of cheese (Swiss, cheddar or jalapeno) that melds with, yet doesn’t overpower the vegetables. Even better is the choice of toast or pancakes, and in a pancake house, why not choose these? The three are light, flavorful and a happy respite from the usual potatoes found at many breakfast joints. There’s good Boyd coffee, though my coffee cup was empty each time before the refill, and service was efficient and cordial. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. 520 Front Street, San Diego, 619-231-7777, www.richardwalkers.com/san_diego.