Smack in the middle of Hillcrest is Rannoosh. Not your homespun hole in the wall, like Mama’s in University Heights, this place is designed to give the feeling of being in an exotic place. Cleverly decorated with fabric on the ceiling and walls, it’s what I might imagine a Beirut cafe to look like. There are hookahs prominently displayed and should you need a smoke, you can do so with one on the patio.
The food: Hummus made from scratch is silky and light. The finely pureed, smoky flavored baba ganoosh is mostly eggplant with a hint of tahini (sesame paste) and is one of the best I’ve encountered outside of my kitchen. Tabbouleh is, as it should be, mostly green with parsley with a bit of bulgur wheat. Homemade beef and lamb spicy sausages about the size of baby cigars come with a bit of lettuce salad, are dense and tasty, perhaps an acquired taste as my dinner pal found them a bit dry. Hummus with diced lamb is simple—the crisp lamb bits chewy to counter the soft hummus. We loved the mjadara, a toothsome mix of spiced rice, lentils and sautéed onions with a yogurt side that is definitely comfort food as well as a popular Lenten dish in Lebanon. Skip dessert as the baklava was dry and uninteresting. Prices range from $5.95 for most appetizers to $7.95 for hummus with toppings and entrees from $9.95 to $21.95 for mixed grill of various kebabs. There are pita sandwiches from $4.95 to $8.95 and $14.95 for that hookah smoke. 3890 Fifth Avenue (at University), Hillcrest, 619-325-1360. Open daily from 11 a.m.
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.
Chef Josh McGinnis, who opened Island Prime with the Cohn Restuarant Group, gave up his toque to be on the supply side of the restaurant business. He now sells produce for Los Angeles Specialty Produce. Another of the opening chefs, Daniel Bannister, is now sous chef at Pamplemousse Grille.
Solana Beach’s newest upscale dinner only restaurant, Blanca, has Zubin Desai (formerly of the University Club) as its General Manager watching over the house as Chef Wade Hageman does his magic in the kitchen. Bring your credit card, prices are steep.
And downtown at Dobson’s the long time watering hole and favorite landmark for San Diego’s movers and shakers, Michael Davis moves in to overhall the menu and add seasonal items. Davis comes from Pamplemousse Grille where he headed off-site catering.
Up the coast Seth Baas (nephew of Padres owner John Moores) and his mom created Blanca, a new venue for north county diners. No view, no waves, but a contemporary, yet cozy restaurant with interesting food and good service. The dining room features booths, tables and banquettes in understated soothing monochromatic colors. With Chef Wade Hageman’s innovative use of ingredients, it’s a place I suspect will be busy all the time.
Here you’ll find a sofa-lined lounge, bar stools worth sitting on for drinks as you munch on a bowl of Wisconsin heirloom black popcorn dusted with Parmesan, toasted black pepper and a hint of truffle oil. Now, before you flip over the idea of anything over and above Orville Redenbacher’s microwavable popcorn, you really have to try this unassuming yet addictive dish. The black kernels pop white and work well with a glass of bubbly.
A sensational Oregon morel soup comes richly finished with leeks, slow cooked until they melt, and crème fraiche (a French version of sour cream). For the more adventurous, wild king salmon tartare (raw and finely chopped) comes topped with a tiny quail egg you mix in with dill oil and eat with brioche toast points. Lounge food prices from $6 to $22, and appetizer prices $11 to $25. Open at 5 p.m., 437 S. Highway 101, Solana Beach, 858-792-0072. First noted in San Diego City Beat, June 2006.
The San Diego Pier Café at Seaport Village sits on pilings, more wharf than pier, has a bar, and a slightly more sophisticated and higher priced menu than the other cafes. Open for lunch and dinner, you’ll find nachos, salads and sandwiches, clam chowder in a bread bowl, and more. I prefer the less stylized atmosphere (call it laid back, funky and fun) of the Ocean Beach Pier Café. 885 West Harbor Drive, Seaport Village, 619-239-3968, www.piercafe.com.
Ruby’s Diner, the fixture at the end of Oceanside Pier, is part of a restaurant chain, serving good typical diner food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ruby’s first restaurant opened in 1982 on the pier in Newport Beach. It’s a 1940’s diner atmosphere, with good hamburgers and. As the longest wooden pier on the west coast (1942 feet), you can get a good workout walking to the restaurant. 1 Oceanside Pier, 760-433-RUBY (7829).
For dessert or a pick-me-up espresso with Calabria coffee beans (my favorite roaster on 30th at University) Cow-a-Bunga, at the foot of the Imperial Beach pier, makes fresh ice cream and sorbet. About six months ago, former Loews Coronado executive chef Fabrice Gaunin and his wife Nelly bought the micro-creamery. Let’s just say this is really good ice cream, not overly rich or sweet and worth the visit if you’re in the area. Most popular flavors are, you guessed it: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, though I loved the chocolate chip (lots of chips, not chunks). 10 Evergreen Ave, Imperial Beach, 619-628-0508.
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.