Thursday, June 10, 2010

Two New Favorite Eats for Summer: Cali Deli and Jimmy's Famous American Tavern

I've been hopping from one spot to the other in the last few weeks and there have been some encounters with original dishes that still make my mouth water thinking of them. Time to share a couple of new places with fun takes on traditional dishes:

Cali Deli's banh mi sandwiches -- particularly the ginger chicken and the lemongrass chicken. Tam Huynh recently opened this little spot in Hillcrest's prime real estate of Fifth Ave. between Robinson and University. His older brother Tuttuyh, a chiropractor in Indonesia already has six locations there. The Hillcrest spot is the family's first U.S. restaurant. They bake their own bread to achieve the perfect sandwich delivery system -- light and crispy crust and a soft interior. Inside the bread is a mix of cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, and jalapeno slices on request, along with whatever protein, even tofu, you order. If you're a Top Chef fan, you'll get a kick out of the fact that the brothers' cousin is season 3 winner Hung Huynh. They're at 3852 Fifth Ave.

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern is a welcome addition to Pt. Loma's harbor. Here's another restaurant that's now serving deviled egg starters (a little spicy and served with pickles and chips -- and can be topped with Dungeness crab). Woo hoo! I am worshipful of their big and puffy and oh so crispy onion rings and the fact that they get that way because of a dunking in buttermilk and Ballast Point beer. Add a little sweetness to your bite with a further dunking in housemade ketchup.

Their burgers are huge -- 10 ounces -- and they love to tout them. I had the plentiful Blues Burger, filled with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Balsamic Glazed Onions, and tomato. It was a splendid mouthful. But I adored the very creative short rib Reuben brimming with a crunchy coleslaw. The acid from the slaw and the juicy richness of the meat were a perfect coupling.

The restaurant also won me over with their emphasis on buying ingredients from local farms and purveyors, as well as their focus on handcrafted cocktails. I like any restaurant that has a "liquid relations" vice president. Plus, chef James Nunn is an old punk rock drummer. Jimmy's Famous American Tavern is located in The Promenade at Point Loma at 4990 N. Harbor Dr.

Print Page

Friday, June 4, 2010

Playa Grill: Casual Play on Traditional Flavors

It's a relief to see so many new eateries opening up in San Diego these days. Yes, you've probably heard about Carl Schroeder's new Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant -- and the steady change in and around Fifth Ave. in the Bankers Hill neighborhood. But there are other places opening in other parts of town, and even if they don't command Schroeder's name power, they're worth checking out. I've got a few to talk about, starting today with Playa Grill.

Playa Grill & Margarita Bar in Mission Valley has taken over Fish Market's old spot near Costco and Ikea. It looks like it's part of a chain, which makes sense since the guy behind it, Doug Kollus, is the former CEO of Island's Restaurants. Partner John Creed is the former CEO of Chart House and menu developer Dean Betts has worked with restaurants such as The Fish Market, Pizza Nova, and the Chart House.

Fortunately, the chain mentality stops with the decor, which is casual but nothing cutting edge -- although I did like the outdoor covered patio and fire pit. Playa Grill is not part of a chain; it's one of a kind. And they tout it as "next generation" Mexican.

Where the food is concerned, Kollus and company are out to create Mexican cuisine San Diegans are oh so familiar with, using fresh farm produce and sustainably harvested meats from Niman Ranch, but they're torquing it a bit. Sure, there are slow-roasted carnitas, quesadillas, and taquitos, also "tacos al vapor," which in which the taco ingredients are steamed in corn husks for a strong flavor. 

There's the Merry Piglet, a slow-roasted pork slider with homemade barbecue sauce, jicama slaw, and caramelized apple. And, a flat iron steak served with Maytag blue cheese served on a bed of sauteed onions and chiles. Not exactly Mexican food, but assimilated Mexican? Still the flavors are winning. 

And, of course, there are fish tacos -- but at Playa Grill it's Panko-crusted Mahi Mahi with chile aioli, salsa fresca, and jicama slaw (you can also get grilled fish if you prefer). Fajitas? Of course, only with sweet filet mignon, along with juicy, delicately flavored Mexican white shrimp (a change from Tiger shrimp). And lots of grilled onions and peppers, naturally. All of these are served with pinto or black beans, rice and warm corn or flour tortillas.

The dessert menu is limited to a Valrhona chocolate martini, a scoop of ice cream, and, my favorite, a chocolate banana burrito.

I liked the freshness of the ingredients, the effort of the owners to take advantage of local agriculture for their ingredients, and the willingness to upend a cliche, like typical fish tacos and carnitas. The flavors were a little surprising. The salsas were housemade and popped with spice and tang. All this speaks to the creativity of executive chef Fernando Roman, a native of Guerrero, Mexico, who has previously cooked at The Prado, The Hotel del Coronado, the Bahia Hotel, and the Island Palms Hotel.
Playa Grill is open for lunch and dinner with a full "to go" menu. They also serve brunch on the weekend. The restaurant is located at 2401 Fenton Parkway in Mission Valley.

Print Page

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fish Tacos, Chevy, and Me

Fish tacos. They're the quintessential San Diego dish. And so when Chevy decided to take their "Best of" tours to our part of the world, they decided on a "Best of San Diego Fish Taco Tour." They partnered with my friend, local food writer Susan Russo, to tour four fish taco places. She got things organized, coming up with the four tasting venues and suggesting the names of local food bloggers/writers to invite to test the tacos (with the tab picked up by Chevy) and, important to the Chevy folks, test drive brand new Chevy Camaro, Malibu, Equinox, Traverse, and Silverado Hybrid vehicles.

On the day of our tour, a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early May, we were about a dozen, caravanning around town. And we were more than a group of food writers. We also had surfing bloggers and mommy bloggers in tow. Our first stop was Ocean Beach, where we hit South Beach Bar & Grille. The place was mobbed and the crowd a mixed bag of young beach dudes and dudettes and very middle-aged+ locals chowing down on, what else, fish tacos. Our group got two apiece and they were enormous, packed with large pieces of mahi mahi--both grilled and fried--and lots of salsa and other condiments. The fish was delicious but I wasn't a fan of the flour tortillas. I prefer corn for my fish tacos.

From OB, we cruised over to Shelter Island to enjoy the Brigantine's version of fish tacos. Now these did have corn tortillas so I was a little happier. They were also smaller and easier to eat. But I wasn't mad about the flavors. It seemed I was having a Goldilocks moment.

Onward then to one of my favorite fish spots, Blue Water. Funny thing, Blue Water. They were so busy they weren't exactly able to seat us. So, tailgate party! The husky blue Silverado hybrid was our countertop. Blue Water is next door to El Indio, so of course, they use their corn tortillas. Their fish tacos also include a homemade white sauce to accompany the fish, cheese, cabbage and tomatoes. I enjoyed the grilled mahi mahi version.

 So, by now we've consumed six fish tacos, driven in large trucks and tiny (but so sexy) Camaros and everything in between. But we still have one more stop, World Famous on Pacific Beach Dr. It's closing in on 5 p.m. and the customers there seem to be a happy group, some clearly with some assistance from alcohol because when I got out of the Camaro a couple just leaving the restaurant rushed up to me, gave me a hug, and enthusiastically welcomed me to San Diego. Why bother telling these sweet, inebriated folks that I've lived here since '88? They were so thrilled to be my personal greeting committee!

Since this was our last stop, we also got to enjoy some alcohol ourselves. Beers clearly were in order and they went beautifully with our fish and shrimp tacos. So did the gorgeous oceanfront view.

Now, to me the very best thing about the whole day (after riding in the Camaro; that really was cool for a middle-aged SUV driver) was Chevy's generosity. At Susan Russo's behest, they donated $500 to the San Diego Food Bank's Food 4 Kids Backpack Program. Several friends and I (including Susan) are organizing our second fundraiser for this project. This was our first donation and we couldn't be more thrilled or appreciative!

I also appreciate Chevy letting me use their photos from the day's event. I took mine on my iPhone, which subsequently died and the photos expired with it. Thank you, Chevy, for a fun afternoon in my town and for helping us feed kids!