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Jun 25, 2006 11:58 PM

Junketeering In San Diego (Photos)

The first order of business: A big thanks to my brother and sister San Diego ‘hounds, those that actually live there, and the esteemed ‘hound who knows enough to make the trek to San Diego from Arizona for good chow. Your recommendations were solid, you folks know your stuff.

Needing a break from toiling alone in the home office, the chance to attend a business conference in San Diego, and interact with some real live, in the flesh humans, was too good to pass up, so the Mrs. and I tooled down to San Diego in Maybelline earlier this month. Our preferred mode of transport when traveling to distant locales is via railroad, but a coach ride on The Pacific Surfliner and then the hassle of transferring passengers and baggage to our hotel once arriving in San Diego were not worth it, and we don’t do airplanes or boats. So that left our favorite mode of transport for a road trip, sleek, sexy, Maybelline.

The only drawback for traveling via Maybelline, or her brother, Herman, is that for some reason, a certain person’s sense of time disintegrates when Maybelline or Herman are involved. Asked the day before by the Better Half, “What time are we leaving for San Diego”, I in all my innocence and misguided faith in my ability to out think and manipulate the Mrs., responded with, “Oh around two-ish”, figuring that I was employing a strategy to once, in our life together, insure that we would actually leave the house by the time that I really wanted to leave, which was 4:00. Alas, despite what I thought was my brilliant craftiness, I had not adequately analyzed the situation before formulating my response to the Mrs., we finally departed the house at 6:45, almost five hours after the time I had “officially” posted, and almost three hours after the time I had figured we would actually get on the road.

None of the above has been said to in any way disparage the Better Half, I know better than that. It has just been documented so that you, my good readers, will appreciate the legitimate (arguably in the interest of mental health) need for copious libations, once we did arrive at our destination.

We checked in to the Hyatt Islandia at about 9:00 P.M., and while the Mrs. unpacked our duds, I took on the more important job of stocking the wet-bar in our room from the suitcase of essential supplies I had brought along. By the time the Mrs. finished unpacking, I had a nice vodka and tonic waiting for her, and had already put a few under my belt, all memory of our late departure having faded away.

Quite often one of the first “tests” we give to a lodging establishment that we have not visited before is a room service order. So now being behind schedule by five hours (oh, I am sorry, I will no longer belabor the fact of our late departure any further), we were famished, and in no condition or mood to travel outside of our cozy suite. Unfortunately I have to report that the Hyatt Islandia failed their room service test. The first strike being the fact that apparently the locals go to sleep early in San Diego, in that they stopped serving room service after 10:00 P.M., so that did not leave us much time. The Mrs. ordered a chicken tortilla soup and a cheeseburger, I ordered a Caesar salad with shrimp and a club sandwich. The soup was strike two, in our experience a chicken tortilla soup is usually an almost clear broth, with some chicken and vegetables and strips of fried tortillas in it, usually with at least a little bite of piquancy, and maybe even some aromatic cilantro. This soup was none of the above, it was a thick, tomato based gloppy concoction without any discernable taste, you could practically stand a fork up in the bowl. (Believe me, you know a dish is bad, when the Mrs. offers any of it to me, and after one taste I push it aside---very radical when even I refuse food.) I don’t know if they just have a crappy recipe, or if they served us something that had been sitting in a simmering pot all day, thickening and congealing, but they should have been ashamed of themselves.

The Mrs. did enjoy her burger with cheddar cheese, it was cooked to her liking, hockey puck consistency. It was good sized, and looked like if we had ordered one less well done, it might have even had a little juice in it. The fries (accompanying the burger and my club sandwich) were typical, mediocre, mass produced, frozen product rendered tasteless (hence the need for the salt shaker).

Strike three was the $17.00 Caesar salad with shrimp. This was a relatively small plate of Romaine, with barely any dressing (a creamy Caesar, I guess, I really could not taste it). The dressing seemed to be only on the bottom of the plate, in a coating about a micron thick. Crappy canned croutons, and four smallish-medium boiled shrimp. The game loosing out, was the club sandwich, on squaw bread, sort of waved over a toaster. The turkey was good, but the bacon was ice cold (must have been cooked the day before and left in the fridge over night). There was an almost less than discernable thin coat of mayo smeared on one side of the bread. Adding insult to injury, one of those tiny little single-serve condiment bottles of mayo did come with the order, but once the Mrs. had scooped out some mayo for her burger, the remaining mayo could not be extracted from the jar, using the “hotel flatware”, you know the kind, big and heavy, with a cheap electro-plating of silver on it, the width of the knife blade making it nearly impossible to maneuver inside the jar in order to extract any mayo.

This room service debacle was saved by my Boy Scout training, I have never forgotten the motto, “Be prepared”, and fortunately I had stocked the wet-bar with a nice assortment of munchies, that tided us over very well.

The next morning, Sunday, brought us a new day and new dining opportunities, which were very fulfilling. We headed over to Pacific Beach, to The Fishery. It was a toss-up between that, and Blue Water Grill, we opted for The Fishery because we wanted full table service, and Blue Water looked (from Google maps) like it was right next to the freeway. We circled the block at The Fishery a couple of times and then found parking place for Maybelline that wasn’t too far from the restaurant for me to make the trek with my cane. Right out of the car the Mrs. crinkled her nose and eyebrows and muttered something about it smelling fishy (that is not a good sign when the Mrs. discerns a fishy smell, especially when she comes in the door at home, after having spent a long day at the office, and I have been trying to discretely cook fish; wives’ and mothers’ sense of smell should be synthesized by the defense department, as a strategic weapon system).

We were greeted by a server (a dead ringer for a young Brad Pitt) when we entered The Fishery and opted to dine inside, instead of outside in front. Immediately after being seated the Mrs. perception of the place changed one hundred and eighty degrees. We were both very comfortable in the relaxed atmosphere of this establishment. As I explained to the Mrs. The Fishery is actually an appendage to a wholesale seafood distributor, occupying an open, spare and clean looking industrial space at the front of their processing/warehouse area. No fishy smells inside, open and airy, with lots of windows allowing plenty of natural lighting, a long refrigerated fish counter along one side, and attractive replicas of fish and vintage photos hanging on the walls. We arrived at about 2:00 P.M. and there were a few other diners enjoying lunch and to cap it all off, real Jazz playing on the sound system, we both agreed, this was a very pleasant venue to spend part of an afternoon.

The Mrs. ordered a house salad and the shrimp and chips, I ordered the Mediterranean fish chowder and grilled Chilean sea bass. The Mrs. enjoyed her salad, and we both enjoyed the panko battered shrimp. A nice, very light coating, giving a nice little crunch, but in no way diminishing the actual taste of the shrimp. My only quibble would be the small portion of shrimp, but from a tactical perspective, the next time I would simply order (and pay for) additional shrimp.

My chowder was very pleasant, tomato based, with plenty of chunks of fish in it. It was much too “mild” to my taste, but that was remedied with copious amounts of Tabasco added at the table. (Note to self: remember to bring along your own Tabasco Habanero sauce next time, the “classic” Tabasco is just too weak.) I really enjoy soups and stews made with seafood, so this bowl was a very nice starter for me. The sea bass was excellent, as with everything else here, the sea bass was impeccably fresh, and they know how to cook fish here. A nice bit of char on the outside of the fish, but perfectly “medium rare” and moist on the inside. I prolonged the joys of the fish as long as I could, carefully extracting one “segment” of fish flesh at a time with my fork, resisting the urge to scarf the whole piece of fish down in four bites. The fish was accompanied by some lovely jasmine rice, some grilled zucchini and grilled scallions. Everything on this plate was thoroughly enjoyable.

For dessert our waiter recommended vanilla gelato with strawberries in a compote with balsamic vinegar. This was a wonderful dessert, the gelato creamy and silky, the strawberries and sauce a perfect compliment.

Both our server, and his colleague who also helped out when he was busy were professional, courteous and pleasant. The service was unobtrusive and complimented the entire experience. The San Diego ‘hounds who recommended this place were right on the mark, good food, a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, and pleasantly, a little off the “ beaten path”, not crowded in next to the beach.

Sunday evening we attended a reception hosted by a firm that I have done business with before. Typically I would not report on this type of event, after all we have all probably had too many rubber chickens in these large scale situations, but I was very impressed with how this was carried off. This was at the Blue Pearl restaurant at the Dana Resort. There were about 80 of us packed in to a relatively small space without much room for moving around, so we planted ourselves at a table and enjoyed the party.

We began with cocktails and appetizers. What can I say about cocktails, I always enjoy them, and probably drink too much (but hell, I wasn’t the designated driver). Of the appetizers offered, the fried shrimp on a stick and the fried calamari were outstanding. It seems that all of the cooking professionals in San Diego have really mastered the art of frying food. The batter on the shrimp and calamari was light, crispy and non-greasy. If no one had been looking, I would have been like the man in the current TV commercial, who piles his plate about a foot high with cold shrimp at a cocktail party. The calamari were perfect. It seems to me that so often restaurants’ renditions of this dish fall short, invariably resulting in tough, rubbery, tasteless calamari, not in this case. A perfectly crisp, light batter, and the calamari were tender and flavorful.

For our entrée we opted for the roasted chicken, as did all of our tablemates. The chicken was tender and moist, and presented beautifully on the plate, a breast quarter stacked on top of a thigh quarter. The accompanying sauce was a little thin, and not very savory for my taste, but I still enjoyed it, and appreciated the quality of the dish given the “banquet” setting.

I must say that the service here was also outstanding. The staff were attentive and friendly, and when it was so crowded that we could not make it across the room to the bar, the wait staff made sure they took care of us, taking and fetching drink orders. As I said, this was a “banquet” situation, but I was impressed enough that I would not hesitate to return on my own dime in the future and try out some of their other dishes.

Monday evening, following the local ‘hounds recommendations we drove over to China Max. We got there early and were only one of three parties in the restaurant. I, being a big seafood aficionado, of course chose this venue for the fish, the Mrs. is more pedestrian in her tastes, so what we ended up ordering was not heavy on fish, and I must add, since this was a Hong Kong style seafood house, many of the dishes we ordered were not the best choices to experience the restaurant’s repertoire.

We began with spring rolls (to keep the Mrs. happy), I sampled one, and had no desire for more. Then the main dishes started arriving, yang chow fried rice, Chinese green beans Schezwan style, stir fried eggplant and garlic, orange flavored beef, a whole fried lobster, shark's fin with crab and egg.

Overall I would rate the food as good, but not as good as I am used to getting in the San Gabriel Valley. I think that is understandable, as I believe there are at least 400 Asian restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley, and therefore a much greater competitive pressure, and probably a vastly larger population of discerning Chinese diners. The green beans and eggplant just did not have enough of a liveliness for my taste, which is understandable, given that these dishes are not representative of Hong Kong. I would pass on the yang chow fried rice next time.

The Mrs. really loves orange flavored chicken, and the orange flavored beef was the closest approximation of that dish at Hong Kong Max. The beef was very sweet and candy like, but there were real peppers interspersed, and I actually enjoyed it. Of course I grabbed all the peppers and had our waitress bring me some chili oil. I could have seen myself mindlessly snacking on this stuff all day long, it was good in the almost dried out consistency and candied exterior of the meat pieces, very addictive.

Of course I was there for the seafood, and I ordered the lobster figuring the Mrs. would enjoy some of that as she really likes steamed lobster (as long as the horror, or horrors, creepy shell is no where in sight). I swear, though, I did not plan this, but when the whole lobster, redolent in the shell, was presented on a platter, the Mrs. decided that she did not want any part of it, and instructed me to move the head, with its beady eye looking up at her, out of her view. So I scored the entire crustacean for yours truly, and harking back to my Boy Scout training, I husbanded half of it for later snacking back in our hotel. The lobster was tasty, I don’t know exactly what the dish is called, I just told the waitress I wanted lobster and she recommended apparently the house special lobster. I could not make out all of the components of this dish, but I liked what ever the organic matter was that was “sprinkled” around this insect from the sea (please see accompanying photo).

I had never before tasted shark’s fin, so when I spotted various shark’s fin dishes on the menu, there was no way I was not going to try this delicacy. The shark’s fin was the last dish to arrive, our waitress told us that it would take awhile (I guess someone in the kitchen had to hand shred some shark fin). One way to characterize this dish would be to call it the Chinese equivalent of pulled pork, shreds of shark’s fin mixed with shreds of steamed crab meat, and all held together with scrambled eggs. I enjoyed it, although there was nothing transcendental about it for me. I think I would like to sample some shark’s fin soup in the future, that might prove to be more savory to me.

The service in this establishment, like all of the restaurant service we experienced in San Diego was quiet, efficient and friendly. I appreciated when after our waitress took our order, another waitress, I am guessing a more “senior” staff member (and much more fluent in English), approached me and wanted to know if I was sure that I wanted the shark’s fine dish (listed on the menu as market price) at $65.00. I assured her that I did want the dish, as a new experience and I was accommodated. The host or owner also approached us at the end of the meal to confirm that we enjoyed our experience, and it is always a nice feeling to be served as “gringos” in authentic ethnic restaurants and made to feel welcome.

Tuesday was our last evening in San Diego and while I know this was probably a “tourist trap” we opted to drive over to Seaport Village and we dined overlooking the harbor at Edgewater Grill. The Mrs. had a chicken dish, I had a Caesar salad and a Mediterranean style chowder for my entrée. The Caesar here, although not one of the top notch Caesar salads I have experienced, was serviceable, and infinitely better than the lame Caesar we obtained from the Hyatt Islandia’s room service operation. My chowder was not too bad, another red chowder, almost like a cioppino, with plenty of fish (although bay shrimp don’t cut it for me), and with the addition of Tabasco and accompanying bottle of Riesling, made for a very enjoyable time, as we watched the sun set. They also served some warm rosemary bread that was not too bad.

Overall I thought the experience at Edgewater Grill was better than I would have expected for a tourist site. The irony of our last evening in San Diego was that I, as a resident of San Diego forty years ago when I was a swabby, and the son of a mother and father who both served in World War II, was sitting and watching three ships from the Japanese fleet sail out of San Diego harbor. It is intriguing to me, how one time enemies can become the best of friends, it would be nice if everyone in the world would realize this.

San Diego ‘hounds, you rock!

Photos, counter-clockwise from the top left: chowder at The Fishery, shrimp & chips at The Fishery, roasted chicken at Blue Pearl, lobster at Hong Kong Max; sea bass at The Fishery>


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  1. Nice one Chino, great report.

    I'm glad you ended up the Fishery; It does Pacific Beach proud.

    Inspired by responses to your post on this board, we tried Blue Water last weekend and thought it was quite bland, both food and atmosphere-wise. AND we ordered fried food entrees off the blackboard, which should've guaranteed something pretty tasty. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great either. I couldn't feel the love. If they're going to attempt to elevate the SD casual seafood experience to a whole-notha-level, the details need a bit more tending to, in particular the textures and spicing; The unpleasantly sandy grit on the otherwise decent quality fried fish pieces (erm, tenders?), undersalted and not exactly crunchy softshell crab, sloppily prepped lettuce, anemic tomatoes in June, etc. On a service note, it reeked of that particular brand of SD "locals only" smugness that is best left in high school. You know--when the server takes the order of the people in line behind you first and greets them by name. Wow, we really had an unpleasant experience, eh?

    Sorry, didn't mean to highjack your thread, but merely point out that IMO you didn't miss out on much by skipping Blue Water. (Pics if you're interested):

    8 Replies
    1. re: petradish

      Oh, wow, I guess I lucked out. That softshell crab by itself looks pretty good in your photo, I sure would like a few of those, but maybe I ought to wait until some day when i can go to the source on the Chesapeake Bay if I want the real deal.

      Those "chips" look like a joke. Sorry you did not fare was well as us, but that is how it goes sometimes, but I'm willing to bet that you and any other 'hound worth their salt finds a hell of a lot more delishishness (is that a word?) than a "civilian".

      1. re: petradish

        Too bad your experience was poor.

        That being said, I can't recall a single recommendation of Blue Water that said anything about buying fried fish there. In point of fact, the place was specifically recommended to Chino Wayne because of his desire for healthful seafood preparation.

        The best items at Blue Water are the grilled fish sandwiches and the grilled fish tacos, neither of which could be described as bland considering that the fish is seasoned on the grill with your choice of marinade, and then dressed with flavorful condiments that really enhance the flavor of the fish - like fresh salsa on the tacos, or the red onion-spiked tartar sauce on the sandwiches.

        I've been to Blue Water over a dozen times and never once had bland food, or the kind of service you describe.

        Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

        (Note: not sure why the chips look like a joke - is it because they are not rectangular in shape? I've always found the chips at Blue Water to be very tasty.)

        1. re: Josh

          I prefer my fries/chips in a more traditional rectangular form, not waffle cut. Just a personal preference, I'm not supposed to be eating fries anyway.

          1. re: ChinoWayne

            Heh, yeah. I pretty much only eat fries on my visits to Blue Water. What I like about the chips there is that they cook up very crisp, with fluffy interior. I don't like soggy chips, and all the English pubs in town that serve English-style fish and chips are plagued with soggy chips. I was skeptical of them when I saw the waffle cut, but after the first time I was hooked.

            To be fair to petradish, I haven't eaten there in probably about a month. I suppose it's possible that some decline in quality has taken place in that time.

            Of course, in the case of the bad tomatoes, I can't remember the last time I encountered good tomatoes in a casual restaurant. Unless it's a place serving heirlooms, the tomatoes are gonna suck - it's axiomatic.

          2. re: Josh

            We certainly don't regret trying Blue Water at least once, just to see if it meshed with our tastes. Different strokes definitely, and it seems other hounds really dig the place and fair play to them (and apparently you're a big fan); that's what keeps this chowhound thing interesting. Maybe the tip off I didn't take seriously enough was its connection to El Pescador as their grilled fish sandwich didn't do much for us.

            Scanning the recommendations, I did pick up on the healthy/vegetable aspect of Chino Wayne's request and the responses given; However those weren't our eating requirements (and let's forget what's healthy for a moment because my criticisms were based on success at creating deliciousness; IMHO, fried seafood usually has an innate sense of yumminess and why not give it a try here-nobody said it was going to be bad, did they?). Given that there was mention of very fresh seafood on offer and BW's blackboard specials in the comments, we felt it was a safe bet to go with what was featured up there, regardless of preparation. The two specials we chose happened to be fried: local halibut (fish and chips) and the soft shell crab sandwich. I suppose the moral of the story is that hounds should ONLY order grilled fish with various marinades because that's the best option at BW and everything else is off limits. Frankly marinated grilled fish doesn't appeal to me. How is the non-grilled seafood like chilled shrimp, crab, or oysters?

            My use of the word bland is in regard to a basic application of salt and pepper, as our food lacked marinade by design; we were hoping the freshness of the seafood would deliver. The tartar sauce was quite nice, but need I dunk my undersalted fish into it so heavily to access maximum flavor? We both felt the taste and overall style of our entrees lacked a certain food magic, that special something that pulls a dish together. And when you throw a bunch of lackluster looking lettuce and a crummy tomato into the mix... Given that we're at the beginning of summer and benefit from access to California's fine produce, I do expect a better tasting tomato, even at this level of restaurant. It need not soar to the heights of Chez Panisse, just above mediocrity.

            IMHO, the chips were a travesty because their new fangled form did not improve the texture or flavor of the classic chip. There was little harmony btwn those puffy yet dry potatoes and the already mentioned sandy coated (and undersalted IMHO) fish preparation. The combo didn't work for me, simple as. I was wondering if the chips were actually baked somehow.

            1. re: petradish

              I don't eat at Blue Water, but I do purchase all my fresh fish from them. With the exception of one undesirable piece of gropuer, the rest has all been great and quite fresh; better than Point Loma Seafood, for about the same price and without the parking hassel. The ceviche sold from the fresh fish case is, alledgedly, made from a recipe provided by the grandmother of one of the owners. In any event, it is very flavorful and packs quite a wallop from the very generous use of serrano chiles.

              The fries are a novelty fry from Lamb-Weston called Criss-Cuts. Phil's BBQ was also serving Criss-Cuts but has recently discontinued them.

              A vast portion of the tomatoes grown in CA are shipped out of the state. There were 2 hefty wedges of tomato on a salad I had Friday night. While they were a nice pretty red, they were also mealy and lacked much discernible tomato flavor.

              Can you please describe "innate yumminess"? I'm afraid I don't know what that phrase means or is supposed to mean. And I'm not trying to be mean or sarcastic, it just that saying something has "innate yumminess" doesn't tell me much about taste, flavor, texture, etc. Sorry, if I'm being obtuse about this.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                Innate yumminess is built-in tastiness, an optimistic assumption on my part that *most* fried seafood will taste reasonably good. If you deep fry practically anything, it'll probably please your taste buds on some level and when you throw fresh seafood into the equation, your hopes for satisfaction increase.

                In his post, Chino Wayne was commenting on his positive experiences with fried food in SD while talking about Blue Pearl. I think that's what sparked my thoughts on Blue Water.

              2. re: petradish

                The non-grilled seafood items are just OK, IMO. I've had shrimp cocktail and oysters there, and while the oysters were nice and fresh, the shrimp cocktail was pretty boring.

                Truth be told, I prefer El Pescador's sandwiches to BW - however that's a pretty uncomfortable place to eat.

                I've been to BW with co-workers who've ordered the fried fish, and it never looked appealing to me. The only fried fish I really like is either beer or tempura-battered.

          3. Lol, they were a joke. If it ain't broke... Mrs. Chino's chips look right on. Would you believe me if I told you the Fishery does a very respectable soft shell crab sandwich? Or that my dad once did the arched eyebrow thing at the fishy fragrance outside the restaurant?

            Got to admire your wet bar survival skills btw.

            2 Replies
              1. As always, it is a pleasure to read one of your posts. Good to see you're eating real food again.

                And thanks for the kind words Wayne - I'm assuming I'm the Zonie referenced. Glad you had a good time in general. Truth be told, I've never been to the San Gabriel Valley. I'm afraid if I went there I might never leave.

                The only shark fin I've eaten at China Max was a little bit in some excellent dim sum.

                ed (the poster formerly known as e.d.)

                1 Reply
                1. re: Phoo D

                  Yep, you are one of my recognized San Diego chowing experts.

                2. thanks for another wonderfully entertaining report! I wish we had as good (and the breadth of variety) Chinese food in SD as the San Gabriel Valley. BTW, if you want really good shark fin's soup, the Chinese restaraunt at the Universal City Hilton in Burbank does a really great job. The rest of their menu is really good too!