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Jun 24, 2009 10:25 AM

San Diego restaurants-- Interesting food But Not Top Dollar?

My wife and I will be in San Diego starting tomorrow, staying in the Gaslamp District but also with car, and we are looking for non-touristy places with interesting food and not a stuck-up atmosphere. While we are not unwilling to pay the big bucks for a good meal, interested to find out suggestions--any cuisine--of places that would be memorable without the large sticker price?

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  1. Super Cocina
    Aqui Es Texcoco

    1. Point Loma Seafoods: Scallop Sandwich.

      South Beach Bar & Grill: Seafood tacos (lobster, wahoo, mahi mahi, shark, etc.).

      Ba Ren: Hot Pepper Prawns, Sichuan Cold Noodles, Braised Fish Flavored Eggplant, any of the Dry Cooked dishes, any of the Crispy Rice Crust offerings, Sichuan Pot Roast.

      K Sandwiches: Dac Biet Banh Mi, Fresh Shrimp Spring Rolls with Chili-Peanut Sauce.

      7 Replies
      1. re: Captain Jack

        Are the places mentioned in the last two posts sit down places? Those sound great. Now what if I asked you to take it up a notch in expense and maybe atmosphere? What would be on your list?

        1. re: bigplate

          If by "sit down" you mean "do we sit in chairs to eat", then yes. If you mean table service and tablecloths, the answer for both of mine is no. :-) Don't let that stop you though, they both serve some of the best Mexican food in SD.

          Captain Jack's are the same, except for Ba Ren, which has table service and tablecloths.

          Taking it up a notch, I'd suggest:

          Cafe Chloe - French bistro fare
          Izakaya Sakura - Japanese
          Buga - Korean BBQ
          Stone World Bistro and Garden - local/organic produce and pastured meats

          1. re: Josh

            Thanks. A couple of questions: where do I find those Mexican restaurants? Second, are you familiar with a restaurant called Red Pearl ____ and, if so, what are your thoughts?

            1. re: bigplate

              Aqui Es Texcoco is in Chula Vista, which is about 15 minutes south of downtown.

              Super Cocina is in a neighborhood called City Heights, and is best for lunch or breakfast.

              I've not been to Red Pearl. It's in the Gaslamp, and I generally avoid restaurants there as they tend to be overpriced tourist traps aimed at convention attendees.

              1. re: bigplate

                Oh, and you should definitely hit up Kaito in Encinitas for sushi. Amazing stuff.

                1. re: bigplate

                  Red Pearl is in the Gaslamp and is nothing special.

                  It is right near oceanaire.

                2. re: Josh

                  Just to chime in - Ba Ren is amazingly good (and according to those who know) very authentic Sichuan - owners and chef all from that province. To add to what Captain Jack suggested from there - fish flavored eggplant, chong Qing hot pot, Tong-Nan Tai An fish fillet (with hot fresh red peppers), crispy rice crust dishes (I like 3 delicacies with sea cucumber, chicken , squid), boiled fish fillet in hot sauce, and darn near every one of the cold appetizers - even the simple ones like bamboo shoots.

                  And another vote for Izakaya Sakura, though be sure to look up directions on how to find the place because it has no signs. You have to know it is there.

            2. Okan on Convoy--homestyle Japanese cooking. The anti-sushi, katsu, teriyaki place. There's a few long posts on this board.
              Izakaya Sakura on Convoy--Japanese izakaya, best described as Japanese tapas or dim sum
              Tsuruhashi Japanese BBQ on Convoy
              Buga Korean BBQ on Clairemont Mesa Ave

              The Convoy area is about 10-15 min north of the Gaslamp area.

              Mama Testa's for tacos from all over Mexico. in Hillcrest, about 5 minutes north of the Gaslamp Quarter. Their mashed potato tacos are excellent!

              Red Pearl Kitchen is in the Gaslamp Quarter. Asian Fusion. I have not been, so I cannot make any comments.

              8 Replies
              1. re: daantaat

                Also would add Okan's "brother" restaurant (Okan=mother, Oton=father) Oton. Amazing nabemono (one-pot) dishes, especially the Shio Chankonabe. Oton also has the most authentically Japanese interior of any Japanese restaurant I've seen in San Diego. (You'll probably need a party of at least four, however, to enjoy the private rooms...)

                Also would second Josh's vote for Kaito Sushi. A true San Diego treasure for authentic sushi with a particular emphasis on Edo-mae sushi.

                Kaito Sushi
                130-A N El Camino Real, Encinitas, CA 92024

                Robata-ya Oton
                5447 Kearny Villa Rd Suite D, San Diego, CA

                1. re: cgfan

                  cgfan, can you give more details on Oton? We're headed there in a few weeks...
                  also, should we make reservations for a party of 4?

                  1. re: daantaat

                    I don't know at what point the private rooms become available, but when we arrived as a party of 4 they were all taken so we took what looked to be the only table. But in just the first 10 minutes a room opened up and we had our meal there and were later joined by a fifth guest.

                    I was hoping they'd have Motsunabe, but according to the waitress that's only offered as a rare special. A bit strange to say perhaps since they've just recently opened, but in any case it was not one of the 3 Nabemonos on offer that day. We went for a Shio Chankonabe and a second cabbage and pork-based Nabemono who's name escapes me. Both were very good, with the Shio Chankonabe being particularly outstanding and memorable.

                    The Robata items behind the bar looked very good, though there wasn't a chance to sample those on this trip - the Nabemono was plenty enough...

                    When you arrive if you are "seated" in one of the private rooms simply remove your shoes and leave them by the step (the rooms are elevated) pointing away from the room. The hostess will put them away. If you need to leave the room use the slippers provided outside the room to walk about while you are at the restaurant, including using the facilities... At the end of the meal your hostess will return your shoes where you left them.

                    No worries for those fearing a traditional tatami room where one has to sit lotus style. These rooms have a sunken floor below the table where your feet can go.

                    I need to return soon to try out their Robata items at their rather tiny bar, and in particular their Himono, something that I've been craving lately but have not been able to get any good ones at the local Japanese markets.

                    1. re: cgfan

                      cgfan, please enlighten me--what are Motsunabe, Shio Chankonabe and Himono?

                      is the floor low enough so your bare feet don't touch the floor?

                      1. re: daantaat

                        No problem...

                        Motsunabe is a traditional one-pot dish featuring offal.

                        Chankonabe is a traditional one-pot dish of the Sumo wresters, prepared by specialty restaurants in Japan often situated near a Sumo "stable". It's a dish full of various protein items and vegetables. The Shio Chankonabe is a salt-based version as opposed to a pork-based broth, and would be expected to be lighter in taste and "texture".

                        Himono are what one might call half-dried fish. They're often seen in seaside areas of Japan where the traditional practice still survives. Fish are filleted and cleaned with sea water, then dried on screens or racks in the sun until they reach the desired amount of moisture. The process concentrates the flavors, and I imagine some form of natural fermentation must also be involved.

                        Himono are absolutely delicious - all they need is just a simple cook over dry heat. The flesh itself surprisingly retains an amazing amount of residual moisture, so by no means does it actually seem dry to the diner.

                        In regards to the room I honestly don't recall but I think I'd remember if my feet didn't touch the floor, so I'd assume that they did... Hmmmm... Just what are you imagining being down there on the floor below the table? :-) May I suggest socks for everyone?

                        1. re: cgfan

                          thank you for the explanations! The Chankonabe and Himono sound like something we'd be up for trying. I have to think about the offal, though. Unless there's tripe in it, then I'd be up for it.

                          the floor--sticky, old food, dust, lint balls, schmutz...that kind of thing. Perhaps I'll sit w/ my feet underneath me!

                        2. re: daantaat

                          daantaat: FYI here are a few pics taken at Oton for you to see...

                          ...and here's a pic showing the row of elevated rooms with the step in front of each entryway:

                          1. re: cgfan

                            cgfan, thanks! The food looks delish and the private rooms don't look as dark as I was picturing. For some reason, I was envisioning all black and dark like a club or bar. Hence, the sticky floor-schmutz-eew-I-have-to dangle-my-feet-over-it thing...

                2. I think you might enjoy going over to Liberty Station which is a renovated area that was formerly housing the Navy Training Center (you can even see the boat that a lot of local sailors used in Basic Training). It is on the other side (West) of the airport, not far at all from the Gaslamp since you have a car and has quite a variety of restaurants.

                  My favorite there is Tender Greens. They serve some delicious salads and the owner Ryan's mother makes their desserts from scratch.

                  To me, they embody all the fresh ingredients that are at our disposal here in San Diego. The proteins (chitpotle chicken, marinated flank steak, ahi, etc.) are grilled to perfection on their open grill and they have an assortment of grilled vegetables that really enhance the salad.

                  You can also order a grilled flank steak sandwich on ciabatta that is quite good.

                  Liberty station also has Point Loma Sports Grill, Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, Solare Ristorante and DaKines (Hawaiian) if you are in the mood for something like that.

                  Afterwards, you can stroll the pretty grounds and enjoy a Cold Stone ice cream and take in the summer breeze in front of a pretty water fountain.

                  You will be close to Little Italy and you can tell by the crowds which restaurants there are popular. It's also a nice place to stroll. Most of the restaurants there have their menus posted outside to help you make a decision.

                  1. Hey Big Plate....Major question...Are you trying to stay in Downtown or are you looking to travel to all edges of San Diego? I have a few favorites (all which are low to relatively cheaply priced).

                    First, Downtown: Tends to be more expensive (the cheaper being $15 a plate type places). There is Ra Sushi, which is a little more on the mid-expensive side (maybe $30 per person) but is great food. one note though, the place tends to be a little on the loud side. Not so much touristy, but more "trendy"

                    Lisa Mentioned Sammy's which is an SD Local. There are a few all over the place (Downtown, Del Mar, Point Loma, La Jolla, etc) and the food is awesome. It's called Sammy's Wood Fired Pizza, but don't let it fool you. Were talking Brie and Truffle oil (which I strongly recommend) flat bread pizza here, not a slice of pepperoni. As well they have some great non pizza alternatives Like Ahi Burgers and Chipotle shrimp tacos. As well this is a very nice sit down place with out the price tag ($10-15 entrees) if you go I STRONGLY recommend the duck taco's favorite.

                    If you are looking for great seafood, I suggest two places. One (previously mentioned in point loma seafood). It is the best but I would recommend it for a sunny day lunch. It is a walk up seafood case type place where you push your way up to the front and place your order (no organized line what-so-ever). They give you a number and call you when your food is ready. the have a few concrete tables out front and a side room with plastic tables. You are not there for "service" you are there for Amazing fresh seafood and atmosphere (it's right on the water in the harbor).
                    My absolute favorite in San Diego however for seafood is Blue Water Seafood (about 1 mile north of downtown on India street). Great super fresh seafood in a good service but VERY low key environment. Plastic tables and chairs. $20 bottle of wine (served in plastic cups, but they will blow you away with the food. They give you a list of fish (Salmon, Mahi, yellowtail etc etc etc...10-15 options). You pick the fish....then how you want it cook and what sauce (Lemon butter, garlic buttter, teriyaka, cajun etc) and then if you want a sandwhich, a salad or a plate with rice and side salad. Cost is between $8-$14 per plate. Well worth it.

                    Mexican food, Old Town is a must (2 miles north of DT on the 5). I'd recommend Cayote Cafe, Old mexican Cafe or Cafe Guadelajara's all good and all $10-15 per plate sit down.
                    I hope this helps. I'll check back to see what you ended up doing.