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What does San Diego do best?

aside from beer and fish tacos, what do we do better than MOST other cities?

I'll start with San Diego Urchin. What about any types of foods? Any restaurants we have that you feel would compete in a more food focused city?

this thread got me thinking http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/868523

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    1. This San Diego Urchin you mention -- is it gathered in the ocean off San Diego? How would you distinguish it from sea urchin from other locations?

      12 Replies
      1. re: Tripeler

        Yes. CA gold uni has a better taste (IMO) than that of Hokkaido. As for discerning it from Santa Barbara or elsewhere, I would likely go off of what the chef tells me, but every time that's been the case it has been a better product

        I'll point you to an interesting post from CG who probably knows more than myself

        I spoke to one restaurateur who told me that SD uni specifically is really only sold locally due to amounts, and the better quality is on account of the seaweed beds we have here

        1. re: Rodzilla

          I was under the impression that there were no big limits in terms of fishing/harvesting sea urchins off the coast of San Diego (whereas in Mendocino county in Northern California, is a different story altogether....poach a red shell abalone or a sea urchin and the uni police will come after you).

          The only time I had fresh whole sea urchin off the shell in San Diego was last December during a visit to Little Italy Mercardo Saturday Farmer's market from a seafood vendor that had a lot of these plus raw oysters for take home or dine right there (they charge more for shucking/de-shelling, the only caveat is no soy sauce no wasabi, you bring your own, but they have hotsauce). Each batch (or urchin rather) varies. The one I had was slightly purplish on the spikes, although red ones are not uncommon, and that could also be a factor based on the type of kelp they feast on and the season.

          Now as far as freshness goes, the one I had was hard to beat, but to me flavorwise it wasn't the most earth shattering of all specimens, had some white stuff on it (not off putting) and was a bit more briney than what I'm used to. I'm assuming the FM vendor sourced their urchins locally, and not from Santa Barbara (where the top stuff is exported anyways).

          What I do find fascinating are some places that do different things with it or at least offer it on the menu to draw crowds (and reviewers) in. Saw on someone's facebook not too long ago that they had sea urchin ice cream from Sea Rocket Bistro!

          As a visitor from Northern California, I do enjoy the produce and farmers markets down here a whole lot more....particularly the dried dates from Santee that are way more flavorful than what I can get in my area.

          1. re: K K

            Yeah, to my understanding uni is just like any fish in that the best quality pieces will be selected by the mongers then given a certain amount of time to age - but for a starting point SD urchins are said to yield the best final product

            1. re: K K

              If you would like to try truly superb urchin, there is nothing that beats sitting in a dive boat with a spoon and a pair of kitchen sheers to cut out the urchins' beaks, then rinse them out with ocean water and dig in with your spoon. Urchin in a restaurant cannot compare. And I can tell you from years of experience eating urchin 2 minutes out of the ocean that each urchin tastes different, some only slightly different, but some are amazingly different. They are grazers, and their recent diet does effect their flavor. I have probably eaten several hundred urchins in my time, but there was one -- just one -- that kept me eating more hoping for another like it. It tasted like flowers! It had been grazing in the giant kelp forest off of La Jolla Shores. Make friends with some SCUBA divers! Or learn to dive yourself. It is well worth the trouble!

              1. re: Caroline1

                This suggests a very interesting, if not incredibly expensive and impossible to get licensed, concept for a restaurant.

                1. re: RB Hound

                  Hey, do they still have the ama san pearl divers at Sea World? They could add a nice stock of sea urchins to the tank and have the ama-sans bring them up for you! They never offer you a bite of the oysters when they dig your pearl out of them, but hey, luckily sea urchins don't make pearls! They could expand their business!!!

                2. re: Caroline1

                  very interesting. I thought it was still the technique afterward that made a good starting urchin into the best uni available.

                  So, do you have a boat and a diver?

                  1. re: Rodzilla

                    Don't I wish! I live in the Dallas area now. No mountains, no ocean, and at noon I can't tell north from south without a compass. But I grew up in San Diego, my dad was born there, and his father played for the Padres loooooong before they had a stadium! But there was a time when I "had my own diver." When we first met, my second husband was working on a deep sea research project at Scripp's Institute of Oceonography, and SCUBA was an important part of his job. "Dinner" several nights per week was a perk that outlasted the research project! "Teach a man to fish...." '-)

                    Anyway, "cleaning" a sea urchin is unusually simple. You simply cut out the beak, rinse the insides out, then peel the roe from the inside with a spoon. The roe adheres to the inside of the "shell" in a beautifully symmetrical pattern. If you can imagine peeling out undersized orange segments from inside the orange, it's not too dissimilar to that, except the segments are flatter and have a space between each segment. Do it right and you can turn the urchin's exoskeleton into a nice objet d'art, or even a night light. You just want to handle live urchins with gloves, and NEVER EVER step on an urchin barefoot! The spines are nasty!

                  2. re: Caroline1

                    I know this description: I was diving off the south side of Santa Rosa a few years ago, and ate one giant that tasted distinctly of lavender, and I was not stoned.

                    Nice to know I'm not crazy.


                    1. re: SaltyRaisins

                      Hey, if we could figure out what those two urchins were eating, we could start a sea urchin farm and get FILTHY rich! '-)

                      1. re: Caroline1

                        Nevermind capitalizing on your lovely experiences. You've clearly savored them. Thank you for sharing, and I for one am glad no one has figured out how to get filthy rich on something so elemental and special. This is one of my favorite all time posts on CH. Thanks again.

                        1. re: pickypicky

                          Bless your heart! (An old "Texas" saying that has inexplicably inserted itself into my vocabulary.) Thank you for the kind words. I highly recommend that anyone who can afford a meal at The French Laundry invest instead in hiring a scuba diver and a dive boat and go have a little fresh sea urchin! It might even be cheaper than The French Laundry! '-)

            2. Burgers, Burrito's and Mex Marisco's.

              6 Replies
              1. re: cstr

                SD has many burger places but surprsingly few with good ones.

                1. re: honkman

                  I'm not sure that sentiment is unique to SD.

                  Perusing these boards, you get the feeling about many places in America.

                  Very few cities, IMO, proudly proclaim that the burgers in their cities are not only aplenty, but awe inspiring at the same time.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    I agree that the quality of burger is often lacking also in other cities but since the original questions was "what does SD do best" I dont' think burgers are a good answer. In my opinion it is more beer, having outstanding produce, and a number of restaurants which take the the farm-to table approach much more serious than in other cities.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      “Anybody who doesn't think that the best hamburger place in the world is in his home town is a sissy.” Calvin Trillin

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Thanks ipse, you've articulated my sentiment, I mean afterall, SD does has some good although modest culinary attributes.

                      2. re: honkman

                        I can think of quite a few that I find very good right in my own neighborhood or nearby. Ritual Tavern, Jayne's, Toronado, Smoking Goat, Alchemy, Neighborhood, and Farmhouse have all served me a fine burger. I'm not sure if that ranks SD among the best cities for burgers, but it's a pretty good lineup.

                    2. Agree on the uni

                      Farm-to-table that is no just lip service to a trend or chefs/operators putting a farms name or product origin on a menu. I think we have more chefs/operators who are trying to actually walk the walk with regard to sustainable and local

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        Not to take anything away feom SD, but farm-table is very common in many cities and towns that I've visited in CA. If the area is ag-oriented or near ag areas, it's almost matter-of-fact. Santa Cruz comes to mind in that so many small and medium-sized farms grow outstanding produce. Moreover, the local businesses like supporting them. This binary relationship is win-win for all imho. Many Californians are lucky for reasons similar to this.

                          1. re: DiningDiva

                            Although the farm to table is important, I'd like to know 'what' the end product is, ala the best SD creation entree etc in your opinion, not the raw materials or a concept.

                          2. Or Vietnamese food. We have excellent Vietnamese food. And I'll venture we have some excellent Mexican food, if you know where to look. (Milpas, Testa's).

                            1. We removed the sub-thread about whining/self-flagellation. If you've got food-related answers, please do post, but that kind of discussion of the discussion is really off-topic.

                                1. re: pickypicky

                                  ... and dining al fresco with a view.

                                2. Produce! What other area in the United States boasts the variety and quality of produce available from San Diego County's farms? Avocados, strawberries. citrus, macadamia nuts, guavas, summer and winter squashes, tomatoes, passionfruit, pomegranate, dragonfruit, sapote, Meyer lemon, figs, dozens of sweet and hot pepper varieties, red orach, kale, chard, French breakfast melon,San Juan melon, golden watermelon, Armenian cucumber, lemon cukes, fennel, nopales, purselane - taht's just some of what I saw this week.
                                  It never ceases to amaze me when people argue that San Diego doesn't have great food - wher is the produce fresher, more plentiful,more flavorful or more diverse?

                                    1. I fondly recall some of the execellent meals I enjoyed back in the early '60s and early '70s during my Navy days in San Diego. Any of the seafood at the Harbor House (long gone to make way for the bridge to Coronado), the Guacamole at the Mexican Village, the Cioppino aboard the Ruben E. Lee and at Tarantinos. and the cold cracked Dungeness Crabs from the small seafood shops on the harbor near the water taxi landing. Throughout my Navy career San Diego had a reputation for fine dining among those that I knew who had served there.

                                      1. Farell's ice cream (a memory of the 70s)--the San Diego Earthquake was a gigantic sundae to be eaten by a group of people, doused in milk caramel, and other sauces.
                                        I grew up down the street from the Tarantinos--their restaurant was sort of a landmark.

                                        9 Replies
                                        1. re: Wawsanham

                                          I could be mistaken, but I think Farell's ice cream monstrosity was called The San Diego Zoo. It was brought to table on a board with extensions carried on the shoulders of four waiters while all of the lights in the house flashed and sirens wailed. Spectacular, as well as spectacularly embarrassing!

                                          The Earthquake was available at Swenson's. Eight scoops of ice cream with eight toppings of choice. Presented at table with no fanfare to announce that a table full of ice cream piggies were about to trough out! My kids are now 43 and 44, but when they were in elementary school, when their semester report cards warranted it (and they always did), they were each allowed to invite one friend along and we went to Swenson's (the kids didn't like the recognition at Farell's) and each child got to order two scoops of their favorite flavors and two toppings. On the second trip, rules were set in place: NO bubble gum ice cream (the dyes got all over everything!) and no mint flavors (they tainted everything else). For me, I simply got a dish of a chocolate and orange liqueur ice cream I can no longer remember the name of, but it was terrific! I think I'm still wearing some on my hips! Good stuff.

                                          1. re: Caroline1

                                            "I could be mistaken, but I think Farrell's ice cream monstrosity was called The San Diego Zoo."

                                            Agree. Had plastic animals in it also.

                                            1. re: Fake Name

                                              >Agree. Had plastic animals in it also.

                                              Not to mention that it was carried to your table via a circuitous route on a stretcher carried on the shoulders of two hosts while a siren wailed and a small drum was pounded.

                                              1. re: nileg

                                                Two hosts in striped shirts wearing straw boaters.

                                                1. re: nileg

                                                  'and a small drum was pounded.'

                                                  Now I know where my early drum aspirations were seeded..
                                                  ; )

                                                  1. re: Beach Chick

                                                    Farrellses were everywhere. We had them in Texas. I have no idea if there was a location specific dish at every one, but I do remember the clanging and the corniness of the interiors.

                                              2. re: Caroline1

                                                OK, It's been a while--I remember Swenson's, too. I was visiting San Diego in 2005, and we went to one of the last remaining Farrell's--apparently, they're out of business now. Their trademark was the embarrassing "eventiness" of the birthday parties, drums, horns, lots of noise, along with the early 1900s look-feel.

                                                1. re: Wawsanham

                                                  Farrell's is out of business in San Diego, but still exists in points north. I pass by one in Brea when I go up there for work, and I know there are others. Besides their infamous Zoo, let us not forget the Pig's Trough, immortalized in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure".

                                                  1. re: phee

                                                    As long as we are on the subject of defunct ice cream parlors, does anyone remember Leatherby's? They were located in a small strip mall across from Parkway Plaza and boasted the biggest sundaes EVAH.

                                            2. Carne asada burritos! IMHO it's the West Coast's answer to the Philly Cheesesteak - and apparently SD is the only city where you can get a real one.

                                              It's been a while since I live there, but I haven't been able to find a burrito like the carne asadas I had in SD anywhere else - including up and down the west coast. Sadness.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: simpsoneh

                                                good call, I was thinking of San Fran and Mission style burritos before but I'm now seeing that SD style are different.