Monday, March 18, 2019

Quick Bite: San Telmo and Yelp’s False Gems

Oh, and basically a whole forest of arugula.
Generally I find Yelp to be a pretty useful tool for finding new and interesting restaurants to try, but it’s also far from perfect. In particular, Yelpers seem to vastly overrate many of the perfectly unremarkable mom-and-pop spots, international cuisines and delis. Don’t misunderstand: There are certainly restaurants in these categories that truly shine. But often Yelp’s glowing consensus can be utterly baffling.

This phenomenon came to mind when I stopped by San Telmo, an Argentine sandwich joint downtown. When the place I’d planned to go was closed (private event), I thought, why not try the place right next door with the coveted 5-star Yelp rating?

The food was fine. Average. A little boring, actually. And since dull food makes for dull writing, I won’t spend too much time on it. Suffice it to say my chicken empanada was a bit dry, a bit under-seasoned and generally pretty plain. The San Telmo sandwich was slightly better, with herb-dressed mushrooms and a nice note of sharpness from the Swiss cheese. But the pesto aioli was underwhelming and a bit grassy, while the ribeye was a little overdone and seemed to be seasoned exclusively with salt. You’d think the dish named after the restaurant would be one to really shine, but all I got was a decent deli sandwich.

I feel a little bad about picking on a restaurant that isn’t by any means bad. It just happened to bring to mind an odd blind spot on an otherwise fairly reliable site. Why do people feel compelled to give such radiant reviews to places that don’t stand out in any apparent way?

One reason, I think, is that people develop an emotional attachment to their neighborhood restaurant, the same way they do for the local sports team. Another probably stems from people’s desire to find the diamond in the rough, to have coveted insider information, to be a trendsetter. I can certainly sympathize—it’s great being a world-famous elite influencer, loved and respected by all. But let me humbly contend that not everyone can be this unfathomably awesome. And when people let wishful thinking cloud their judgment, it prevents people from finding the places that really do deserve all the accolades.

Score: 5 out of 10

P.S. I wish this place were really great so I could have titled this post "San Telmo's Fire."

Friday, March 8, 2019

Review: In Trust We Trust

Soon to be classified by the FDA as a Schedule I drug.
San Diego is finally being recognized by Michelin for its burgeoning fine dining scene—about time! Some of the names being thrown around as potential star-earners are Addison, Market and George's at the Cove. After my recent visit, though, I would consider Hillcrest's Trust a dark-horse contender. Let's take a brief look at the items ordered—and how they'd rate on the brutal Michelin scale. (Zero stars can still be good, one is fantastic, two is mind-blowing, and three is so sublime that you'd plan a trip just to try it.)

Dish: Take Two & Trust Cocktail #18
Star Rating: One
Amy's drink was deliciously infused with blackberry; it was fruity, balanced, smooth—and dangerous in that it didn't taste too powerfully of vodka. Mine was stronger with fragrant bourbon, sweet and citrusy with an orangey aroma from the peel garnish.

Dish: Ricotta Agnolotti
Star Rating: Two
The decadent truffle shavings and black garlic streussel certainly helped, but the star of this agnolotti was undoubtedly the incredibly rich, cheesy garlic cream sauce—deceptively labeled simply "panna" on the menu. This sauce latched onto the dopamine receptors of my brain and wouldn't let go. I was momentarily tempted to lick the plate clean—it was that good.

Dish: Baja Hiramasa
Star Rating: One
Nearly as amazing was this crudo: a blast of Japanese flavor full of sweet, soy and sesame. The yellowtail was tender, though the flavor of the fish was hard to discern through that mouthwatering sauce. It's finished with wisp-thin rice cracker and crisp sweet slivers of Asian pear.

Dish: Wood-Grilled Lamb Meatballs
Star Rating: Zero
Meatballs aren't a favorite of mine, but this lamb iteration had good texture and a hearty, slightly gamey flavor. The yogurt tzatziki was clean and tart, augmented with vinegar and spice from the pickled Fresno chiles. Hearty umami lentils, delicious little rings of pickled shallots, and an undertone of garlic rounded out one of the lesser dishes that, tellingly, was still pretty great.

Dish: Wood-Grilled Octopus
Star Rating: One
This was an odd mix of ingredients that still worked because all the flavor elements were there. A strong but not overwhelming hit of vinegar from the olives, the salty minced pepperoni, and the parsley herbaceousness of the salsa verde combine beautifully. Textures were also a strong suit: The octopus was tender, while the lentils and legumes were pleasingly al dente, thankfully avoiding any graininess.

Dish: Maple Pecan Creme Brûlée
Star Rating: Two
At first I was a bit sad that we decided to play it safe by getting the creme brûlée. I have seldom been more wrong. Somehow, they fixed what wasn't broken. They solved creme brûlée. Their secret: a wide cup with almost as much sugar crunch as there is custard. But this is no ordinary caramelized sugar: it's thick, chunky, fully of mapley and nutty flavors. The poached pear and marscapone cream were tasty, but really just along for the ride. Bottom line: This blew the roof off of an already outstanding dinner.

Trust doesn't just settle for having a couple of great specialty dishes. Its food seems to bottom out at excellent and move up from there. If it doesn't get a Michelin star—or at least one of the group's lesser acknowledgements—it'll only prove they've got a lot to learn about San Diego dining.

Score: 10 out of 10

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review: Ambrogio15 and the Quest for the Perfect Pizza

The trouble with perfecting something simple is there are only a few factors under your control, and only so far you can go with them. Pizza, at its heart, is three things: dough, sauce, cheese. Sure, you can add to that base formula, but at a certain point you're just gilding the lily. So how do you hone and refine this handful of ingredients to create a pizza that will stand above all others? Not many pizza joints even try to tackle this question. Ambrogio15 in PB is one of the few places that might just have an answer.

Let's ignore our carpaccio appetizer. Sure, beef and parmesan has no right to be this light and fresh, brightened by citrus, bitter arugula and the salty pop of capers. But it's just a sideshow. A tantalizing distraction.

Let's forget the tiramisu en coppa. Yes it's tasty, with lots of sweet mascarpone cream, Nutella and crunchy coffee-infused ladyfingers, but small enough to keep you craving more. But it's not why you're here.

You want pizza. You demand it. Milan-style, razor thin, with top-shelf ingredients hauled across the globe from Italy.

How about the burrata e prosciutto crudo? The crust is impossibly thin, deserving of an architectural award for standing up to the ingredients with only minor flopping. San Marzano tomato sauce that's sweet, almost fruity. A layer of mozzarella fior di latte—literally, "flower of milk"—that's just as sumptuous as it sounds. A lush, creamy expanse of burrata from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. And an authentic 20-month-aged prosciutto di Parma, salty and intense. It's every region's specialty—what generations have put their heart and soul into. Put it together on one pizza, and you feel like a kid stealing from the cookie jar: Am I really allowed to eat this?

Amy ordered the salamino piccante pizza, which is its own revelation. Despite the name, it's really not spicy, but the salame is delicious, thickly sliced and satisfying. The rosemary is a perfect touch of piney herbaceousness that could easily have been overpowering, but instead is perfectly balanced. I was tempted to have more, but that would've meant trading away more of my own.

Have I found the pinnacle of pizza? There are other contenders, of course. There's the remarkable BIGA downtown, farmer's market dark horse Cucina Caprese, and undoubtedly others I haven't discovered. But in truth, maybe I'm too fixated on perfection. For now, I can rest easy knowing there's at at least one place I can turn to satisfy even my strongest pizza cravings.

Score: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Quick Bite: Pho Cow Cali Is the World's Fastest Decent Sit-Down Restaurant

Sorry, no time for a better photo.
15 minutes, remember?
Sometimes, there's just no time in the day for a decent meal—or so I thought, until Mira Mesa's Pho Cow Cali proved otherwise.

There are days when I only have a half hour between appointments for a late lunch. Factor in driving, and it seems like an impossibly narrow sliver of time—yet Cali makes it happen. The logistics of it are a thing of beauty. Let's walk through a meal together (with some recommended musical accompaniment):

2:26pm: I'm in and seated. I'm handed a menu, but I already know what I want: the #44, rice vermicelli with egg rolls and BBQ pork. I double-check the menu to confirm the number.

2:27: The waiter is back with a glass of water. I order and take a quick restroom break.

2:29: I return just as lunch arrives, a steaming bowl of noodles, meat and veggies. I ask for the check right away, then quickly slather the vermicelli in red chili sauce and dig in.

2:35: My check is paid, the entire transaction complete in under ten minutes. The only limiting factor is my slow eating.

2:41: I get up to leave. As exit, I check my phone, then double-take in disbelief: It's been 15 minutes since I walked in.

The kicker is that the food is really quite good. The bowl is piping hot, filled to the brim. Rice noodles are hard to get wrong, sure—especially not with a half gallon of chili sauce. The pork, though, is savory with a hint of sweetness, fat expertly rendered into tenderness and topped with scallions. Only a couple of slightly chewy pieces keep it from being perfect. The egg roll has that delicious, subtle tangy funk that egg rolls often have. It's satisfying and crisp, though the outer layer could do with a little more crunch. The sweet pickled carrot and daikon is a punchy contrasting flavor.

Pho Cow Cali is remarkable not just for speed and relative quality, but its consistency, too. If I go in on a mission, I'll be out in 15 minutes every time like clockwork. Who says you can't eat well on your lunch break?

Score: 7 out of 10

Friday, February 1, 2019

Dish Spotlight: Spicy Sesame Ramen at Tajima

Spicy sesame tonkotsu ramen at Tajima Ramen
A rainy day in a bowl.
Has it really been four months since I've been to a Tajima? It's a fixture of San Diego's landscape now, with so many locations that you'd practically think they were Starbucks.

The North Park location was bustling even on a Thursday afternoon. It started to pour shortly after I got in, as if the weather were anticipating my meal. Shortly after being seated, I got what I always get: the spicy sesame tonkotsu ramen with added pork chashu.

This is not a bowl designed for everyday eating. The broth is so creamy and rich, it almost makes you feel guilty. It's piled with so many toppings you have to work to break through to the noodles. It's packed with so much sodium you'll have to swear off salt for a week.

And still, it's all so worth it.

Every ingredient is beautifully calibrated. Pork bones are boiled for twelve straight hours and combined with sesame and chile to create a broth that's spicy, unctuous and satisfying. The noodles are delicate but still retain a robust springiness. The half egg is always cooked medium—never too runny or too solid. The garlic chips are crunchy but never burnt-tasting, as they often are elsewhere. Now and then the occasional note of toasted sesame shines through. The ground pork is savory, heavy on salt but not overwhelmingly. There are just enough veggies to trick your brain into thinking there's some nutritional value here: Buttery bok choy, ocean-infused nori, crisp green onion, lightly bitter sprouts.

And then there's the chashu. Theoretically, it's an optional add-on, but in practice it's an absolute requirement. Pork belly is the star of many a ramen bowl, but this incarnation is just unreal. It offers no resistance as you bite in. Time stops. The world falls away. And you're left with only the dark, deep, rich, meaty, golden caramelized flavor.

When you combine all these ingredients, you have the perfect meal to brood over on a cold, dark day. You can listen to the rain patter on the roof as you let the warmth flow through your body, banishing the chill from your toes. Just sit, relax, and eat your fill. This is a big bowl, so there's no shame in getting a to-go container—chances are, you'll be keen to savor every drop.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Review: The Blind Burro

A lot of deals for Restaurant Week aren't really deals, if you take the time to do the math. Try comparing the items on the prix fixe menu to the prices on the normal menu, and you start to realize that you're actually not saving anything, you're just having your options needlessly limited. Finding a good deal at a good restaurant takes a bit of research. So after some digging, I stumbled on The Blind Burro's offering: A three-course prix fixe dinner for $20? One where they don't try to up-sell you on adding truffle and lobster for another fifty bucks? Yes please; I'll take two.

Despite its location a mere block from the teeming Gaslamp Quarter, the vibe here is surprisingly subdued. Though we did go on a weekday, I got the sense that things never get too frenzied even on a busy Saturday night. The rustic-chic wood furnishings are punctuated with strings of hanging lights and black-and-white photos of donkeys (natch).

Since dinner was so cheap, how could we not order drinks? (Ahh, so that's how they get you!) Amy ordered a Michelada, which tasted more or less like a Corona with dashes of salt and other ingredients thrown in. Good if you like beer... but you could also just get a beer. My Verano Punch wasn't bad, but very much a typical Very Sweet Drink. It had a berry-like flavor, presumably from the pomegranate syrup, but lacked much of the passion fruit or basil mentioned in the ingredients.

We opted to keep it light for our appetizers—the right decision, in retrospect, as the accompanying tortilla chips were bountiful and ultra-thick. They were impressively crunchy and a bit greasy but not over-salted. The ceviche was indeed light and tart from the lime, and included boatload of shrimp plus a little scallop for good measure. The guacamole was good, nothing unusual, with plenty of onion and a welcome sprinkle of micro cilantro.

Next came the entrée course, which for Restaurant Week was necessarily the taco course. My al pastor tacos were filled with tender pork, well-spiced in their red chile adobo marinade. The sweet pineapple chunks were a welcome counterpoint to the savory elements, as was the tomatillo-avocado crema. The side of Mexican street corn was okay in small doses, but became overwhelming after a few bites due to the hot sauce and the sheer sodium overload of the cotija.

Amy's Mahi mahi tacos were also tasty, with a crisp batter and soft, flaky fish. The only downside was the overload of veggies; the pile of cabbage, onion and carrot escabeche practically smothered the mahi mahi. The side of vegetable slaw (a bit redundant in retrospect) was vinegar-tart and a bit spicy, full of peppers, carrot and corn.

By this point I was nearly full to bursting, so I was bracing myself for the churros—not traditionally a particularly light dessert. These were the softest, most delicately melt-in-your mouth churros I’ve ever had. Still crisp on the outside, but just beneath the surface? Smooth and fluffy as cotton candy. Naturally they were covered in a thick layer of that delicious cinnamon-sugar mixture (which we all know is 99% sugar). They came with a creme anglaise that added a nice element of creaminess, but wasn’t too sweet—it didn’t need to be.

In many ways, The Blind Burro is a pretty typical Mexican restaurant: casual, cheap (for the Gaslamp at least), and heavy on the tacos and tequila. Occasionally, though, as with those churros and al pastor tacos, a higher level of quality shines through. Use that potential, BB, and someday you'll achieve greatness.

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Quick Bite: Cali Banh Mi

A couple months back, Kearny Mesa staple Cali Banh Mi opened their second location in east PB. Since then I've stopped by probably three or four times, and on the whole I like what I've seen.

The interior is small but chic, with lots of natural light and a white and gold color scheme. There's also a little side patio to hang out on, which seems nice, though honestly this is more of a to-go spot for me.

I've gotten the savory BBQ pork banh mi a couple of times. It's only four bucks, and while it's not massive sandwich, it's just the right amount to fill me up. Visually, the red and green colors from the pork and veggies are bright and appealing nestled in the light and crunchy baguette. The pork is sweet and savory, with definite notes of black pepper sprinkled in and a touch of garlic aioli spread. The foliage is plentiful here: cilantro, jalapeño, cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon. I would have preferred a little less cucumber, and the pickled veggies are actually pretty mild and could have used just a bit more sharpness. For the most part, though, it's a fresh and delicious lunch option.

On those days where I feel like I deserve the royal treatment, the surf & turf banh mi (for the kingly sum of eight dollars) is another way to go. The other fixings are the same, but the pork is swapped for ribeye and black pepper shrimp. The savory, meaty flavors from the ribeye and the sweet, buttery seafood are a great combination. The ribeye could benefit from a lighter cook, but that's my only real gripe.

Though Cali Banh Mi is near one of the busiest intersections of San Diego, it's in a slightly odd location without much else around it to attract business. At least Muscle Mill, the previous fast casual joint to occupy the space, had the advantage of catering to the nearby gym. Hopefully it manages to do well there, since it's a simple, dependable lunch choice for days on the go.

Score: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)