Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review: Din Tai Fung

Dining area at Din Tai Fung

It's finally here.

Since first opening in Taipei in 1972, Din Tai Fung has slowly expanded across the globe, spreading its gospel of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) along the way. After 46 years, they've opened at UTC Mall to give San Diegans a chance to see what the fuss is about. Finally.

Confession time: I'm a total neophyte in the ways of dim sum. I've been to Jasmine once, years ago, and was thoroughly underwhelmed. That experience was all I had to go on—that and the massive buzz. I was only able to snag a table for Sunday lunch about a month in advance, and that's when it dawned on me just what a phenomenon Din Tai Fung really is. By the time the day came, I was brimming with anticipation.

Drink squad, assemble.
The dining space is elegant and modern with neutral tones and huge windows that let in plenty of light. After a brief wait on the patio, we were shown to our booth, past the kitchen where about a dozen people behind the glass were tirelessly assembling dumplings.

I got the Shanghai Flame, a vodka cocktail that started off sweet from the lychee juice and finished with tart passion fruit puree. The cayenne on the rim was mixed with sugar to ensure it was balanced and not too spicy. The other drinks at the table were a peach green tea (fruity but not too much so as to overpower the tea's natural bitterness), and lychee green tea with boba (sweet with big chewy globules of tapioca).

But you're not here for that, are you? You came for soup dumplings, and soup dumplings you shall have.

Xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung
Juuust a li'l peek of that good filling.
Xiao long bao are essentially self-contained pockets of pork and broth, which you can dip in a soy-and-vinegar sauce, then puncture with your chopsticks or a quick nibble to help the inside cool. Once you do, the soup immediately pours (or if you're not careful, spurts!) out into your spoon. You can then eat your morsel in a couple of bites (which I have dubbed "the coward's method") or down the whole thing in one go like a shooter.

The ritual of careful opening makes each dumpling feel like something truly precious—which they are, because they are absolutely delicious.

We got three kinds, and each one was succulent and amazing in its own way. Each dumpling's broth is so infused with the essence of its filling that it feels like you're getting a double dose of flavor in every bite. The standard pork dumpling functions as the classic, timeless original. It's mouthwateringly savory with touches of garlic and ginger. The dipping sauce adds another layer of salty, tangy complexity. It's warm, soothing comfort food, so wonderful that it makes me wish I'd grown up with it.

Xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung
Behold the pinnacle of human achievement.
...What? Why are you looking at me like that?
The truffle pork dumpling was something else: decadent, the inside speckled with countless bits of black, earthy mushroom. It was deeply, luxuriously truffly and delicious. One caveat: An order of regular pork dumplings is ten for about $12, but this order is five for $24—four times the PPD (price per dumpling). As good as they are, you may want to go for many the other tasty items unless you're a true truffle fiend.

Finally, the crab and pork dumpling: soft and intense with sweet seafood flavor (again, both in broth and filling) and just a bit of that savory pork base. Definitely worth a try if you enjoy the taste of crab. (My mom found them a bit fishy; I disagree. Thankfully we're still on speaking terms.)

We got two veggie sides. The garlic broccoli was reminiscent of a classic Chinese takeout order, but perfected. made with infinitely more care; not limp or soggy as it too often is. It was firm and slightly smoky with light garlic and ginger notes. The garlic spinach was similar, again slightly garlicky, but a bit too wilty for my taste—not to the point of being mushy but definitely on the soft side.

Shrimp & pork potstickers at Din Tai Fung
What's hiding under that crust?
Something tasty, that's what.
But there are still many more dishes to see. The Shanghai rice cakes, rather than being crispy as I'd expected, actually had a chewy and satisfyingly glutinous texture. They actually put up a fight when you chewed them, which was actually a welcome difference from the softness of some of the other dishes. They came in a lovely brown sauce with a salty caramel taste. Unusual and good, though not among the high points. The shrimp and pork potstickers were an eye-catcher: They're connected by a thin, brittle sheet of crust and served crust-side-up so that all you see initially is a rectangle of golden crispness. Break through that crust with a chopstick to reveal the tender dumplings beneath. It's a great texture contrast. The flavors of shrimp and pork both come through distinctly and meld beautifully with the salty, slightly acidic dipping sauce.

Vegetable & pork wontons in spicy sauce at Din Tai Fung
Pictured: Sauce of the gods. (Oh, also wontons.)
I haven't yet mentioned the best dish of the meal—yes, better than the soup dumplings. The vegetable and pork wontons were soft, luscious parcels, but the filling was almost irrelevant: The chili sauce they came in was clearly the star here. It was ten flavors at once: sweet and vinegared, with a perfect, even heat and a melange of caramelized garlic, ginger and scallion. It's the kind of sauce that you hoard, that you put on stuff it wasn't even meant for, that you eat spoonfuls of all on its own, because it's just that good.

Finally, dessert: More xiao long bao.

...Yes, really! This time, though, they were filled with melted milk chocolate. It felt like guilty pleasure, biting in to let the pure candy goodness come oozing out. Clearly a western bastardization of the dumpling arts, but who cares when it's this delightful?

Sesame bun at Din Tai Fung
It's... kinda cute?
Just as good, and arguably more interesting, was the sesame bao bun. The outside has the thick, fluffy and lightly sweet qualities typical of a steamed bun. It's a bready, gratifying chew that's typically accompanied by a filling of savory meat or veggies. Here, though, the filling is a molten, nutty paste of delicious black sesame sweetness. Oddly, it reminded me a bit of a peanut butter sandwich, but more understated and complex. It was a fitting way to end: A simple yet totally unique dish taken from a page in the traditional Chinese cookbook that I've never experienced before. (That, and it's a dumpling.)

The food at Din Tai Fung is outstanding. It feels familiar, not far from the Chinese cuisine I've come to know and enjoy, but heightened, subtly elevated at every turn. Their devotion to the craft shines through in just about every dish. And it's got one more quality that only the best restaurants can boast of: a dish or two that you'll be dreaming about long after you've left full and happy.

Score: 9.5 out of 10 (Incredible)

Friday, October 26, 2018

Review: Brigantine Coronado

Pan-seared salmon at Brigantine
If there's a classic San Diego seafood restaurant, it's probably Brigantine. It's been around almost 50 years, and has since expanded to no less than seven locations sprinkled across the county. Amy and I tried out the Coronado location for our Saturdate night.

I got a raspberry mojito, which was sweet and very raspberry (both natural and artificial) with a hint of mint. Amy's paloma mule really was like two drinks in one, with the citrus up front followed by a sweet, gingery finish.

Our calamari strips were a mixed bag. Presentation was lacking; the nine or ten floppy strips barely filled a small plate. The thin breading also left a lot to be desired; these strips could have been an irresistible had they had a thick, crisp batter. The jalapeño white sauce was the saving grace of this dish. The dipping sauce is a signature of Miguel's, Brigantine's sister restaurant; it's rich, creamy and comfortable with a mild heat, like the best nacho cheese ever.

Lobster tacos at BrigantineMy pan-seared salmon light yet satisfying, cooked medium and tender. The butter avocado sauce had that browned, caramelized glow that amplified the natural butteriness of the fish. A bed of chorizo, roasted poblano and sweet corn served as a delightful complement, adding a dose of tanginess and salt. It was finished with sprouty, herby sprinkle of microgreens. In sum, a good dish that was more than the sum of its parts.

Amy's lobster tacos were the best part of dinner. I can best describe them as "lobster and chips" in taco form. Massive chunks of lobster were swathed in a thick layer of beer batter, combined in a taco with a fresh cucumber and jicama slaw and creamy cilantro sauce. It was delicious, at least as good as any fish 'n' chips I've ever had and probably better from light natural sweetness of the lobster. The fries had a prominent (but not too prominent) truffle taste and a sprinkle of parmesan, though they definitely should have been crisper and could have used a sauce.

Flourless chocolate cake at BrigantineWe ended the meal with a slice of flourless chocolate toffee cake. It was definitely tasty, with a rich dark chocolate flavor that topped with (what else?) a smooth chocolate ganache. The only issue here was that there was very little actual... toffee. Some shards of thick caramelized crunch would have really put this cake over the top, but instead we got a few small bits with almost no texture to them. The vanilla ice cream helped, but I couldn't help but feel let down just a bit.

Brigantine occupies a distinct niche in our restaurant ecosystem as the "default" seafood place: It's solid cuisine that you can find in locations from Imperial Beach to Poway. It's certainly true that there are better options in its category—Herringbone and The Marine Room come to mind. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if Brigantine's upscale yet approachable atmosphere helps preserve its status as a San Diego mainstay for another 50 years to come.

Score: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Quick Bite: Ramen Ryoma

Spicy miso ramen at Ramen Ryoma
In my estimation, Tajima ruled the realm of San Diego ramen for years. Then, in 2017, a challenger appeared: the wildly popular Menya Ultra gave them a run for their money with an absolutely killer bowl. Still, I'm always looking for a place that can dethrone this newly-formed top tier.

Will Ramen Ryoma in Kearny Mesa be the one? Well... no. (Really built up the suspense there, didn't I?) It was good and a little different, but it didn't quite measure up.

I got the spicy miso ramen, which comes with chashu, spicy ground meat, bean sprouts, seaweed and green onion. What I really didn't enjoy was the ground meat. Before mixing it in, it was actually cold; I know it's designed to be mixed in, but it's really unappetizing in a steaming hot dish. The texture reminded me of coarse ground turkey—again, not something I especially want in my ramen.

The meat also contained all the spice of the dish, though, which diffused nicely into the broth, turning it from light and buttery to spicy and hearty. The noodles were springy and satisfyingly al dente. The best part was the chashu: a single enormously thick slab, meltingly tender and roasty. The nori was okay, though I prefer it more crisp and less... floppy. The green onion and sprouts, though, added a lovely fresh finish.

Ramen Ryoma may be aiming to start an empire; they're in the process of opening up shop in Hillcrest and Pacific Beach. Will they eventually expand enough to challenge Tajima's dominance? I tend to think not. They can make a serviceable bowl of ramen, but they'll need an infusion of personality and some culinary fine-tuning before they can take on the greats.

Score: 6 out of 10 (Decent)

Monday, October 22, 2018

Quick Bite: Banker's Hill Bar & Restaurant

I'm running behind on write-ups! Last Sunday we had brunch at Banker's Hill Bar & Restaurant. (I'll give you one guess where it's located.) I remember them for having the best fries in the city, but all of their food pretty much knocks it out of the park.

I get the BLT (and subbed truffle fries in place of the house chips because I'm not an animal). It's a good, pretty classic sandwich, with toasty french bread, well-crisped bacon and garlic aioli for an extra flourish. The fries are, well, tremendous. They're thin-cut, matchstick style, thin and crunchy with only the occasional chew in the center. The truffle flavor is prominent without being overpowering (as is easy to do). There's just a hint of sweetness from who-knows-where, melded with crumbles of rich salty Parmesan and a bit of parsley. And then, just when you thought you'd had enough: thick, savory, buttery truffle aioli with a hint of grain mustard. Amazing. Addictive. To die for.

Amy gets an Asian pear and roasted beet salad, which comes with frisée, candied walnuts, goat cheese and a sherry vinaigrette. It's hard to order salad on a menu with so many temptations, but this is a legitimately tasty, healthy alternative. It's fresh and sweet and light. The crunch of walnuts adds a nice texture, as does the creamy goat cheese. Go for it, then sneak some fries off the plate of a more indulgent dining companion.

Note: I cannot be held responsible for what may happen if you attempt to steal these truffle fries.

We're enjoying this meal, minding our own business, when a plate lowers from the heavens containing a cinnamon roll the size of a child's head. We've made too many, they tell us. You've come to the right people for help, is what I should have said, but instead I utter a startled thank you and dig in.

This cinnamon roll is not for the faint of heart—no, really, your heart might actually faint from the caloric overload. But it's worth it. It's rich and sweet, momentarily crisp before you bite through your piece to the thick chewy center. The generous layer of icing has a hint of tang from the cream cheese, and there's a light drizzle of salted caramel over the top. I abandon my sandwich; I'll ask for a box later. This is more pressing.

Banker's Hill isn't exactly a hidden gem. It's pretty well known, but it's clearly under-appreciated; only a few other parties were there on a lovely Sunday afternoon. Go, grab some fries, and who knows? Maybe if you're lucky, the cinnamon roll fairy will smile upon you, too.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Quick Bite: Chaba Thai Kitchen

Green curry chicken at Chaba Thai Kitchen
Well, I'm doing it. I'm reviewing a Thai place post-Kin Khao. Chaba Thai Kitchen is a hole-in-the-wall spot in Kearny Mesa that I chose for after-work lunch mostly based on decent reviews and an $8 lunch special.

Service was prompt but not exactly cordial: The server greeted me, pointed to a seat, and handed me a menu all while on the phone with a customer. Not a great first impression.

I was immediately given a small bowl of a broth-based tofu and veggie soup that was surprisingly good. It was warm and fragrant, garlicky and spicy with a strong cilantro flavor. I'd choose it over chicken soup if I was feeling under the weather, no question.

My green Thai curry chicken combo came with a heap of white rice, a curry puff and a cream cheese wonton. These latter two were lukewarm and looked kinda sad, as they seemed understuffed and the puff was slightly stale. The flavors were decent and they probably would've been pretty tasty if they were fresh from the fryer. The flavors on the curry were pretty spot-on: lemongrassy, slightly sweet and moderately spicy, exactly what one would expect. The consistency of the curry was more brothy than creamy, though, and the bamboo shoots were a bit sinewy. In short, everything tasted right, but the textures left a lot to be desired.

Maybe it's just me—maybe my love of Thai has been broken forever—but this was really just okay. It's a pretty good value, but I can't help but think there other Thai places in San Diego that'll really nail the combination of a great meal at a low price.

Score: 5.5 out of 10 (Fair)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: George's California Modern

Snapper crudo at George's California Modern
Snapper crudo from The Fanciest George
I wanted our first anniversary dinner to be somewhere special, so we chose a place I've wanted to go for years: George's California Modern, one of the pillars of San Diego fine dining. It's the swankiest of the three George's concepts, which are stacked neatly one atop the other, all overlooking the La Jolla coastline.

As we stepped off the noisy street and through the entrance of the Fancy George's, the atmosphere immediately changed. The empty bar served as a quiet, dignified, solemn staging area. There was little indication we were in a full-service restaurant till we were led down a hall to the main dining room. Our genial server immediately congratulated us on our milestone (as would happen another half-dozen times or so over the course of the night).

Our cocktails were strong, tropical and delicious. Amy ordered an English milk punch, which was not milky in the least, but had a smoky foretaste and followed up with a hit of herbaceous pineapple. My drink, simply labeled "Tiki," was actually the creamier one thanks to the coconut. It was sweet and a bit bitter, maybe from the absinthe, with a citrusy passion fruit finish.

We got bread with three house-made spreads to start off (for $2 a person—I guess this is what pays for that prime La Jolla real estate). The Prager Brothers bread was wonderful, earthy with a healthy outer crust. Spread number one was an unsalted butter, rich and creamy, not a standout until I added a sprinkle of the accompanying craggy kosher salt, which made it a real treat. Number two was a Thai basil hummus which was, well... aggressively basil-y. Not bad, but a bit one-note. Third and most interesting was the spinach and artichoke butter, reminiscent of a Boursin-style spreadable cheese, but subtler and smoother.

Pork belly at George's California ModernI got pork belly (Drink!) as my appetizer, which was nice and tender, but exceedingly salty. In my mind, the elements of a successful dish should taste great on their own, not just when combined, but here the pork belly was much better when the salt was mellowed by the hearty, almost creamy barbecue baked beans. The crispy fried greens added a nice textural element, though I would have also liked a bit more of the pistachio for a different kind of crunch. There was plenty to enjoy here once I escaped the salt—I just shouldn't have had to in the first place.

Amy's snapper crudo was light and refreshing; the sweetness of the fish echoed in the cubes of fresh watermelon. A well-assembled bite would also include a bit of rice cracker crunch and some heat from the chile. It all rested in a creamy buttermilk sauce, unusual but satisfying. I would have liked more acidity, but I can appreciate the novel direction.

Amy's beef tenderloin appeared in the form a posh, delicious holiday dinner. The juicy, delectably tender meat was well-crusted on the outside and topped with a buttery, sweet and tangy bone marrow vinaigrette. It came with creamed kale, which we agreed should immediately replace creamed spinach worldwide; the hardier green retains some firmness through the creaming process instead of becoming a wilted mess. They may have gone a bit overboard with the root veggies, though they were well prepared; the carrots and potatoes had a lightly crisped exterior. The parsnips were nice as well, tasting halfway between the potato and carrot. It came together into something like a traditional feast in miniature.

Duck at George's California Modern
With my duck entrée, it felt as if the chefs had designed a culinary playground—there were just so many elements that bounced off one another in interesting ways. The duck breast itself was simple enough, but it seemed destined to be paired with the preserved kumquat as a nod to duck à l'orange. If I instead grabbed some of the peanut, pickled veggies and cilantro, I got whispers of something Vietnamese. Broccoli popped up twice but in very different forms, served in florets with a nice chargrilled flavor and as a purée that brought out a slight sweetness. The heavily crisped duck leg sprinkled throughout was a joy. Most interesting of all was the green onion pain perdu, which didn't read as French toast in the least, but rather as a savory scallion brioche, fluffy but a little crisp on the outside. There was almost too much going on here, but it was undeniably unique and tasty.

I insisted on a dessert for each of us, a foolish mistake that I don't regret in the slightest.

Amy's warm chocolate tart was piled with fresh berries, black and red and gold. The chocolate was rich and dark, with a melty consistency somewhere between the inside and outside of a lava cake. Crunchy chocolate soil and a toffee-like dark chocolate tuile piled on the decadence. The crème fraiche ice cream was nothing more unusual than a standard vanilla, but it didn't have to be. Delicious.

Doughnuts & dips at George's California Modern
My doughnuts and dips was like five desserts in one. The four large, fluffy donut holes were doused in sugar and designed to be dipped into one of four small ramekins: a vanilla crème brulée complete with caramelized crust, a thick chocolate custard, a sweet and deeply strawberry compote, and a tart raspberry jam. It was wonderful. I nearly died finishing it.

Having experienced George's, I can see why it's so well regarded. It's not a place to go for a casual dinner, but it is most certainly a place to go. Despite the occasional flaw or excess flourish, it's one of those elite places, like Market or Nine-Ten, that define high-end American cuisine in San Diego. Restaurants like George's serve are an essential part of our rapidly rising national reputation as a food city.

Score: 9 out of 10 (Fantastic)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Travel Eats: Kin Khao (San Francisco)

Dirty Girl tomatoes at Kin Khao
How did they make tomato salad taste incredible?
I don't even like tomatoes!
Our most notable food adventure in San Francisco was at Kin Khao, a Thai restaurant that boasts a Michelin star. (Pausing here for oohs and aahs.)

How good was it? Well, here's how Amy described it: There's a scene in The Princess Bride where Buttercup thinks Westley has been killed by pirates, and in a heartbroken stupor she murmurs, "I will never love again." That's us, except with Thai food. Kin Khao is so good that any other Thai food I've ever had pales in comparison.

People associate Michelin-starred places with the snootiest of haute cuisine, but mood at Kin Khao is unassuming. It's located inside a Hilton, right across the hall from (yes, really) a FedEx Express. The inside is modern and minimal, casual to the point that I felt comfortable coming straight from our day of sightseeing in shorts and a T-shirt. The staff, while clearly rushed from the busy night, was still friendly and attentive.

Since this was Part I of our first anniversary celebration, we were treated to two glasses of sparkling white wine, dry but slightly sweet. Amy ordered the Butterfly Collins, which turned from blue to purple as the server poured in a bit of unidentified liquid. It was a bit like a Tom Collins, fizzy but with a cucumber foretaste that also lingered after the sweetness and the liquor subsided. I got the My Thai, which was more or less a very tasty Mai Tai, tropical and almondy with a generous helping of rum.

Miang kham at Kin Khao
FYI: Pictures aren't really gonna do this food justice.
Considering the quality and amount that you get, the $65 per person prix fixe menu is a steal. It's eight dishes, plus three types of rice, served family style in quick succession. What followed can only be described as an onslaught of incredible flavors.

The miang kham, a kind of leaf-wrapped amuse bouche, was filled (if I understood correctly) with finger lime, trout, shallot and a bit of bird's eye chile. It tasted strongly of lemongrass and citrus, plus a bit of the funk of fish sauce. Good start. The next dish accomplished what anyone who knows me would consider impossible: It made me enjoy raw tomatoes. This little salad leaned into the acidity of the tomatoes, dousing them in a tangy white soy and lime dressing. It was also sweet and peanutty with some pungency from both cooked and raw shallots.

By now I was noticing a few patterns: there was lots of fish sauce, peanut and shallot, there were tons of competing yet harmonious flavors, and everything was delicious.

By all accounts we shouldn't have cared for the nam tok beans either. Cranberry bean lettuce wraps? Really? These, though, were flash fried so that they were crispy yet somehow still light, dressed in lime and chile and coated in toasted rice powder so that they were salty, spicy and tangy all at once. Somehow, improbably, Kin Khao was three for three.

Phla pla muek (squid salad) at Kin Khao
Behold the Thai everlasting gobstopper.
Phla pla muek is basically a spicy squid salad, which are not three words you often see together. It still worked perfectly. Of course it did. The flavors actually came in discrete waves like an everlasting gobstopper: first sweet, then tangy and salty, followed by the pungent fish sauce, and finally the crumble of peanuts and cilantro. How did they do that? No, really, someone call a food scientist; I want to know.

The first thing I heard from Amy when she tried the pork belly was: "Are we in heaven?" This is sorta Kin Khao's signature dish, and it was everything I could have asked for. The crackling actually fell right off into the sauce, so I ate it immediately while it was still crisp. I could swear I got goosebumps. The rest was actually like two different dishes: the fattier part was luscious, melty and unbelievably tender, while the meatier part was like a darkly sweet barbecue pork. The sauce it came with was great with the belly, though a bit too richly sweet when I put some on the rice.

Massaman curry beef, pole beans and rice at Kin Khao
Curry, beans and rice. Looks like just your
average meal—keyword being "looks."
Speaking of that: We got white jasmine rice, which had its usual faintly floral aroma. The sticky rice was not sweet as I was expecting, but rather just dry and, well, sticky. It was fine. But I have to thank Kin Khao for introducing me to brown jasmine rice, which I had no idea existed. I'm no fan of ordinary brown rice (it's kind of whole-grainy and reminds me of quinoa), but this had the same delicious fragrant quality as the white jasmine. I'll be getting some for home use!

Our massaman beef curry served as an entrée course of sorts. The braised beef cheek was tender, though a little more stewy than I prefer. The curry itself was excellent: creamy, mild and hearty, topped with crunchy, lightly breaded shallot rings. It came together for a dish so stick-to-your-bones that I felt like I was back at my nonexistent Thai grandmother's house. That was served alongside blistered pole beans in an "XO sauce" composed of dried scallops, shrimp and ham. Think green beans without the bitterness, salty and garlicky with a massive hit of umami. Yum.

Stop making me like things I'm not supposed to like, Kin Khao!
At this point our stomachs were reaching the bursting point, but dessert was still to come: Thai tea soft serve. Thai tea has a distinct cardamom and star anise flavor I'm not a huge fan of, but it worked here because it was mellowed by the sweet condensed milk. Clusters of satisfyingly chewy tapioca and a topping of crispy coconut flakes provided a nice texture variation. Amy was too full, but I finished mine, because it was great and also I will never let dessert beat me.

I've rambled long enough, so I'll keep my summary brief: There's no denying that Kin Khao is pricey, but it's cheap for the experience you're getting. Few places are bold enough to bring such a broad and vibrant spectrum of flavors to the table. Kin Khao beats out any other Thai restaurant I've been to—not by a mile, but by a marathon. Everything here is great. Don't hesitate. Just go.

Score: 10 out of 10 (Extraordinary)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Travel Eats: Coqueta (San Francisco)

For lunch on Sunday we went to Coqueta, a Spanish tapas place by the water in San Francisco. It's run by one Michael Chiarello, a celeb chef with a Food Network show who took third place on a season of Next Iron Chef.

We went light on the drinks. Amy got a Juniper & Tonic, which was slightly sweet and bitter much like a gin and tonic. I had a sparkling rosemary lemonade, which was excellent: piney and fresh, tart with just a little sugar.

We started off with some pintxo skewers. The chorizo was good, rich and salty (as it should be!) with some vinegar from the artichoke and the piquillo pepper. The manchego was a satisfying bite, mixing salt with sweet fruitiness from the apricot conserva. The quail egg diablo was maybe the least exciting; not particularly "diablo", just lightly flavored from the mustard seed.

Next up was a pretty unusual rendition of deviled eggs. The yolk was blended with pimento aioli, creating an intensely tangy and smoky filling. It was topped with oil-poached bonito, which was nice but had a bit of the grainy texture that full-cooked tuna often does.

The larger plates, the pulpo and the patatas bravas, might have been the two highlights. The octopus was a thing of beauty, savory and tender, charred almost to burnt but not quite, so that it was crunchy on the edges. It had a pleasant sprinkling of herbs, though the potatoes it came with were less exciting—especially compared to the bravas. These earthy bite-size potato morsels were individually topped with daubs of garlicky aioli. The brava sauce was almost like a tomato cream sauce, but there was a bit of spicy, smoky oil in the center that I wish there'd been more of, as it really brought everything together.

We ended with a set of chicken croquetas, which were delicious and unexpectedly creamy and cheesy, with some occasional garden sweetness from the peas inside. Sadly, the chicharron crust seemed no different from a typical croqueta breading. They came with skewers of tangerine—an odd choice and not really integrated with the main part of the dish, but somehow it worked.

Though San Francisco is teeming with great restaurants, good food can be hard to find near the touristy pier area. For anyone sick of clam chowder and willing to walk a ways from the most trafficked part of the shoreline, Croqueta is a great alternative.

Score: 8.5 out of 10 (Excellent)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Travel Eats: Shinmai (Oakland)

On Friday Amy and I drove up to the Bay Area for our friends' wedding, so we made a weekend of it. For normal people, that means the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. For me, that (of course) means food.

We got in late so we ate close to our lodging at Shinmai, a Japanese place in Oakland. I'm glad I happened to see the entrance online, as there is literally no signage—just a big open door with a Japanese mural in the background.

I ordered a pineapple miso soda because it sounded interesting. What I got tasted pretty much like a limeade soda. Still good... just no real hint of miso or pineapple. Our hamachi appetizer was simple but tasty and lightly salted. It packed a hit of citrus from the ponzu and a bit of mellow ocean flavor from the seaweed.

The tonkotsu ramen was very good. It had a rich, buttery broth, light in color, full of thin noodles. I added the himitsu "secret" sauce which tasted of chile oil with slight piney, herby notes. The chashu was savory and tender, and the soy egg was perfectly cooked and rich with flavor throughout. It all came together for a comforting bowl that really hit the spot after an eight-hour road trip up from SD.

We just got a couple of chocolate mochi cookie truffles for dessert out of curiosity. Essentially, they were comparable to a simple Oreo-based truffle, except with a chewy morsel of mochi in the center. Nothing you couldn't do at home, but it was a fairly satisfying end to the meal.

As I'll write about in the two posts to come, the Bay Area has some insanely good restaurants. Shinmai doesn't quite measure up to the best of San Francisco, but it was still a pretty solid start to our mini vacation.

Score: 7.5 out of 10 (Great)

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Dish Spotlight: Rub My Belly at Good Time Poke

Dining area at Good Time Poke
Some places have one dish that stands out among the rest—not because the other menu items are bad, but because this one thing is so good that it feels like a betrayal to get anything else. For Good Time Poke in Pacific Beach, that dish is the Rub My Belly.

The $14 Rub My Belly bowl is probably my favorite poke in San Diego, though it arguably isn't technically poke at all. It consists of a bed of white rice topped with torched salmon belly—no shoyu marinade here—and a variety of veggies and toppings. (I always add jalapeño for some extra heat.)

Not one ingredient feels out of place in this bowl. The salmon belly is luscious: It's tender and raw on one side, the lightest of sears on the other, creating a mouthwatering contrast of textures. The nori is salty, rough and crisp, and brings with it that classic essence of the sea. The greenery of the avocado, scallions and jalapeño make the dish feel fresh and light without taking too much focus off the fish. The real chopped wasabi feels like an indulgence—it tastes brighter and sharper than the usual green-dyed horseradish. The tosazu (Japanese bonito rice vinegar) is slightly tangy mixed with a touch of soy sauce.

Rub My Belly bowl at Good Time Poke
This bowl has become a favorite in my family over the past couple of years. My dad has said more than once that it might actually be his favorite thing to eat, period. I won't go that far, but I love how any single bite is guaranteed to have a melange of three or four delicious elements that play perfectly together. The salmon, nori and vinegared rice coalesce into a symphony of flavor. Occasionally the wasabi lightly burns my nose, and I chuckle at my miscalculation in assembling the perfect bite.

The Rub My Belly feels like a San Diego summer. You could grab a bowl to go, walk three blocks to the ocean and eat it beachside under an umbrella. You could even pretend you just caught the fish yourself from the pier—it tastes fresh enough, after all. You could finish every precious morsel (feeling full yet wishing there'd been just a little more), then walk to the water and let the cold waves wash over your feet.

What am I trying to say here? Well... the best food doesn't feel like it's limited to a dining table. It feels like part of life. It brings people together. The best food makes memories.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Quick Bite: Eureka!

Fresno fig burger at Eureka!
The Fresno Fig burger, because mine
just looked like boring meat.
Sunday lunch was at Eureka! at UTC. I'm not a huge burger fan, so I'm certain that purists will disagree with me here, but this is probably my favorite burger place in the city.

The Fresno fig burger is one of the bougiest you'll ever see. It's fruity and sweet from the fig marmalade, but has a good salt level from the bacon and goat cheese. It's topped with arugula and porter mustard just to make sure you know it's fancy. The fries that came with our burgers were pretty standard, light in color and a little on the floppy side, but good for dipping. They came with a tangy ketchup, and we asked for some aioli too, which was garlicky and ranch-like.

I had the Eureka punch to drink, which was strong and tropical with pineapple, white rum and simple syrup. My bone marrow burger was, in a word, buttery. It was literally dripping with fatty goodness—in a good way, as long as you ignore how absurdly unhealthy it undoubtedly is. There weren't any really assertive flavors here; it had just a little acidity from the roasted tomato and the mustard aioli. Beyond that, it was just a tsunami of umami.

Blackened fish tacos at Eureka!
When my dad's turkey chipotle burger on lettuce arrived, the plate had so much greenery it looked like a salad. It wasn't half bad, seasoned with some distinctly southwestern spices. The charred tomato salsa, avocado and feta toppings are almost enough to make you forget you're eating... turkey.

The blackened fish tacos were also pretty tasty. The blackened seasoning combined with the mango salsa gave them a vaguely Caribbean vibe. I would have liked a slightly shorter cook time on the fish, though.

Eureka is in the business of Elevated Burgers, and that means cramming them with loads of fancy toppings. If you're in it purely for the ground beef experience, this is not the place for you. But if you, like me, believe the patty is merely a canvas on which to paint an elaborate work of burger art, it's worth a visit.

Score: 7 out of 10 (Very Good)

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Review: El Roy's

Fun fact: El Roy's has the same owners as Leroy's. No, really!
It was Restaurant Week last week, which naturally means something fun for date night. I chose El Roy's Tequila Bar & Kitchen in Coronado, a newly-opened Mexican place from Blue Bridge Hospitality (which practically has a monopoly on Coronado restaurants). It was offering a pretty interesting $30 3-course prix fixe menu, so I saw this as a good opportunity to try it out.

The view and the vibe are the immediate draw at El Roy's. It's located by the San Diego Bay waterfront, giving diners a fantastic view of the downtown skyline through the floor-to-ceiling glass. The guitarist played classic rock and some Mexican classics, which created a warm atmosphere despite the slow weekday evening. The psychedelic Día de los Muertos style mural on the wall gave the dining area some character.

First course! My Mexican corn pudding was excellent and one of the best parts of the meal. The cornbread-like base was topped with a heaping helping of elote. That mix of roasted corn, poblano, cotija, green onion and lime was a tart, salty complement to the sweetness of the cornbread. A great appetizer, but I'd recommend sharing because it's quite filling.

Amy's duck confit empanadas were good, though they may have been crisper if they weren't placed on a bed of salsa verde. The acidity of the salsa and pickled onion worked well to balance out that fried dough. The duck filling was meaty and satisfying but hard to pick up at times among the other flavors. She also had the Hibiscus Cooler cocktail, which was nothing unusual but nice, like a faintly floral sangria.

The entrée course was frankly a little lackluster. The sweetness of Amy's short rib tacos drowned out the other flavors for me—a shame, because crispy shallots and chile-tomato jam sound like they should have been great accompaniments. On a positive note, the actual tortillas were actually thick and slightly crisped with a definite masa flavor. The Brussels sprouts had that great crispy charred texture on the leaves. They had a pretty sweet foretaste due to the honey-based sauce (which ended up coating the plate—not ideal), followed by a light vinegar flavor. I liked them more than Amy, so I helped her out with them. I'm nothing if not a gentleman.

My pork belly tacos (yep, pork belly again—someone start a drinking game!) had their own issues. The flavors were good, including the very nutty peanut aioli and some sourness from the pickled veggies as great complements to the pork. The main problem was the pork belly itself, which came in massively thick slabs. That still could've been delicious if it were done right, but unfortunately it wasn't tender at all, and the fat wasn't properly rendered, making for an unpleasant bite. My cucumber slaw was okay, with a nice vinegar foretaste that faded a bit too quickly into something lemony and slightly bitter.

Dessert put things back on track. I got the dirty horchata cocktail, which was sweet and strong—they definitely didn't skimp on the horchata-flavored vodka. It was also pleasantly creamy from the white chocolate liqueur and coconut milk. I definitely got the cinnamon from the cinnamon–coffee simple syrup. It's not far from what I imagine a White Russian might taste like (never mind that I've never had one). Not all that much like horchata, but definitely tasty.

The highlight of the evening, though, was easily the Mexican chocolate pot de crème. Incredibly decadent, the chocolate custard was infused with just the right amount of cinnamon: not overpowering, just enough to stick around. It was topped with a layer of thick golden salty caramel—the kind of caramel with that deeper, darker sweetness. There was even a second (!) caramel dolloped onto it, a lighter one spiced with a little cayenne. All of that came with a blob of whipped cream on top. (Because... why not?) This was so good that the fact that it was too rich to finish may come back to haunt my dreams.

Having opened just a month ago, El Roy's may still be in the process finding its footing. They've clearly got some dishes down to an art, while others are just as clearly in need of some tweaks. Hopefully with the backing of the Blue Bridge Mafi—er, Hospitality Group—they can take their promising start and flourish into something truly great.

Score: 6.5 out of 10 (Good)