Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dish Spotlight: Carne Cruda Asada at Juniper & Ivy

Little Italy's Juniper & Ivy is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It ticks a lot of boxes for me: A wide array of unique small plates, a great cocktail list, an inventive menu that changes throughout the year—and most importantly, a few permanent menu items that are among my favorite dishes, period. One of those is the carne cruda asada.

Not-so-quick aside: Leading up to our recent visit, I'd planned to profile a different one of their mainstays, the incredible yodel cake. Its wild combination of textures (crunch! powder! ice cream!) and flavors (coffee! chocolate! strawberry!) mingle and combine in wonderful ways. It's a perfect dessert... but on our visit they'd ruined it, tampering with the flavor profile to create a far-inferior apple and matcha version. When we told the waiter as much, he confided: "You're preaching to the choir." Turns out much of the staff is lobbying to get the original back. Fingers crossed!

Now, back to the topic at hand.

The carne cruda asada has no right be as good as it is—not with ingredients that are so seemingly simple. It's just toast stacked with steak tartare, jalapeño, cotija cheese, quail egg and scallion, sliced into four pieces for sharing. And yet...

Flashback: The year is 2014. We're visiting J&I for the first time, soon after its grand opening, and I spot an odd and intriguing tartare toast on the menu. We order. I grab a slice. The toast is thick-cut, hardy enough to support a huge helping of tartare, so tender it's creamy, infused with jalapeño heat. The adorably tiny sunny-side-up quail eggs amplify that luscious texture. It's like the perfect savory breakfast, but I'm having it for dinner. A smattering of scallions and hint of lime and provide the springiness needed to lighten the heavy steak-and-eggs combo. And finally, the cotija supplies the critical salt element that unites the rest into a Mexican-influenced masterpiece. Months after this first encounter, I continue to think back on it longingly.

Here in 2018, the cruda asada is still one of the best dishes in San Diego. No outrageous flavors, just subtle, hearty and satisfying. It's the first dish to make me really love steak tartare, the kind of dish where every ingredient has an essential role to play. A true instant classic—let's just hope they don't go adding apples and matcha powder.

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