Restaurants Offering Deals to Attract Patrons
Monday, June 15, 2009
Have you checked out the early bird special lately? We'll talk about restaurants that are offering deals to get people in the door during the recession. And we'll find out where you can get great Mexican food in San Diego.
DOUG MYRLAND (Guest Host): I'm Doug Myrland, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. During the next hour, we're going to talk about food. First, we'll talk about bargains, not necessarily just cheap eats but also higher end restaurants that during these stressful economic times are offering some bargains. And later in the hour, we'll talk about great Mexican food in San Diego. Our guests are Caron Golden, a local writer whose blog, San Diego Foodstuff, is about food shopping, dining and cooking in the San Diego region. She's also the co-host of SignOnRadio.com's weekly show, The Gourmet Club. Caron, welcome.
CARON GOLDEN (Entertainment Writer): Good to be with you.
MYRLAND: And also joining us is Erin Chambers, San Diego Editor of CitySearch.com. Erin, welcome.
ERIN CHAMBERS (San Diego Editor, CitySearch.com): Good morning.
MYRLAND: And we also want to invite you to join the conversation. How often are you eating out these days and is your favorite restaurant offering some special deals? Go ahead and get in the queue to participate by calling us at 1-888-895-5727. Well, Caron, you know, we've seen news stories about restaurants changing their menus and offering special deals in light of the recession. Are restaurant customers really that price sensitive, do you think?
GOLDEN: I think right now everybody is price sensitive and restaurants are responding. They're in survival mode. One of the most indicative things that we've seen is Tracy Borkum, who has owned Laurel for, you know, decades, closed it recently and is reopening it as Cucina Urbana and it's going to be an Italian – a very accessible Italian restaurant which, she says, no dishes will be over twenty dollars. And you're seeing not so much these closings but you're seeing a lot of readjustments to menus and a lot of deals and a lot of deals that are being promoted through things like Twitter and Facebook to really get the word out and get people in.
CHAMBERS: It's true. I work for the website CitySearch.com and so we can actually – we have metrics that show us what people are searching for and what people are interested in and we have a new feature on San Diego City Search called Early Bird Specials, and they're not just for grandma anymore. Everybody needs an early bird special and it's very popular. People are searching for it. People are interested in it. Restaurants like the Beach House in Cariff are doing something called a Sunset Special where if you get there before 6:30, they've got a whole menu that's less than $15.00. Better Half Bistro in Hillcrest, they're doing three courses for $20.00 before 7:00 p.m. Even really high end restaurants like the Quarter Kitchen, which is in the Ivy Hotel downtown, Nathan Coulon, I mean, one of the best chefs in San Diego, if you get there before seven, you get three courses for $30.00, which is about half price if you really look at the price of, you know, their menu on a regular night. You're really getting deals at places that before weren't ever doing these kinds of specials and people are searching for them.
GOLDEN: And they're regular items. It's not special items for a lower price. These are items that you would find on the regular menu.
MYRLAND: So how can they afford to do this? Is the restaurant business more dependent on turning tables than it is on getting the maximum amount of dollar from each meal? Or how is it that they're able to achieve this flexibility?
GOLDEN: I think portion sizes are going down. One of the things – I spoke to a woman who works with Café Sevilla downtown and they have basically rethought some of their menu items and they've got smaller portions and so they can cut the prices, you know, for that. I don't even know if it's turn – table turnover anymore. They're trying to get bodies in the restaurant, you know, period. And so I think you do what you have to do, and I don't know how much mark-up they must've had beforehand but now, obviously, their margins are probably going to be much thinner right now. But they've got to get people in.
CHAMBERS: Well, and wine prices are another way people are doing it. The, you know, the mark-up and the margins on selling wine – beer, wine and alcohol are a lot higher than selling food so they're really trying to push alcohol sales. A lot of restaurants are starting to highlight their lounges and trying to bring people in to drink cocktails and wine as well as drinking food (sic). We have a whole thing on City Search about half-price wine nights. I mean…
MYRLAND: Well, maybe…
CHAMBERS: …there's 20 restaurants on here that are offering half-price wine or buy one, get one free bottles of wine to try to get that moving.
MYRLAND: Well, and maybe if you get an inexpensive meal, you feel a little more inclined to splurge a little on the wine or the drinks…
MYRLAND: …whereas if you're looking at menu prices that are high to begin with, maybe you'll order an iced tea just to…
CHAMBERS: Right. Right.
MYRLAND: …keep the credit card bill down. But, Erin, I want to ask you because you have to do this kind of thing on your website, how do you really define moderate versus inexpensive versus expensive? In these days, what's considered a moderately priced meal?
CHAMBERS: Caron and I were talking about this in the Green Room, actually, right before we came on. And what we both have been seeing in restaurants is there's definitely a ten dollar price point that you're seeing a lot at neighborhood restaurants. A restaurant called Tender Greens in Point Loma, they have everything on their menu, nothing's over ten dollars. Anthology in Little Italy, which is a great upscale restaurant, they have a whole lounge menu that's ten dollars or less. Alchemy, another restaurant in South Park, they have a lot of menu selections that are less than ten dollars. El Camino, a new restaurant – so that's really where you're going to find sort of a bargain. The Omni Hotel, I mean, they have a great McCormick & Schmick's, which is, you know, steak and seafood, expensive, but they have a huge happy hour menu where you can get a cheeseburger for two dollars. So, I mean, that's a – I mean, you know, true like a deal. And then, Caron, you were saying that the twenty dollar price point, once you kind of go above twenty dollars per entrée, a $23.00, you know, plate of pasta or a $23.00 steak or piece of chicken, that's getting towards fine dining, I would say.
GOLDEN: Yeah, and you're going to find – I've talked to both chefs and restaurant owners, and they seem to be sensitive to that twenty dollar level. And they'll tell you that no dishes are going to be over $20.00 for a certain meal. Urban Solace, which is a wonderful – and I think it's fairly moderately priced…
GOLDEN: …neighborhood restaurant, I mean, one of the things that Chef Matt Gordon will tell you is, you know, we try not to have too many items over $20.00. So they're trying – that seems to be sort of the cutoff point. Even Mille Fleurs, which, you know, has been of the pricier and more refined places in town, they apparently – their business has dropped off by thirty to thirty-five percent, they told me. And so they're doing thirty price -- $30.00 fixed price meals and they're also, you know, cutting their wine prices and they've got wine nights and they've got a bistro night. So they're really, you know, struggling to get people in. They're even telling the men to leave their jackets at home. I mean, they're really trying to get a different…
MYRLAND: My goodness.
GOLDEN: …kind of customer to come in.
MYRLAND: What's the world coming to?
GOLDEN: Well, in that place, you know, that's – it was kind of striking…
GOLDEN: …to see that. Yeah.
MYRLAND: What's next, you know? No socks and tennis shoes or what?
CHAMBERS: I mean, I have – I brought the menu with me today from Mr. A's. I mean, Mr. A's, which, I mean, I grew up in San Diego and that was just, I mean, as fancy as fancy can get.
MYRLAND: Yeah, that's definitely a special occasion kind of place.
CHAMBERS: I have a menu sitting in front of me right now that's Mr. A's happy hour menu that has one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight items on it for less than seven dollars.
CHAMBERS: Spring rolls, swordfish, steak sliders, truffled fries, jidori chicken, Kobe beef sliders, seven dollars at Mr. A's. I mean, that's getting low.
MYRLAND: Well, our guests today are talking about food. Erin Chambers, you just heard from, she's the San Diego Editor of CitySearch.com. And, excuse me, Caron Golden is also the local writer whose blog is called San Diego Foodstuff. And we're inviting you to join the conversation as well. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And Allison in Tierrasanta is with us on the telephone. Allison, thanks for joining us.
ALLISON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Hi. I just wanted to call in and say our family of four, we used to eat out two to three times a week and we have not eaten out as a family in over three months. We just had to make a serious, you know, looking at our budget, change in where we're going to spend our money. Occasionally, I will eat out for lunch at work or my husband will but it's just been a drastic change. And I'm sure that there's other people out there like us so I understand what the restaurants are facing but if you're looking at spending $20.00 for one person, which sounds like a great deal at a restaurant that maybe before it was $40.00, it's really not a great deal if you have to – if you need to feed your family for $20.00.
MYRLAND: Well, I'm so glad you made that comment because we wanted to have an excuse to talk a little bit about cooking at home. So the question I want to ask you is, are you sort of expanding your repertoire of what you're making at home as a result of not going out so often? I guess…
MYRLAND: You are?
ALLISON: And – Yeah, and we're shopping as a family and my husband and I are cooking together, things that we, you know, we maybe didn't do before. We also cook, you know, try to cook for the week ahead of time. I used to go to Super Shoppers all the time. They closed where I live but they taught me a different mindset for cooking way in advance so it's made it easier but – and I'm just sorry to say that eating out is just definitely not something that's in our budget at this time. And I – and we're enjoying not eating out so much but I don't know if it'll ever be as much of a highlight as it used to be.
MYRLAND: Well, Allison, thanks for your comment. And, Caron, you know, it seems to me that it's not entirely a bad thing that people are kind of rediscovering their kitchen.
GOLDEN: Yeah, I think that what we're seeing from Allison is the reason why so many of these restaurants are having a hard time and lowering their prices. But for a lot of us dining out isn't going to be an option or is going to be a very rare kind of thing, and if you're going to be eating at home why not take advantage of all the really great produce that we have in town and great, you know, fish and all of these wonderful products and make wonderful meals, time to start teaching your kids how to cook, and time to start eating together again as a family. And I see that that – that may be an upside to all of this as well.
MYRLAND: And then when you do go out, choose something that's not in your home repertoire.
GOLDEN: Absolutely, and…
CHAMBERS: There you go.
GOLDEN: …and I think that for most of us who love to eat out and who love to cook, there are a lot of things that I just don't bother cooking because I know someone else can do it better, a lot of Chinese dishes, things like that. So, yeah, when I am going out, I like to try things that I wouldn't necessarily be able to do for myself.
CHAMBERS: Well, one…
MYRLAND: And – Go ahead, Erin.
CHAMBERS: One thing to note about kids' menus, that's another thing on City Search that's really getting a lot of traction and we're hearing from a lot of families because, you know, I don't have kids and a lot of times I think in terms of just my husband and I and a table for two. But it really does expand it when you're talking about a table for four, and I have a couple good tips for that. Blind Lady Ale House, this is a new, great local place in Normal Heights. They have organic pizzas, a really great craft beer list, and they have a kids' menu and everything on the kids' menu is like around five dollars. And even for the adults' menu, you know, organic pizzas, they have a margherita pizza for seven dollars, they have a few other options. So if you really like craft beer and that scene, this is a great local place to go where you really could feed a family of four for thirty or forty bucks. Another one is Tender Greens, which we mentioned earlier. Nothing on that menu is over ten dollars. They have special kids' cooking classes, they have milk and cookies for kids after school, they – that's another restaurant that's really trying to focus on bringing families in. And a lot of places still do kids eat free: Pat & Oscar's does kids eat free on Tuesdays if you have a parent buying a meal. And then La Jolla Brew House in La Jolla, on Sunday nights they do kids eat free. So there are options out there. It's like get creative in your kitchen but also research. You know, get online and find out who's doing deals.
MYRLAND: Well, that leads me to my next question. You can go on your website or you can go on Sign On San Diego but, really, what's the best way to do research and find out about these options? Is it online? Or can you depend on just wandering around and looking at the message board in the restaurant? I guess how do restaurants really market this idea?
GOLDEN: Well, first of all, you've got, you know, Erin's website, you've got a lot of food bloggers who are talking about these things. And there's, you know, people – if you're on Twitter at all, you can start following different people who are, you know, food writers and that leads you to all the different restaurants who are also promoting a lot of their deals on there. There are a lot of websites. I write for sdnn.com and, you know, we're constantly covering new things that are going on in the community. One of the things we haven't talked about is – and if you're talking about great deals, is there are a lot of really great ethnic markets in town and most of them have very good eateries and you can get great food for very little money.
MYRLAND: Well, and…
GOLDEN: Shockingly little money.
MYRLAND: And I'll bet our listeners can tell us about some of those. If you know a great ethnic market or you want to talk about a great bargain you found at a restaurant, give us a call. 1-888-895-5727.
GOLDEN: So, for instance, if you like Middle Eastern food, you can go to Balboa International Market or Parsian Market. Balboa International Market's in Clairemont. Parsian's is on Convoy in Kearny Mesa. You can get absolutely delicious full meals of – I've had veal shanks with beautiful rice with fava beans and a big salad for about eight dollars, and it's really two meals in one. You can get wraps, you can get all sorts of wonderful things. We'll be talking about the Hispanic markets later but 99 Ranch Market or Nijiya Market or Mitsuwa is a really good example. Mitsuwa Market, which is a Japanese market in Kearny Mesa, has fresh sushi that you can buy. It has actual ramen noodle dishes that are not the college dishes for eighty-nine cents but really fine ramen dishes. You can get all sorts of like fabulous meals.
MYRLAND: What can you say to somebody who might be a little reluctant to walk into an ethnic market when you don't really speak the native language and you're not all that familiar with all the menu items and everybody in there seems to know what they want and you've never been there before. What advice do you give them?
GOLDEN: Read San Diego Foodstuff…
GOLDEN: …because this is a lot of what I write about.
CHAMBERS: I was going to say, bring your iPhone and have Caron's blog up on your iPhone as you're walking through the market and that will help you.
CHAMBERS: Her blog – she really does have really great tips about that and she's, you know, you can tell that she's at those…
GOLDEN: You have to be fearless.
CHAMBERS: …markets a lot, yeah, they're all…
GOLDEN: You have to be fearless. There's nothing to be afraid of. The people who are there, whether it's the customers or the people who work there, are really nice. My mother is my example of this. She will go and stand in front of a bin of something completely unfamiliar to her, wait for someone to show up who looks like they know what they're doing and she'll ask them a question. What do you – What is this and what do you do with it? People love it. They'll give you recipes. I stood and got a recipe for how to do the lamb shanks from some guy when I was just buying them at the counter at Balboa International Market, and the counter guy had to give me one of the check pads so that I could write down what the guy was telling me. I mean, people are wonderful. You have to be – you have to kind of get out of your mindset and be a little bit braver and try these and you'll find amazing things.
MYRLAND: I want to take another call. Rosia in University City, you're on the line with us.
ROSIA (Caller, University City): Hi. I love some of your ideas, they're fantastic, but sometimes going out to eat takes up time, takes up gas. The other thing is is there anything related to catering where they have people maybe create meals for a week or two weeks where you could freeze them and then take them out and they'd deliver to your house?
MYRLAND: Go ahead, Caron.
GOLDEN: They do and I -- You know what, I should've prepared some ideas for you but I – I don't remember the names of some of them. Yes, there are places in town that do that. There are a couple of catering places that do specifically prepared meals. You can get personal chefs who have businesses in which they do that as well.
CHAMBERS: Well, and there's a big trend also – and I can't think of the name of them right now but there's one in Liberty Station. I know there's one in Carlsbad. There's places where you go…
GOLDEN: In Tierrasanta, yeah.
CHAMBERS: Yeah, where you go, you sign up, you go into sort of a big industrial kitchen. There's chefs there that'll walk you through it. You prepare a week's worth of meals, you package them all up in freeze, you know, containers, ready to freeze, and you take them home with you. They give you a glass of wine while you're there. It's kind of like a little mini-cooking class but you're cooking it there, it's all very affordable meals, and then you walk out with five meals for the week. I know a lot of moms that are very into that. It's a little bit of a break, you know, during your day and you get five meals in the time it takes to prepare them.
GOLDEN: And you can sign up with friends to do it so it's…
GOLDEN: …sort of like a party and then you walk out with enough meals for a week.
MYRLAND: It kind of sounds like fun.
MYRLAND: Well, Rosia, thanks for joining the conversation. I want to go now to Ed in Normal Heights who wants to talk about Restaurant Row there. Ed, welcome to the program.
ED (Caller, Normal Heights): Hi. Good morning. I'd like to, first of all, nominate 30th Street corridor going from North Park – or, Normal Heights to North Park and down to South Park as the new official Restaurant Row of San Diego. And then one great deal I look for is the holidays and that's Mother's Day or Father's Day events and I found at Pal Joey's, that new bar – or, an old tavern or bar in Allied Gardens, it's been redone over. It's a beautiful place now. It's – Father's Day for two dollars – a steak dinner for two dollars for dad and kids. So it's just a – that's my nomination for Restaurant Row and that's my pick for Father's Day and thanks for the program.
MYRLAND: Well, thank you, Ed. Two dollars for a steak, boy, that's a bargain.
CHAMBERS: Oh, to see Pal Joey's kind of make a comeback is so great. I grew up in that neighborhood and, oh, my gosh, that Pal Joey's, talk about a storied, old school, time forgot, San Diego place, I'd love to see that place come back. So that's great that it's having a revolution, a second life.
MYRLAND: I lived in Allied Gardens for a very brief time and I was surprised at how many choices there are there…
CHAMBERS: Yeah, you got to…
MYRLAND: …in terms of restaurants.
CHAMBERS: …hunt a little bit. They don't really market. And one thing I wanted to reiterate what Caron said about taking a chance and Twitter. Take a chance on Twitter. I mean, I'm on Twitter a lot for work. I Twitter for City Search. And even if you're not into actually sending out your 140 character messages, just sign up and watch everyone else's, follow chefs, follow restaurants. I mean, there are great deals on there. The guy that owns Burger Lounge, he tweets…
GOLDEN: Oh, yeah.
CHAMBERS: …like a buy one, get one free burger if you come to Burger Lounge right now with – and you mention Twitter, you get a free burger. Or Pizza Fusion does really great deals on Twitter. And even really nice restaurants, Crescent Heights, which I think Caron would agree is one of the nicest restaurants in San Diego, for sure in downtown San Diego. Their manager's on Twitter twittering 15% off deals for happy hour. And, I mean, really, it might seem a little bit intimidating if you haven't done it yet but if you're really looking for a deal on dinner, Twitter is really a great place to start.
GOLDEN: Yeah, all you need to do is just walk in. I did that once at Burger Lounge…
GOLDEN: …and they were – they had free fries or something. And they have really great fries, and you just walk in and said, I heard you had a deal from Twitter. And they're like, oh, yeah. And they just give you the discount, no – you don't have to go around carrying coupons or anything.
MYRLAND: We're going to take a break here in a minute and when we come back from the break, we're going to be talking about Mexican food so we want to give you a chance to call us now with your recommendations about great Mexican food in San Diego. And I know that there are many, many choices but I'm sure you have your favorite so give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS, to take part in the conversation. Our guests are Caron Golden. She's a local writer whose blog is called San Diego Foodstuff. She also co-hosts SignOnRadio.com's weekly show, The Gourmet Club. And also Erin Chambers, San Diego Editor of CitySearch.com. I want to take a moment just to talk about tipping for a second. It strikes me that if folks are beginning to think about bargain meals that maybe that has an effect on the income of the server. If you're tipping 20% of $10.00, that's a different tip than 20% of…
MYRLAND: …$30.00. Dare we encourage people to think generously when it comes to tipping as a result of some of these price cuts?
CHAMBERS: Yeah, I mean, I actually see it changing in a more fundamental way. Some of the restaurants that are really doing well right now have kind of eliminated – we were talking about that ten dollar price point, at that price point they've had to eliminate what we traditionally think of as service altogether. Blind Lady Ale House, which I talked about, you walk in there, you walk up to the counter, you look at the menu, you order your food and you order your beer, you sit down, no tipping necessary. You go and you pick up your own plates, your own napkins, your own stuff. You go sit at your table. Same thing with Tender Greens, which we talked about. These are two places that are very, very busy doing very well through this recession and maybe because partly they've eliminated that costly element of table service. So, I mean, that's one sort of perspective on tipping.
GOLDEN: Yeah, it's unfortunate that along with the lower prices it means lower tips for the staff and I don't know any way around that. Obviously, be as generous as you can because, you know, if a dollar or two doesn't make much difference to you, it's definitely going to make a difference to wait staff, you know, cumulatively. But, you know, for some of these it's even the idea of just having a job at this point and, you know, with the economy the way it is that's sort of the harsh reality.
MYRLAND: We have time for one more call before we go to the break. We have Mark in Encinitas who wants to talk about Twitter. Mark, you're welcome – welcome to the show.
MARK (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. Can you hear me okay?
MYRLAND: Yes, we can.
MARK: Well, I just wanted to call in because you guys were talking about Twitter a little bit and what I've been working on for the past couple of months is a site that is called Local Mo, l-o-c-a-l-m-o and it's geared – it's basically powered by Twitter but it's used to provide local news, recommendations, reviews. Anything that you may have a question about that's locally oriented to San Diego, you can go on there and basically post it and everybody that's following Local Mo will see that see that question in San Diego and will be able to reply to that. So it's basically taking the power of Twitter and using it as a very centric, you know, locally centric model to basically empower people to get answers to questions they have really quickly.
GOLDEN: Is that up yet?
MARK: Yeah, it's up. It's running. We've sort of launched it last week. We're building followers and, I mean, your points to the coupons and being able to get people to come to restaurants and Twitter's really, really great for that and I've seen companies being – or, you know, restaurants using that to say, you know, come in tonight, we're doing a two-for-one or we're doing a free appetizer, mention the fact that, you know, you saw us on Twitter and it just – it helps people get the information quickly and draws them into, you know, really good restaurants.
MYRLAND: Well, Mark, thanks very much for that. And that site's called Local Mo. And we will talk about Mexican food for the next half hour or so right after we take a quick break. You're listening to These Days in San Diego.
[ break ]
MYRLAND: These Days in San Diego. I'm Doug Myrland. My guests are Erin Chambers, San Diego Editor of CitySearch.com, and also Caron Golden, who is the host of SignOnRadio.com's weekly San Diego Gourmet show. So we hope also to welcome you to the conversation at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. And during this next half-hour, we're going to talk about Mexican food. And San Diego's one of those wonderful places on the planet that there's great Mexican food on almost every corner.
GOLDEN: True enough. True enough. Although it's interesting, I don't think it was that way even twenty years ago when I first moved here from Los Angeles. I was shocked at how ordinary and really not so terrific the Mexican food was. And it has really changed a lot in that time, and we're seeing not just—(coughing) excuse me—the typical tacos and burritos and enchiladas, but we're seeing a lot of really interesting restaurants that are popping up with more fine dining opportunities to try really authentic, you know, fine Mexican food.
MYRLAND: And I want to jump right into that very subject, you know, the difference between what we think of as sort of common Mexican food on every corner and how a restaurant might justify higher prices and a different kind of experience with a different kind of Mexican cuisine. But first of all, I want to – Erin, on your website, I'll bet a huge percentage of the restaurants are listed as Mexican restaurants, right?
MYRLAND: Now do you sub-divide those? Or do you just sort of lump them all into one?
CHAMBERS: No, there's definitely the taco shop side of Mexican food, there's definitely the Old Town, you know, somewhat tourist driven, historical, you know, sort of Mexican food, and then, as Caron noted, there's definitely – I hate to call it a trend because it's been happening in other cities for a long time but there's definitely kind of a surge of healthier, lighter, more modern Mexican food that you will pay a lot more for and a lot of people, I think, are surprised at the price point that a Mexican restaurant can reach but it can be considered, as we were talking about, you know, how do you delineate prices, you can pay upwards of $20 or $25 or $30.00 for a dish at a really excellent Mexican restaurant, at Candelas or at El Agave in Old Town.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to go to the callers. We have several people who want to talk about some of their favorite Mexican restaurants. And so Esau in La Jolla, we understand you have a suggestion for us.
ESAU (Caller, La Jolla): Yes, hi. There's this place right on University Avenue about three blocks west of the 15 freeway. It's called Super Cocina. And what I was telling the gentleman when they were asking me is, there's a lot of like Mexican American food around. You see taco shops on every corner. But it's more of a – See, I come from a Mexican heritage so I used to eat what my grandmother used to cook and my, you know, my great grandmother, and it's completely different.
MYRLAND: Well, Esau, when you said Super Cocina, Erin and Caron looked at each other and nodded and smiled. Super kitchen.
ESAU: Super kitchen, exactly. That's – that would be the translation of it. And it's just like a little hole in the wall place. It's really – When you go in there, you know, being Mexican and going into Mexico – I'm married to a Mexican that came from Mexico City and we went to visit and the food was just phenomenal down there. And when I found this place on University Avenue, I was just blown away because it's the authentic taste. I, you know, like they were saying, there are some places that you might find that are like healthier alternatives to it and, you know, for people that probably can't eat, you know, pork or things cooked with lard, I understand, but for those who…
MYRLAND: Well, I…
ESAU: …can still, you know, enjoy things like that, this place is…
MYRLAND: Sure, well we…
ESAU: This – this is the place.
MYRLAND: …we appreciate the recommendation. And, Erin, you're smiling. You've been there.
CHAMBERS: Yeah, well, it's funny, you – We shouldn't lump taco shops into, oh, that's just, you know, Americanized, whatever, food, because there are a few – I always call them like the rock star taco shops in San Diego that truly are authentic, that like the food community frequents and adores and loves, and they really do bring us an authentic taste. Tacos El Gordo is another one. The family has restaurants in Mexico and they have one – a couple in San Diego. They do really great authentic food. Super Cocina is one. Carnitas Uruapan in Lemon Grove is another one. So there are definitely places where you can get inexpensive, traditional, well done Mexican food in San Diego. And they're a little bit like buzz words in the foodie sort of community, so that caller definitely – he was an insider. He knows his Mexican food for sure.
MYRLAND: I want to go back to Jose in Coronado. Jose, you're on the program with us, welcome.
JOSE (Caller, Coronado): Yes, hey, good morning. I just wanted to recommend La Casita, another one of those hole in the wall places. Been there for about 25, 30 years, right across from City College.
MYRLAND: Okay, thanks very much.
CHAMBERS: The little blue house, little blue house across from City College, yeah.
MYRLAND: Well, and lots of foot traffic in that neighborhood, so… And then we want to go to David in Del Mar. David, I understand you have a recommendation as well.
DAVID (Caller, Del Mar): Yeah, hi, good morning, guys.
MYRLAND: Good morning.
DAVID: I love the Mexican food in San Diego and I can't find it anywhere else really. There's two spots I'd like to recommend. One is kind of a 24-hour shop called El Cotixan in Clairemont. They opened up a second one in Mira Mesa. The one in Clairemont's one right across from the DMV. And then a restaurant, a sit-down restaurant, is Fidel's in Solana Beach. Those are two of my favorites. So…
MYRLAND: Thanks very much for those recommendations. I want to stick with the subject of what makes a more complex and justifiably expensive Mexican meal as opposed to just what you would normally get at your corner taco shop.
GOLDEN: I think it's a little – we have our prejudices and I think, unfortunately, if you're in the United States you think of Mexican food as sort of cheap, lower class food. And, in fact, Mexico is an entire country with vast regions that have indigenous, you know, regional foods that are quite astounding and quite complex. If you're in certain parts of central Mexico, you're going to find all of those gorgeous moles and we think of guacamole and that's just, you know, mashed avocadoes but 'mole' means sauce and you can find just astounding different sauces and dishes prepared with pork and with beef and with chicken that are quite beautiful and maybe take three or four days to prepare. If you're in coastal Mexico, you're going to have access to all the seafood and so you're going to find a lot of variations on, you know, different spices and different ingredients that are also taking advantage of the seafood. Where we are in Baja, we have both the coastal area – we have an area near Ensenada called, oh, gosh, now it's just – Vida Guadalupe. And the Guadalupe Valley is a very rich, very fertile area. Cheeses are made there, wine is…
CHAMBERS: Great olives there…
CHAMBERS: …and olive oil kind of.
GOLDEN: So I think for people to think of Mexican food as just sort the cheap street food isn't really fair. And we've got restaurants here that represent that.
MYRLAND: Let's talk a little bit about the influence of the sea and seafood as Mexican food. Would either of you care to name a couple of places where we could explore that cuisine?
GOLDEN: Sure. Well, one of the places – actually, there's – If you like taco trucks…
CHAMBERS: Oh, yes.
GOLDEN: Marisco's German is this wonderful taco truck. It's over on University and 35th and there are some other actual locations there. But they specialize in seafood and you can get wonderful ceviche at this truck. It's in the parking lot of a liquor store.
GOLDEN: Be bold, go there. The food is delicious. You're not going to get sick. It's a very popular truck. And you can get great tacos made of – you can have it with octopus, you can have it with shrimp—obviously, shrimp is very popular—different kinds of fish. It's just amazing. There's a place in Chula Vista called Mariscos Mazatlan, which is – it's on Third Avenue, and I really like it. You can get a lot of really good fried fish there, wonderful ceviches, just a whole range of food that is basically seafood oriented.
CHAMBERS: I second the Marisco's Taco Truck at University and 35th, it's great. And just one thing to note, though, it is only seafood there because I've been a couple of times and my husband is definitely a carnivore and he was like, only seafood. But, yeah, it's definitely only fish tacos that you can get there and no tables or anything so if you go there, everything – nothing's going to cost you…
GOLDEN: There is actually a table.
CHAMBERS: Well, a couple but…
GOLDEN: With folding chairs.
CHAMBERS: Yeah, with folding chairs and they're under like a little beach awning kind of thing. And I've never gotten a seat every time I've ever been there. So be prepared to just pay two bucks for your taco, stand on the street and eat it. And just close your eyes and you could be in Mexico. It tastes like Mexico, it sounds like Mexico. I mean, that is a great pick.
MYRLAND: Well, I think that's one difference in Mexican food in San Diego as opposed to other parts of the southwest. I grew up in Arizona and there are a lot of similarities in the Mexican food but definitely more seafood here and more influence of Baja.
GOLDEN: As it should be.
GOLDEN: I mean, we want – if we're talking local foods, that's one of the things that we benefit from is having all this wonderful seafood that is accessible to us.
CHAMBERS: Ortega's is another good pick to get lobster, Ortega's in Hillcrest.
CHAMBERS: They have a great selection of Baja lobster there and they do it – they split it halfway – split it in half and they grill it and it's a really great place to get some good, authentic Baja lobster. It's Ortega's Bistro in Hillcrest. They also have a lot of good tequila selection there, which is another thing to note about Mexican food sort of getting a little bit more modern. The market for tequila is just exploding as, you know, much more of an upscale drink, something that you sip, something – there's tequila connoisseurs. There's – the tequila market is just booming and people are coming up with new tequilas and some of it is a little bit of a marketing scheme. I think, you know, it's getting so popular that there's a lot of people trying to market it as, you know, take advantage of it a little bit. But, yeah, no, tequila is another signal that Mexican food is really going upscale because now you have – you pair it with food just like you do with wine.
MYRLAND: Well, we had a KPBS event a couple of years ago where there was a tequila tasting.
MYRLAND: And I don't think of myself as having a really refined palate, especially when it comes to tequila, but I was amazed at the differences among…
GOLDEN: Oh, yeah. We're talking, you know, the unaged, the blanco, the reposado, which is sort of rested, it's about three months old, and then the anejos, which are basically over a year. And if you do a tasting, those are very striking differences and you can definitely figure out what you like and, as Erin said, they're…
MYRLAND: I really…
GOLDEN: …sipping, they're not – you don't use them for margaritas. You use those for sipping.
MYRLAND: Well, for me, the tasting was more fun than even a beer tasting or a wine tasting because I thought the differences were more striking. I could really tell the…
MYRLAND: …that there was a difference, one to the other. And if you're going to do a tasting, you want to be able to tell. Sometimes with wine tastings I feel a little intimidated that I really – I'm not sure I'm really understanding the subtleties.
GOLDEN: Well, if you are into that then El Agave over in Old Town is a wonderful place to go. The whole room is lined with different tequilas and you can get a flight of tequila and do tasting of the three different aged tequilas and kind of get a sense of what you like. They also specialize in moles and they have a lot of different kinds of moles with different kinds of, you know, dishes. You can have them with chicken, you can have them with pork or with fish. And you're going to get a really – it's a beautiful room and it's a wonderful, you know, tasting experience.
MYRLAND: El Agave.
GOLDEN: El Agave.
MYRLAND: Well, Charlie in University Heights wants to make a recommendation so, Charlie, welcome to the program.
CHARLIE (Caller, University Heights): Hello. Thanks for taking my call. To build on your tequila and mole extravaganza, Cantina Mayahuel in Normal Heights on Adams Avenue right at 30th, lovely place. They do their mole on Friday only because of the necessary labor that's involved in doing the true mole. And they have a lovely mescal and tequila selection as well.
MYRLAND: Charlie, thanks for that recommendation. And, Caron, you were nodding your head.
GOLDEN: Yes, it's a wonderful place. It's right off of – if you get off the 805 at Adams Avenue and turn left, it's about within a block or so and it really is terrific and they have an interesting selection of tequilas and also they do the special mole.
MYRLAND: Well, and the caller earlier who sort of recommended that area as a new Restaurant Row, I was there a couple of weeks ago with my wife for an art festival…
MYRLAND: …and I was amazed at the length of the street and, really, all the way to…
GOLDEN: It is so evolved.
GOLDEN: It is astounding. And now El Zarape, which has been a very popular Mexican restaurant on Park near Adams…
GOLDEN: …has a second location where the Prince & the Pauper bookstore used to be, and they just opened that up. And, in fact, I'm going there tonight for dinner. And that is one of those places that has this astounding menu with a lot the things that you would expect in terms of, you know, the tacos and the burritos but if you're a vegetarian – I brought the menu from when I was there the last time. You can get steamed and marinated vegetable burrito, you can get black beans and cheese, you can get a soy burrito. They have – What I tasted, I got a lobster burrito and a shrimp taco, which were absolutely delicious. And then a friend of mine got something called the Pork Chile Colorado, and this was by far the best thing I had ever had. It was like a stew, like a chile that we would think of as, you know, what we call just chili, and – but it was made with some kind of wonderful red chili powder that must've just been marinating and cooking for hours upon hours because it was so flavorful and the smell was so rich. It was just astounding.
CHAMBERS: Caron, you said they had a soy burrito there. There's another great Mexican food restaurant to know about called Pokez. This is downtown, 10th and E, bit of a nondescript corner, kind of on 10th and E, definitely outside the Gaslamp, definitely outside the East Village. But they have a great vegan selection of vegan and vegetarian Mexican food items, which are a little bit harder to find. I've been doing a lot of research lately for a new website called VeggieThing where we're trying to find really good, neat, interesting vegan options and Pokez has great vegan and vegetarian food in addition to, you know, some traditional Mexican specialties. But it's a little bit edgy but they have some great vegan options, too.
MYRLAND: Well, as I understand it, even though we think of meat as being a huge component of most Mexican food, there are regional cuisines in Mexico where meat is used quite lightly, if at all.
GOLDEN: Absolutely, and I think a lot of it, just as in Asian food, it's used to flavor dishes, it's not used as the, you know, the main focus. And so you are going to have – you can have good, healthy Mexican food, a lesson I learned from a chef named Javier Plascencia, who taught it at Rancho La Puerta, was, you know, we think of Mexican food as being very fatty and, you know, lard. We had one of the callers talking about that. But if you were growing up in a farm area or you are – you know, your economic circumstances are a little bit better in Mexico, you're going to eat a lot of vegetables and fruit and, you know, seafood and chicken, and it's not going to be the kind of heavy stuff that we look to as fast food. It's very refined cooking. And, in fact, we have a restaurant here called Romesco, which is down in Bonita, and it's owned by a chef named Javier Plascencia. He's from Tijuana. He moved his family over the border when the kidnappings all started. I think his brother was kidnapped at one point. And the family has had a number of restaurants in Tijuana for years. They were Italian restaurants. Well, he opened a restaurant in Bonita and it is amazing. It is called Romesco and it's what he describes as Baja Mediterranean.
GOLDEN: So he's using the ingredients that you would find in Mexico and, in fact, he gets a lot of his ingredients from the Guadalupe Valley, which we talked about earlier. And he creates sort of a Mediterranean influenced Mexican food, and Mexican influenced Mediterranean food. So you can find pastas, you can find a lot of things that you would expect at maybe an Italian restaurant or a French restaurant but he's using ingredients indigenous to Mexico or he is using things like kurabouta pork belly for carnitas. He makes the most outrageous spiced cream pumpkin soup. And these are things that the flavors are what you would think of as Mexican flavors but it's done in a very different way and it's just as authentic as anything that we would think of as, you know, a taco or a burrito.
MYRLAND: And this is in Bonita.
GOLDEN: This is in Bonita. It's just – it's an amazingly lovely place.
CHAMBERS: And, again, the price…
GOLDEN: But it's in a strip mall near a – like, I think, a Rite Aid or something. You wouldn't – when you drive into this mall, you wouldn't think that some wonderful restaurant is there but you walk in…
MYRLAND: Oh, I would.
GOLDEN: …and it's just a treasure.
MYRLAND: Because I prefer restaurants without tablecloths.
MYRLAND: So strip malls are the first place I look for someplace to eat.
GOLDEN: Umm-hmm. Oh, well, it's very nice inside. You – No, it's a really lovely restaurant but it's in sort of an unlikely location.
MYRLAND: Well, I want to get back to some callers who have been waiting patiently to make their recommendations, and, Paul, in University Heights is with us. Paul, welcome.
PAUL (Caller, University Heights): Hi, good morning. I'd like to add to the list Mama Testa's. It's in the…
PAUL: …Hillcrest area along University Avenue. And the fellow there, he says he – it's like what you would get if you went to somebody's home in Mexico. It's kind of like home cooking.
MYRLAND: Hmm. Do they make their own tortillas?
PAUL: I imagine. I don't know.
CHAMBERS: And they have a great salsa bar.
PAUL: They're – they make a taco soup that is not to be missed.
GOLDEN: Yes, they make their own chorizo, they make – they do a lot of home cooking and a lot of their own ingredients. They're very good.
CHAMBERS: Umm-hmm. A good salsa bar, too.
GOLDEN: Yeah, very good salsa bar.
MYRLAND: …that – that's called Mama Testa's. Paul, thanks for that recommendation. I want to go now to Issac in Bay Park. Issac, thanks for joining us.
ISSAC (Caller, Bay Park): Oh, hi. I wanted to add to the list of recommendations Chula Vista, as Bonita continues to be a beneficiary of Tijuana's families coming over and opening up new restaurants, and if you want a great, great Mexican breakfast, it's Talavera Azul on Third near F. I believe it's the same family that owns the La Lena, the grill restaurant in Tijuana. For the best green chilaquiles, that kind of traditional breakfast, they do a great, great job.
MYRLAND: Issac, thanks very much for that recommendation.
GOLDEN: Third in Chula Vista is just this marvel of different markets and restaurants down there. And there's a market I went to called Mercado 2000 International. I found it kind of by mistake. I was looking for something else and decided to go in there. I was with a friend of mine and we decided to get lunch over there. They have this little stand on the side of the market outside – you have to go outside the market into the parking lot. And they have this guy there who is cooking up all of these different dishes and, again, things that you're not going to necessarily find in other places. They had what was called a mulita, which was sort of a thick tortilla sandwich with grilled chicken, cilantro, scallions, avocado and cheese. And then I also a lengua taco, which is tongue, which was just absolutely delicious and I think these were like two or three dollars. And, again, we're not talking fine dining. You're basically sitting at a little table in a parking lot. But if you want good food, that's where you go.
MYRLAND: I'm intrigued by your description of a tortilla sandwich. So it's a puffy tortilla?
GOLDEN: No. It's just thick tortillas that the dish is made into like what we would call a sandwich. They have tortas which would be sandwiches made with bread but these were like a tortilla and then sort of whatever the filling was and then another tortilla on top of that.
MYRLAND: But not all wrapped up?
GOLDEN: No. It's different.
GOLDEN: It's cool. It's very cool.
MYRLAND: We have John in Point Loma who wants to make a recommendation. John, welcome.
JOHN (Caller, Point Loma): Welcome, yeah, hi. I'm calling you guys. I think you're missing the whole Barrio Logan, you know…
JOHN: …the Quatro Milpas and the Rancho Fresco and, I mean, I drive all the way down there just to eat my heart's content.
CHAMBERS: How long do you wait in the line?
JOHN: Yeah, most of the day.
GOLDEN: Yeah, that's the problem.
JOHN: And, you know, I have – I remember growing up and I lived in North County and it was a treat. We'd get in the car and go down there and you'd see the little old ladies with the pots and, you know, I'm involved with a big event this weekend and we're sitting around and I'm stuck doing food and one of the things I said is, we got to get our beans from Quatro Milpas, you know, so…
CHAMBERS: Definitely worth it but definitely a wait in line. If you haven't been there yet give yourself a good solid hour to wait and eat there. But, I mean, it's worth it, it's great, it's one – Like I said, that's another one of those rock star places that, you know, among foodies, among, you know, people that enjoy food and really like ferreting out the best of the best, that definitely has a great reputation.
MYRLAND: John, we appreciate you bringing Barrio Logan up because we hadn't mentioned that neighborhood and there's…
GOLDEN: We hadn't…
MYRLAND: …a lot of great places to eat down there.
MYRLAND: And you can go to Chicano Park and look at the artwork, too.
MYRLAND: Gordon is downtown. And, Gordon, we want to make sure to get to your call as well, so welcome.
GORDON (Caller, Downtown): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. My wife and I used to go to La Cantina de los Remedios in Tijuana and our favorite dish was the mochahete down there. And we don't – we haven't been to Tijuana in about a couple of years due to the violence and the hassle crossing the border. Is there anywhere in San Diego to get a good mochahete?
GOLDEN: If there is, I'd be there in an instant. I don't know of anybody who's doing mochahetes here. Which isn't to say they aren't, I just don't know of them. And we should explain what this is, it's basically a seafood stew that is made in, you know, if you have one of those big mortar and pestles, you take the mortar part of it that's used as the dish and you – and they make this wonderful seafood stew. I've had them in Rosarito, and actually in Puerto Nuevo there's a guy who makes absolutely outrageous ones. Everyone there goes for the lobster and I get the mochahetes.
MYRLAND: You know, and the last time I remember having it was in Indio, California.
MYRLAND: I don't think I've ever had it in San Diego.
MYRLAND: So we'll – but I'll…
GOLDEN: Okay, I'm going to ask some of my chef friends if they can start making it.
CHAMBERS: Entrepreneurs out there, there's an idea for all the restaurateurs out there looking for the next good idea.
MYRLAND: Well, we've got about a minute left and I want to see if you two have some final thoughts on Mexican food in San Diego. I mean, what's the main advice here? Be bold?
GOLDEN: Be adventurous, absolutely. I think that people really need to kind of break out of the things that they may have grown up with and their assumptions and try something new.
CHAMBERS: And I'm all about the bargain. Plan ahead. Get on Twitter. Go on Tuesdays because as cheesy as Taco Tuesdays sound, a lot of Mexican restaurants, they do give you a great deal on Tuesdays. So do your research but – and plan ahead so that you can go, you don't have to wait out the recession to go and try all this great food. If you plan ahead, if you go on Twitter, you go on City Search, you go on San Diego Foodstuff, there's deals out there and the restaurateurs, they want you to come in, you know, that's what they do. So support your local area.
GOLDEN: And the markets, too. The Hispanic markets are great and there's a lot of great takeout and sit-in dining there, too.
MYRLAND: Well, you can explore all of these recommendations at our guests' websites. They're linked to KPBS.org/TheseDays or you can listen to this segment again later at KPBS.org. I'm Doug Myrland. My guests have been Erin Chambers from San Diego City Search, and Caron Golden from SignOnRadio.com's San Diego Gourmet.
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