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Events: Musicals And Dining In San Diego


We'll talk about the latest in dining and theater this week in San Diego. Riviera Magazine's Troy Johnson talks about the Best of Food issue and Jim Hebert will tell us about some new musicals on San Diego stages.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): There will be other weekends for your crafts and indie music acts and your cutting-edge performance artists because this Weekend Preview is all about a good meal and some solid entertainment. We'll be talking about a group of interesting restaurants and plays around town. I’d like to welcome my guests. Jim Hebert is the theatre critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Jim, it’s good to see you.

JIM HEBERT (Theatre Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune): You, too, Maureen. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Troy Johnson is the senior editor of Culinary, Art and Culture for Riviera magazine. Good morning, Troy.

TROY JOHNSON (Senior Editor, Riviera Magazine): Good morning, Mrs. Pink.

CAVANAUGH: I am wearing pink today. Let me start out by talking about a really unusual musical that’s opening this weekend at the Diversionary Theatre. It is called “[title of show]” And it even looks funnier when you see it.

HEBERT: It is. That’s the actual title of the show which provides endless fun for headline writers whenever I write about this play.

CAVANAUGH: It’s in brackets.

HEBERT: It is.


HEBERT: Yeah, quotes and brackets. And the reason is that – You know, the short answer to what “[title of show]” is it’s a musical about two guys making a musical about two guys making a musical. So in other words, it’s a show about its own creation which is kind of this mindbending concept but it works, it really works.

CAVANAUGH: So you interviewed the creators of the show in New York. Is that right?

HEBERT: I did. Yeah, I was back there for the Tony Awards two years ago and at that time “[title of show]” was about to open on Broadway. And it had already been off Broadway and had been in an earlier workshop phase, and the show actually changed with each step along its evolution. It literally started out as this idea for these two guys, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, to – they had three weeks to – the deadline was three weeks away to enter a music theatre festival. So they said, well, let’s write a musical in three weeks? What’s it about? Well, let’s write it about our writing this musical. And so then when it went to off Broadway, they updated it to, you know, be a show about going off Broadway, and then to Broadway and it was self-fulfilling prophecy in a way.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, is there actually like a story here? Or is it like a series of skits? Or what is – Is there a storyline?

HEBERT: Yeah, I mean, the storyline becomes kind of the trials and tribulations they go through trying to put a show together that really works and then, you know, it’s a little bit fictionalized because there are little squabbles among the cast members that, you know, become part of it, part of the plotline. But the funny thing about it is, you know, it’s this kind of wacky, self-reverential, post-modern idea for a musical and yet it really has this kind of sweet soul at its core. It’s all about, you know, chasing your dream and it sounds incredibly…

JOHNSON: And knocking over others in your way.

HEBERT: Yes, well, that’s all part of it.

CAVANAUGH: You know, what is the musical part of this? I can get the comedy. How’s the music?

HEBERT: Yeah, so the songs are – the very first song is actually – it goes – It’s something like, you know, A, D, D, D, F#, A, will be first notes of our show, and those are the first lyrics. And those, sure enough, are the first notes. But then the songs get into things like, you know, how these characters, who are actually named after the creators, you know, how they struggle to kind of find their way. And one of the best moments is a song called “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.” And it’s this idea that, you know, I’d rather be – I’d rather have 9 people in the world love what I do than have 100 people sort of like what I do.


HEBERT: And that’s the sort of culty appeal of it, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: Which is such a lie. Diversion – How’s the Diversionary production, Jim?

HEBERT: You know, I think it’s going to be really good. I checked in on a rehearsal the other day and they’ve got some great singers and a really, really good cast. Karson St. John is one of the cast members who’s really made a splash in local shows lately. And so I think it’s – I think it’s really promising. I’m looking forward to finally seeing it. And this is the west coast premiere so it’s a pretty nice little coup for Diversionary as well.

CAVANAUGH: “[title of show]” opens July 8th at Diversionary Theatre. Troy, Riviera magazine has just come out with its ‘Best of Food’ issue, so that means you’ve been working.

JOHNSON: That means it nearly killed me.

CAVANAUGH: How do you choose the restaurants?

JOHNSON: Well, we send them an e-mail and we ask for large unmarked bills, and those who send the most back are included in our ‘Best of.’ And those who don’t send any money, we unleash a whole army of cockroaches into the back of their kitchen.

CAVANAUGH: Very good policy.

HEBERT: Do you train those yourself?

JOHNSON: Yes, yes, they’re trained cockroaches.

HEBERT: I’m sorry.

JOHNSON: No, you know, this is a whole – This is a culmination of a year of eating, of nearly – of courting gout and diabetes and everything else. You know, we’ve been really trolling in restaurants, eating our way through San Diego and we also for this year, you know, we’re straight up. We called what we thought were about the 100 best restaurants and we said we’re not wearing funny wigs, we’re not coming under a pseudonym, we are coming in and this is when we’re coming in. We want your best food.

CAVANAUGH: So you put them on notice. Here we are, give us your best shot.

JOHNSON: Greedily, yes.


JOHNSON: And they – and most of them were very gracious, I mean, greedily took it. And so everybody was kind of on the same playing level. They knew we were coming, they – Please cook us your best, you know, and this is what they can do.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you’ve been grazing in Shamuland, as you put it in your article, picking the best Mexican food in San Diego is always controversial.


CAVANAUGH: What did you settle on?

JOHNSON: Well, we actually settled on two. Today, we’re going to talk about Super Cocina, which is amazing, and we also – Downtown, high end Mexican food, we took El Vitral, which is a great, great Mexican food restaurant downtown, right by the ballpark. And for this one, you know, I mean, you eat so much good Mexican food in San Diego but Super Cocina just rises above the rest for many, many reasons.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us some. What’s on the menu?

JOHNSON: Oh, I mean, Super Cocina has everything. They’ve got great chile rellenos, they’ve got, you know, sopas, they’ve got, you know, 150 different recipes. This is not a place where you go in…


JOHNSON: …and get three different – three rolled tacos and a burrito. Everything’s the same on the menu every single day. They have 150 recipes, they rotate them every single day. And you walk in there and there’s just Mexican mamas cooking who don’t speak a lick of English but they’ve been cooking this food for centuries. I mean, their gran – their mothers and their grandmothers and everything else, you know, and it’s just beautiful. Fat, lard-based Mexican food.

CAVANAUGH: What is the atmosphere of Super Cocina?

JOHNSON: Well, the atmosphere is crazy because the first time that my wife and I pulled up there, you know, we thought we were dressed incorrectly because we thought we should be wearing Kevlar. It’s a great place to get shot. I mean, but honestly, it’s not a pretty neighborhood and you drive up there and you’re like maybe we’re going to go in and maybe we’re not. But you walk in there and it – the owner, Juan Pablo, is fantastic. He’s such a gracious host. And he gives you a sample of every single thing on the menu. But, I mean, really, it’s just – it’s a dive. It’s a hole in the wall. And it’s some of the best Mexican food in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Super Cocina is proudly on University Avenue in Normal Heights.


CAVANAUGH: Let’s go to the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival. Jim, Adrian Noble, the new artistic director, was our guest last week here on These Days.

HEBERT: Oh, right.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think of the three plays he selected for this Shakespeare Festival?

HEBERT: Wow. Well, I gotta say I thought I would be the one to be using the word gout, which actually shows up in one of the plays but there you go, some things don’t change.

CAVANAUGH: He beat you to the punch.

HEBERT: And lard-based, I gotta work that into a review…

JOHNSON: Yes, definitely.

HEBERT: …one of these days. I like that. Yeah, so Adrian Noble was, for a long time, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as you know.


HEBERT: And so he brought in two Shakespeare productions and then one modern play, which is “The Madness of George III,” which I guess the funny story behind that, there was a movie version, which was pretty well received back in 1994 but it was titled “The Madness of King George.” And the story behind it is that that was for American audiences because if they saw the title “The Madness of George III” they’d think, ah, it’s the third, it’s a trilogy, right? Well, how did I miss, you know, the second one.

CAVANAUGH: The sequel.

HEBERT: This is – He’s madder than ever now.


HEBERT: And – But – so that’s the one modern play by Alan Bennett, although it’s kind of set in the same time as the other two so it makes interesting resonance there.

CAVANAUGH: Now tell us about the repertory cast because this is – these are three plays, there’s “King Lear” and “Taming of the Shrew,” and “The Madness of George III.”

HEBERT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And the characters all switch parts. They’re basically the same actors in all three plays.

HEBERT: Right, yeah, and talk about madness. I mean, it’s – they’re doing this in nightly rotation and it’s a huge cast that – and a good portion of it is made up of students from the USD Old Globe MFA program and they’re great, really great actors. But a lot of these a lot of the performers, are in all three plays and I don’t know how they do it. It’s – You know, you have characters playing major roles in these three works and all of the shows are three hours long and, you know, daunting pieces of work, so it’s really something to see. Just the logistics of it, you know, rotating – you can imagine memorizing these three parts and doing them night after night, it’s really something to see.

CAVANAUGH: Do you see any connections between these three plays besides, you know, the actors that are in them? Do they seem to work well in rotation?

HEBERT: Yeah, you know, Noble really tried to find those parallels and one of the best ones and I don’t want to – you know, this might give away a little bit if you are going to see these plays but in “The Madness of George,” there’s actually a scene where two of the characters read from “King Lear.” And, you know, there’s this funny bit about how the guy whose idea it was – because, you know, King George is going mad and “King Lear” is about a king that also went mad.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, certainly.

HEBERT: And the man who sort of introduced the book to him is sort of chagrined about doing that. But the even funnier thing about it was that Robert Foxworth plays that – plays the character in “The Madness of George” who is reading the part of King Lear and the other guy says, ah, he’s murdered that part. Well, Foxworth plays King Lear…


HEBERT: …in “King Lear” in the other production. And he doesn’t murder it. He’s very good. So…

CAVANAUGH: You know, just a note about our recent weather. You know, outdoor…


CAVANAUGH: …Shakespeare, it must be getting cold these nights. What should people wear?

HEBERT: Everything pretty much, I think. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: It’s really cold right?

HEBERT: Yeah, it’s – it’s generally a little chilly for these productions anyway but, yeah, you’re right. With the weather we’ve been having, you know, people are bringing blankets and anoraks and, you know, it’s a good idea to be prepared. It’s definitely – it’s definitely chilly.

CAVANAUGH: The Shakespeare Festival goes on at the Old Globe until September 26th where we might have some warm weather. So, Troy, you have a sushi recommendation for us, and I want to remind us all, you’re talking about the ‘Best of Food’ issue, Riviera magazine. So where do we go for sushi?

JOHNSON: Well, this year we talked about two Itamaes or, you know, sushi chefs and one was Hane Sushi down in Bakersfield, which is an offshoot of Sushi Ota, which is fantastic. But one of the ones we really wanted to focus on was Sushi Kaito, which is up in Encinitas in a strip mall, and it’s really under the radar, doesn’t even have its own – I mean, it a sign but it’s not in English so, you know, it’s hard for people to, you know, us gringos to find, and it’s behind a vitamin shop and it’s – the sushi chef there, oh, is fantastic with fish. It’s great.

CAVANAUGH: Now is this a good sushi restaurant, let’s say, for a first timer?

JOHNSON: It can be. I wouldn’t suggest it. I mean, for a first-timer, I’d go get one of those really bad, cheesy, breaded, you know, what are those – What’s that one in Hillcrest that has like the cream cheese and everything. I don’t know. Sushi Ito.

HEBERT: Sushi Deli.

JOHNSON: Sushi Deli, Sushi Ito. I would suggest going there and starting out. And then when you want something real, go to this place. But it is nice. They’re nice to newcomers. They’re not snobs by any means. This is not the sushi nazi, you know.


JOHNSON: He says hello to everybody. He asks you, you know, what you’re comfortable with. I had these little tiny baby octopus which popped in your mouth with their guts coming out and it was fantastic. But not everybody’s going to want that, you know.

CAVANAUGH: I see. You have to educate your palate.


CAVANAUGH: What price point are we talking about in Sushi Kaito?

JOHNSON: It’s – it’s not amazingly – it’s reasonable. I mean, it can get expensive. You know, if you go for, you know, a full omakase, which is mercy of the chef and he just basically brings out everything, you’re talking a good chunk of change. But you can go in there, especially on a happy hour, and do really well. And he – on his website, he tells you exactly what he got in fresh every single delivery, so you can go in there and get a fish that just basically popped out of the sea.

CAVANAUGH: Now you say that it’s kind of difficult to find this restaurant. What is the atmosphere like once you do find it?

JOHNSON: Once you do find it, I mean, it’s in a strip mall. And some of my favorite restaurants are in strip malls. They’re just – It’s unassuming, it’s behind this vitamin shop, and, you know, it’s like where a Petco might be or, you know, a nail salon, you know, and it’s great. It’s just, you know, it’s a tiny little shop, one big bar, and you all sit there and you face Kazuo, who is the sushi chef. And everybody sits at the bar and it’s just one big, big convivial family atmosphere.

CAVANAUGH: Kaito Sushi is on El Camino Real in Encinitas. “Avenue Q,” Jim. It’s an adult musical, another one that you’re going to recommend.

HEBERT: Right.

CAVANAUGH: It’s – The touring production is coming to town. This is an extremely popular play. It’s won a number of awards over the years. So what’s the appeal?

JOHNSON: Sounds risqué, Jim.



HEBERT: Yeah, it’s big. You know, it’s funny. As I was walking in here, you had Sesame Street playing on your monitors and I was thinking oh, they’re not cursing, why is that? I just was at “Avenue Q” last night and these really foul-mouthed puppets – because, obviously, you know, as probably most people know by now, “Avenue Q” is kind of based on Sesame Street. And, in fact, I think a lot of the original performers were – came from Sesame Street, actually had been on Sesame Street. So, yeah, this is the…

CAVANAUGH: This is the one with the puppets.

HEBERT: The – right, exactly.


HEBERT: Exactly, it’s the – yeah, let’s make that clear.

JOHNSON: I, personally, love the image that Jim posted onto Twitter yesterday and the image – the photo was of what?

HEBERT: Yeah, a sign outside the Civic that, you know, a lot of times they’ll list all the cautions like ‘there’s going to be explosions in this play,’ and on that list was – I think at the bottom it said, ‘full puppet nudity.’ And, in fact, those nude puppets have some pretty risqué interactions there…


HEBERT: …so, yeah, just be warned.

CAVANAUGH: So this, however, the audience can always see the operators of the puppets during this play, though, right? For most of it.

HEBERT: Right, yeah. Which I had not seen this show before, and I have to say it took me a little while to get used to the idea of looking, you know, at the puppets instead of the actors because they’re there in full view. They’re kind of wearing like black denim but, you know, they’re not meant to be disguised or anything. And they’re holding basically these half-puppets. So, yeah, it’s a different – You really have to, you know, suspend your disbelief that there’s a person standing there and snapping this puppet’s mouth.

CAVANAUGH: What is the story of “Avenue Q?” You know, I mean, I’ve heard a lot about the puppets and the risqué nature…


CAVANAUGH: …and that it’s funny. But what’s the story?

HEBERT: Well, it’s essentially about a group of young adults who are – some are human and some are furry. And they kind of live in the same neighborhood, like as on Sesame Street where you have Cookie Monster and, you know, these human characters, and in “Avenue Q” there’s a Trekkie Monster, who’s this kind of lecherous, you know, pretty foul-mouthed character. But you’ve got – The main character’s named Princeton and he’s just out of college and he’s lamenting how he – all he has is a B.A. in English and, you know, what’s he going to do with that?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah, he’s doomed.

HEBERT: It’s kind of all about, you know, how they’re finding their way and, you know, finding – figuring out what they want to do with their lives. And meeting Gary Coleman, who’s a character in the play.


HEBERT: Which, I guess caused some – you know, he passed away in May.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly, yeah.

HEBERT: So they had to kind of alter the character and the lines a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: What about the music? I mean, is this a good, solid musical?

HEBERT: Yeah, you know, it’s – This is the touring version and it has a pretty small band. I think it’s a six-member band but the music is kind of like, you know, it’s contemporary.


HEBERT: To me, it’s not really a show about the music and the melodies, it’s really much more about the snarkiness of it. You know, it did win Best Musical though, Best Musical Tony in 2004 and it beat out “Wicked,” which was the big favorite at the time. So, and it’s done well since then.

CAVANAUGH: “Avenue Q” at the San Diego Civic Theatre with full puppet nudity until July the 11th. Troy, the last restaurant recommendation that we’re going to be able to talk about is a San Diego classic…

JOHNSON: I feel so unclean right now.

CAVANAUGH: For those who’ve never been, tell us about Bertrand at Mr. A’s. That’ll clean you up.

JOHNSON: Okay. Well, this, basically – Riviera had never written about Bertrand at Mr. A’s because it was just a classic and it just – there was no news story to it and it wasn’t hip. It didn’t have any news, it didn’t have any anything so we kind of ignored it. And I’d heard that the food had faltered, too, and that it was kind of in a state of disrepair. So I was convinced to go back and check it out and I figure, you know what, I’m not going to ignore the old guard of San Diego restaurants for this best restaurant issue. I need to find the old stuff that still works. And I was floored at how good Mr. A’s was, both the food and the view. I mean, that view, there’s no better view in San Diego. There are taller buildings but nothing as breathtaking and as survey of a city as Mr. A’s.

CAVANAUGH: We’re not talking strip mall here.


CAVANAUGH: Now, does the menu change? Or has it stayed consistent with local favorites at Mr. A’s?

JOHNSON: It has stayed consistent. I mean, there are classics. I mean, they have a mac ‘n cheese with truffles that’s just – and it’s got a crispy top that, I mean, you’ll dream about it for days. It’ll wake you up in the middle of a fever dream. I had a bone marrow dumpling that was just fantastic. It sounds so scary but it was so delicious. I also had a short rib that was wrapped. That was actually – it was a fried tempura short rib so it was a short rib inside of tempura and the ends were twisted like a candy. I mean, it was fantastic. And that view is amazing. And now they have happy hour.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and also it’s kind of like the kind of dining experience we don’t have a lot in San Diego. I mean, it’s not sort of a place you just fall into.

JOHNSON: No, it’s not. I mean, it’s got its own elevator button that says Mr. A’s on the elevator button.


JOHNSON: There is no other place in San Diego, I think, that has that. It’s an old world kind of dining, but they’ve also loosened it up a little bit. It’s not stiff. I – Last time I was in there when I was like 15 years old and there was servers who were looking at me and in their little tuxedoed, little pretentious suits, and they were looking at me, waiting for me to drop a crumb. They’d come over with a crumber and make me feel bad about myself. I mean, it was awful. I hated it. And now…


JOHNSON: …it’s not. They’ve loosened it up. It feels really nice. And, you know, it’s still stylish. And Bertrand is such a, you know, sophisticated – he’s always dressed a hundred times better than I am, and he’s just a sophisticated, you know, host, maitre ‘d. And it’s – they don’t make them like that anymore.

CAVANAUGH: Mr. A’s, if you don’t know, is on Fifth Avenue between Laurel and Maple. Our last musical, another musical, Jim, Spelling Bee, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Give – tell us a little bit about this play.

HEBERT: Yeah, so this was another Broadway-spawned show and North Coast Rep is doing its local premiere, which is a pretty big deal for them, too. And it’s basically about a group of kids who are going through the trials of this spelling bee and lots of other things going on in their lives. And, you know, if they lose, they get a juice box and a hug and get sent on their way to, you know, to mull over their horrible fate.

JOHNSON: I’m still scarred from mine, yes.

HEBERT: Yes, so am…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, horrible. Horrible. But I suppose it’s a way that – it’s sort of a cathartic way to get over your own horrible spelling bee experiences.

JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.

HEBERT: Yeah, I think so. Well, the great part is, though, you can relive that horrible experience or make it better because with each performance four people from the audience get to actually be in the contest.


HEBERT: So – And that’s been – I think that’s been that way from the beginning when it was on – when it was off Broadway, and on Broadway, and they’re doing that at North Coast Rep as well. I think before the show you get interviewed and if you, you know, make the cut, you get to go up and sit on the bleachers and you get words, you know, to spell. You have to use them in a sentence.

CAVANAUGH: That’s horrifying.

JOHNSON: Do you get to use Spell Check?

HEBERT: Yeah. You can bring your phone along or something.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Jim, I do want to point out that the composer of this play is working on a musical of “Little Miss Sunshine,” so it’s the same…

HEBERT: Yeah, right.

CAVANAUGH: …the same writer.

HEBERT: Yeah, William Finn, who did the show back in 2005 and I think it was just announced a month or so ago, La Jolla Playhouse is going to be doing “Little Miss Sunshine,” an adaptation of it, of the movie…


HEBERT: …and actually with the same director, James Lapine, who originally did “Spelling Bee,” so they’re – they’ve worked a lot together and it sounds pretty promising. It could be fun. You know, it’s – the movie was just wacky.

JOHNSON: Fantastic…


JOHNSON: …yeah, and wacky.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to point out that “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” unlike “Avenue Q” is perhaps something you can take the kids to?

HEBERT: Right. Right, yeah. In fact, I’m taking my daughter this weekend, so…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

HEBERT: …I hope you’re right.

JOHNSON: Oh, shoot.

HEBERT: No, I think it’s much more family friendly.

CAVANAUGH: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is at the North Coast Rep through August first. Now, Troy, as you went through all of this grueling work that you did…


CAVANAUGH: …trying to find the best restaurants, the best of food, for Riviera, tell us some of the foodie factoids you learned putting this together.

JOHNSON: There was just so many things that we found out, you know, such as George’s By the Cove, that was the place of the first date of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. That’s where they had their first date. You know, and just all these little things we found out. Like at Tapenade in La Jolla, you know, the maitre ‘d there actually raises his own chickens and if you’re a regular, he brings in some eggs and he hides them underneath his stand and he gives them out to regulars, you know, that sort of thing. Café Cloe, which is one of the best French restaurants in San Diego, they rotate their cheese menu every single week and they have currently gone through 451 different cheeses, artisanal cheeses and their histories. So…

CAVANAUGH: I didn’t even know there were four hundred and…

HEBERT: Right.

JOHNSON: I didn’t know there were either. I mean, it’s amazing. And like Bice downtown, which has one of the best cheese bars in San Diego, goes through 4,000 pounds of cheese a week.


JOHNSON: 4,000 pounds of ch – That’s a lot of cheese. It’s like that Lotto commercial where the guy…

HEBERT: Right.

JOHNSON: …wins all the money and he’s like I could buy all this cheese.

HEBERT: A cheese bar, can you get cut off at a cheese bar? Or do you just go hog wild?


HEBERT: Sounds dangerous.

JOHNSON: Yeah, instantly diabetic.

CAVANAUGH: You have got enough for a book, and I am trembling to read it. Okay. Troy Johnson is the Troy Johnson is the senior editor of Culinary, Art and Culture for Riviera magazine. Thank you, Troy.

JOHNSON: Thank you very much for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Jim Hebert is the theatre critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Jim, thanks once again.

HEBERT: Thank you. Take care.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Megan Burke, Pat Finn, Julien Pearce, and senior producer Natalie Walsh. Production Manager is Kurt Kohnen, with technical assistance from Tim Felten. Our production assistant is Hilary Andrews. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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