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San Diego Filled with Good, Eclectic Restaurants

San Diego Filled with Good, Eclectic Restaurants
What's the best new dish being served up in San Diego's restaurants? We'll talk about great restaurants and the chefs behind them with culinary senior editor Troy Johnson, of RIVIERA Magazine.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. If you're like a lot of people this year, you're planning a 'staycation.' That, of course, is a vacation where you don't travel out of town and spend a huge amount of money. Luckily, 'staycations' in San Diego can seem like dream vacations to people in other parts of the country. There are the beaches and the sights to see, the parks to visit and the great restaurants to indulge in, and it's the restaurants we're going to talk about right now. San Diego's Riviera Magazine has just come out its Best Food Picks list, and Troy Johnson, Senior Editor of Culinary, Art and Culture for Riviera Magazine, is here to tell us about the magazine's favorites in the restaurant issue. And, welcome, Troy.

TROY JOHNSON (Senior Editor, Riviera Magazine): Good morning, Maureen. I just actually got off a segment on Fox 5 and I was – it was a bacon segment, so if I smell like swine, please forgive me.

CAVANAUGH: I would never mention it. Now in this, you sort of strayed away from a lot of the ordinary categories in this 'Best of' lists.


CAVANAUGH: What are some of the categories for awards?

JOHNSON: You – Well, I mean, we have your traditional like Chef of the Year, which we gave to William Bradley up at Addison. About one out of, say, two million, five hundred and sixty-five people can afford to eat at Addison but if you can afford to eat at Addison, that chef is one of the most highly decorated in Southern California for a reason. The only Five-Star chef and Five-Diamond chef in Southern California. It's just absolutely other-worldly. And we had Best French, which Mille Fleurs – we sent out to chefs in San Diego, food and beverage managers, long time professional food critics in San Diego, and we asked them for their best and they actually came back with a pretty surprising list but some standards, too, like Mille Fleurs up in Rancho Santa Fe actually came back as the Best French, which we were kind of surprised by, you know, since it's been around for thirty-something years. And then we had some – we have like Gang of the Year…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Yes, yes.

JOHNSON: …is one of our interesting picks. Gang of the Year went to the Confab this year. And Gang of the Year is basically is a group of five chefs from around San Diego who are – have created this roving potluck and they basically create – pick a topic, whether it be meat, which was the simple theme of their last meal, and they just get creative and they invite everybody from around San Diego and it's turned into this touring sort of a renaissance fair of food. It's fantastic. No billowy pants, though.

CAVANAUGH: And not many lists actually have a category of Best Place to See Al Pacino.

JOHNSON: Best Place to See Al Pacino, yes, 1500 Ocean. You know, I was sitting in 1500 Ocean with the chef, Brian Sinnott, and he was making his homemade pasta. He's a multo-Italiano chef and he was raised in Jersey with a multo-Italiano mama, and he makes some of the greatest handmade pasta and – which doesn't surprise me to see Al Pacino in there because he's been in there probably three or four times. He likes a little banquette by the window on the left. And last time I was in there, actually the National Security was there because Joe Biden was dining there as well.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see. I see.

JOHNSON: So best – Best Homemade Pasta in San Diego, surprisingly, for a fish restaurant is 1500, I would say.

CAVANAUGH: Now let me go back a little bit, Troy, and ask you how you did decide on the winners. I mean, you sound like you did some peer review. Did you also poll patrons? Who does – who made the decisions on these winners?

JOHNSON: Well, it's so arbitrary in being – in terms of being a food critic, you know, it's a – you know, you can always – you always have your favorite because I eat out five, six nights a week, you know, and I talk to people about what's the best in town. I'm constantly talking to chefs, I'm talking to servers, I'm talking to people who've been in the industry forever, bartenders, whatever. And you think you have your favorites but we didn't want to be – we wanted to be all inclusive. This is the day of Twitter, this the day of Yelp, this is the day of, you know, everybody chiming in and I wanted to do that but I didn't want to just open it up to anybody. So we -- You know, I sent out a – basically a query form to all the chefs in San Diego, all of the people who've been in the industry for a long time, the food and beverage managers, and had them vote on their favorites, and we came up with some interesting things. You know, and I just basically said name your favorite three things in San Diego food. You know, and people were coming back, you know, with like The Lodge at Torrey Pines drugstore hamburger, which the bun is steamed in its own grease and fat and it just – it's the world's most, you know, you know, fat-inducing and beautiful indulgence. And they also, you know, came up with things like Yakitori – Yakitori up in Hillcrest where chefs go after their meals. They all said it has some of the best pig cheeks and beef tongue. And kimchi chefs, they like to eat really weird things, but they gave us all their kind of secret spots so it was – it was a really, really great process.

CAVANAUGH: And speaking of the chefs' pick. Your chef's pick for Chef of the Year, you told us, was from Addison, and you mentioned five diamonds and I don't really know what it is to win five diamonds. How do you get five diamonds? What does it mean?

JOHNSON: Well, there's the AAA Five-Diamond Award. It's funny because in food, the car companies, the AAA and, you know, Mobil have come up with all of the, you know, and, obviously, Michelin with their star system, have become the experts in terms of food. And I guess because, you know, you're in a car, you're obviously traveling, and you're looking to eat.


JOHNSON: And so AAA has their Five-Diamond Award every year and they only give it out to a handful of places throughout the United States. And Mobil has their three – excuse me, their Five-Star Award and they only give it out to a couple of – you know, a handful of restaurants, and both of them gave it to Addison and Chef William Bradley. It's a pretty – it's a really prestigious thing, the only one in Southern California to have it.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, so we go from that to the King of Sausage.

JOHNSON: The King of Sausage. San Diego has a new Sausage King in San Diego. Sausage is taking off. I mean, meat in San Diego, it's this carnivore renaissance. It started a lot with The Linkery. Obviously, the Lodge at Torrey Pines, Jeff Jackson, the chef there, is a real – you know, was a real forerunner in playing with the entire animal and not just taking the prime cuts but taking the offal and the thymus glands and brain…


JOHNSON: …and everything and making it into these – this really, you know, high end tasty cuisine, as long as you can get over the fact that it's brain. But The Linkery over in North Park has exploded. It was our Cult of the Year because people go in there for bison, corn dogs – I was in there two weeks ago and the owner looks at me and he says – he says, hey, you want an eyeball?


JOHNSON: I said, what? How can you say no to that? So I said, no, I don't want an eyeball at all. That sounds like the worst thing ever. Yes, please serve it up. And he served me a goat eyeball in a terrine of goat brain, which is fantastic. It tasted like a slice of bacon fat, the eyeball did, in a terrine of great pastrami. But anyways, the – And the guy that started the meat program at The Linkery has his own sausage company in San Diego now. He opened up a warehouse, curing, you know, salami, prosciutto and he – he started at 200 pounds a month and now he's increased his size to 2,000 pounds a week…


JOHNSON: …of salami. And almost all the best restaurants in San Diego are carrying it. It's Knight Salumi Company, K-n-i-g-h-t, Salumi, so for your listeners out there. They can go check it out. And, I mean, I would say that in terms of if they're trying something, their Finocchiona, which is made with fennel. It's this – it's salami that's just aged with fennel is one of the most ungodly beautiful pieces of meat I have ever tasted. There's an old wives tale that goes along with it. It's that legend had it that a young kid in Italy stole a salami and, running from the local town's, you know, counsel or policeman, he hid his salami in a field of fennel and then came back for it a year later and it tasted like fennel. So – And the owner, Ray Knight, you know, obviously because he was one of the progenitors of The Linkery's meat program, just knows what he's doing and he is the new Sausage King in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I am talking with Troy Johnson and he's Senior Editor of Culinary, Art and Culture for Riviera Magazine. We are talking about the Best Food Picks list in Riviera Magazine's restaurant issue. And I want to move on to Mexican restaurants because San Diego is known for its Mexican restaurants. Which one gets your designation as Best New Mexican?

JOHNSON: This one surprised everybody on our staff. And we – we happened to – Actually, it was my editor and chief, Gillian Flynn, she happened to go into a restaurant called El Vitral. It just opened up behind the ballpark in those brick buildings that have been empty forever, obviously because of the economic slowdown. But El Vitral just opened up and it is fantastic. She is a Mexican food snob, especially when it comes to margaritas. She doesn't like any with sour mix. They make their margaritas only with – it's made fresh daily, lime juice, everything. But the owner of the restaurant is actually the nephew and was mentored by Richard Sandoval, who's a famous, famous Mexican chef in the United States. He's got top restaurants in Dubai, Las Vegas and New York City. So this is his nephew, who worked under him and learned everything from Artur – I mean, Richard Sandoval and then took it into El Vitral. And they have everything, they have salmon, abodobo tacos. They serve you a trio of guacamole, you know, with chips. It's just – it is surprisingly really, really authentic and good.

CAVANAUGH: And Riviera Magazine, your picks did something a little funny about the Best Culinary Academy. Now tell us why you picked Point Loma High School as Best Culinary Academy in San Diego?

JOHNSON: Point Loma High, I don't know if they've got a kitchen, they let the students into the kitchen cafeteria or what, give them a hairnet and let them go. But Point Loma High alums took over San Diego this year. I mean, Nathan Coulon, who actually started up the Modus Lounge in Bankers Hill, he became the chef, the executive chef at The Ivy. And then Adam Bussell became the executive chef at Vela, which is the new signature restaurant in Bay Front Hilton. And then two other Point Loma grads, all these guys, mind you, were juniors and seniors in the same class, you know, in the same four-year pro – at Point Loma High. They all became some of the top chefs in San Diego. But the other two opened up Tender Greens in Liberty Station, which is technically Point Loma, so they opened up their new place in their own hometown. And Tender Greens is a fantastic restaurant. Don't write it off as a Soup Plantation sort of thing. These chefs Rian Brandenburg and Pete Balistreri were chefs at The Lodge At Torrey Pines and they opened this up to, you know, bring real organic, fresh daily produce to a kind of a lunchy salad bar. And they're using whole animals from Niman Ranch and making, you know, oxtails and, you know, and using offal and then, you know, putting into these creations at this salad bar. So it's basically Soup Plantation meets real, real, real gourmet.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. And all Point Loma High grads.

JOHNSON: Those are all Point Loma High – everywhere I turn this year, somebody said, oh, yeah, I went to Point Loma High circa 1995. And 1995-1996 was an exceptionally good culinary year for Point Loma High. They stormed the city this year.

CAVANAUGH: That's great. I don't want to leave this list without hitting on the best pastry chef because I know that's important to a lot of people.

JOHNSON: Oh, who doesn't like their sweets? Jack Fisher. Jack Fisher Confections is – has become like 'the' go-to for every restaurant that wants to have chocolate on its menu from Kitchen 1540 to Nine-Ten. He's actually the pastry chef at Nine-Ten but he's got his own company: (sic) –, and he makes everything: Meyer lemon, white chocolate. He does salted carmels. You know, he's putting saffron in chocolates. I mean, everything savory and sweet into some of the best chocolates in town.

CAVANAUGH: And does he have a store or is it all online?

JOHNSON: It's all online: Anybody can get them. They're just – and they're sleek, too. They're like little Porsches of chocolate. They're just, you know, perfect and slick and beautiful and I – I love them.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to talk to you just a little bit, Troy, about restaurants in general this year because, as you mentioned, you know…

JOHNSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …we're going through some economic belt-tightening.

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder – I wonder, are restaurants having a hard time getting customers in the door right now?

JOHNSON: Definitely. I – It's an awful, awful time for restaurants right now and you see it everywhere from the recent closing of Crescent Heights, which was the best new arrival in San Diego. Wolfgang Puck's protégé opened up his first restaurant, chose San Diego to do it. Opened up in an awful location over by Museum of Contemporary Art, you know, in a business park. But he's such a fantastic chef. He was a real boon to San Diego's culinary scene. He had to close down two weeks ago because they couldn't get…


JOHNSON: …enough people in. Fine dining is expecting between 12 and 19% shrinkage in this next year. Hopefully, it'll rebound but they're having hard times. You'll see it in everything. I mean, Mille Fleurs, which is, you know, was almost elitist during the day, you know, has a three- or four-course meal for $40.00. I mean, there's deals out there that you could never find before. So for people who love food and, you know, and still have their jobs and still have a little bit of money to, you know, to take their loved ones out or whatever, it's a great time to eat because you're getting deals that you never saw in the past. I mean, you know, the Marine Room has Happy Hour for the first time in its 68-year history, you know, so I mean every top restaurant in town is opening up the doors on deals.

CAVANAUGH: I have to ask you real quick, and it is – I'm just throwing you a wild one here.

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Where are you planning to dine for the 4th of July weekend?

JOHNSON: Well, 4th of July weekend, I am actually going to be in Scottsdale. But if I had my pick in…


JOHNSON: ...San Diego, our crush of the year in Kitchen 1540. I would definitely eat there because A, it's right near the beach. Kitchen 1540 went under a massive rehaul – or, overhaul. They did like a five-point-something million dollar rehaul – overhaul to the kitchen and it's beautiful. And the chef there has a beet salad with carmelized yogurt and homemade pine nut brittle that is the best beet salad I have – and it's a beet salad. It's simple. It's supposed to – it's not supposed to be good, it's just supposed to be beet, and it is – I mean, literally, we moaned throughout it. My girlfriend and I moaned throughout, so that's where…

CAVANAUGH: And where is it exactly?

JOHNSON: Kitchen 1540 is in L'Auberge Del Mar Resort just on Del Mar Highlands, I believe, is the road. But L'Auberge Del Mar, that's it.

CAVANAUGH: We have to wrap it up there, Troy.

JOHNSON: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for coming in, Troy Johnson…

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: …Senior Editor, Culinary, Art, Culture for Riviera Magazine. The restaurant issue is on sale today. Riviera Magazine. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS and stay with us. We will continue in just a few moments.