7.01.2013

The Foodie Guide To SDCC





Growing up, I worked at three different restaurants, and ended up managing two of them. After college, I started working professionally and I used to travel a lot for work, usually about 30% of the time. One of the things that always broke up the monotony of endless meetings and training drills and connecting flights was the local cuisine. I love travelling, exploring new cities, learning new languages, and eating good food, which is always an easy entry point to culture. Being knowledgeable about cool eateries in multiple domestic cities or even a few international destinations will always make you feel worldly. I mean, you’ll never know when being able to produce the name of a cool sushi place in Denver, Colorado, a roadside BBQ joint in Austin, Texas, a quirky seafood haunt in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the best place to take a large group for dinner in Florence, Italy, or the location of the best pubs in Sydney’s Darling Harbour will come in handy. I was lucky to have worked at a very large company that had something like 60,000 employees dispersed around the globe. Working there for 11 years meant that I knew a lot of people in a lot of places. It didn’t matter what city I found myself in, I was always surrounded by coworkers, some who became lifelong friends, that graciously played tour guide and exposed me to the spots that the locals favored instead of being stuck in hotel bars or touristy areas full of strip malls and chain restaurants.

Being settled now in San Diego, karma has allowed me to return the favor. Whenever I have family or friends visiting, I really enjoy being on the flip side of that equation and playing tour guide myself. It’ll always be fun to take people across the bridge to Coronado Island for the first time, to walk under the Little Italy arch with them, or to be knowledgeable enough to recommend a hotel or camping spot up the coast in Carlsbad. But for me, these experiences always center back on my love of food. With that long-winded preamble out of the way, here’s a rambling off-the-top-of-my-head list of some cool spots I’ve discovered living in San Diego. Keep in mind, even this smattering of recommendations will barely scratch the surface. San Diego is the 8th largest city in the United States, has about 1.5 million people alone in the city proper, with roughly 3 times that amount in the county comprising the greater metropolitan area. Generally speaking, I will always encourage the SDCC horde to set some time aside to escape the tourist trap frat party atmosphere of the historic Gaslamp Quarter and the seemingly endless sea of punters spilling into the streets during Comic-Con in the nexus between 4th and 6th Avenues, spanning Broadway to Harbor Drive. San Diego is incredibly spread out geographically, with plenty of different neighborhoods, each with it’s own personality and cool spots, so come explore the real San Diego beyond the Convention Center and the artificial lights of the Indigo Ballroom at the Hilton Bayfront.

Rei Do Gado: Ok, so in direct opposition to everything I just said, if you absolutely have to stay in the Gaslamp, then do yourself a favor and push out to the very edge of the Quarter and treat yourself to this Brazilian Steakhouse at the intersection of Broadway and 4th. I’ve been to a dozen or so of this style of churrascaria  restaurant around the world, and this is one of the best. Yeah, it’s one of those places where bronzed hostesses who could audition for the failed Wonder Woman pilot seat you with what you think is a suggestive smile, and gaucho-attired dudes with genuine South American accents bring large skewers of various grilled meats around to your table. Rei Do Gado is great because in addition to the delectable cuts of meat, they also have a glorious “salad bar” that includes all kinds of fruits and grilled veggies. We’re talking about so much more than a bowl of iceberg lettuce here though; we’re talking artichoke hearts and grilled asparagus and sliced mango and hearts of palm and real mozzarella cheese and melon with prosciutto, etc. You could make a meal out of the side selection alone. If you need to whet your whistle, they’ve also got caipirinhas (basically a Brazilian mojito) being served by go-go dancer women up in a cage (I’m not even kidding). If you’re really brave, you’ll eat a grilled marinated chicken heart. C’mon, do it. It’s a rite of passage. It’s all you can eat, so dear lord, please bring your appetite.

Burger Detour: Ok, I give up. If you really insist on staying close to the Gaslamp, then I also recommend Zanzibar Café at 707 G. Street. I think this is technically in the East Village, between 7th and 8th. If you need a satisfyingly sloppy and robust burger with a couple decent local brews on tap, this Mediterranean influenced joint is totally walkable and just far enough out to escape some of the crowd. Me? I married a girl who is on a lifelong quest for the perfect burger, so here are some of the better burgers I’ve discovered in San Diego: You’ve got  Hodad’s in Ocean Beach (that’s “OB” if you’re a local and don’t want anyone looking at you funny) where I’m a fan of the burgers and definitely the shakes, but not the fries so much. Sorry! It’s a tiny spot frequented by locals and tourists alike, so be prepared to wait in line 20 minutes or so. Anyway, it’s a “Blue Jay Burger” you want here, which is a bacon cheeseburger topped with bleu cheese. You can never go wrong with bleu cheese. Say it with me: you can never go wrong with bleu cheese. Then over in the old refurbished Naval Training Center complex in Point Loma, that’s “NTC Liberty Station” if you’re from around these parts (which is a cool historic place you should see anyway while you’re in San Diego), there’s a ton of interesting restaurants and businesses, specifically Slater’s 50/50 where nearly all of the burgers can be made with 50% ground beef and 50% bacon. Yeah. Great shakes too. You can also design your own custom burger. "The Big Daddy Melt" is a mammoth. I couldn’t finish it. And I can finish anything.

Karl Strauss (Downtown): Once again, if you’re absolutely adamant on staying downtown for whatever reason and need a quick meal and/or beer from a small chain establishment, push your way out of the movie studio and video game melee and head toward the least known location in the Karl Strauss chain near the intersection of Broadway and Columbia. My friends from the San Francisco Bay Area will probably compare this to the Gordon Biersch enterprise up north, and that’s essentially correct if that happens to make any sense to you and resonates. They’re in an old ivy covered brick building near the base of the W Hotel and open ‘till midnight. They’ve got an open cask night, typical bar food from salads to burgers to pastas, and some really decent microbrew. On a hot summer day, I recommend either the Endless Summer lager or the Windansea Wheat (basically a Hefeweizen). Don’t for get the orange wedge. If you happen to find yourself in the small Silicon Valley style tech corridor over in Sorrento Valley, there’s another somewhat hidden Karl Strauss tucked away in an industrial area with a secluded garden pond and a first rate Sunday brunch buffet option.

The Brickyard: It’s such an old-school anti-corporate coffee and tea haven that they don’t even have a website. They’re tucked away on a weird intersection at Kettner Boulevard and G. Street, just around the corner from the Manchester Grand Hyatt (recently featured on the cover of Suicide Risk #1 from Boom! Studios), which is on the opposite end of Harbor Drive as the Convention Center. While we’re on the subject, if it’s your first time in San Diego, you’ll probably want to try and hit the bar atop the Manchester Grand Hyatt, naturally named Top of The Hyatt, which is usually an after-hours hang out for industry professionals during con, and offers immaculate views of the bay. It’s 40 stories up and the tallest waterfront hotel on the West Coast. If they’re packed, my fall-back option is usually the bar and restaurant (Marina Kitchen, terrific wine room) inside the Marriott Marquis just a block or so down, which will absolutely do in a pinch. They also infuse their own vodkas and rums there, which are great. Anyway, back at The Brickyard, you can enjoy a quiet place to escape the overweight Slave Leias and get some sun. It’s got a nice outdoor patio area where you can grab a coffee or tea, rest your feet, and regroup for another sortie into the Small Press Pavilion.

Bonus: around the corner on Kettner Boulevard, literally just across the trolley track from The Brickyard, is The Lion’s Share, so come back that night to this great bar. Many of the bartenders I know in San Diego cite this as their favorite bar, so that’s really saying something. Their emphasis is on unfettered craft beer and cocktails, but they do have an extremely interesting and eclectic dinner menu as well, so split some food tapas-style while you imbibe. Cheese Board (Cow, Goat, Sheep) + Exotic Sausage Board (Pheasant, Duck, Elk) + Two Rounds of Allagash White Beer = Perfect Evening.

Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (Little Italy): Filippi’s is a local family owned chain and one of those things you kinda’ just have to tick off your list of things to experience in San Diego. While there are dozens of good restaurants and wine bars in Little Italy – and trust me, you could do much worse than bar hop from, say, The Lions’s Share, to Craft & Commerce (“Mother’s Ruin” Punch Bowl!), to any one of the places in Little Italy – many of them run closer to being fine dining establishments that might be better suited for taking a date, multi-hour leisurely meals, or could even possibly make you feel as if your Larfleeze The Orange Lantern tee isn’t quite proper attire. Filippi’s is also a sit-down place, but it’s super casual, family friendly, and very reasonably priced. I’ve gotten out of there by splitting a medium pizza, a salad, and a bottle of decent wine for 30-something bucks! It’s also the first in the chain, started in 1950 by Italian immigrants, so you’ll get your precious dose of history. You actually have to walk through the working deli up front, Goodfellas steadicam-style, back past some mysteriously marked doors to enter the main restaurant. Don’t forget that bottle of Pinot Grigio, served in little shot glasses just like you’re sitting in my grandpa’s kitchen while sipping grappa and telling stories on a lazy afternoon. Salud!

Lucha Libre: Alright, we’re finally out of downtown and moving toward Mission Hills. This place was featured on Food Network and there’s been a line out the door ever since. Owned by brothers who work there every day, their specialty is authentic-style Mexican “street tacos” with a twist. There are approximately 1,340,913 taquerias in San Diego, some great, some okay, some shady, and some downright horrible, but you’ll never eat tastier Mexican food than Lucha Libre. (As for other Mexican food, I’d recommend Mama Testa in Hillcrest, The Green Hornet Burrito at Lalo’s in Hillcrest, carne asada chips or bacon breakfast burritos at Roberto’s, Alberto’s, Aliberto’s, Alejandro’s, or Rigoberto’s). Back at Lucha Libre, from the fresh made tortillas, to the quality of the meats, to the savory sauces, it’s totally memorable. Wear a Mexican luchador mask and receive a discount. Call ahead and make reservations for the golden Champion’s Booth (pictured above) – really, there’s nothing like this for ambiance. I highly recommend it. Don’t order a California Burrito, you gringo. If it’s your first time, then I recommend ordering one Surf & Turf Taco and one Queso Taco w/ Chicken. If you’re still hungry after eating delicious carne asada with grilled shrimp, or cheese fried crisp between two corn tortillas, and drenching it all in the mild elixir known only as “the green sauce,” then go crazy and top it all off with a Tijuana Hot Dog. That’s a hot dog wrapped in bacon, of course. The place is loud, cramped, and hot, so you’re gonna’ want a fountain drink. Hear me when I say that the only acceptable choices are Horchata or Orange Bang. Don’t even talk to me if you don’t get one of those.

The Regal Beagle: The great thing about having tacos at Lucha is that just two blocks down the way on India Street, there’s a fantastic bar called The Regal Beagle for you to drench those tacos in. They’ve got something like 24 beers on tap at all times (pictured above), and the selections rotate pretty regularly. I’ve never seen the board the same on any two visits. San Diego is quickly becoming the craft brew capital of the world, so they tend to feature local brews like Ballast Point or Green Flash (no relation to Wally West), but there’s all sorts of options to explore. There’s something happening every night, happy hour, trivia night, open cask night, wings night, so check their web-site and come early. They’ve got it all, ciders to IPAs, porters to stouts, ales and lagers to jalapeno and bacon laced beer, to something insane called Indra Kunindra (hints of cocoa, cayenne, lime, and coconut). If you play your cards right and still have room for eats, the sausage sampler platter is ridiculous. It features custom made sausage from a company up in San Marcos, with varieties like Moroccan Lamb, German Garlic, or Hungarian Kolbasz (with 20% bacon inside). Seriously, put down the back issues of ROM: Space Knight and ask yourself when’s the last time you had a Moroccan lamb sausage? Jack, Janet, and Chrissy won’t be there, but get to know terrific bartender Hannah and she’ll surely give you a couple beer samples and make a fantastic recommendation.

Empire House: In short, this is one of my favorite hangs in San Diego and I recommend it profusely (pictured above). I’ve taken family, friends, and coworkers so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve hosted work functions there. I follow them on Twitter. C’mon, who follows restaurants on Twitter? This place is in Hillcrest and is literally up the hill on University Ave., a short hop from Lucha Libre and The Regal Beagle. For the adventurous, I recommend a circuit of drinks at The Beagle, followed by more drinks and some apps at Empire House. It’s a fantastic way to spend an afternoon that stretches into an evening. No matter if you’re going for drinks, apps, or a full meal in this converted two-story house, you simply have to order the Red Miso Wings. They arrive piping hot from the kitchen, with one of the best glazes around. Sweet, savory, spicy, and perfectly crisp. The Cuban Sandwich is good, all of the salads are good, and the sausage bread is totally unique, but if I’m looking for something more hearty I’ll usually order up a plate of “casters.” These are basically EH’s rendition of sliders, which you can mix and match, all with a homemade pickle riding shotgun. The staff is probably the friendliest in San Diego; every time I go I get into an interesting conversation with our server or even one of the owners, who just might be the person making your drink. Speaking of, they have these delicious “pint and a half” cocktails that arrive in one of those old mason jars, featuring playful and refreshing concoctions like Blueberry Basil Lemonade or the Raspberry Beret, involving mottled raspberry with vodka and ginger beer. Delicious.

Lefty’s Pizza: If you didn’t make it to C2E2 and you’ve still got a hankerin’ for Chicago-style pizza with that textured cornmeal crust after having a few drinks at The Regal Beagle or Empire House, then head over to this place. It’s tucked back on Goldfinch street, off of Washington Avenue, on the border between Mission Hills and Hillcrest. Grab an intimate wood booth in the back and unwind with a Spinach Supreme (spinach, mushrooms, basil, elephant garlic) or a Monster of The Midway (sausage, pepperoni, hot giardiniera, elephant garlic). If I recall correctly, they don’t have anything on tap, but do feature some interesting bottled beer selections. If you can still walk after that, head around the corner to M-Theory Music, one of the last independent music/record shops in San Diego, which also happens to have a small selection of locally produced mini-comics available.

FURTHER NORTH (Interstate 5): If you’ve come this far, perhaps you’re willing to go a little further? If sushi is on your mind, the absolute best quality sushi joint is Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach (but make sure you say “PB” or the locals will look at you funny). Reservations are definitely required because 15 minutes before they open, a line forms 20 people deep in the little parking lot. You’ll be greeted by classically trained Japanese sushi chefs who line up like Samurai flanking the freshest fish in the county. If you continue North up the 5, you may also be interested in Sushi Solana (no web-site, but it’s in Solana Beach right along Highway 1 about a block off the beach), who offer an insanely reasonable All You Can Eat menu for something like $20. Typically, AYCE sushi menus have pre-made items that maybe sat around a while, but Sushi Solana’s fun selection of rolls is all made to order. If sushi doesn’t suit your mood, the last stop on our North 5 Food Express this time around is Leucadia Pizzeria, which is on the corner of Encinitas Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway (that’s “the PCH”) near Moonlight Beach. (There’s also another location inland from the Del Mar Race Track, if you happen to be in that neck of the woods. This one is close to my house, so if you see some bloke in the corner with two kids taking down a large Roasted Garlic Chicken, come say hi won’t you?). It’s probably my favorite pizza in all of San Diego. I consider that an important endorsement considering that two of the restaurants I worked at were independent pizza joints. Go for the Goat Cheese, or the Rosemary Chicken Potato, or the Thai Chicken, or umm, the Shrimp Pesto, the Greek Pizza, or the Pear-Gorgonzola-Arugula, shoot, any of the pizzas, you can’t really go wrong.

FURTHER NORTH (La Jolla): If you’re inclined to detour off the 5 and head into the village, not only can you drive by IDW hq on your way up the 5 (look to the right after the exits for Garnet and Grand in PB) and then see the old WildStorm building right on Prospect Street, but there are plenty of decent food options here, provided you get off “the strip” (Prospect Street) housing the tourists and high prices, and explore for a block or two inland. If you’re hungry and just need something on the cheap, the best deal in town is China Chef. It’s a little hole in the wall that’s far from fancy, but the lunch and dinner specials are around $6 for a big plate of food. You’ll leave full. I recommend the big ass bowl of wor wonton soup w/ noodles, one of the few dishes that transcends. Throw some Sriracha in there to heat those bamboo shoots and little pork dumplings up, and you’re good to go. Across from the Empress Hotel is a little spot called Aloha Sushi, which is where I interviewed colorist Jeromy Cox for anyone keeping score. It’s an eclectic mix of traditional sushi restaurant, Hawaiian food, and all kinds of Pacific Islander fare, like Filipino lumpia, etc. Sit outside and take down a tall Sapporo. If you see someone eating a J-Lo Roll and a Protein Roll while bitching about the ethics of small NPOs, come say hi won’t you? If Thai food is more your style, just around the corner from Aloha Sushi is Spice & Rice. Any of the lunch specials will do just fine; I’d probably recommend either the Hot Basil, Cashew Nut, or Panang Curry. Lastly, if you’re in La Jolla and breakfast is what you need, there’s nowhere better than The Coffee Cup. It looks like a vintage hipster diner from the outside, but inside you’ll find reasonably priced award-winning cuisine from chef Isabel Cruz. I’m not even a big breakfast guy, but the rosemary potatoes, amazing scrambles, and brown rice stir fry concoctions have kept me coming back for years.

FURTHER NORTH (Interstate 15): If, for some reason, your travels take you up the 163, under that bridge at Balboa Park, and onto North 15, fear not, there are still a couple spots along the way that can save you in a pinch. Exit on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and you’ll see one of the other Filippi’s Pizza Grottos in the chain. Honestly, the ambiance of this one is nothing special, but you’re likely there for the food, which is just as good as all the other locations. Head east down Clairemont Mesa just a little further and stop in to see my friend and retail sponsor Michael at Yesteryear Comics. Tell him I sent you and you’ll either get a 20% discount or get into a discussion over which title in the Valiant Comics line is best. Head back west across the 15 and hang a left on Convoy to hit Tajima Ramen House. You can’t go wrong with any of the huge noodle bowls here. I recommend the thin noodles with house tonkotsu broth, the miso broth, or the curry broth for something more spicy, along with the BBQ pork, the pork belly, and additional vegetables to get the most out of this noodle house. They also usually have drink specials like $9 pitchers of really good beer (like, say, Blue Moon, a great Belgian White); if you know what you’re doing you can get four perfect pours out of that. Where else can you find 4 pints for $9? Further up the 15 is an area called Mira Mesa, and if you exit on Mira Mesa Boulevard you’ll be at yet a third Filippi’s Pizza Grotto location on the border of Scripps Ranch. This one actually happens to be my favorite because of the 1970’s lounge atmosphere, where barfly regulars sit and nurse pitchers while you split a large pizza and take down a pitcher of your own in one of the dimly lit big red leather booths. It’s a large "The Works" you’re after, hold the onion. Across the street is a little place called Lucky Donut & Deli, which is an east coast style bodega where you can get an apple fritter, a deli sandwich, a candy bar, the newspaper, or a custom smoothie. If you see some dude in the corner reading the latest issue of The Massive, come say hi won’t you? Now, if you drive and you drive and you keep driving, you’ll end up in Rancho Bernardo (but you’ll need to just say “RB” so the locals don’t look at you funny) and the last stop on this leg of the trip is RB Sushi. It’s probably the best option if you’re dead-set on an AYCE sushi joint. It’ll cost you $25 dollars, but if you polish off at least 2-3 of the roughly $10 rolls, then you’re coming out ahead. The secret to the All You Can Eat menu at RB Sushi is that you can order off the kitchen menu and also get small plates of chicken teriyaki, beef short ribs, vegetable tempura, soft-shell crab, gyoza, firecracker shrimp, house salads, etc. On several occasions, I’ve polished off $100 worth of food for the flat fee of $25.

FURTHER EAST! I don’t know why you’d be heading this far east unless you really got screwed on that janky hotel reservation system, but if you wanted to head East on Interstate 8, then take Highway 67 into the hills, you’re eventually going to see signs for Barona Resort & Casino. It’s at least a half hour drive from downtown, but if another All You Can Eat buffet is what gets you going, this one’s hard to beat. For just $20 ($16 if you sign up for a free membership card ahead of time online, netting you a 20% discount – they also send you a voucher for a $5 chip, so now you’re in it just $11 net on your first visit!), you’re going to get mountains of succulent prime rib and crab legs, which is basically worth the price of admission alone. But on top of that, there’s decent Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, American, BBQ, Mongolian, salads, soups, seafood, desserts, cheeses, etc., etc., etc. They even have a Banh Mi cart (paging Daniel Elkin!). But, be careful! it’s impossible to try everything, so I tend to just focus on prime rib and crab legs, and maybe a dessert or three. Remember, you are on an Indian Reservation, so don’t get too rowdy or the tribal police will get you and you don’t want to recreate any of the scenes from Jason Aaron and RM Guera’s Scalped. Even further east in the dodgy town of El Cajon, you’re going to find one awful comic shop in a big ol’ warehouse (skip that, rookie, unless you’re still looking for those ROM: Space Knight back issues) and head to Greek Town Buffet. This is really high quality Greek food and is, you guessed it, All You Can Eat. There’s avgolemono soup, spanakopita, moussaka, gyros, pastitsio, chicken souvlaki, along with piles of feta, tzatziki, hummus, and all the rich baklava for dessert that you can shake a con exclusive action figure at. Have someone else drive because you’ll feel like sleeping on the way back to Hall H.

FURTHER SOUTH! I have no idea why you’d need to head further south toward the Mexican border through the ‘hoods of National City, Chula Vista, and Imperial Beach, but if you find yourself exiting Plaza Boulevard off the 805 in National City, there’s a humongous enclave of Asian markets, bakeries, and restaurants here (second only to Mira Mesa, the largest Filipino population outside of The Philippines). The only reason to burn up this much fossil fuel is because you’ve heard about the best salt and pepper chicken wings in the county and you’ve decided to experience Royal Mandarin for yourself. I happened to be attending a little lunch party at this Chinese restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday this year and the place was packed, a line of about 20 people out the door picking up just trays of the chicken wings, and there was a phone continually ringing off the hook as the staff scrambled to fill orders of wings going out by the party platter full. You order by the dozen. They’re deep fried in the crunchiest batter with just salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and green onion stalks. Enjoy.

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