“The best Mexican food I’ve had came from a white guy in Chicago.” –My sister, Claire, after eating at Frontera Grill.
If you have seen the recipe posts for Cajeta and Tres Leches with Strawberries, then you know I have been a fan of Rick Bayless for most of my life. Papa Bird and I had a fantastic meal at the Red O Restaurant in Newport Beach two years ago.
Back then, I posted a picture of the light as air corn and goat cheese tamales from Red O on Twitter, and Rick Bayless (or whoever does his Twitter) ACTUALLY responded. I was starstruck. And upon hearing that La Jolla was tapped for the next location, I knew I wanted to do a feature on this blog. I’ve been bugging them since!
We may live in San Diego with an abundance of excellent, authentic Mexican food… but it’s not Portland. There is no need to stone anyone for cultural appropriation. Not when they study a cuisine with the attention of a professor, scholar, and master. And not when the food is delicious!
During our first visit, I was struck with the attention to ingredients… heirloom beans and the freshest of produce. The same holds true in the San Diego/La Jolla location. The shrimp in the ceviche was plump and perfect, the flavor refreshing and addicting, served with plantain chips.
The management at both Red O’s corporate office and locally in San Diego where super accommodating and helped me organize a lunch for the San Diego Food Blogger crew. Disclaimer: they treated us to the lunch. Photos, descriptions, and opinions are mine.
Thanks to all my friends who gave me such nice feedback on my recent post on the Farm to Bay Event. I love culinary events! Roaming around, tasting bites, sipping cocktails, finding new favorite restaurants… What’s not to love? But why should I have all the fun? Who wants to join me at the Taste of Downtown next Thursday? Enter to win a pair of tickets below! And if you don’t win, you can use my code “BABYBIRDS” for $5 off tickets bought here.
The Taste of Downtown Restaurants
Over forty restaurants, including Bice, Dobson’s, Seersucker, Ocean Pacific Grill, Bandar, Ciro’s, Donut Bar, Blue Point, Rei de Gabo, Whiskey Girl, Blush, Seasons 52, Lotus Thai, Rustic Root, Biga, and more, will be trying to impress. Participants over 21 years of age will also have drink options.
Promo Code for Taste of Downtown Ticket
The Taste of Downtown is Thursday, September 15th, from 5 pm to 9 pm. Complimentary transportation is provided. At $30 presale ($25 with promo code “BABYBIRDS”) dinner and drinks is a steal! Who’s in?
Win a Pair of Tickets
Email will be used solely for the purpose of contacting winner. I promise! Prize: (2) tickets to the Taste of Downtown. Winner must present at will call pick up at Rusted Root Restaurant.
Want the inside scoop on which restaurants will have free drinks? Check out the ones with asterisks.
Comment and let me know which restaurants we shouldn’t miss.
The Living Coast Discovery Center overlooks San Diego Bay and sits on the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The zoo/aquarium cares for birds, animals and marine life that would not otherwise survive in the wild.
The 2016 Farm to Bay
Once a year San Diego restaurants, breweries, caterers and vineyards come together to support the non-profit Living Coast Discovery Center and highlight sustainability and coastal wildlife. Event goers are treated to samples from over 40 food and beverage venders, including Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub, Urge American Gastropub, True Food Kitchen, Panama 66, Suzie’s Farm, Viva Pops, Big Front Door, Juice Wave, and Duck Foot Brewing Company.
What the US Olympic athletes eat: sustainable scallop ceviche.
One surprising food partner was not a restaurant or a caterer, yet makes 1,000 meals a day. The Chula Vista Olympic Training Center feeds our hungry athletes during training. They offered us samples of a scallop ceviche (above) and a macadamia poke, made with line-caught yellow tail. Dang Brother Pizza (below) cooks Neapolitan-style thin crust pizza in a wood-burning Italian pizza oven built into a vintage fire truck. The pizza is delicious, and with taps built into the side of the truck, they are ready to pull up to your party.
How would you like a fire truck to pull up to your house party and serve pizza?
One of the event’s sponsors, Home Advisor, did not have anyone local to use their tickets. So a “matchmaker” named Candice from ZipSprout found me through the @BabyBirdsFarm Instagram and thought it would be up my alley. Gourmet, sustainable, farm-to-table food and drinks? Helping spread the word for a great non-profit? Spending a gorgeous summer evening on a wildlife refuge with my husband? Yes, please.
Wrangling Top San Diego Farm-to-Table Restaurants
Willy Wonka wrangled!?
Chef Will Gustwiller of Eclipse Chocolate Bar and Bistro was this year’s Culinary Chair, or as he calls it “Chef Wrangler.” He helped curate the partners and coordinate their offerings. (He told us last year half of the restaurants served ceviche — oops.) We chatted a bit about how they were all sourcing sustainable ingredients and the goal of being a zero waste event. In a large brown top hat, it was hard not to draw a connection between the chocolatier and Willy Wonka. Will shared how he hated being called “Willy Wonka” as a kid, but has since learned to embrace it as the best of marketing. We enjoy both brunch and dinner at Eclipse, and picked up 2-for-1 coupons for our next visit.
Finding Dory, Sharks and Sea Turtles
Saving marine and coastal wildlife.
Sapphire, the loggerhead sea turtle, was injured by a boat. Despite rehabilitation her sense of direction is off and she often winds up with her head in the sand. Yes, like the poor Beluga in the fictional Marine Life Institute in “Finding Dory”! She shares a tank with the leopard sharks swimming behind me in the above picture.
A pretty barn owl socialized at the Farm to Bay – they also visit schools.
Years ago, a coworker of mine was a tour guide at the then named “Chula Vista Nature Center.” I remember discovering and loving the scent of the Cleveland Sage there, and now have it planted throughout our yard. We became reacquainted with the Living Coast Discovery Center after their animal ambassadors visited the Little Birds’ preschool and my husband drove them down to explore.
I got to chat with Tommy, the Fishmonger at Catalina Offshore Products. Catalina is truly at the forefront of sustainable seafood in San Diego. Tommy shared a Portuguese Tuna Salad that the fishermen used to bring with them on the boat. I love any tuna salad that is made without mayonnaise, and this one was great. Fresh yellowtail, steamed, and tossed with a red vinegar dressing; Farm to Bay patrons had a lightened up version in endive. I’m guessing the fishermen did not.
Tip: If you want any easy way to improve your cooking, shop where the chefs get their ingredients.
My Little Birds love going down to Catalina Offshore to shop for seafood. Parallel in concept to Specialty Produce, Catalina supplies local, fresh and sustainable seafood to San Diego’s top restaurants yet allows regular retail customers to shop too.
Another San Diego favorite, caterers Sushi on a Roll, served up line caught blue fin as sashimi and in a cut roll with seaweed salad.
I had thought blue fin was solidly on the “avoid” list due to over-fishing. But chef Jeff started telling me about some of the efforts to develop sustainable and environmentally friendly farms.
Don’t hate me San Diegans, but I don’t really drink beer… So I really can’t write much other than that there were a TON of local craft beer samples at the Farm to Bay. Papa Bird was happy drinking old favorites including Grapefruit Sculpin and finding new up and coming beers like Duckfoot. I, on the other hand, was very happy tasting the “Island Girl” cocktail from Blue Chair Bay Rum. They also provided the recipe, which is at the end of the post. Perfect for a summer evening, it highlights their coconut rum (which is also delicious served chilled on its own), and is not too sweet.
Shocker: My favorite dish was dessert.
Finally, Corn Sorbet and Tres Leches from Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort completed a three-course corn-centric tasting menu. Following brown-butter-bacon popcorn and a pork belly with corn salsa, the pastry chef turned the vegetable into a surprisingly successful sorbet. The sorbet accompanied a personal-size tres leches and mint-jalapeno syrup. I made my husband go back to get his own. Luckily, Cool Down Coffee was at the next table, where I picked up a caramel cold brew.
Are you hungry yet?
I hope so! It’s not too soon to plan to attend the 2017 Farm to Bay. In the meantime, check out one of the San Diego farm-2-table partners. Or if you want to sip a bit of summer just a while longer, try out Blue Chair Bay’s recipe for the Island Girl.
Happy January friends! We may be passed the decadence of the holidays but we are still eating very well. Last night Papa Bird and I went down to Little Italy to the “partying step-child” of Prepkitchen locations.
I am collaborating with San Diego Restaurant Week (SDRW) to celebrate their 12th year of discounted fine dining and preview one of their 180 restaurants. You may know I’m a fan of seasonal, farm-to-table fine dining, so when they matched me with Prepkitchen Little Italy, I was thrilled. The Prepkitchen concept started with the La Jolla location as a spot “for chefs by chefs.” They serve seasonal comfort food, often Mediterranean-inspired. As it has expanded, each location has its own character, and Little Italy is known for being fun and in the center of nightlife.
For those that have been living under a rock, San Diego Restaurant Week is when an impressive list of restaurants offer prix-fixe meals for a steal. A three-course dinner is $20, $30, $40 or $50 per person, and lunch (two-courses) is only $10, $15 or $20 per person. For reference, my entrée (the trout pictured above), would normally cost $28.50, so for $30 for the SDRW dinner at Prepkitchen, an appetizer and dessert are basically free.
And let’s talk about appetizers. Prepkitchen is a particularly fun choice for Restaurant Week. They don’t offer a traditional prix-fixe meal with a few options for each course. They throw the whole menu open and let you pick from anything they are making that night. My pick of the appetizers was the Ahi Tartare (normally $14.50; GF) with a smoked onion puree, pickled shallots and crispy sunchokes. I was really hoping there would be some kind of crudo or sashimi dish available. I personally believe that all of the restaurants in the Whisknladle group (Prepkitchen, Catania and Whisknladle) do crudos exceptionally well. The General Manager (a sweet and friendly guy named Darin) told me they would keep one on the menu for SDRW. The menu changes nightly and the fish may change with the catch, but the basic idea will stay the same.
The Ahi Tartare was definitely the most interesting dish we tried. Wintery, rooted and warming, yet refreshing at the same time. Papa Bird said tasting the sunchoke chip with the smoked onion purée reminded him of BBQ potato chips (in a good way.) The sunchokes certainly had the crunch of a perfect potato chip. The dish was light but substantial, and garnered an “I’d definitely eat it again.”
I had checked out a sample menu before going down and was hoping the Burrata and Butternut Squash Mostarda would be there. It was! And should stay on through the season. Most of the squash is grown by the group at Milagro Vineyards. I wrote more about their farm2table efforts here. Mostarda is sort of like a jam or preserve with fresh mustard seeds. With quality ingredients, it was a classic combo: sweet and creamy from the burrata, with the salty prosciutto and crunchy pumpkin seeds and crostini. Satisfying. Probably the best part was the fried sage, perfectly brittle and crisp. (Normally $16.50 and GF without the crostini.)
The menu changes every night, so I can’t promise every item will be there. In general, it will be similar, but may feature a different fish or cut of meat, for example. For entrees, Papa Bird chose the Fusilli Bolognese, with Beef, Pork, Rosemary and a ton of Parmigiano-Regiano (normally $20.50.) He was a trooper with my obnoxious photo taking, so I let him have one dish without stealing its soul. The GM was confident it would be on the menu throughout Restaurant Week and we all recommend it. The pasta was al dente, the proportions spot on. Cheesy and filling, it could easily have been shared.
Likewise, the Prosciutto-Wrapped Trout (pictured at top, GF) should be available throughout the week. For a humble fish, this was hands down my favorite dish of the night, with a sliver of lemon (rind and all) tucked into the fish. It rested above a bed of super flavorful lentils and shared its cast-iron tub with the cutest, sweetest agave-glazed carrots. Topped with pickled mustard seeds and a liberal sprinkle of fresh parsley, I don’t think it even needed the prosciutto to be full of rich umami. Those carrots were super fresh and were sourced by Specialty Produce, who provide most of the restaurant’s fruit and vegetables. We chatted the server about the fun of going down to the Specialty Produce warehouse to shop as a home cook.
Other dishes that are popular include the Bacon Wrapped Dates, Beef Tartare, Mary’s Pan Roasted Chicken, and the Burger. Go! And please tell me what you order so I can vicariously eat more.
Drinks are not included in the $20 lunch or $30 dinner, but are highly recommended. (You will be saving so much on the food, you will be able to afford an extra drink or two.) PKLI is known for their cocktails and eclectic wines and beers. My favorite was the Heart of Darkness with Tequila, Aperol, Lemon and Pomegranate Shrub. It was balanced, refreshing and very drinkable, as was the Comfort Blanket with Orange-Tea Infused Bourbon, Vanilla, Citrus and Angostura Bitters. Other drinks I’ve enjoyed there include the Colonel Jerry and Horse & Buggy. The beers and wine are thoughtfully chosen and unexpected. While they emphasize local makers, it is definitely not the same lineup as most restaurants around town.
One of the best parts of Restaurant Week is that even though you are too stuffed for dessert, oh well, you have to get it. The Warm Chocolate Budino is a year-round staple on the menu because, chocolate. It is a chocolate pudding cake served in a wide mouthed mason jar, offering warm comfort with a zingy espresso gelato (house-made), whipped cream and little chocolate crunchies. I got half way through it before I felt guilty for not sharing it with our sweet-obsessed daughters.
Prepkitchen Little Italy Info
Get a reservation if you are thinking about going during Restaurant Week!
Three cheers for date nights! Papa Bird and I have a professional Disney princess who babysits and sings. And with the Little Birds happily entertained, we are starting to venture out to more San Diego restaurants. Here are three of my top date night picks in San Diego for foodie couples — including a giveaway to one of them below.
Disclaimer: Specialty Produce invited us to a night of fresh Italian and Mexican dishes by chefs Javier Plascencia of Bracero and MJ Testa of Caffe Calabria in order to sample their Farmers’ Market Boxes. There was no obligation to write about them and my decision to post was based on my excitement to share them with you. Opinions are my own, as always.
1. Modern “Baja Med” Fusion at Bracero in Little Italy
Javier Plascencia’s restaurant empire in Tijuana ranges from the modern Misión 19 to Mediterranean/Mexican “BajaMed” fusion and often features fresh Baja California ingredients. Over the last decade, he has frequently outshone most San Diego chefs. Bracero Cocina de Raiz, named after a guest worker program that brought Mexican labor up to the U.S., is his second restaurant this side of the border (after Romesco in Bonita), opens tonight in Little Italy, and is at the very top of my list of San Diego restaurants I most want to visit. Check out a sneak peek of their modern Mexican fusion menu here, and see why I can’t wait.
Below is a sample of what to expect: Yucatan-style cochinita pibil sopes, made from heirloom corn masa, slow braised pork, heirloom beans and fermented pineapple. You can make a reservation for their upstairs dining room here, or try your luck walking in to the more casual downstairs and crudo bar. And if I haven’t convinced you to try Plascencia’s cuisine, maybe Jonathan Gold or Dana Goodyear can.
2. Neopolitan Pizza and Craft Cocktails at Caffe Calabria in North Park
When I was chipping away at my Masters of Social Work, I often studied at Caffe Calabria. I usually ordered a Viennese and brought home a bag of the beans they roast on site. Since then they have added a traditional wood-fire pizza oven from Naples, and brought in chef MJ Testa. Caffe Calabria has also started mixing craft cocktails with the same level of attention they bring to the coffee bar. Enter to win two free pizzas from Caffe Calabria at the bottom of this post.
My favorite dish of the night was chef Testa’s Grilled Prawns with farmer’s market box squash and peppers in a cream sauce, inspired by the Amalfi Coast of Italy. I was too busy chatting and the first dish she put out was inhaled by the crowd. For dessert, she roasted white donut peaches and served it with a honey marscapone crema.
As an aside, they have done a lot to renovate the upstairs and back patios. I would definitely look into Caffe Calabria for hosting a private event. The building was once a bank and has tons of character. North Park has changed a lot since I lived there, and there are a ton of bars and clubs to walk to after dinner. Want to be the lucky couple to win dinner there on me?
You can see more of our night in the gallery below.
Celebrated Tijuana chef, Javier Plascencia, opens Bracero in Little Italy this week.
Ensalada de nopal by chef Javier Plascenscia of Bracero with white beets, dill and Easter egg radishes from the Specialty Produce farmers market box.
Craft cocktails at Caffe Calabria, featuring Specialty Produce seasonal fruit.
Caffe Calabria fig and prosciutto pizza by chef MJ Testa.
Me and Papa Bird by the Caffe Calabria roaster.
Roasted Specialty Produce Doughnut Peach with a Honey Marscapone Crema by Chef MJ Testa of Caffe Calabria.
Hi! I started Baby Birds Farm after the birth of my first daughter. I started sharing seasonal recipes featuring produce from our garden, eggs from our chicken, and homemade cheeses from our goat milk co-op. Fast forward a few years, another daughter, another business, and now we are just surviving and enjoying our busy life and food as much as we can. Join our journey of good food, farm-to-table restaurants in San Diego and healthy living!
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My Day Job
Abigail Burd, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Psychotherapist, provides women's mental health in San Diego, CA. Specialities include managing anxiety and depression during pregnancy, postpartum and parenting. Learn more about my practice in Clairemont (San Diego) at AbigailBurdLCSW.com.