Have you been to El Jardin in Liberty Station? Claudette Zepeda-Wilkin’s new restaurant opened this summer. My mom took the Little Birds and me there for brunch a little while ago. The chef grows much of the produce right on the restaurant’s lot, and the breezy garden patio is comfortable and beautifully decorated.
Refined Abuela Cooking
Chef Zepeda-Wilkin’s roots are here in San Diego and across the border in Mexico. She brings the comfort and satisfaction of her grandma’s recipes and traditions to current day presentation and surprises.
The highlight of our brunch was the Chilaquiles Divorciados. Given the choice, I usually pick a green sauce for my chilaquiles or enchiladas. But I was happy to taste both homemade sauces. Divorciados means two different sauces side by side, making me think of a couple that are not quite divorced, but living separately in the same house.
All in the Details
Both the outside patio and the indoor dining room are decorated thoughtfully. I loved the utility of a stand near our table meant to hold bags. As a mom, I totally appreciated that there was a changing table in restroom stocked with Honest diapers and wipes. I mentioned it in my Instagram story, and the chef responded that the men’s room had the same set up!
We started with hot chocolate, which was mixed (batida) table side, and cafe de olla. They mix the coffee with piloncillo sugar. I found it too sweet, especially along side the sweet entrees.
If you have seen my cajeta recipe or caramel torte with cajeta, chocolate and pecans (you have to click through to see the picture!), then you know I am obsessed with CAJETA. The Little Birds liked the pancakes with cajeta. Mom tip: have the kids split the sweet dish and order them each a side of eggs.
One to Watch
I first met chef Zepeda-Wilkins in 2015. That summer, Specialty Produce held a tasting night a week before Javier Placensio’s Bracero opened. Zepeda-Wilkins, as that restaurant’s chef de cuisine, prepared Yucatan-style cochinita pibil sopes topped with heirloom beans and fermented pineapple. I really enjoyed hearing about the food from her. When her more famous boss came over, I asked to take a picture. She humbly stepped out of frame, and I insisted she get back in the photo. “Me?” she asked. “Yes!” I blurted, “I like you.” Because, sometimes I go with my gut, you know?
Since then, Zepeda-Wilkins starred in TV projects such as Top Chef in the US and Mexico. And in the time it has taken me to finish this blog post, El Jardin and the chef have been nominated for several restaurant awards. Yet, she still takes the time to bring the food to guests herself!
One More Tip
Top the chilaquiles with short rib, please! You’re welcome.
I hope you all enjoyed Mother’s Day! What did you do? Papa Bird makes a great breakfast. But with our new house still filled with boxes, I thought going out would be more relaxing. So we had a delicious brunch at Herb & Wood in Little Italy.
If you follow our family on Instagram, you will know we often eat breakfast at Herb & Eatery, which is the casual market/cafe side of Herb & Wood. Papa Bird and I have had the pleasure of a night out at Herb & Wood, but we’ve never gone to brunch. In fact, they just started serving brunch last month!
The Sweet Verdict
We love the croissants and pastries at both places. In fact, their pastry chef, Adrian Mendoza, is currently my favorite in town. Stand-outs for us were definitely the sweets.
We would 100% order the Dutch Baby Soufflé Pancake again. The table side presentation includes topping it, fresh from the oven, with huckleberries, lemon curd, and chantilly cream.
I’d say we would order the Monkey Bread with caramel, sesame seeds, cashews and tahini gelato again…. but we already did! It was my choice to start us off and Papa Bird ordered a second round for us to finish our meal. It’s a definite winner — and tip, only limited quantities are made each weekend, so order early. If the place weren’t so fancy, I would’ve definitely licked the plate.
Herb & Wood Restaurant
Speaking of fancy, the restaurant is full service, meaning multiple waitstaff attended on us, clearing dishes and silverware between courses. Herb & Wood is probably one of the most beautiful spaces in town. It used to be an art gallery (I remember attending openings in the space’s past life) and is a place “to be seen.”
To be honest, I thought we ordered a lot of food, between the French Onion Omelet, the Jamon Iberico Benedict, an Avocado and Burrata salad, and all the sweets. However, after leaving, I realized we never got to try their breakfast or brunch pizzas. You can see the current brunch menu here.
The Extra Touches
In addition to the attentive service, they went above and beyond with extra touches for Mother’s Day. Our friend Nikki, who we know from frequenting the market side, made dozens and dozens of paper tulips to give to all the mamas. Our server delivered the flower at the end of the meal with a pair of perfect macarons packaged to take home.
Tips and Suggestions
Since brunch service is still new, reservations are a must. But if you do procrastinate, you’ll have the best luck finding a table when they first open at 10am.
Parking is really not that bad on Sundays and the meters are free.
Dress to impress. Even brunch is a scene to be seen. I would say rock your own style, whatever you feel that is, but don’t phone it in. You don’t want to get there and feel underdressed.
Only limited quantities of the Monkey Bread and Pastry Basket are baked each day, so put those orders in early.
The orange juice is freshly squeezed – ambrosia, as my dad used to call it.
“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.
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, Burd Psychotherapy, in Clairemont (San Diego) at www.burdtherapy.com.