Never had a problem with Dumpling Inn. Many good meals there. I went to the new Shanghai Saloon and the flavors were pretty much the same. The craft beer selection was great. The ladies who work there (same as the original location) have always been really friendly, and we've enjoyed all of the dishes. Our experience at the new one was about the same. A funny sight to see a full restaurant of people eating the food, with space to spare, since the old restaurant always had that long wait and the cramped dining area.
Regarding the negative critiques of the place, I really don't get it. For me, I've had my fair share of really good Asian food; I lived there, and have eaten at some of the better places in the US. Even so, I know my opinion will never be the same as someone born and raised in China or who grew up in an Asian household here.
That being said, it does seem to me that fans of Asian cuisine tend to be among the most unforgiving when it comes to the "authenticity" and "quality" of dishes. For every person that mentions that they like a place like the Dumpling Inn, there is usually about 10 people who chime in to say that either it's not as good as what they got in China, not as good as what they got in the San Gabriel Valley, or not as good as they got from their Asian mother/grandmother. Specific to the Dumpling Inn, I've even read things like the place being "Terrible". Really?
Add to this the fact that many of the core ingredients for cuisines like Chinese food come from pre-made sauces and use things like pre-packaged noodles and frozen dumplings from distributors, loaded with artificial ingredients and flavorings. And yet, the Dumpling Inn makes their noodles and dumplings from scratch, and the criticism is still the same, because the thickness of the dumpling isn't just right, or there isn't enough broth inside each dumpling. I get it; it's not much different than how picky people are with styles of pizza. It just seems to me that the level of critique of Asian restaurants tends to be unreasonable. A place doesn't make a particular dish just like someone's grandmother, and it's terrible.
From the thread you referenced, my vote from 2010 still stands:
"Big fan of Influx's croissants, pain au chocolat, cupcakes, and everything from their bakery case. Definitely my favorite croissant in SD."
There's also the Balboa Tap House next to Sprouts, which usually has a surprisingly good selection of beers on tap (Alpine, for instance) and does bar food with daily specials.
Tucked away in a side neighborhood, just south of the main shopping center on Mt Acadia is Maritza's mexican food (excellent - cash only), and a Keg n Bottle liquor store (great selection of beers, tons of local).
Regarding Ototo Sushi, I went and had some chicken karaage (they call it Grazie chicken on the menu), which was a bunch of small nugget-sized pieces of chicken fried in a thick batter (a la Long John Silvers) - not what I was expecting. The White Tonokotsu ramen was also a strange dish. It was a near-clear broth which didn't taste at all like the usual pork tonkotsu broth that most are familiar with. It didn't taste like the pre-made pork base that a lot use either. It had the consistency of almost an egg-drop soup. Almost like there was just a lot of corn starch in the broth. No bueno. Most of the people there were getting sushi, so if I go back it would be for that. Also, they need to get new menus. The colored ink on the plastic pages was literally flaking off. The menu they gave me had big spots of the menu completely rubbed off. Wouldn't ever have thought to point something like that out, but I noticed every menu in the place was like that. On their Yelp page you can see a photo of one of the Happy Hour menus like that. Weird.
But they totally aren't as authentic as the ones you can get in Egypt.
"That's the point, and no one is missing it."
And yet another thread here turns into "San Diego has nothing special about it".
It's an embarrassment of riches here, with diversity and environments you wouldn't find in 90% of the rest of the country and it gets turned into the same thing over and over on this board. Out of towners post requests for recommendations, and it's only a matter of time before someone responds with "San Diego doesn't really do anything good."
Cue the bizarre comparisons to other cities, and the laundry list of random one-off foods that other cities have made famous that San Diego doesn't have an equivalent to. "Good luck trying to find a truly authentic Cleveland Pierogi in San Diego", etc.
Someone asks for local specialties, ethnic specialties, and things that they shouldn't miss while they are here, and the focus again turns to "Sorry, San Diego really doesn't have anything that is as synonymous with the city as Detroit has with the Coney Dog".
Hey, there are no Egyptian Pyramids in San Diego either, so I really don't think we have any right to tell visitors that there are any sites here that are truly worth seeing.
That is the point being missed.
Brats weren't invented in Sheboygan. Sourdough wasn't invented in San Francisco. Gumbo is a Louisiana thing, but it still comes down to the difference between focusing on the people in that area, and how the food fits into their lifestyle, as opposed to just focusing on "what" they are eating. I may be able to eat sourdough anywhere in the US, but there is only one place where I can eat it while staring at Alcatraz, with the fog of the bay coming in. That, to me, is "can't miss". The sourdough in that scenario is only one part. As it is, there are maybe, 10 places in the US that have a truly regional dish? And most of those are simply not that interesting on their own. You can get beignets anywhere, and you can get good brats in most major cities. You can certainly get good sourdough many places too. The world is simply getting too small. Good food is everywhere. It's the combination of the food + people + place that does it.
No different than going to Hawaii and eating Spam. I can get Spam in any grocery store in the country, but there is only one place I can go where I can eat spam, go to a luau, and then go surfing.
There are many such examples of that type of thing in San Diego. Craft beer, fresh berries, the weather, the beaches, the laidback people, the number of mexican drive through places, the mix of asian cuisines, frigging reggae music played at 8 out of 10 bars in the city during happy hour, having a beer in the grass at Balboa Park. Sure, it may come down to opinions on what is a better meal than others, but we have an abundance of great things to do and eat here.
Yet,there will always be someone who insists that the xiao long bao at Dumpling Inn aren't "as good" as the ones in San Gabriel Valley. Guess what? The ones in SGV aren't as good as the ones in Shanghai, and there isn't a single place in SGV or Shanghai where you could get XLB, then go across the street to O'Briens and have some of the best craft beer in the country.
It's no different than if I cooked a meal for friends at my house. I may be a so-so cook, but I'd like to think that what made the meal special for people was not just the food, but the conversation, the drinks, etc.
"Still, SD just doesn't have something it can claim to be really "special", like Sheboygan does with brats."
I think that starts getting into the "I only like Chinese food in China" type thing. By that standard, most cities don't have something they can claim as "really special", because ultimately it's either a one-off food item that only that city eats (which is oftentimes gimmicky - and not usually a unique food), or it's something that is synonymous with a particular restaurant in that town (like pastrami from Katz's deli in NYC).
I suppose it's up to the OP to define what they mean by "can't miss", but I assume that it's just another way of saying "we want something good to eat".
"All good, but none serve not-to-miss, San Diego only, best-to-be-had food."
Does that criteria even work for any city?
What, beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans? Toasted ravioli in St Louis?
Or, are you talking about things like a meal at Jean Georges in NYC? Eating at the Farmer's market in Arles?
Either way, isn't that kind of missing the point?
Agree that Alpine is a drive. But it's definitely a must-go if there is a beer fan in the group (especially one looking for the stuff you can really only get here). Picking up a growler for the hotel room and some bottles to take home makes the drive worthwhile.
The easy cheat is to go to West Coast BBQ off Lake Murray (co-owned by Tom Nickel), as they usually have a few Alpine beers on tap, along with many of the best of the rest from other local brewers. Very close to SDSU.
Near USD, I'd say Linda Vista for Pho Hoa Hiep and Sab-E-Lee, K's Sandwiches, and you can head into Kearny Mesa via Linda Vista to Convoy. Down the hill from USD you have Ballast Point/Home Brew Mart, Catalina Offshore (for fresh fish to cook), Mr Peabody's for burgers, Bay Park fish co, the High Dive, Fashion Valley, Old Town...
Great, that sets you up for a more targeted list of places. I'll skip the downtown/gaslamp recommendations, as well as places too far north or south. Assuming that your conference is around Mission Bay, and not in the harbor area closer to the city.
Near SDSU you have (in no particular order)...
-Carnitas Uruapan - Spring Street, La Mesa - A mexican restaurant that specializes in carnitas. Can get them plated, tacos, etc.
-Bruxie - SDSU - Waffle sandwiches. A California-only chain.
-Pho Hoa - El Cajon Blvd - Large Vietnamese population in SD. Must have some Pho while here. Very hole in the wall, as is A-Chau a block away, which is a cash-only deli which has fantastic egg rolls (the small traditional kind, pork in rice paper, for 50 cents each) and Banh Mi. There is also Saigon, a popular sit down Vietnamese restaurant another few blocks away.
-Alpine Beer Co - It's a drive up the hill, east, but a must-visit destination for anyone who loves beer. Arguably the best beer in San Diego, rare enough that most bars in SD don't even get to serve it. Has a BBQ pub (gets busy during peak times - order takeout while on the drive there if just going for the beer), and is near the Vieja's casino (which also has shopping).
-Super Cocina - Head west on University from SDSU, and you'll arrive in City Heights. A special place for types of mexican food that you may not have had before. It's plate-lunch style, but they let you sample the house made stews and dishes via little cups (kind of like a gelato place would). Excellent.
-Mariscos Alex - Fish taco truck in the parking lot of the liquor store down the street from Super Cocina, on University. Smoked Marlin tacos, El Gobernador tacos, etc.
-Blind Lady Ale House, Adams Ave in Normal Heights - Great pizza and craft beer in Normal Heights. Farm fresh ingredients, and unique items like a Bacon and Egg pizza.
-Cantina Mayahuel, Adams Ave - Small bar setting. Depending on the day you go, they will have a different menu. Try to go when they do homemade mole. Fantastic handmade margaritas, featuring a great selection of tequilas and mescal you'd likely not find elsewhere. A cozy patio.
-Polite Provisions, Adams Ave - Award winning cocktail bar, across the street from Cantina Mayahuel. The interior is over-the-top nice. You kind of just have to see it.
-Soda and Swine, Adams Ave. Next door to Polite Provisions - a copy of the Meatball shop in NYC, where you can get them a dozen ways.
-Senor Mangos - 30th street. Mexican style "Fruiteria". Liquados, smoothies, fresh fruit plates, etc.
-Tiger Tiger - El Cajon Blvd. Same owners as Blind Lady Ale House. Craft beer, sandwiches, sausages, etc.
Many other good places on 30th Street between Adams and Upas Street - Rip Current Brewing (great IPAs + you can eat there), Belching Beaver Brewing (Peanut Butter Stout and more great IPAs), Influx coffee shop (great espresso and lunch sandwiches - wifi too), Caffee Calabria (espresso and pizza), Underbelly ramen, Tacos La Perla (fantastic tacos - fresh made tortillas)
Near the Bay you have...
-Rocky's Crown Pub, Ingraham St - A cash only bar, small, with notoriously grumpy bartenders. Some of the best bar burgers in San Diego (if not the best burger period).
-Amplified Ale Works - Mission Blvd. Does housemade craft beer, with kebab and pita dishes, and has an open air outdoor patio where you can stare at the ocean.
-Liberty Station, Point Loma - a converted military training school located the other side of the airport. Large property, so you may want to park near the place you want to go to. Has Stone Brewery (beer + food), Wine Steals (wine shop with food, outdoor patio, and wine to drink there), Con Pane (great bakery and sandwiches), Tender Greens (salads, plate dishes, desserts beer/wine - highly recommended), and a Trader Joes and Vons if you need groceries
-Fathom Bistro, Shelter Island - on a small pier. Hot dogs, burgers and craft beer. Great view. Very unique.
-Point Loma Seafoods - must try seafood deli. Counter ordering, sit outside.
-Sushi Ota - busy/popular sushi place. One of the best in SD. Located in a bizarre spot but great sushi. Very busy but worth it. (For a quieter equivalent, with related staff - try Hane Sushi in Banker's Hill)
India Street on the other side of the 5 freeway..
-Blue Water Grill - Fresh fish plates, with local beer.
India Street "Little Italy" area, on the city side of the 5 freeway...
- Mercado Farmer's Market - Every Saturday, 8am-2pm. Best farmer's market in SD (sorry, Hillcrest)
Last point is that if you want the best Asian food in SD, you'll need to drive north to Kearny Mesa area. For ocean view places, you can try the landing at Coronado, or La Jolla Cove area. Further south, like Chula Vista, and you'll get more variety in taco shops, etc.
What part of town will you be staying/working in? Will you have a car?
"Yeah, but 60% or usually more of the tables at CSS are always empty while those at UP are full."
Well, the success of one spot doesn't automatically mean that the neighbor is failing. Remember, they are different restaurants. Carnitas Snack Shack is a burger/pork sandwich spot where you get things a la cart. Urban Plates is a hearty dinner plate or big salad sitdown with large seating areas catering towards families and couples. People linger at Urban Plates way more than at Carnitas Snack Shack. In fact, every time I've been to Carnitas Snack Shack I've ordered to go.
Both places have their niche so I think it doesn't really do much to compare the volume of one restaurant to the volume of the one next door to it. Sure, the sight of lines out the door might make an impact if you look at it from someone who has never heard/been to either, but there is no correlation there. They are different restaurants with different ordering/serving setups and different appeal. Searsucker doesn't have lines out the door at lunch either, you know? Nor does the Mexican sitdown across the parking lot.
I'd add that I think it wouldn't be a bad sign if they cut back their hours to close a little earlier. I don't know what they are now, but I remember that when they first opened that they had some late closing times, like the North Park location. For that shopping center, they wouldn't need to be open that late on weekdays. Jimbo's closes at 9pm and UP closes at 9:30pm. It may be a busy shopping center, but it's still frequented by people who have work/school night hours.
"I go to this place since it started opening in 2011 and I can't a single time I hadn't to wait in line to order my food"
Funny, I've been going there awhile as well. As I said earlier, the line to get your food is inherent, because of the cafeteria style. The line out the door, where the people are nearly on the street is only when it's peak times, like lunch and dinner. People spilling out of that place every night is now the norm, but it wasn't always like that. And it's not a fair comparison with Carnitas Snack Shack not having a similar line, because it's a different ordering/seating setup. At Carnitas, you order and go sit down. At UP you order and wait for them to make your food in front of you. Naturally there's going to always be some form of line inside.
"The lines out of the door at UP are pretty much there from the beginning especially at lunch."
Right, now they are. When it first opened, and for awhile after that it wasn't so busy.
Also worth noting that the lines out the door at Urban Plates are a bit misleading. Yeah, they get a steady flow of customers, but that line out the door isn't from people waiting for a table or waiting for people to leave, like you'd see at some of the really busy places in town. The line there has more to do with the fact that it's cafeteria style where you wait for them to make your food in front of you, the people working the counters aren't always very quick, and the people in line aren't always following the instructions on the signs showing that there are separate lines for hot food vs salad bar.
"UP might be based in the business model of TG but the meals at UP were better than what we had at TP (UTC)"
I like Urban Plates, I do. When it first opened I was happy to see a TG equivalent in that area. Then the UTC Tender Greens opened and it was best of both. The Urban Plates location is definitely a nice spot. I do prefer Tender Greens. Also worth mentioning Urban Pi on Via de La Valle. They did a really nice job on that place. Frozen/refrigerated discs of organic pizza dough, sure, assembled to order, but I think the concept works and the food is good.
It is worth pointing out that just like Tender Greens (which only really started taking off in the past 2-3 years after having been a quiet hit in Liberty Station), Urban Plates also took awhile to get itself the following it has now. The line out the door thing is fairly recent (past year or so). On the weekends I've seen Carnita's Snack Shack packed, but of course they'll never have the line out the door because it's not that type of business, where they make you wait cafeteria-style for your food like at UP. Even so, I've still seen lines out the door during peak times.
In general, I think the redesign of the Del Mar Highlands shopping center is a good thing. I remember what that place looked like 15-20 years ago. It still conjures an image of the people from the nearby communities (wealthy rancho santa fe, jewish retirees, rich kids, "cougars"), but the reality is that the area directly around that shopping center is now 99% middle class families with small kids. I see more Asian, Indian, and Eastern European families in that area now than I do anywhere else in San Diego, save for pockets of Mira Mesa and Kearny Mesa - and those communities tend to slant towards one ethnicity or the other. Carmel Valley has turned into this sleeper area where a lot of people from different backgrounds are commuting into Sorrento Valley or heading up to north county or south to downtown for work. The rancho santa fe and cougar crowds still come into the Del Mar Highlands shopping center, but the mix isn't the same as it was.
The stretch from Genesee to Lomas Santa Fe has lots of gems, hidden in these otherwise random locations. What's more is that many of them are contenders for "best of" in their respective categories.
Besides the stuff like Carnita's Snack Shack, Snooze, or Urban Plates in Del Mar Highlands, in the surrounding area there's Zumbar Coffee, Opera Cafe, Punjabi Tandoor's second location, Keg n Bottle liquor, 2 locations of Green Acre, Del Mar Wine Company, Pizza Port Solana Beach, Claire's on Cedros, New English Brewing, Green Flash Brewing, The Lodge at Torrey Pines, Roberto's Mexican on Carmel Valley Road...Add in the recent developments on Via de La Valle and you have the best Whole Foods in San Diego county, Venissimo cheese, Burger Lounge, Sea and Smoke, Cucina Enoteca, even an M Theory record store too. Go out in each direction from there and you've got Prep Kitchen, Brigantine, Kitchen 1540, Secret Cafe, the Fish Market, Tony's Jacal, Fidel's, Market, Addison...
"compared to the original, it has kind of a cold (chain) feel to it"
You gotta exploit the location for what it has to offer and tailor your expectations to fit it. In North Park, you can go bar hopping, go see a concert, or dip into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Carnitas Snack Shack being on University and right next to the busy-ness of the street works just fine there. In Carmel Valley, switch out those things for a nice movie (Cinepolis), a pre/after dinner cocktail (Searsucker), or some window shopping. Chuao Chocolate (including gelato and espresso drinks), Oggi's for craft beer, Jimbo's for some organic goods, Leaf and Kettle for some tea (same owner that operated Halcyon in South Park a few years ago). Heck, why not head towards the beach and watch the sunset. Opens up a whole new set of places along the coast as well.
Interesting thread. I don't see the concern. Quality of food was identical to the North Park location, and I've been to both several times. Difference is that at Carmel Valley you don't get the unreasonable lines or the wait on the sidewalk and instead you get a great interior with lots of space and plenty of things to walk to before/after the meal. Putting the same formula into a nicer space is a good thing. It's bound to be quieter at times in comparison to North Park because it's not in an area where people are flocking to the place after drinking every other night. For comparison, the North Park location is just as dead empty during non-peak hours. If anything, threads like this draw negative attention. I remember going to Pizzeria Mozza and it being packed and the food being good, and then seeing a thread here talk about how bad it was. A few months later the place closed. I dunno.
The fact is that the entire shopping center is empty during non-peak times. Same goes for Urban Plates. The Counter closed because they closed down all locations in the area; that had nothing to do with that location.
We eat at Urban Plates every now and then. It's a really good fit for that type of spot, where you have a lot of people from all over the area migrating to that shopping center (like the Forum in Carlsbad or the Otay Ranch Shopping Center down south). Urban Plates is a carbon-copy of Tender Greens, and no question that Tender Greens does the formula much better, but it is what it is, and a great option in the area. No matter what you put next door, that place will always be busy.
And yes, it's Carmel Valley. Del Mar is west of the 5.
Well, that might be what "quotation marks" can be used for. Is it "what punctuation is for"?
"I agree it will be slammed, but cannot bring myself to write "methinks"..."
And yet, you did.
Very funny how the fish taco has become this elusive food item. I'd be happy with most of the ones on the list, and nine times out of ten it's still going to be frozen fish put on the same generic factory tortillas you can get at any local market. There was a time when Mariscos German would even board up the unused windows in their truck using the boxes that the frozen fish came in.
So, as far as ingredients go, the "best" fish tacos are still about as difficult to source as a pre-packaged hotdog served on a white bread roll.
And yet, so many places still get it so wrong...
Really interested to see how this one plays out.
In that area, Papalecco and Influx both offer breakfast options, but are still essentially coffee shops. There are options for brunch on the weekends, in addition to the Italian spots which do tourist-friendly breakfast options during the week. Some of the hotels in the area also do a standard hotel breakfast.
Harbor will be the only diner-style breakfast place in the area, and on the end of India that has all of the high rise condos surrounding it.
Methinks this place will be permanently slammed, and probably to the point of craziness. A bit like what would happen if there was only one bar open in the Gaslamp on a Friday night.
Went with a group and we tried the pastrami and the pork sandwich, among other things. Between the two, I actually thought the pastrami was better. The pork sandwich wasn't really good at all, as it was super oily and the french roll they served it on tasted day old and was toasted to the point of hardness. The pork was like they took thin slices off of a dry pork loin and then let it sit in whatever the kale was braised with until it was ready to serve. Not really any pork flavor to the meat at all, and there was that oily marinade dripping everywhere. There must have been 2 tablespoons of oil on the bottom of the tray when I was done. I can hang with a messy/oily sandwich with the best of 'em, but this was kind of like they were trying to artificially give the meat some juiciness. Oh Roseville Cozinha, for why did you have to close and take your porchetta sandwich with you?
Probably my biggest complaint here is that they serve their beer in glasses which have about 1 inch of extra glass at the bottom. In fact, these are probably the heaviest "pint" glasses I've ever seen. Given the number of restaurants in this group's chain, and how much they try and align with the craft beer thing, this seems like an obvious cashgrab. Places like the Waterfront and the High Dive use similar types of "trick" pint glasses, so that they can serve less beer per glass, yet keep charging customers the same price. The glass looks like a traditional pint glass, but notice that extra half inch or inch of glass at the bottom. Instead of 16oz of beer in the glass, you're really getting 12oz. Add some foam, and its more like 10oz. The customer gets less and the restaurant gets to make more money per keg.
This isn't isolated to just Rare Form, either, as it seems to be a trend at most of the CH restaurants. I was at Underbelly, and they've started serving their craft taps in these ridiculous half-pint style glasses, yet still charge $6-$7 a beer. At Soda and Swine, the guinness-style pints they serve there actually have "16oz" listed on the menu, but the one I got came with about two inches of foam on the top. Craft and Commerce have started serving a lot of their beers in tulip glasses, as does Ironside, where you're again only getting 10-12oz per pour.
Beware the dreaded trick pint.
"I wonder if they are trying to emulate Wexler's up in LA. "
Well, of course they are. And if not Wexler's, then somewhere else. Most likely a little bit from Katz's too, along with little bits from other notable places.
I've never been a fan of that group's strategy of copying other restaurants and then churning out average food. The focus is all on the interior design, which I assume is where most of the startup money goes. The design too ends up being a collage of lifts from other designers and restaurants.
Are the CH places interesting? Of course they are, because they are built around interesting ideas already worked out by others. Sure, the drinks and vibe in each place is fun, if nothing else. Which is probably the real strategy at work there. What's so odd about that group is that with all that money they must have behind them and all of those backers, including the City of San Diego pretty much greenlighting everything that they want to put up, why not come up with something even just a little bit more homegrown? Is it really that hard to have an original vision beyond repeatedly doing carbon copies of restaurants from New York and LA mixed with the same overused Wes Anderson schtick?
Before Rare Form, their Ironside Fish and Oyster place opened, and it's pretty much a copy of The Optimist in Atlanta. Right down to aspects in the interior design, with the stage lights set in wrought iron over the bar. They've admitted to having "influences", and sure nobody really invents anything these days, but the CH restaurants end up being these cut-and-paste collages of very specific ideas from other chefs and restaurateurs currently on the scene. It's one thing to be influenced by someone, or be influenced by a trend; it's something else to copy for the purpose of creating an imitation.
Case in point, take Bruxie, the waffle sandwich chain who were slated to open in San Diego but then delayed their plans for a short time. As they were transitioning to a new spot, Rare Form opened up and coincidentally featured waffle sandwiches on their menu, specifically copying items from Bruxie's menu. Now that Bruxie finally ended up opening in San Diego, we have both the originator of an idea in the same town as the copycat. It's just weird.
For San Diego IPAs, it's worth noting that one of the original starting points was Blind Pig IPA, which was done out of Temecula by Vinnie Cilurzo in 1994. He now runs Russian River brewing outside of Sonoma, which still does a lot of good beers in addition to Blind Pig IPA, such as Pliny the Elder. They have pretty good distribution too, so you could probably go into a store in LA that carries Blind Pig or Pliny and get the "original" San Diego IPA style without ever needing to come down here.
A lot of the bigger local brewers opened around the same time as Vinnie was doing his thing, and as a result I think a lot of the current San Diego IPAs are very similar to that original style. Even with all of the self-professed beer nerds in town these days, I think that you'd find that quite a few of them couldn't tell the difference between a pint of Blind Pig, Pliny, Sculpin (Ballast Point), Racer 5 (Bear Republic), Alesmith IPA (Alesmith), West Coast IPA (Green Flash), or Mongo (Port Brewing) if put to a blind taste test. If you've had one of those beers and liked it, chances are you'd like the rest. But, that also means that if you've had one, and you're not so picky, no need to rush out and try them all just based on subtle differences, like hop profile, bitterness, or abv content.
For current San Diego IPAs, I think you can actually get one of the very best ones just as you cross into Carlsbad, by going to Pizza Port on Carlsbad Village Drive and having a pint of Wipeout IPA. People rave about Port's Mongo beer, but to me that beer is another one in the Blind Pig style. Wipeout is much more of a distinct beer. Far more citrus and floral, and not as heavy overall, so the hop flavors jump out more and the beer has a really nice sharp bite to it without as much of the over the top bitterness. Port Carlsbad also occasionally have their Pour Man's IPA or Hop Suey IIPA on tap, beers which I rarely see getting mentioned on "best of" lists, but which together with Wipeout I think just might be the best IPA/IIPA lineup done by any brewer in town, save of course for Alpine's Pure Hoppiness/Duet/Exponential Hoppiness. You can get Wipeout in a bottle at many places in town, but if you have the option, Wipeout from the tap or in a growler is the way to go (same goes for most IPAs, honestly). A lot of bars still do the cask thing (beer served via a hand pump) as a nice "special" gimmick, but I think that's become waaaaay overdone, and in my opinion only really works well with things like stouts and lighter ales, where the beer can stand to lose the carbonation and yet still taste good. Serving IPAs and IIPAs from a cask usually ends up throwing the balance of those beers off, resulting in a flat and even kind of syrupy/sweet version of an otherwise really nicely balanced beer. IPAs need that carbonation from a keg/tap. Anyway, if you go to Port Carlsbad, they also have a bottle shop next door, so you're bound to find something really good there, not just from them, but from other local brewers.
Ballast Point's Sculpin has become very popular in the last few years, and it's indeed a great local IPA, but that's another beer that I've always found to be more along the lines of other "Blind Pig" style IPAs. Sculpin gets raves from Beer Advocate, but I think that has more to do with that site being filled mostly with people outside of San Diego, and the fact that Sculpin is brewed in such large batches means that you can get it across the country pretty easy to share with other members. So, Sculpin gets to be known as the one that broke out of San Diego and helped get us on the national map, but when put next to other local beers, I don't really think it stands out that much at all. $16 for a six pack is outrageous, too. Beer prices in general are starting to get out of hand. You used to be able to get Stone IPA for $6.99 at Cost Plus a few years ago, and now it's regularly $10.99 (save for when buying it as a 24 pack at Costco). Likewise, Green Flash West Coast IPA used to come in 6 packs at $6.99 and now it's $10.99 for a 4 pack. The cost of hops hasn't gone up that much, fellas, but hats off to them for seizing the moment.
Anyway, to my mind there is no question that Pat at Alpine is the reigning king of San Diego IPAs. Pure Hoppiness and Exponential Hoppiness were far more responsible for the IPA/IIPA phenomenon taking over in the past 6-7 years than anything else, save maybe for Stone's IPA, just based on how available that beer has always been. But 5-6 years ago, no other beers tasted anything remotely like the Alpine stuff. Stone got San Diegans drinking more San Diego-brewed beer, and Ballast Point brought the variety and put craft beer into nearly every bar in the city, but Alpine was the one doing something "special", right down to the fact that you couldn't really get it anywhere except up in Alpine or at one or two bars, which were the only places that he'd send kegs to.
Due to the lack of taps around town serving Alpine, and how ridiculous their bottle availability and distribution still is (not to mention the insanity of people selling Alpine growlers on ebay), Ballast Point beers I think have gotten to be much more popular, since you can get them all over the place (and still can vs Alpine). So, most people will know Sculpin before they do Pure Hoppiness or Duet. But if you can get a bottle of Alpine from a vendor in town, without having to be subjected to the ridiculous "I don't keep it on the floor, and I have some in the back, but I can only sell you one" routine that's becoming more common, I would jump at it.
If you can make it up to Alpine, that's of course still the best way to try their beers. Pick up a growler and some bottles direct from them. The liquor stores in Alpine usually have a good stock too. Pure Hoppiness and Duet are the IPAs to get, but it's also worth picking up Alpine Ale and McHillenney's Irish Red (the first of Pat's beers to actually win a medal at the Beer Fest), for some nice variety. Willy and Captain Stout are really good too.
As for other brewers closer to town, besides Ballast Point, Stone, and Green Flash, Lightning makes great lagers, and the new St Archer brewery makes some solid beers. Societe Brewing has some really good stuff too, very similar to the Alpine style more than to the Blind Pig style. Coronado Brewing is very similar to Stone, and Karl Strauss of course is always worth trying out and having a meal at, in addition to their beers (which are also very similar to Stone).
For bottles, check out Port Carlsbad's bottle shop, Best Damn Beer Shop in downtown San Diego, and Bottlecraft in Little Italy and North Park. Lots of other good places around town carrying good beers, but those are the more comprehensive ones.
"the restaurant scene is too backward to recognize how popular al fresco dining is"
That I don't get. Other comments above too about there not being any outdoor dining in San Diego, and that it's the fault of the restaurant industry. There are plennnnty of outdoor spots in San Diego. Honestly, I can't believe that anyone would claim otherwise. Like I said, just because it's not located in the sand, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We've got everything from Swami's Cafe in Encinitas, the Cottage La Jolla, what used to be Charlie's alongside the Beach House in Cardiff, the large patio on the rooftop of the main shopping center in Del Mar, Poseidon, Brickyard Cafe in downtown, Shakespeare's Pub, the patio at Kitchen 1540, balcony at AR Valentien, Jimmy's World Famous, Station Tavern, Feliccia's Under the Moonlight in Vista, Caroline's at Scripps Pier, O'Brien's in Kearny Mesa, Stone will be opening up a huge place at Liberty Station, Wine Steals and TG both are open patio, La Jolla Brewhouse, Prep Kitchen La Jolla, WhisknLadle, Zinc Cafe in Solana Beach, about 2 dozen places in PB, along with patios at places like Pizza Port in OB and Carlsbad, Newsbreak in OB, Sushi Taisho and Coyote in Carlsbad, the roof at Mr A's, the back patio at the Prado, Zanzibar downtown, the rooftop at Proper Gastropub next to the ballpark, El Vitral, Hotel Del, the landing at Coronado, etc etc etc
For bars/clubs there are open-air rooftop bars at Stingaree, Altitude, Hotel Palomar, Hotel Solimar, and Ivy in the Gaslamp.
We have an abundance of outdoor places. So, I'm curious what the criteria really is here? That we don't have a string of cheaply-priced 4 star restaurants that only "locals" know, located on our beaches and in the parks around the county? That's an impossibility. If they existed, in some space not already taken on our coasts, they'd surely be like any other place on the globe and full of tourists and churning out low-quality over-priced food. No different than Hawaii, or the coast in Mexico.
This is Southern California, where the strip mall is still King. You can't invent parks that aren't there, or squeeze into coastlines that are already taken. It's no different than in Orange County and Los Angeles. Real estate is key, and it comes at a premium which most places won't ever be able to afford. Those places that were grandfathered in take full advantage. But it's the real estate that governs everything, which in turn fosters a culture here of people not needing a restaurant to give them their outdoor fix. We live in the sunshine, so no reason to look for it at a restaurant. Other cities with less than ideal weather may try to bulk up on outdoor dining or dedicated outdoor parks with restaurants attached because it's the only sun they can get. Has nothing to do with the restaurant industry here being backwards. I wonder where exactly people are envisioning outdoor dining where we don't already have it? In addition to all of the lesser-traveled places around the county I mentioned, we have the Gaslamp and Little Italy, both full of streetside dining, but those get accused of being too touristy. Places like Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, and Ocean Beach get dismissed for being full of college kids and beach types, and La Jolla doesn't have enough parking and is too expensive. North County is too far away. I wonder that people are expecting a place like Kaito, or Aqui Es Texcoco, or Bruno's to be located on a secret plot on the beach? Craft and Commerce and Underbelly are recent hits, and both have big windows, and guess what, both are getting huge condos built right across the street from them, and just like that they join the dozens of other places with patios or views facing another building or have a sunset view around the corner now obstructed by something built just a little bit closer to the water than they are. That's par for the course in California. No good real estate stays empty forever.
"Where are the outdoor patios, gardens or seating areas in San Diego?"
They're out there, just not where the average tourist would probably want them, which would be at the beach. The coast is too expensive, and not enough available/zoned places to put new places with space for a patio and outdoor seating. As for the rest of the county, consider that San Diego is essentially a massive suburb with a very small downtown. And like most places in California, you have to drive 20 minutes to get anywhere, which means that any places either have to join an existing strip mall or try and go it alone in isolation in an area where people probably wouldn't frequent enough to sustain your business.
As for the beachfront....between the stretches of houses which have blocked off so much of the coast, the state-owned beaches and parks, and the enormous military bases, there really isn't that much available area to get developed on those beaches that we're supposedly known for. The downtown area on the water is surrounded by a convention center, naval shipyard, harbor terminals, and an airport. Not exactly Waikiki, with your feet in the sand. Also, keep in mind that the coastal geography of San Diego isn't the same as say, Florida. We have bluffs and cliffs for large stretches on the coastline. For much of the beachfront where the coastal communities are, there are already freeways and busy streets and the real estate is long carved up, so expansion is limited. Some areas are getting so rundown that it's not even worth bothering (Imperial Beach, Oceanside), and for many of the others, the locals have a heavy say in how much the coast can get built up (Del Mar, Carlsbad, Encinitas), which makes new developments unlikely.
Also, the coast is actually overcast for a good part of the year with the marine layer. We San Diegans call 65 degree weather "cold", so naturally people would prefer to sit indoors a lot of the time. They can get enough sunshine in their backyards, or driving around town in their car. It's just not the same for us who have grown up here as it would be for someone who comes from back east where every breath of cool wind and every ray of sunshine is "magical". We are spoiled by our weather and geography, but not enough to want to exploit it any more than we have.
For inland, there are plenty of nice places, and small cafes, patios, etc. It's just not what people think of when they think San Diego. They assume that all of San Diego is one big beach walk, with the waves crashing right up onto the Gas Lamp. There's even a travel commercial on TV running right now where someone mentions that they're taking surf lessons in San Diego, and the picture pulls back to show a picture of downtown surrounded by beaches. Funny.
I don't think so. According to the website, Isola is the name of the chef's Grandmother.
He also owns a restaurant in Tucson called Tavolino, which from what I've read has good reviews from CH'ers in Arizona. Isola means "Island" in Italian, so I'm sure that the place in PB having with the same name was a coincidence.
As for char on the pizzas at Isola, mine had some nice pieces. I checked a photo on yelp, and a margherita that someone had snapped a photo of had some nice char as well. At least the top. Worth checking out the photos over there, since a few of them illustrate the size of the pizzas a little better.
"blends in with many of the faux-Italian places here."
The owner is Italian, so how is it "faux-Italian"?
I had the Boscaiola pizza and thought it was excellent. Liked the crust, the toppings, cheese, etc. It was $16 for the pizza, but that's not over the top, in my view. Bruno's charges about the same for their pizzas, with the difference being that Isola's pizzas are slightly smaller, and Isola is located in a nice and shiny tourist section of town as opposed to the less-than-sparkling Park and El Cajon location where Bruno's is. So, naturally the prices on India street are going to be higher.
Speaking of the price in comparison to other things on India street, Isola is right next door to Burger Lounge, which charges $7.95 for a burger, and just down the street from Bencotto, which charges $13-$19 for a bowl of pasta with meat. In this day and age, I don't expect pizzas made with good ingredients to cost $9 anymore. Especially when a venti latte at Starbucks is over $4 and a 22oz bottle of good San Diego IPA (Port, Alpine, Stone, etc.) will run you anywhere from $4-$9 depending on the brew. That's the way of the world, things go up in price. If it's good stuff, you get what you pay for.
Of course it's complete gimmick. Just like the no-ketchup at Neighborhood and the no-vodka at Craft and Commerce.
That being said, Arsalun Tafozoli, the guy behind those places, now has a string of clever spots in town, including Noble Experiment. If he is able to open Church Ale House in the Sledgehammer Theatre spot, that will obviously come with some gimmick as well.
I'd say the gimmicks are a small price to pay for the quality of the places he's successfully brought to the city. Yes, I will admit that it's annoying to eat ramen at Underbelly without a spoon. If he was looking for a gimmick, he could've done better with that one. It's a little too obvious, and a little too heavy-handed, even for his places. It's one thing to not have ketchup at Neighborhood, since they serve other sauces, just like Craft and Commerce serves plenty of types of liquor that aren't vodka. Telling diners to pick up a heavy bowl full of soup and slurp from it isn't really a suitable replacement for something as basic as a spoon (and, in the spirit of the ADA, apparently you're out of luck eating there if you have any type of disability or affliction involving your hands or upper body. Carpal Tunnel, Cerebal Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Arthritis, etc). It's only a matter of time before someone innocently spills their bowl all over themselves, or breaks the glass in those nice tables from a bowl that slipped out of their hands. Sure, chopsticks can be a pain for some westerners to learn to use, but you don't actually need chopsticks to enjoy ramen, or any soup. If given a spoon, you can get to every ingredient in the bowl, trouble free, with one hand. And yes, they religiously use spoons in China, Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam alongside their chopsticks. It's the extreme minority of places over there that don't provide them (if indeed there even are any in this day and age). So, trying to claim that not using spoons is somehow more "authentic" is nonsense, especially considering that the typical bowl of what we refer to as ramen is something that evolved over hundreds of years, borrowing from multiple cultures. Sure, at one point, in that evolution they probably didn't use spoons. Guess what, 300 years ago, nobody had restaurants with convection ovens, indoor plumbing, or electricity. And women weren't commonly allowed to even be in the same establishments that men were. So, why not add those types of "authentic" things in, and really go for the full "this is how they did it back then" experience?
Ultimately it's harmless and trendy, and there's nothing wrong with entertaining people with tricks like that. His places use a lot of gimmick in the design and service, but that's actually half the fun of them. If the quality of the food and drink wasn't excellent, he wouldn't get away with it.
Besides, there are lots of gimmicks in the food industry, and oftentimes it's those very gimmicks that make a place noteworthy. To a degree, it's no different than the places who make such a big deal of only using grass-fed beef or that make a big deal out of serving cask ale, or have multiple types of bacon as a featured item on the menu, etc.
I think the point is to not take it so seriously and enjoy the overall experience of the place. Yes, these gimmicks can come off as prick moves (Seriously, no spoons at a place that serves soup?), and perhaps there is a combination of him trying too hard and quietly laughing at people, but they're his restaurants, and it certainly hasn't hurt the crowds from coming into his places.