Top 10 Restos of 2012

Troy Johnson picks the best


Sushi Shirahama

1. Sushi Shirahama

*No ranking here! Restaurants are listed in no particular order.

We tried to feature Shirahama’s chef, Kotani-san, in our “Ultimate Guide to Asian Food” in November. He basically told us to go fugu ourselves—no photos for us. It was both sad and reassuring, since he’s not into this for the glamour shots. He’s in it for the love of Tsukiji—the famed sushi market from which he sources his fish. There he stands, in this little divot of a strip-mall restaurant, with a barrel of sumeshi (sushi rice) at his side, serving one excellently cut piece of nigiri after another until you say mercy. No rolls. No cream cheese. Sit at the bar; bring your high-limit credit card. 4212 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa


2. Prepkitchen

With its third SD location, Prep went big in Little Italy. It’s the only second-story perch in the one-story burgh, and designer Matthew Ellis gave the urbanites a visual feast—tree-branch chandeliers, old books of suspect literary caliber, stair banisters, old doors as wall art, blueprint wallpaper, you name it. The food? Just rustic, simple plates made with good, seasonal ingredients by someone who knows how to cook (chef Ryan Johnston). Local mussels in white wine and garlic; that perfect Caesar salad (anchovies included); the papardelle Bolognese with beef, porcini, and just enough rosemary. It’s just a cool-looking place to hang out, get a craft cocktail, and eat well among people who look casually stylish and smart. 1660 India Street, Little Italy

Table 926

3. Table 926

Chef Matt Richman, a former sous at Pacifica Del Mar (and La Jolla High grad), has created a gourmet hangout popular with the area’s top chefs. A trio of duck confit tacos with two housemade sauces (smoked chile salsa and tomatillo-avocado) is a deft marriage of border-city street food and culinary school protein. The beef cheeks have a sweet glaze that’s nicely offset by tart tamarind over creamy polenta. GM Gavin Cordes knows beer and is hosting pairing dinners with the city’s top craft suds. And they’ve just snagged a top-notch pastry chef, Sherman Chan (a vet of Rubochon and Hong Kong’s three-Michelin starred Caprice). A recent taste of her très leches pumpkin pie with parsnip ice cream proved she’s worthy of her advance billing. 926 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach

TJ Oyster Bar

4. TJ Oyster Bar

The line out the door at its original location in Bonita said it all—this taco shop is worth the wait. Imagine a world in which Roberto’s got a shipment of fresh seafood delivered daily and cooked most things fresh to order while the freezer was left to wither from lack of use. They do a lot right here—from the bite-sized pieces of heavily smoked tuna, taco’d with cheese, to the hangover special, aguachile, a giant bowl of soupy shrimp ceviche with a generous dose of lime. It’ll rejigger your night-frayed nerves. But it’s that octopus taco—perfectly softened, excellently seasoned—that makes them truly special. I’ve had lesser octopus for $30 more. It’s part of the reason the place just expanded to a larger location, so pulpo lovers can get their fill without waiting so long. 4246 Bonita Road, Bonita

Brooklyn Girl

5. Brooklyn Girl

Restaurant icons Michael and Victoria McGeath made a triumphant return with a bit of N.Y.C. idolatry (their longtime La Jolla spot, Trattoria Acqua, was a recession casualty). Mission Hills needed a spot like this—an open, airy, urban hangout not stuck in 1980-something. With giant birdcages, concrete, and dark, important-looking woods, the room feels comfy in the past, present, and future. The kale Caesar salad is excellent—the stiff-chewing green offset by a creamy garlic vinaigrette and soft-boiled egg. Michael’s Choice pizza—spicy Italian sausage, pepperoni, chile—is pure wood-fired lust for carnivores. The cornbread capped with honeycomb does the South proud. 4033 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills

Solace & The Moonlight Lounge

6. Solace & The Moonlight Lounge

Chef Matt Gordon’s offshoot of his North Park success story, Urban Solace, doesn’t skip a beat. The Pacific Station location may not have ocean views, but the reclaimed-wood and eco-built vibe is palpable. The food is a little fancier than Gordon’s North Park fare, with Jidori chicken liver pâté spiced with apple, Armagnac, and nutmeg, for example. There’s a yellowtail tartare with a little serrano pepper heat, a nod to the coastal environs. And the sautéed farro with seasonal veggies and Parmesan comes off like a toothier, excellent risotto. As at his other resto, there’s no corn syrup in anything. It’s like a healthier, Pilates-friendly version of what made Gordon a local star. 25 East E Street, Encinitas

Que Huong

7. Que Huong

Nothing says hospitality like crime bars on the front windows. But inside, Que Huong is the freshest, most flavorful, and generously portioned Vietnamese cuisine I’ve found. Bargain-hunting Asian foodies will be disappointed, because this is priced as it should be—like top-notch cuisine. The green papaya salad comes with a bucket of shrimp. The curry doesn’t skimp on the coconut cream (are you here to exercise or eat, anyway?)—whether with frog legs, goat, or plain ol’ chicken. These guys never saw a protein they didn’t want to tenderize. Go ahead and try the boar in lemongrass, chiles, and dill. Almost tastes like Mexico City, Hanoi-style. 4134 University Avenue, City Heights

Vivace at Park Hyatt

8. Vivace @ Park Hyatt

A good brunch is often summed up in one word: “Bottomless.” Vivace’s Pranzo is not that brunch. Its power is not in day-after booze or a bazillion-item dining orgy. A few simple stations do a few simple things very well. Carlsbad oysters shucked in front of you. Charcuterie and cheese spilling over another station. Fresh mozzarella and buffala made to order, sprinkled with fantastic olive oil and sea salt. And then a few menu items, like wood-roasted Jidori chicken with fruit mostardo and Wagyu flat iron in red wine reduction. In the airy, sunny space, it feels like what brunch should be: gustatory revival. 7100 Aviara Resort Drive, Carlsbad

Haggo's Organic Taco

9. Haggo’s Organic Taco

It’s less of a restaurant than a trailer in a sliver of dirt in the back of a parking lot. The sort of place where Nicolas Cage would’ve lived during his Raising Arizona days. But there’s local art on the fence; all of the foliage is edible and will eventually go into your lunch; and last I was there, they were halfway through finishing their aquaculture with tilapia. James Haggard is a castoff from Rancho Valencia resort. He wasn’t the big-name chef; dude just liked organic tacos. He buys limited amounts of fresh fish so he never has to freeze it, all of which goes into the daily specials. Everything is locally grown, organic, sustainable, blah blah blah—it’s just real food done by someone who gives a damn. And it’s only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, with zero indoor seating. The super-ethical, super-unpretentious taco joint couldn’t embody more the spirit of its host town, one of the last funky beach towns in Southern California. North Coast Highway 101, Encinitas

Carnitas' Snack Shack

10. Carnitas’ Snack Shack

Hanis Cavin, swine enthusiast and former Kensington Grill chef, went out on his own with this glorified lemonade stand where he serves pork, pork, and more pork. (He owns a miniature pet pig, the shack’s namesake, which is either honorable or sociopathic.) Want a slab of pork belly without having to fuss with reservations or stainable linen? Gnaw his giant slab, though you may want to wipe off a bit of the glaze. But it’s the steak sammie—top-notch prime beef with pickled serrano peppers, jack cheese, and chipotle aioli—that takes top honors. Take your buddy from Philadelphia and maybe he’ll stop whining about missing Geno’s. 2632 University Avenue, North Park

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