SAN DIEGO’S MIDWAY DISTRICT isn’t one of the county’s great beauties. Compared to glamour spots like Del Mar and La Jolla, little Miss Midway is sheer working class. It’s where folks go to buy paint and potting soil at Home Depot, or bargain hunt at the swap meet, or catch a hockey game at the old Sports Arena.
Talk about gettin’ no respect: It’s the neighborhood some airport expansion proponents wanted to raze to build a second runway.
But the Midway District has charms—if you know where to look—and we’re not talking about the shapely denizens of its strip clubs. We mean some splendid dining opportunities, with fresh, appealing food and prices that will soothe post-holiday budgets.
Amarin Thai (a sister restaurant of Amarin in Hillcrest) blossomed last autumn in Loma Square at Rosecrans and Midway. The proprietors renovated a former Chinese buffet, replacing steam tables and cafeteria decor with a peaceful dining room filled with elaborate wood carvings, ceramics and dazzling ceremonial headdresses.
Americana dominates this mall, with a Carl’s Jr. and a Sizzler just a whiff away. But inside Amarin, the costumed wait staff, mingled scents of ginger and basil, plus the promise of authentic curries, seafood specialties and vegetarian dishes, quickly whisk diners to points far east.
The appetizers alone are worth a trip. Tickle your palate with the shredded green papaya salad ($6.95), fragrant with chopped garlic and lime juice, or a bracing hot-and-sour soup served family-style from a flaming bowl. Sample the aptly named Angel Wings ($7.95): big, boned chicken wings stuffed with a heavenly meat loaf of pork and noodles. Savor crunchy won tons filled with curried potato ($5.95), or slurp slippery crystal noodles in a warm salad of shrimp, white-meat chicken and lime dressing ($6.95).
Entrées are perfect for sharing, especially the aromatic curries flavored with coconut milk, fresh herbs and assorted chilies. The green variety is prepared with fresh green chilies and sweet basil; the hotter red’s a potent concoction powered by ground red peppers. Both are prepared with skill, as is the luscious, gingery curry known as panang. Specify a degree of heat from 1 to 10; we’ve found 6 or 7 to be nearing the realm of fire.
The price of curry and noodle dishes depends on the accompaniment you choose: tofu, chicken, pork, beef, seafood, duck or mixed vegetables. Entrées range from $7.95 (tofu or veggies) to $12.95 (assorted seafood). Weekday lunch specials are several dollars less and include peanut sauce–dressed salad, rice and soup.
Seafood’s a major player here, with grilled lobster and seared salmon available, as well as mussels, scallops and shrimp. On the simpler side, we reveled in the cod fillets, poached in a savory soup of lime juice, ginger and lemongrass, and the gold-plate shrimp (juicy fried shrimp accompanied by red-curried veggies). Both cost $13.95.
Finally, don’t miss the grilled half-chicken, sauced with coconut and served on a sizzling platter ($10.95), and one of our perennial faves, drunken noodles in a pungent basil sauce ($7.95 with chicken or pork).
For dessert, go bananas. The sweet, ripe slices are wrapped in rice paper, quickly fried and served with coconut ice cream ($5.95).
And check out the wine list. You’ll find dozens of choices by the bottle or the glass, from Kalyra Gewürztraminer and Peachy Canyon Zinfandel to Eberle Cabernet. Prices aren’t bad (the Peachy Canyon is $7 a glass), and all are served in the graceful oversized glasses more often seen in swanky wine bars. Thailand’s hoppy Singha beer and assorted nonalcoholic beverages are also available.
Amarin’s servers, clad in burgundy and gold, are delightful, and the place attracts an all-ages crowd of enthusiastic diners. What a great way to start the new year.
Amarin Thai serves lunch Monday through Friday, with dinner nightly, at 3373 Rosecrans Street (Loma Square); 619-222-0689.
DOWN THE ROAD A WAYS, in a strip mall containing a beauty shop and a weight clinic, you’ll find another hidden treasure. Kyoto Sushi Japanese Restaurant is an unassuming storefront boasting friendly service and down-to-earth prices.
The sushi chef slices and dices behind a bar with chairs for maybe a dozen. Plain two- and four-top tables make up the rest of the seating in the petite dining room that sports two televisions, a whiteboard of daily specials and a crowd of casually clad regulars.
Standouts on the sushi menu include freshwater eel (this butter-textured fish is one of the best versions in town), fresh crab rolls and spicy tuna minced with red chili sauce. Prices range from about $3 for two-piece nigiri sushi to $8.95 for more-elaborate rolls featuring avocado or smelt eggs. Wednesday through Saturday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., selected sushi is half-price, which means Kyoto’s crispy-crunchy, eight-piece salmon-skin roll is just $1.98.
Other highlights of the wide-ranging menu are fluffy battered shrimp and vegetable tempura ($5.95 for eight pieces), supple tuna sashimi ($6.95) and tender sesame chicken (served bento-style with salad, rice and steaming miso soup, $6.50). The edamame (delicious steamed soybeans), brought to each table for snacking while you wait, are gratis. Lunch specials begin at $4.50. At these prices, we’ll have those holiday charges paid off in no time.
Kyoto Sushi serves lunch and dinner daily at 3166 Midway Drive, Suite 108; 619-223-7798.