San Diego's Best New Restaurants of 2019
From a 200 million-dollar renovation project to a dirty little burger, these made a dent
Morning Glory | Photo by James Tran
Aqui es Texcoco has been a Chula Vista and Tijuana legend for years, serving some of the best lamb barbacoa south of the moon. Long situated in a strip mall, they just outgrew it, and that’s something you cheer for. So they moved Aqui to a bigger space, and in the original mall-box they opened De Cabeza, where the focus is on another Mexican specialty: cabeza en su jugo, a stew made delicious by slow-simmering a cow head. If that sounds gross, you’re definitely not Mexican, and it’s not (plus, eating the whole animal is the right and ethical omnivore thing to do). Plus, they serve less intimidating fare like tacos and skillets.
If you don't know by now, it's time to permanently register: the Trust Restaurant Group is one of the most exciting developments in the city's dining scene. They started with Trust in Hillcrest, but Fort Oak in Mission Hills is a larger, grander expression of what they can do. Chef Brad Wise and his team are cooking wood-fired dishes on their gargantuan grill, but adding some fine-dining refinement. Located in a former Ford dealership with 1950s design, it's consistently one of the best restaurants in town.
The Friendly Tavern
Big news because a new local success story (North Park’s The Friendly, known far and wide and on Instagram for its Dirty Flat Top Burger, which is health-hazardly delicious) and a beloved San Diego chef who needed a win (Hanis Cavin, who created Carnitas Snack Shack and then lost it in a business deal). The two reconnected the original Carnitas location, serving burgers and beers from local shop, Fall Brewing.
They did it again. Consortium Holdings has a magic touch as proven by their previous concepts (Craft & Commerce, Polite Provisions, Noble Experiment, Born & Raised, etc.), due to an obsessiveness over design (it’s like whole sections of Etsy artfully explode in their places), cocktails, hospitality—just every single detail. The food at the all-day brunch spot isn’t perfect (skip the riffs on McDonalds’ classics), but those Japanese soufflé pancakes are, and the art—like a neon millennial riff on Georgia O’Keefe and Daft Punk—is wild, inspiring, more effective at stimulating senses than any coffee or Bloody Mary.
It was fairly huge news when the owners of Civico 1845 announced the kitchen for their huge new project in Bankers Hill would be Michelin-star chefs from Calabria, Italy—father and son, Antonio and Luca Abbruzzino. Il Dandy is an ode to Calabria (where the climate and food are very similar), slow-food to the core, with fresh local seafood delivered daily (you can read the review here). The design is starkly white and brass and olive greens, modern and chic like an Italian Apple store with much better art.
This is notable for a few reasons. One, any change to the Hotel Del is notable (Sisyphus had an easier task than someone wanting to remodel a historic hotel). They finally opened the signature dining spot to the sun and sky, lightening and brightening. But also because they let chef JoJo Ruiz go all-in on sustainable seafood, where he buys direct from local boats and lets diners pick their own whole fish brought in that morning. A big-account win for our local fishermen and women.
Chef Brian Malarkey and partner Chris Puffer are on fire. Their ampersand restaurants—Herb & Wood, Herb & Sea, Farm & The Seahorse—are a mix of fine dining, old wood smoke, cocktails, and elegantly flamboyant design. After H&W’s success (read the review), they were able to lure some of the city’s top chefs, young and old, to further pursuits. That’s why they’ve got Joe Magnanelli—who helmed the kitchen at city standout Cucina Urbana for 10 years—at Animae, a lusher, softer pan-Asian concept (brothless ramen noodles, full duck, etc.).
For decades, truly excellent, high-end sushi in San Diego meant one thing: you were headed to Pacific Beach and Sushi Ota. Master Ota is still, after all these years, diligently executing his craft at the highest level. But now the upper echelons of the sushi scene have populated, both with his proteges (Himitsu, Shino, Hane), and other masters at Sushi Tadokoro, Kaito, and Dokoro Shirahama. Now Todokoro has launched a talent—chef Soichi Kadoya, who opened Soichi Sushi in Normal Heights in the tiny former spot of Farm House Cafe.
Let’s face it. Barbecue is delicious, and highly aromatic. Eventually, most neighbors develop a love-grumble relationship with the plumes of meatsmoke. That’s why for the second location of Grand Ole—the best brisket and smoked turkey in San Diego—they chose rural Flinn Springs, a long crow’s flight east on the I-8. It’s a sprawling backyard hoe-down of a restaurant, with a stage for bands and room for kids to run wild on the grass. In doing so, they not only gave an underserved area a truly great place to hang out, but gave themselves a place to smoke in peace.
Fresh pasta seems so simple. It’s flour and eggs, for chrissakes. But the art of it is more than that—a careful manipulation of gluten, knowing the exact seconds to stop kneading, to stop boiling, etc.—that is the difference between good pasta and fairly mind-blowing pasta. Cesarina is of the latter variety. Just bowls full of moans. And it activated a part of Point Loma that was more of a pass-thru area in the process.