The Must-Try Dishes of 2019
SD Mag food critic and Food Network judge Troy Johnson names his top dishes of the year
Facing East Soup Dumplings | Photo by Claire Smith
It’s my 13th year as a food writer in San Diego, 10th for San Diego Magazine. By my count I tried at least 600 dishes in 2019, from new restaurants and old, in all parts of the city. So many good kitchens. But sifting through my notes, these are the dishes that really tattooed my sense memory. I share them with you because sharing a list of joy is a good and decent thing to do. A few reccomendations, from one food obsessive to others.
Soup Dumplings @ Facing East
I hunted the city for the best soup dumplings, and found these. We are living in the golden age of broth. And Facing East’s broth was easily the most deep, flavorful broth of the six we tasted. Here's the full list: try them all and judge for yourself.
Salt & Pepper Wings @ Royal Mandarin
They are legend. The catnip of every family potluck and birthday party in National City, and famous throughout the city among wing aficionados. And they are still, 40-plus years later, intoxicating. The best I found in my citywide search for the best. Here’s a link to my full list.
Magical Burger @ Cafe Gratitude
In my citywide search for the best veggie burger in San Diego, we found a few surprises. But Little Italy’s clean, white temple of self-affirmation and plant-based nutrition won by a country mile. The "Magical Burger" costs $17. For that price, it better be fantastic. And it is.
Tableside Tiramisu @ Cesarina
Usually, the ladyfingers in tiramisu arrive sodden with espresso, with all the consistency of breadcrumbs bobbing in a duck pond. But by presenting it tableside, Cesarina’s version retains a slight fresh-pastry crispness. The espresso is poured hot atop, then it’s spread with an unseemly amount of fresh mascarpone and dusted with cocoa powder. It’s a good reason to live, let alone visit.
Photo by Jim Sullivan
Omakase @ Hidden Fish
Hidden Fish is the first sushi restaurant of its kind in San Diego. There are no rolls. No edamame. No miso soup. No soy sauce on the table. No fake wasabi (Americans love our green-colored horseradish). No desserts. There is only omakase, or chef’s choice. And chef-owner John Hong has the talent to back it up, especially with the red wine-vinegar he puts in his sushi rice, and the delicious barrel-aged soy sauce he touches every piece with.
Mezcal Tasting @ Tahona
Tahona Bar has one of the largest collections of mezcal in the US, sourced with obsessive zeal by Steven Sadri. Sadri’s been hunting bottles of the smokier relative of tequila for over a decade. I’ve seen Tahona make fans out of people who claim they don’t like the spirit. Schedule a flight in their tasting room.
Photo by Sam Wells
Frogs Legs @ Jeune et Jolie
Jeune et Jolie is one of the bright spots in San Diego’s dining scene. And chef Andrew Bachelier does this French delicacy sweet justice by Frenching the legs (exposing the bones and creating frog lollipops), flash-frying, then tossing in a sweet chile vinaigrette. Drizzle the spicy drumettes with fresh lime, and dip into the emulsion of fish sauce and tamari (a darker, richer, wheat-free soy sauce).
Roasted Veggies @ Fort Oak
I named Fort Oak my “Best New Restaurant of 2019.” So, really, most things here are good. But veggies off the grill are especially fantastic. Like the roasted carrots, tossed with tarragon vinaigrette, spicy pickled fennel, dehydrated quinoa for a crunch, carrot-top pesto, shaved Humboldt Fog goat cheese, and a yogurt that’s cold-smoked for five hours.
Ahi Crudo @ Death by Tequila
Top Chef contestant Angelo Sosa starts with the sashimi-grade cubes of ahi, and rests them in a chilled broth of coconut milk that’s infused with turmeric and chiles. It’s eminently drinkable (do drink it), like a mix between gazpacho and a thin Thai curry sauce. Read the full review here.
Japanese Souffle Pancakes @ Morning Glory
The best thing on the Little Italy brunch spot’s menu, by far, is the Japanese soufflé pancakes. Puffed to about three inches tall—by essentially using a meringue (many egg whites) in the batter—they’re a fluffy mix of air and cake and custard, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with maple syrup and housemade whipped cream.
Photo by Justin McChesney-Wachs
Calamari @ Il Dandy
Most restaurants treat squid like a crime, attempting to cover it up by deep-frying the micro-monster and drowning it in sauces. Il Dandy’s is nude, silken, and lightly fried with olive oil and salt. Beneath is a restrained portion of roasted bell peppers, with texture from a squid-ink cracker.
Whole Fish @ Serea
Local fishermen deliver rockfish and spot prawns caught each morning. They’re laid out like treasures on ice in the dining room. You select your whole fish, it’s taken into the kitchen, cooked whole, and presented tableside, where the server dishes out fillet meat. It’s seasoned so simply, and it’s just about a perfect representation of what hyper-fresh, high-quality seafood should taste like. Read the full review here.
Escargot @ Born & Raised
Snails. Eating them sounds about as appealing as recreational root canals. Early humans started eating the slimy little jaywalkers about 30,000 years ago, long before the French turned them into a delicacy with butter, garlic, herbs, butter, and butter. Born & Raised presents a tiny parade of them atop a river of meat butter that is roasted bone marrow. Take both, put on supplied toast, and marvel at how chefs’ skills can make even the grossest-sounding foodstuffs not just palatable, but desirable.
Skirt Steak @ Cowboy Star
Every year during our “Best Restaurants” issue voting, I consider changing up my vote for the best steakhouse in San Diego. And every year, I can’t get away from Cowboy Star. Their skirt steak—one of the least glamorous cuts—shows why, perfectly marinated and cooked.
Shoyu Ramen @ HiroNori Ramen
The shoyu ramen, specifically, is that holy **** dish you can build a minor food empire on. The shoyu ramen is why there were lines down the block at HiroNori’s first small ramen shop in Irvine. This is why it’s now a small chain, and this Hillcrest spot is their first San Diego location.
Braised Beef Noodle Soup @ Din Tai Fung
DTF is famous for their soup dumplings, but in my visits I’ve found the best food is literally everything else. Especially this braised beef soup. This soup is everything a broth should be, the flavors developed so deeply that it could be consumed on its own, happily on the edge of delirious pleasure. But then you've also got that deliciously tender protein.
Smoked Carnitas Taco @ Lola 55
The sheer value of Lola 55 is shocking. The East Village fresh-taco concept has an accomplished chef behind the line in Andrew Bent, who spent time at Chez Panisse and Tender Greens. For the carnitas, they’ve got pork shoulder confit, crisped maciza (lean, white pork), shaved tomatillo, avocado mousse, pickled red onion, and cilantro on a corn tortilla. If I lived in the East Village, I might eat here every day.