Behind the Best Restaurants Issue
The method to my madness in picking some of this year’s winners
Herb & Wood's roasted carrots with cashew dukkah. | Photo: Sam Wells
Our Best Restaurants issue is one of the biggest of the year. An annual tradition. The list is based on two segments. The first is the readers poll. Every year, we get questions and accusations about whether or not the winning restaurants of the readers’ poll are fake. Are they bought and sold? The answer is absolutely not. It’s a truly authentic votes count. I’ve had multiple talks with San Diego Magazine's owner and editors to ensure nothing fishy is happening. We’ve even instituted anti-ballot stuffing measures. If a restaurant comes out of nowhere with a ridiculous amount of votes in non-related categories, we reserve the right to use data and common sense and remove them from the list because they’re likely stuffing the ballots.
The other part is my list. As a food critic in San Diego for the last decade-plus, I’ve eaten at anywhere between three and 25 restaurants a week (during special issues, I will set up five tastings a day, five days of the week). I’m only one person. My list isn’t perfect. But if my list is criticized, it can’t be for lack of research.
You can read my list of winners here.
But I wanted to give a little deeper explanation on some of the restaurants I’ve named my personal best.
Best of the Best: Herb & Wood
Chef Brian Malarkey and partner/GM Chris Puffer have always had talent. It’s just been a question of distraction. When Malarkey wasn’t fully invested and present, his former restaurant Searsucker suffered. With Herb & Wood, he and chef de cuisine Shane McIntyre and pastry chef Adrian Mendoza are all-in, and it shows in dishes like the oxtail gnocchi, the roasted carrots with cashew-dukkah, or the blueberry souffle. As for the room itself, they captured some quasi-Parisian magic in the old Mixture space, mostly designed by Puffer.
Best Sushi: Land & Water Co.
The best quality fish, and deepest culinary skill set, will go to Master Ota at Sushi Ota until he retires. His offshoots (Hane, Himitsu, etc.) are also excellent. But as I’ve said in the past, with our oceans in serious decline, sustainability is arguably the most important factor for me personally when deciding where to eat large servings of seafood. So it came down to Davin Waite’s Wrench & Rodent in Oceanside, and chef Rob Ruiz’s Land & Water Co. in Carlsbad. Both equally excellent. But Ruiz has become one of the nation’s foremost experts on sustainable seafood, which he practices religiously on his menu. Also helps that he can cook.
Best Chef: William Bradley
This category’s tough. A handful of chefs are equally awesome for different reasons (Trey Foshee, Carl Schroeder, Jason Knibb, Patrick Ponsaty, Bernard Guillas, Jeff Jackson, etc.). Bradley gets the edge due to his unique circumstance. Addison only serves a handful of meals a night, so he doesn’t have to worry about volume. His focus can be on sourcing and skill-building and refinement. And it shows in his food. It’s monastic, devotional, obsessive. He should have a Michelin star and a James Beard award by now.
Best Steakhouse: Cowboy Star
People have expressed shock that there’s any answer to this question other than Born & Raised—the amazing, beautiful, world-class steak showroom in Little Italy. And while B&R is phenomenal, for pure steaks, I think chef Victor Jiminez and Cowboy Star fire on an extra cylinder. For now.
Best of the Best, Casual: Trust
I’ve yet to have a bad experience at this Hillcrest spot. Most of the time, I have a wow experience. No surprise on service, since partner/GM Steven Schwob spent time at Addison before going casual. And chef Brad Wise is one of the most exciting young talents in town.
Best Taco: Puesto
I know people who would like me thrown out of town for not making this Tacos El Gordo or Los Cuatro Milpas (I named Milpas Best Taco Shop, which is a separate category). But over the years Puesto has refined their kitchen under executive creative chef Katy Smith (who worked closely with Mexican food master, Rick Bayless). With fresh, top-notch ingredients and that killer space in the Headquarters, it’s my go-to.