Flexing His Mussels
IT TOOK VINCENT GRUMEL to splice a connection between muscle cars and mussel dinners. Now in its 10th season, Escondido’s American Graffiti–style Cruisin’ Grand, a celebration of classic cars, attracts crowds to Grand Avenue Friday nights from April through September. Not merely fun, the event is as American as apple pie, and some participants must imagine themselves transported back to the Fifties. The problem for eateries—and before the economy soured, Grand Avenue was shaping into a notable restaurant row—has been that busy streets and empty dining rooms became an unwelcome Friday phenomenon. Grumel’s solution, a weekly Cruisin’ Grand menu of specials headlined by $20 all-you-can-eat mussel dinners, has his Vincent’s restaurant running smoothly on all six. Co-proprietor Lisa Grumel assures us that mussels will star on Fridays through October (year-round would be better). Exceptionally plump, the Carlsbad Aquafarm mussels always are available mariniere style, steamed in a sensationally fragrant bath of white wine, herbs, garlic and cream. Piled high in broad bowls and crowned with shoestring potatoes, they’re fabulous, and fans carefully spoon up every drop of sauce. Vincent’s also concocts three alternatives, such as Norman-style moules with apples, Calvados and bacon, and the ask-for-more format allows guests to sample each. Anyone who can handle more than two bowls probably has an NFL contract.
TRY SAYING “PIZZA” AND “INDIA STREET” without including Filippi’s in the sentence. It’s not easily done, and hasn’t been for the nearly 60 years Filippi’s Pizza Grotto has reigned over the prime block in Little Italy. But competition is sprouting right across the parking lot, in a two-story building that long housed a pottery gallery, and more recently a yogurt place called Red Mango. Pizzeria Luigi, the Golden Hill specialist in New York–style pies, serves sizzling specialties like The Capone (topped with meatballs, pepperoni and sausage) and Leonardo (mozzarella, parmigiano and pesto). You can bet a stromboli—which Luigi fills with ham, pepperoni and green peppers—that the new kid on the block will shake things up ... It’s always a good time for the right idea, and another Little Italy fave, Pappalecco, is opening a spacious new branch on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Several establishments recently have closed in this mercurial neighborhood, but savvy operators like Pappalecco, whose State Street gelateria usually is packed, understand there’s always a market for quality ... Just across the way (and next to the Tractor Room), the new and handsomely decorated Huapangos is named for a style of Mexican music and serves a friendly, familiar menu that includes the stuff of which combination plates are made ... It’s hard to combine squid and blossoms in the same thought, but up Fifth Avenue at Lotus Thai, the new “squid blossom” specialty is stuffed with ground pork and sweet bell peppers.
IF YOU WANT TO MAKE AN OMELET, you need to toss some butter in a hot pan—or you can leave the work to the cooks at the new Broken Yolk Café on Sixth Avenue near Petco Park. Although indoors, the front dining room opens onto the sidewalk and typically is mobbed on weekends, and not just at noon, since Broken Yolk operates around the clock on Fridays and Saturdays. Serving food after bars close at 2 a.m. has become a lucrative biz for several eateries in the area, including Market Street’s Funky Garcia’s, where the tacos rival those in Tijuana ... Some San Diegans may blithely discuss favorite tofu dishes, but scads of us still pant for old-fashioned breakfasts. The lines outside Hash House à Go Go are the envy of the trade and possibly inspired the “comfort cuisine” menu (and portion sizes) at Babbo Grande on University near Park, where a satisfying plate of ham, three eggs, crusty home fries and toast costs all of seven bucks. For those wishing to breakfast al Italiano, Babbo Grande flips frittatas.
Heart and Sol
If this were the Renaissance, Deborah McDonald Schneider would be a Renaissance woman. An extremely gifted writer whose authoritative Baja! Cooking on the Edge earned major literary rewards, Schneider can handle the heat of a major kitchen operating at full blast. She remains a San Diego resident but presently is wearing a rut down the interstates between here and Newport Beach, where the new, stylish Sol employs both Schneider and her recipes (251 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-675-9800). Located alongside yacht-infested docks and just across the water from impressive Balboa Island residences, Sol has a well-heeled if often dressed-down clientele, enthusiastic servers, an open kitchen that thrusts into the dining room like the prow of a copper-clad ship—and chef Deb. Keeping her back to the view, Schneider stays at the vortex of the action, eyeballing every order of pan-seared “cucarachas” (spicy peel-and-eat shrimp) and “street tacos,” sometimes primping a garnish like a couturier adjusting a bit of bling. She demands quality, and the tiny squid that swim through the tart sauce of the coktel de mariscos make a marvel of this lively appetizer of shrimp, scallops and octopus. “I have my hands on the food again, since Sol has a small enough scale that I actually can cook,” says Schneider, who previously ran the vast kitchens at the Del Mar track. “I’m like a shark, I’ve got to keep moving.”