By David Nelson / Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
When you just can't go a moment longer without banana flowers, red frill mustard (a green that comes in bunches, not squeeze-bottles), Dragon Tongue beans and perhaps a fistful of cocktail artichokes, turn to one of the 600-plus restaurants that rely upon San Diego's Specialty Produce.
The nationally recognized distributor of exceptional vegetables, greens and fruits grown in sun-drenched Southern California valleys and around nearby Yuma, Arizona, juggles an everchanging, seasonal stock-in-trade that keeps local menus blooming with fresh options.
Entrepreneur Bob Harrington founded the La Jolla Produce shop in the late 1970s and grew it into Specialty Produce in 1989. His brothers Richard and Roger came aboard to play integral roles as director of purchasing and IT chief, and the three are known for providing unrivaled customer service.
"We deliver seven days a week and offer same-day service," says Richard Harrington. "So, any restaurant that realizes at 3:30 p.m. that they're missing an item, we can get it to them before dinner service."
Specialty Produce distributes some 50 tons of green stuff weekly, and while its selection of items runs into the hundreds, the three top sellers du jour are Brussels sprouts, baby Romaine hearts and cocktail artichokes.
(open to the public)
1929 Hancock St., Ste. 150, Midtown
Chef Chuck Watson
Vegetable: Little Gem Romaine
Dish: Caesar Salad
Of the 750 to 1,400 guests who enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner daily at Hotel Del Coronado's spacious Sheerwater restaurant, about 50 typically order Caesar salad. Guaranteeing that each is picture-perfect falls to Chef Chuck Watson, born in far-off Alaska but a pro at presenting a famous dish introduced in nearby Tijuana nearly a century ago.
The trick lies in using fancy Little Gem Romaine, of which Specialty Produce delivers two or more cases daily. "It's sturdy, it's hearty, it has a nice flavor to it," says Watson. "Little Gem makes for a nice presentation and really sets off the salad." Watson's crew carefully crafts croutons and a sauve dressing to make this jewel of a salad sparkle.
1500 Orange Ave., Coronado
Chef Jeffery Strauss
Vegetable: Cocktail Artichoke
Dish: Cocktail Artichoke Risotto
Known for elegant catering as well as the luxury dishes that populate his mover-and-shaker-packed restaurant near the Del Mar racetrack, chef/restaurateur Jeffrey Strauss is among Specialty Produce's most prominent boosters.
"In 35 years of cooking, I have never worked with a company more service-friendly than Specialty," says Strauss. "There are days when they send four different delivery trucks, which is huge in this business. What sold me on S.P. was the other year, when we had the power outage [September 9, 2011, when Southern California went dark], they sent refrigerated vans to clients all around the area to save our perishables."
Strauss, a classically trained chef with a distinctly creative side, likes to use Specialty Produce's diminutive and tender "cocktail" artichokes in several ways, including poached in white wine sauce and finished in pan-roasted fish juices to garnish prime baramundi. His fans rave over another innovation, for which finely sliced cocktail 'chokes are quickly browned in hot olive oil, and then folded into risotto garnished with scampi.
"People ask for seconds," says Strauss. Who wouldn't?
514 Via de la Valle, Ste. 100, Solana Beach
SEA 180° Coastal Tavern
Chef Jack Fisher
Vegetable: Brussels sprouts
Dish: Fire Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Fire-roasted Brussels sprouts appear as a side dish at Cohn Restaurant Group's new SEA 180° Coastal Tavern on the sand in Imperial Beach. "Every day I walk through the dining room and get raves about the Brussels sprouts," says SEA 180° chef Jack Fisher, a lifelong IB resident and former professional body-boarder.
The sprouts are grilled to provide a smoky finish and a lightly charred exterior.
"This dish depends on the sauce," says Fisher. "It has that sweet-sour aspect that people really like. The sweet is from orange blossom honey, the sour from dark Balsamic vinegar." Shavings of ham cured and smoked in-house lend a crisp, savory accent.
SEA 180° Coastal Tavern
800 Seacoast Dr., Imperial Beach
Lettuce Entertain You
Turning over a new leaf... from Arizona
By Lee Allen
Farms in Yuma County, Arizona, are so close to San Diego eateries that the field-to-table freshness can almost be hand-delivered. With the nation's longest growing season, Yuma County is the winter lettuce capital of the world, supplying a whopping 90 percent of the nation's leafy vegetables between November and March.
Something interesting is always growing on Yuma's 230,000 acres (about 160 square miles) of agricultural land, which includes 100,000 acres devoted to romaine and head lettuce in addition to the space used for broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, watermelon, cantaloupe and various citrus products.
More than 45,000 workers harvest the fields and during peak production months, when each of the area's nine production facilities cranks out more than two million pounds of lettuce every day.
"Most every restaurant in every city across the nation probably serves Yuma lettuce - and spinach and arugula and mache - at this time of year," says Ann Walker with the Visit Yuma organization.
Specialty Produce, located at the foot of Mission Hills, is a San Diego distribution center for Yuma lettuce. To see lettuce-growing action in real-time, attend the Yuma Lettuce Days festival, March 1 and 2. visityuma.com