Where to eat when you want...

People always ask what's on our restaurant radar - here are some delicious answers.

Question: Where can I get refined, modern Mexican food?

Answer: Pueblo

Why: This relatively new spot in Pacific Beach is a stylish, white-washed celebration of Baja coastal cuisine - and the antithesis of the bottomless margarita mentality of some of its neighbors.

Pueblo couldn't have come at a better time, filling the void left by the recent closing of Little Italy 's Sirena Cocina Latina and the high-profile departure of chef Javier Plascencia from Bracero. (That restaurant is being rebranded as Romesco Mexiterranean Cocina, similar to its sister bistro in Bonita.)

There's a gentleness in the demeanor of Pueblo's executive chef Eduardo Rosales that doesn't prepare you for the flavor punch to come in his cuisine.

Among the stellar dishes on the current menu, or being previewed for future inclusion, are the pristine yellowtail crudo in citrusy leche de tigre, with chiltepin chiles, soy sauce and meyer lemon, and the supremely fresh, tender scallops with mesquite smoked salt, mushrooms, corn chowder and heavenly cotija cheese foam. A game changer, though, was the uni, bathed in umami-packed beef jus and velvety Mexican crema. Rich and silky, it was the best sea urchin dish I've ever had.

The dining room, front patio and rooftop terrace are all elegantly designed, with fire places, expensive finishes and well-chosen decorative touches. The resulting feel is that of a grown-up Baja resort. In three words, Pueblo is refined, beautiful and delicious.

877 Hornblend St., Pacific Beach. 858.412.3312 or pueblopb.com

Question: Where can get authentic Italian food in Little Italy?

Answer: Barbusa

Why: Little Italy might be San Diego's hottest dining destination, but isn't necessarily the first place I think of when I want Italian food. Sure, there are some good choices, but many seem to be stuck in a tourist-attraction time warp.

Barbusa, the latest offering from the prolific Busalacchi family, is putting a fresh spin on traditional Sicilian cuisine. The dark, closed space that once housed Po Pazzo has been brightened up, as has the approach to the food. Under the capable hands of executive chef Nino Zizzo and general manager PJ Busalacchi (nephew and son of patriarch Joe Busalacchi, respectively), dishes taste as energized as the buzzy atmosphere in the room.

Order a giant-sized Busa Board and have the kitchen line it with an assortment of the best appetizers to share - grilled artichoke with truffled aioli, delicate, crispy tempura squash blossoms filled with four cheeses and unexpectedly topped with an apricot chile jam, and a spreadable eggplant parm, with burrata, pecorino and sweet tomatoes, though I wish the eggplant wasn't served cold.

You could make a meal out the of the terrifically creamy, tangy polenta topped with sausage polenta but then you'd miss out on the superlative, homemade pasta choices. Perfectly al dente casarecce with black truffle oil, oyster mushrooms, pecorino Sardo and a whisper of whipped panna was decadent and satisfying, while the paccheri with pumpkin pesto, roasted garlic, caramelized walnuts, ricotta salata and basil was pleasantly sweet and lighter than it sounds.

Desserts like tiramisu and chocolate lava cake veer toward old-school, but the deconstructed cannoli is a contemporary interpretation that aptly represents the successful direction the Busalacchis are going in with Barbusa.

1917 India St., Little Italy. 619.238.1917 or barbusa.com

 

Question: Where can I eat in La Jolla that's casual and not too pricey?

Answer: Isola Pizza Bar

Why: We're not sure what was in the water - or the pasta - when the Tenino brothers were growing up in the Piedmont region of Italy, but they turned out to have a heckuva couple of palates.

Isola's chef and owner, Massimo Tenino, turns out simple but imminently memorable Italian food, which is best washed down with polished wine from his brother Paolo Tenino's Piedmont winery, Pietro Rinaldi.

The dining room is a study in casual chic - barbera-colored banquettes, modern white chairs and industrial pendant lights are all warmed by wood floors, stacks of firewood and long, exposed brick walls. But the focal point for the eye and the palate is the bright red pizza oven in the back, direct from Naples, and stamped with Isola, the name of the Teninos' nonna.

Any of the wood-fired antipasti are must-haves, but don't even consider skipping the tender charred octopus, brightened by lemon, briny olives and salsa verde.

Handmade pasta dishes are artful (the cacio e pepe is as close to Rome you can get in La Jolla) and you won't want to share them. Go with a group, however, so you can try as many of the 13 pizzas as possible. Premium ingredients top a fine, crispy yet chewy crust like nonna Isola must have made.

7734 Girard Ave., La Jolla. 858.412.5566 or isolapizzabar.com

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