Go to any shopping center, lifestyle mall or retail hub in the county, or the country for that matter, and you’ll find what seems like the same 15 chain restaurants, fast-casual outlets and grab-and-go eateries.
To me, familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but it rarely inspires the most meaningful of meals.
Perhaps that’s why a recent eating adventure to the Mercado del Barrio tasted so different. Every stop we made at this 47,000-square-foot mixed-use development project in Barrio Logan was to a small, locally run, family business. We met the owners — among them immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam and Mexico — and devoured dishes based on recipes from their moms’ kitchens, their native culinary cultures and their ingenious imaginations in how they mash them up and tailor them to how San Diego eats today.
Open since 2013, Mercado del Barrio is across from Chicano Park and is anchored by an apartment building and Northgate Market, the Mexican superstore. Visitors are welcomed by the colorful Barrio Logan neighborhood arch and will find plentiful open space and free parking.
All of the places we tried — five of Mercado del Barrio’s eight restaurants and two local craft beer joints — had a similar modern, industrial feel, with soaring ceilings, exposed duct work and cement walls. But that’s where the uniformity ended. Each space reflected the owners’ personalities and personal stories. And what they served up was more than food and drinks, it was sustenance for the soul.
So while we stuffed ourselves on Filipino-Japanese tacos, rich beef pho, creamy Vietnamese coffee, spicy pizza, smoky octopus, sinful paleta Margaritas, light-as-air brunch dishes and over-the-top Mexican seafood creations, we also got our fill of the tireless work and passion these small business owners put into their restaurants.
There’s nothing cookie cutter about how this neighborhood gem tastes. It tastes like the real America.
Oi Asian Fusion
For: Vibrant Filipino-Japanese fare
Our day started off with a bang at this cross-cultural flavor factory, which puts a modern spin on such craveable foods as fried chicken, tacos, buns and rice bowls. Open since January, it’s the first San Diego location, but not the last, said owner Jaypee Woo. (Three L.A.-area Ois are owned by Woo’s relatives and close friends.) Behind the counter, you’ll see the three sides of Woo, 36, a former nurse and cafeteria owner in the Philippines: There are icons from both his Filipino and Chinese heritages, as well as enough Japanese anime action figures to fill a booth at Comic-Con. When it comes to cooking, though, Woo isn’t playing around. The single best bite of the day was the pork belly jicama taco, where the jicama shell was the crunchy foil to the luscious pork, and the pickled red onions and cilantro balanced the kick from sriracha. We loved the bun trio of pork belly with hoisin, sriracha, cucumber and scallion, Japanese karaage fried chicken, with a potato-starch crust and lemon mayo, and Angus burger with sauteed mushrooms and onions, Swiss and mayo. And we simply could not stop eating the sweet potato fries with garlic confit and dynamite sauce. The pork adobo bowl is a perfect fusion of cuisines: Filipino-flavored meat on rice with ramen-like accompaniments. A special of pork sisig came from Woo’s mother’s recipe from back in Pampanga, which he called the culinary capital of the Philippines. End your meal the ube upside down pie, brought in from a Filipino bakery in L.A. The vividly colored yam custard is creamy, purple perfection. 1985 National Ave., Suite 1133, Barrio Logan. (619) 228-9857. oiasianfusion.com
For: Mexican-flavored American diner food
Two generations of the Granda family held the grand opening of Maggie’s Cafe on June 3. Husband-and-wife team Argelia and David and their sons David, 21, and Luis, 18, are longtime Barrio Logan residents who have been running the original Maggie’s Cafe in Serra Mesa for six years. The homey and charming Mercado location, awash with sunflower-yellow (Argelia’s favorite flower) walls and custom wood tables, is already filled with the Grandas’ friends and family members. Named after David Sr.'s mother, Margarita, Maggie’s Cafe serves breakfast all day and puts a Mexican twist on American classics food. The Guaca burger has pepper jack cheese, bacon, guacamole and breaded jalapeños, while the South of the Border Benedict tops a toasted English muffin with a chorizo patty, avocado, poached eggs and chipotle hollandaise sauce. Two standout dishes were surprisingly delicate. The lightly fried chile relleno omelet was expertly prepared, and came with vegan (i.e. lard-free) refried beans, homemade ranchero sauce and twice-baked, then flash fried homefries. The stuffed French toast with fresh strawberries and bananas is filled with airy cream cheese that’s closer to a refined pastry cream. Delicious. The Grandas make and bottle all their own sauces, including Jalapeño Lime, Smokin’ Chipotle, Orange Habanero and Trinidad Mango Madness. The Mexican-born couple met at a restaurant when she was 14 and he was 16; their current success didn’t come easy, David Sr. said. “We struggled. We were selling tamales, we picked up cans, worked two jobs. We did what we needed to do for our family,” he said. And now, their community. 1985 National Ave., Suite 1129, Barrio Logan. (619) 241-2660. maggiescafe2014.com
For: Scratch-made Vietnamese
It was peak lunch hour at Pho Bo, and the small Vietnamese noodle soup shop was buzzing with activity. A table of six sailors in uniform, several groups of businessmen, a few young couples and some solo diners all have enormous pho bowls in front of them. There would be no sharing. I didn’t realize how that could be possible until I tasted the signature mixed beef rice noodle bowl, with one of the purest beef broths I’d ever had. Owner Kevin Ly said its complex flavors comes from 10 to 12 hours of the bones simmering on the stove. Fresh lime and purple basil enliven the broth even more, and it tastes like a cure for whatever ails you. I shared mine, but only because on the table, we had spring rolls with addictive peanut sauce and egg rolls we wrapped in lettuce and mint. Both we among the freshest versions of these rolls we’ve had. Ly, who owned a coffee shop in Vietnam, came to the U.S. in 1993 and also has Pholicious at Westfield Plaza Bonita. He opened Pho Bo — literally beef noodle soup — last June and said the Mercado has had a positive impact on the neighborhood. “It’s been a big change,” he said. “There are more families, there’s more business development. Tourists see it on Yelp, people come from the convention center and now the Barrio is more international.” Pho was a natural fit for him, Ly said, though it didn’t seem that way 26 years ago when he first arrived in this country. “Today, everywhere, all you see is pho, pho, pho.” Coffee, however, remains his first love, and he insists I try his iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. The thick, creamy caffeinated concoction is a coffee fanatic’s drinkable dream. I didn’t share it. 1985 National Ave., Suite 1134, Barrio Logan. (619) 255-0601. phoboso1.com
Mariscos El Pulpo
For: Splashy Mexican seafood
If SpongeBob opened a restaurant and tequila bar on Bikini Bottom, it might look like the wildly colorful, agua-themed, 3-year-old Mariscos El Pulpo. Owner Alberto Macias, a general contractor by profession and proprietor of five restaurants in San Diego County (with one planned for Fashion Valley in 2020), created the intricate underwater seascape himself, down to a boat and wooden “dock” hanging from the ceiling. The mariscos (seafood)-centric food also makes a big statement. Octopus, or pulpo, is from Oaxaca, the shrimp and scallops are from Sinaloa and the presentations might as well be Hollywood. The El Pulpo Molcajete, in particular, comes in a scorching, traditional footed lava rock vessel and the intense, boiling seafood sauce bubbles for a good 10 minutes before we can even try it. Whether you eat the clams, mussels or jumbo shrimp with flour tortillas or the restaurant’s excellent homemade tortilla chips, it’s a dish you’ll remember long after the heat fades. An order costs $33 but can easily feed four. We tried a trio of pulpo tacos, with chicharron, spicy seven-chile sauce and an ajillo chile garlic butter sauce — all are also memorable. Just remember to eat the chicharron first, before your palate is fired up. My favorite was the El Pulpo ceviche, with shrimp, octopus, oysters and Mexican scallops. It’s unlike any ceviche I’ve ever had, with a lively red citrus sauce that Macias said comes from a secret recipe. That, and those tortilla chips with smooth, homemade salsa, make the perfect nibbles to tide you over while that Molcajete is cooling off. Then head to shore, aka the bar called The Reef, to check out the extensive tequila and mezcal selection. 1900 Main St., Suite 101, Barrio Logan. (619) 546-0427. elpulposd.com
For: Pizza, cocktails and a good cause
Open since February, Dough Nations is the first pizza concept for the San Diego restaurant group GBOD Hospitality Group, which has Mezé Greek Fusion, El Chingon, Prohibition and Havana 1920, all in downtown San Diego. GBOD’s Rodney Daylamay said he and his partners chose Barrio Logan for its vibrancy, family-friendly atmosphere and sense of community. “We wanted to venture out of downtown, it’s so so saturated ... and cut-throat,” he said. “Here, other businesses will put your fliers in their shops; they’re not so competitive. It’s a good spirit.” What comes around goes around. Dough Nations (as in donations) dedicates a portion of its proceeds to local programs in Barrio Logan benefiting neighborhood kids. “That was really important to me, that it be about the kids,” Daylamay said. Giving back is one of GBOD’s core missions, with all of its eateries supporting local and national nonprofits working for causes the groups owners believe in. Dough Nations serves seven kinds of pizza (we loved the white spinach and El Chingon pies), classic meatball, chicken parm and sausage and peppers subs, salads, spaghetti, a well-made meat lasagna, and more. Wine and 20 beers on tap are also served along with a wide range of clever — and Instagram-worthy — cocktails. The Bad Ass Margarita is served in a chile-lime-salt Tajín-rimmed goblet with a lime paleta (frozen fruit pop bar) floating in it. It’s a drink and dessert in one that’s true to GBOD’s downtown roots and name: GBOD stands for Go Big Or Die. 1985 National Ave., Suite 1101, Barrio Logan. (619) 487-0802. doughnationspizza.com
Thirsty? Still hungry?
cado del Barrio is home to a taproom from Vista’s Iron Fist Brewing Co. (the blood orange is a favorite) and the brand new Attitude Brewing Company facility (don’t miss the Dramatico Double Hazy IPA), which also serves wraps, tacos, street elote on the cob and more. Spring Valley’s Liberty Call Distilling Co. is slated to open in the winter. And Tocumbo Ice Cream & Tortas serves creamy Michoacan-style ice cream in flavors like elote, mamey fruit and rose, as well as chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. A rainbow of colorful paletas come in even more varieties.