By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda (unless noted)
San Diego’s dining compass points in all directions to international meals that venture far beyond pasta, sashimi and tamales. Until this longtime food writer for PacificSD is assigned to eat with the locals in unlikely places like the Himalayas, Poland or southeast Africa, I can savor what’s cooking in those regions (and others) without packing a suitcase - or cajoling the publisher over a bottle of Russian vodka to foot the travel expenses. Here are a dozen restaurants that have sent my palate around the world and back on less than a tank of gas.
7845 Highland Village Pl. #101, Carmel Valley
Named after a feisty chili pepper indigenous to Mozambique, this 3,000-square-foot restaurant gives San Diego its first taste of southeastern African food via a variety of skewers, curries and vegan-friendly dishes. “For the past 10 years, America has been on an ethnic-dining binge, and they are looking for new and interesting food,” says South African transplant William Sussman, explaining why he launched the restaurant in March after previously running the former Kalahari Café and Terrific Pacific Brewery & Grill. Among the top sellers are Peri-Peri prawns and the lamb burger spiked with fresh mint and coriander.
Step through a humble façade and behold an adventurous “world tour” menu that changes weekly based on the whims of chef-owner Hanna Tesfamichael. A native of East Africa who earned a degree in food and nutrition from San Diego State University, Tesfamichael stamps her customers’ culinary passports with cuisine from Finland, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Ethiopia and more. In May, she’ll encroach on specialties from Turkey and Zimbabwe with the help of “a wall of cookbooks” she has amassed over the years. Her regular menu comprises a collection of favorite dishes from past “tours,” including a perfected beef bourguignon for diehard Francophiles.
Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant
2312 El Cajon Blvd., North Park
Run by a couple of Russian expats, this warmly lit restaurant with customer testimonies scribbled on the walls is home to ruby-red borscht, velvety beef stroganoff and imported vodka that circulates throughout the entire house when a patron’s birthday is celebrated. Generous skewers of beef, pork and chicken are finished with sweet-tart pomegranate sauce - and described on the menu as having “saved the Yalta Accords between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in 1944.” (Mr. Putin, your chill pill is on the grill.)
5965 El Cajon Blvd., Rolando
Landing squarely in the “secret gem” category, Alforon (“oven”) is a small, family-run café where old-style Lebanese specialties extend to puffed discs of flatbread crowned with a variety of meats, veggies and herbs. The obscure lahm bajeen, for example, features finely ground beef with bits of tomatoes and onions, kissed by a whisper of cinnamon. So varied are the spices used here, and so fruity the olive oil, that even the hummus and baba ghannouj taste novel. At the finishing line is aaysh essaray, a centuries-old dessert recipe incorporating non-egg custard, nutmeg, rose water and pistachios.
906 Market St., East Village
3761 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest
Award-winning Lotus Thai chef-owner Ton Sangkapong transcends the status quo of the city’s other Thai restaurants, offering what he describes as “dishes featuring our own modern twists.” The menus at the Hillcrest and East Village locations are somewhat different, although both dining rooms offer soothing designs adhering to the principles of feng shui, with soothing waterfalls and tables arranged in an orderly, uncluttered fashion. In Hillcrest, where a slate of new vegan dishes was recently introduced, the hor-mok halibut resting in a custard-like mixture of eggs and red curry is a favorite. A hands-down winner at East Village is the sea bass in spicy pesto-lime sauce.
Chef Javier Plascencia stands at ground zero of a culinary movement that fuses the best of Mexican cuisine with the tenets of Mediterranean cooking. In a single sitting at his Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro, patrons can hopscotch from Tijuana (with classic, tableside Caesar salad) to Spain (forking through tapas and paella) and then over to Italy (for chomping into ravioli puttanesca). To experience multiple culinary influences on one plate, order “Grandma’s tacos de fideo,” which folds in spaghetti, Spanish chorizo, salsa verde and cream in a way that makes daring sense.
3960 W. Point Loma Blvd., Midway District
Right down to the traditional Caribbean café con leche coffee drink (made with butter, raw cane sugar and a pinch of salt), Hudi Eshel brings to the Embargo Grill a compendium of recipes that challenge preconceptions about Latin-Caribbean cuisine. “It’s not just about rice, beans and chicken,” he says. Eshel’s pulled pork and beef are slow-roasted for 72 hours and served with exotic, scratch-made sauces. From sandwiches toasted on a plancha grill to layered entrées bedded on doublecooked green plantains, the meals here taste like a warm vacation.
7604 Linda Vista Rd., Clairemont
Vietnamese savories abound in what looks like a fast-food restaurant from the outside. Inside, K Sandwiches is really a Saigon-style food emporium, complete with a bakery that cranks out ultra-fresh baguettes used for making loaded, inexpensive bahn mi sandwiches, plus pastries and croissants that rival those sold in Parisian brasseries. Imported grocery items and hot entrees help fuel the daily frenzy.
Brazil by the Bay
3770 Hancock St., Loma Portal
Tucked away in a charmless, industrial area with views of the Swap Meet parking lot, Brazil by the Bay serves authentic Brazilian fare such as beef-potato croquettes; crunchy/chewy deep-fried balls of batter-dipped seasoned chicken called coxinhas; and the country’s celebrated dish, feijoada (beans, beef, rice, seasonings). Expect a mound of black beans harboring a few different styles of beef and pork. Coarse, manioc flour called farofa, which appears as a side dish to most meals, is used as a last-minute breading of sorts. A small market carrying Brazilian grocery products adjoins the restaurant.
564 S. Coast Hwy., Encinitas
Adventures in Peruvian fare often begin with empanadas filled with sweet potatoes and lentils before traveling onto grilled beef hearts served alongside traditional ocopa (a mixture of chilis, garlic, nuts and crackers). For dessert, mousse torte offers rare contact with the native Peruvian fruit lucuma, layered with chocolate ganache. By reservation only, chef/owner Monica Szepesy presents piqueo, a family-style meal highlighting dishes from several South American counties.
Romeo & Julieta Wine Cafe
4715 Monroe Ave., Talmadge
While growing up in Krakow, Polish native Andrzej Dobrowolski learned to make pickle soup and buttery pierogies from his grandmother. Now, Dobrowolski’s customers have fallen in love with his versions of these traditional dishes, which appear on the menu at his restaurant, Romeo & Julieta. The Old World-style cafe’s repertoire of Eastern European cuisine also includes Polish-style schnitzel made with ground beef and turkey. Red and green cabbage speckled with caraway bestows a classic component to most dishes. The global wine list is ever-changing and features about 80 labels.
Taste of the Himalayas
3185 Midway Dr., Loma Portal
The Nepalese family members who run this elegantly appointed restaurant are used to being asked, “What is Himalayan food?” The short answer is that it’s 75-percent similar to northern Indian cuisine, but with less oil and more spices that create aromatic waves of green cardamom, saffron and nutmeg. Masochistic palates will find a friend in the imported, blistering-hot dallakhursani peppers that show up in certain dishes. As explained by a staffer, “When living in high altitudes, you need their warmth.”