By Frank Sabatini Jr., David Nelson and Wendy Lemlin
Is it spicy-hot or hot-hot? Actually, it's both...and then some. For your dining enjoyment-and to put a little fire in your belly-this roadmap to Finest City dining makes three stops on the road to culinary heat: Hot, as in spicy; Hot, as in trending (i.e., "OMG, That's hot!"); and Haute, as in fine-dining (i.e., "You're using the wrong fork.") With a food scene this hot, no wonder our city is so cool.
Giajin Noodle + Saki House
627 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp
There are two ways to approach the crying tiger skirt steak at Gaijin Noodle + Sake House. Either wash it down with chilled, sweet sake to balance its kicky Thai sauce or gnaw into a paper cone of mango kakigori (shaved ice) to prolong the heat. The latter sneaks chili flakes into the flavoring syrup, giving rise to the soju (rice vodka) contained within. Whatever liquids you choose, keep in mind that the steak's spice level can't be taken down because Thai chilies are built into the sauce along with discernible measures of garlic and onions. On the other hand, the kitchen obliges to masochists demanding more intensity by tossing additional peppers into the dish. -F.S., Jr.
3860 Convoy St., Ste. 105, Kearny Mesa
Dishes marked by red stars at mainstream Chinese restaurants taste like cool water chestnuts compared to the blistering entrees served at Spicy House. The heat scale ranges only from 1 to 3 across a menu listing more than 200 Szechwan and Hunan-style meal choices. Order something like white fish with soft tofu at level two, and you'll need an asbestos maw for withstanding the torrent of red and green chili peppers cloaking the proteins. (We counted at least 100 in the dish.) "Level two isn't for beginners," warns owner Mary Dang, citing that dishes prepared at the unimaginable top rung appeal primarily to daring, young customers who occasionally disappear into the restroom to rinse their tongues. -F.S., Jr.
3027 Adams Ave., University Heights
Bang! The "Naughty, Nice & Everything Spice" roll at Sabuku strikes your tongue with the force of a flaming cannon ball, thanks mainly to the accompanying XXX sauce, which flaunts nearly a dozen varieties of chili peppers. Spicy tuna and sliced jalapeños inside the roll spark the blaze, followed by spicy aioli drizzled over an innocuous sheathing of yellowtail and avocado. But all hell breaks out when a slice hits the sauce, an in-house blend of fearsome ghost peppers, habaneros, Thai chilies and others. The heat-seeking customers who offered input into the roll's creation were undoubtedly given what they deserved. -F.S., Jr.
Bayu's Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine
530 University Ave., Hillcrest
If you experience a new form of painful pleasure after forking into the boro wot at Bayu's Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine, don't say you weren't warned. The menu tags the dish with an exclamation mark after the word "Spicy!" to indicate that a powerful berbere sauce is used for heating up the chicken and hard-boiled egg on your plate. The sauce packs a bouquet of chilies that jive fantastically to ginger, cardamom and allspice. "Back in Ethiopia, we use some serious chilies in our cooking, so hot that if you're not used to them, they'll make you sick," says Bayu's owner Reem Ali, who tones down the recipe a polite notch for American palates. -F.S., Jr.
Chef Marcela's Habanero Relish
4 or 5 habaneros, finely diced
Juice from one lime
¼ teaspoon of crumbled Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon water
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pinch of sugar
Combine the ingredients and let stand for 30 minutes, or until the peppers soften from the water and sugar. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Donovan's Prime Seafood
333 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp
French traditionalists might gape over the recent radical use of bouillabaisse by Kemar Durfield, the new executive chef at Donovan's Prime Seafood. After taking laborious steps to construct the hearty fish stew, he purees the whole shebang for a luxurious sauce that forms the bedding for halibut. The silken puddles camouflage king crab, turbo and scallops, along with saffron and butter. In addition, two days are set aside for meticulously reducing roasted red peppers in vinegar and lavender, turning them into an accompanying jam. Rustic-style ratatouille serves as the vegetable component. Durfield's underwater treasure chest of high-frill recipes coincides with a new oyster bar flaunting dozens of varieties. -F.S., Jr.
5921 Valencia Cir., Rancho Santa Fe
Finally, the "restaurant at Rancho Valencia," as it's been called for nearly 24 years, will be given a solid identity this summer, when its 45-acre namesake resort and spa unveils a $20 million makeover. For chef Eric Bauer, the renovation means an on-site production garden and a rebuilt kitchen equipped with a wood-fired oven. "The restaurant will look completely different with a sexier and quainter feel. Our menus will change weekly, and I'll be using different types of meats that people don't see every day, such as boar and bison." Prospects for a name, he adds, are still on the table. Ditto for the new, separate bar/lounge, boasting wines on draft and a 25-foot-high window facing the coast. -F.S., Jr.
La Valencia Hotel 1132 Prospect St., La Jolla
Prior to its first major redo in 2007, the Sky Room at La Valencia Hotel resembled something out of Titanic 3D, greeting patrons with heavy fabrics and antique chandeliers. Those were replaced with pinpoint halogen lighting and smoked mirrors. Now, the exclusive 10th-floor dining room with diamond views of La Jolla Cove will show off another facelift when it reopens in mid-summer. Sky Room's intimacy will remain, with about 10 tables overseen by a new chef who has yet to be announced. Food and beverage director Andrew Mosblech promises "elevated, advance-technique cuisine and an enhanced wine program" presented within a refined atmosphere where dressing to the nines still won't feel outlandish. -F.S., Jr.
1250 Prospect St., La Jolla
Hotness is total surrender to a master, relinquishing control and sating appetites in new and unexpected ways. Exquisite palate pleasuring happens at TBL3, the epicurean adventure at George's California Modern in La Jolla, on select nights, for the appreciative few. Executive chef Trey Foshee's skills and creativity control the 14-course experience, which exemplifies the lifestyle, ingredients and sense of place that is San Diego. Guests surrender to the kitchen's culinary whims-there are no choices, no substitutions, just pure enjoyment. Recent delicacies have included locally harvested percebes (aka gooseneck barnacles) and buttery-textured black cod with peas, clams and seaweed relish bathed in a rich carrot broth poured tableside. -W.L.
801 Fifth Ave., San Diego
DJs keep the beat at Analog, where lively Sunday brunches stretch into a pleasurable eternity. You'll see bubbly sparkling everywhere, thanks to this Gaslamp star's "bottomless" champagne flutes and mimosas. Ten bucks buys a convivial joyride driven by party-minded servers who pour freely for the crews jamming most tables. Generous servings of eye candy complement clever chow like barbecued pork "banh mi" street tacos, short rib hash, French toast mounded with fruit and whipped cream, and (absolutely killer) fresh-baked cinnamon rolls with Bananas Foster sauce. With a fresh face in the kitchen, that of chef Peter Ochoa (graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and valedictorian at the California Sushi Academy in Los Angeles), Analog's food just graduated from comfort to crave. -D.N.
3930 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest
Just think "Denver" when you walk into Hillcrest's sweet new D Bar, an offshoot of the famed Mile High destination for spectacular desserts as well as savory fare that sizzles with style. Trendy? Yessir. After all, it's the love child of master pastry chef Keegan Gerhard, a longtime Food Network star who designed his new baby to be a "cornerstone of Hillcrest hospitality." Desserts dazzle and have cutesy names like "they lived appley ever after," an Armagnac-ginger cake gilded with caramelized apples and brown sugar-buttermilk icing. Precede that with Kobe beef meatloaf or "southern fried Belgian," a cheese-flavored waffle with fried chicken and honey mustard. -F.S., Jr.
Lucky's Lunch Counter
338 Seventh Ave., East Village
An eatery slinging stacked pastrami sandwiches and chubby hot dogs crowned with cheddar confirm you're in the shadows of Petco Park. Arriving just in time for baseball season, Lucky's Lunch Counter affords East Village a taste of Chicago diner culture while paying tribute to the San Diego Padres with vintage team photographs hovering throughout. Nostalgia is further epitomized by the kitchen staffers slicing meats behind a nine-seat lunch counter. Among the culinary homeruns: Tyrone's crispy pork tenderloin sandwich, capturing hammered pork rolled in Saltines and served with sweet onions and pickles on a mondo bun. Named after Lucky's Chicago-transplant owner, Ty Hauter, it's an exclusive Midwest stomach-buster that arrives without rivalry. -F.S., Jr.
Lower Lobby, South Tower 333 W. Harbor Dr., Embarcadero
Size matters. At downtown's Marriott Marquis and Marina, the vast new Marina restaurant and bar encompasses more than 19,000 square-feet. Say "big bucks," because this much space indicates a behemoth investment. Hotel general manager Steve Pagano hints at a new kind of trendiness by stressing a menu of "simple foods that people will recognize, served in a comfortable space." Translate this not just as chicken noodle soup (with a jumbo Saltine), but also a daily roast and turkey pot pie. Sounds good. Even better, Pagano installed a wine-keg-on-tap system (there's plenty of room) and says "some very high-end wineries are interested in getting their product to the customers in these kegs." -D.N.
Hotel Palomar 1047 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp
Whatever Simon says, everybody eats. Simon Dolinky, that is, chef at downtown's trendoid-magnet, Hotel Palomar (next to the House of Blues and a cut above most of the competition). Ever the trend-setter, Chef D. dares to offer chicken liver mousse with grilled scallions as a suave prelude to his knockout specialty, a "large plate" of perfectly prepared Jidori chicken: thyme and brown butter-basted breast; crispy skinned confit of leg with truffled Anson Mills grits; local mustard greens braised with his own apple wood smoked bacon; and a colorful variety of cauliflower. In what Dolinky calls "A Toast to Springtime," mixologist Erin Williams has created new cocktails to complement the cuisine, popping a perfectly ripe strawberry into her Beefeater gin-based "Faint of Heart," which also sports a dash of balsamic vinegar. -D.N.
On May 25, San Diego is in store for a white out-in this case, a dining phenomenon that involves more than 3,500 people expected to gather at a secret outdoor venue for a "flash mob" picnic, many of them donning white threads, and all of them toting in their own food, drinks, table décor and chairs. Inspired by pop-up picnics in France and Germany, the epicurean affair arrives courtesy of Le Diner, a San Francisco partnership that pulled off its first mass picnic last year in Golden Gate Park. Here, the location remains top secret until it's revealed to registrants via email the day of the event. Co-founder Garrett Sathre emphasizes that only the tables are provided. Guests are urged to "pull out all the stops with amazing meals, wear white and bring garbage bags for the cleanup." The $25 registration fee, he adds, pays for his team's effort in securing the space and alcohol permits. -F.S., Jr.
The Duck Dive
4650 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach
The new Duck Dive in P.B. adds pizzazz to this neck of the beach, offering such fare as baked brie with blackberry "paint," herb-crusted rib eye, duck-fat fries and a double dose of oink involving Italian-style pork loin wrapped in pork belly. Chef Juvencio Garcia clenches the fashionable pig recipe (known as porchetta) with fennel, oranges and cipollini onions. The bar obliges with "royal" mai tais and local craft beers, while a sweeping wood ceiling mimicking ocean waves might throw land-lubbers off balance. An illuminated and illuminating surfboard-slice wall adds fodder to this coastal-lounge environment, which demands perching on the patio when May grey clears. -F.S., Jr.
Sammy's Woodfired Pizza
Locations around San Diego County
A friend who suffers from Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, described an attack as "feeling like I ate ground glass." Not nice. Also not nice: no pizza, since crusts contain wheat flour, a no-no for riders on the Celiac Express. To the rescue: San Diego's home-grown Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, which serves a full gluten-free menu that puts pizza poppers back in business. When a pie arrives (let it be pepperoni with fresh organic oregano, mozzarella and really good tomato sauce), you'll immediately notice the crust is pancake-flat, but it bakes up crisp and sure tastes good. The many savory options prompted a host to exclaim, "Our gluten-free food rocks!" -D.N.