It’s around noon on a Saturday, I am feeling ravenous and I can’t decide what to eat for lunch. My mind wanders off to the south of Africa for curried chicken and stewed lentils. My mouth waters at the notion of handcrafted pappardelle generously tossed in a lamb ragù. My belly growls for a large bowl of ramen noodles bathing in a spicy miso broth. In an idyllic world, I would hop on my private jet with my empty stomach and cross the seas to indulge in the many delicacies of the world. A light pastry and coffee in Paris, endless sushi in Tokyo, vibrant paella in Spain … all dreams dashed by the limitations of my ol’ 2003 Nissan Pathfinder. Luckily for its residents, San Diego has grown into an ever-expanding hub of different cultures. This means that eager foodies, like myself, get to enjoy the traditional gems of many different countries. Here are just a few of my favorite culinary destinations.
If you want to explore Japan, dine at Rakiraki:
One of my all-time favorite dishes of Japanese cuisine is ramen. No, it is nothing like the prepackaged, processed noodles that sell for a buck ninety-nine. I am talking about noodles prepared delicately to a perfect al dente simmering in liquid gold. This spot is crowded at every hour of every day. Though you are going to have to squeeze into your seat or try out the community table, the locals know that the food is worth it. The broth is made from pork that cooks down for at least 12 hours for ultimate richness, and their special spicy miso paste gives a savory, hot kick. Additions of chashu pork, soft-boiled eggs and seaweed add complexity to each bowl.
When you’re in the mood for Moroccan, try Kous Kous:
Located underground, guests arrive and are immediately transported to a little oasis in the middle of the city. The atmosphere is set with traditional Moroccan lanterns, couches and tapestries. Try a tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish in which spiced meat and veggies are braised in a special earthenware pot — a process guaranteed to produce melt-in-your-mouth goodness. My favorite is the Berber lamb shank, so tender that it falls right off the bone. Saffron rice and unique vegetarian appetizers are a perfect pairing. Served tapas styles, this is a fantastic venue for sharing and sampling.
If your mouth waters for Indian, make a stop at Delhi Kitchen:
This tiny hole-in-the-wall has a special place in my heart. Ever since I was a wee tot, the same family has worked this joint and provided us with amazing curries. The crazy part is they charge less than seven bucks for two sides, rice, naan and a salad, which means I am always ridiculously happy to dive into a plate of tikka masala and chicken korma over basmati. Added bonus: the naan is baked fresh to order. If you’re still hungry, grab a vegetable samosa for a dollar — crunchy dough on the outside, potato pillow-y goodness in the center.
When you can’t afford the safari but just want the East African experience , check out Flavors of East Africa:
Flavors of East Africa has a restaurant location but I prefer a weekly visit to them at the farmer’s market in Hillcrest. The food is fresh and readily available for devouring the moment you pay. Order up a plate with your choice of sides and they will provide you with a heaping portion of vibrant vegetables and scrumptious proteins. I recommend the curried chicken, stewed to an extreme level of tenderness. My favorite sides are the eggplant simmered in a tomato-based sauce, chunky lentils and fried plantains. The combination of sweet and savory will be completely addicting. Make room for a sambusa, a golden pocket of spiced meat and happiness.
If you have a hankering for Italian, enjoy a meal at Bencotto:
Located in the hustle and bustle of Little Italy, Bencotto makes a name for its own by presenting authentic Italian cuisine with an emphasis on pasta. The food may be traditional, but the décor impresses with its chic and modern aesthetic. Carb lovers can choose between nine daily hand-made pastas and three artisanal pastas to be tossed in their choice of ten different sauces. The dishes are simple and allow the pasta and ingredients to really shine in a sophisticated way. My favorite is the pappardelle bathed in a decadent pesto.
When you’re cravin’ Cajun, head to Bud’s Louisiana Café:
Hidden in the midst of a business park, this spot is truly a treasure. Bud’s offers authentic dishes that you would expect to see in the streets of New Orleans, right in the heart of San Diego. Cajun cuisine is a beautiful marriage between southern comfort food and flavorful spices. A bowl of jambalaya or gumbo will feel like a hearty hug for your belly with plenty of playfulness for your taste buds. How often do you get to enjoy an authentic po‘ boy or shrimp and grits in sunny California?
If you ever find yourself in sunny San Diego and I am around, give me a call and we’ll take our taste buds on a trip around the world.