Given the lines you’ll almost inevitably find at the original Puesto—an authentic taqueria so beloved, it’s expanding into a small SoCal empire—you may well be discouraged. But don’t be: Simply put your name down, walk the two blocks to the beach at La Jolla Cove, and consider the seaside view your appetizer. Or the first of many appetizers. Back at Puesto, forget moderation altogether as you’re contemplating the house offerings—most dreamt up by Mexico City–born Luisteen Gonzales, who still loves to visit his father’s fish stall in the famed Mercado San Juan. Blending this inherited appreciation for seafood with an equal reverence for seasonal produce, Chef Gonzales has created an array of award-winning tacos, from spicy atún (seared ahi with avocado, jalapeno-cucumber salsa, and chipotle crema) to zucchini and cactus (crispy melted cheese with calabaza à la Mexicana, avocado, and cilantro-tomatillo salsa). Pro tip: If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll find some—but not all—of your options on the main menu. There’s also a separate plant-based menu available on request (don’t miss the Sikil Pak—a Yucatan pepita dip served with jicama, cucumber, and heirloom carrots).
Ironside Fish & Oyster
Like a nautical version of the yellow brick road, illuminated anchors embedded in the floors of Ironside Fish & Oyster lead you to the Emerald City of raw bars, where the bounteous platters come in Big, Bigger, Biggest, and Holy Sh*t. This last assortment might include, say, 24 oysters, 14 shrimp, 14 mussels, two pounds of lobster, two ounces of sustainable royal white sturgeon caviar, a portion of rockfish ceviche, and some kanpachi crudo for good measure (the mix changes daily according to what’s fresh). Not that lovers of cooked seafood will go hungry at chef Jason McLeod’s Little Italy hot spot, where the catch of the day is a perennial favorite. There’s even a small yet mighty vegetarian lineup (think charred broccolini with dried chilis, garlic, and parmesan; and Japanese sweet potato with scallion chimichurri and puffed quinoa). It’s all rounded out by an impressive bar, where 11 categories of whiskey are represented. While the menu occasionally diverges from the strictly seafaring, the decor never does. The interior design features prow figureheads turned lighting fixtures and artful stacks of steamer trunks.
Herb & Wood
At Little Italy’s Herb & Wood, Chef Brian Malarkey’s wood-fired dishes include roasted parsnips with pickled raisins, parsley-shallot verde, and molten Marin County brie; roasted beets with sherry, walnut pesto, jamón Ibérico, and burrata; and grilled flat bread with whipped eggplant, za’atar, onions, and pine nuts. But the Mediterranean- and California-inspired menu isn’t the only big draw here: The industrial-boudoir aesthetic is equally inviting, with tufted sofas, soft lighting, and feathery fronds under the soaring ceilings of this onetime warehouse. A charmingly tattered edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette book has pride of place on the hostess stand. But the restaurant is unlikely to call guests on any manners infractions except one. In calligraphy at the bottom of the menu, you’ll find the following note: “Substitutions and additions politely declined.”
The Smoking Goat
Although the Smoking Goat is credited with pioneering a culinary renaissance in a once-sleepy corner of North Park, nothing else about chef Fred Piehl’s flagship restaurant screams “culinary vanguard”—and that’s precisely what devotees love about the place. Regulars come here for the reliably exquisite staples: French onion soup with what’s essentially an open-face grilled cheese sandwich afloat in rich veal broth; duck fat truffle fries with pecorino romano and mustard aioli; beef cheeks à la Bourguignonne with carrots, cioppolini onions, cherry tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and braising jus; and other creations that blend traditional French tastes with sustainable, organic San Diego–sourced ingredients. While dinner at this rustic, romantic spot is hardly the time to eat lightly, if you want to go vegetarian, opt for the indulgent raclette au gratin with fingerling potatoes, cornichons, and toast, along with a salad of poached and raw pears with mixed greens, pistachio pesto, and champagne vinaigrette. And as befits the restaurant’s caprine theme, the goat cheese cheesecake with poached peach and whipped cream is a favorite dessert.
Juniper & Ivy
For a place that’s best known for its buttermilk biscuits, Juniper & Ivy seems improbably swanky at first. Picture curtained-off banquettes, modern light fixtures, and painstakingly turned-out patrons. But the upscale/down-home contrast is exactly the point. Trendsetting chef Richard Blais, of Top Chef All Stars fame, is known for starting with American classics—say, buttermilk biscuits—and elevating them (in this case, with individual serving domes full of biscuit-infusing alderwood smoke). Similarly, the New York strip steak deviates from the norm with crispy sunchokes and mushroom sofrito, among other touches. Then there’s the semi-secret menu item: the so-called In-N-Haute burger, made from a blend of short rib, brisket, chuck and dry-aged beef, then wrapped and seared in cheese before landing on an egg bun next to a heap of salt-and-pepper-dusted fries. Although you’ll be tempted to order something from the wine collection that spans two stories—if only to see the sliding library ladder in use—you should at least consider one of the cocktails, and particularly the Salt of the Earth: mezcal, tequila, Ancho Reyes liqueur, beet juice, lemon juice, mole bitters, honey, and cracked salt. This magenta elixir is almost too pretty to drink. Almost.
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