Monday, March 7, 2016

Ja'Maican Me Crazy for that Jerk Chicken and Gravy

Holy smokes! This place is so good it caught me off guard! I wasn't ready for you, Island Spice.

After years at its Market Street location, it's moved to 6109 University Avenue. Where ever you go I.S (how does that song go?), I will follow yooouuu!

Red bean rice. Good. Jerk chicken. Brown sauce. Good. Fried plantains. Gooooood.

When it comes to Caribbean food, Island Spice has a solid act. By that, I mean, they know who they are, they know the food they serve and they do it over and over again and make it real good. Respect.

My photographer, who must not be named because he's a "vegan," got the brown stew chicken. All I can say about that is ... lol.

I got the brown stew fish which is fried red snapper with brown sauce. Both meals came with a mixed beans and rice side, greens and fried plantains. Here's the menu.

The chicken was seasoned, fried and then drenched in their brown gravy. The sauce has a homey, deep flavor that's not overpowering even the slightest. However, it is the strongest element of the dish perfectly complemented by the savory flavors from the rice/beans, greens and sweetness from the fried plantains.

Everything goes together. It just works. This is definitely one of the meals you'll thoroughly enjoy and crave randomly later, especially after some questionable nights. Makes you understand where the term soul food came from.

The red snapper dish (picture below) comes out as the whole fish, head and all. If you're squeamish about that (get over it because that's how fish looks. Yes, they have eyes), maybe opt for something else. I hope you don't though because you'd be missing out. The meat was crunchy on the outside and flaky and tender in the inside. Very flavorful. Perfect if you're wanting something lighter. I loved it.

Another must-get is the ginger beer. I've never had a drink that complemented my meal so well (well, maybe red wine with steak, but that's a whole different ballgame). Ginger beer is a great palette cleanser. It is spicy. Helps make that fifth or sixth bite as good as the first. 

The only slight downside is the service can be a tad slow. One time I arrived when the place was supposed to be open, and they weren't ready for another hour or so. Could've been a fluke. Honestly, to me, it wasn't a biggie and happened a while ago. Kind of added to the island feel haha, but if you're on-the-go and want something fast, you may want to wait until you have a comfortable amount of time to try this place.

#NomOn, my friends. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

My Inexplicable Soup Obsession

Like Anthony Bourdain is obsessed with pork, I get down-right oogley over soups. Clear/brothy soups, thick/creamy soups, seafood, chicken, vegetable, with rice, with noodles, broth all by its lonesome. I don't discriminate. It's all good. No,  it's great.

I love it. I want it. I need it. I don't give a rat's left butt cheek that it's 90 degrees out. Give it to me and no one gets hurt. 

It's pretty ridiculous how many pictures I have with soup. Like more than with some family members.

My love for soups is both inexplicable and something I can describe in painfully great detail.

For instance, I love the way clear broth tastes "clean." Like the Food Gods magically extracted the essence of a chicken, piece of beef or fish, mixed it in warm water and sprinkled glittery dots of animal fat on the top for bitty flavor boosts. I love its ability to give you that savory satisfaction all while remaining light and fresh. And, when perfectly cooked rice or noodles, meat and leafy greens are in the mix, you get a theme park of textures. Plus, the soup adopts an entirely new character. The same but different. Like if an already amazing friend studied abroad for a year and came back all spicy and cultured. Weird analogy, but I think it works.

(FYI, don't get my friend Amanda and I started about this new "bone broth movement." You'll see it in places like trendy grocery stores and on TV. Don't get sucked into that Columbus-y silliness folks. Typical, take-something-that's-been-done-forever-by-other-people-and-sell-it-yourself-to-make-it-trendy crap going on. How else do you make proper broth, I want to know? With bones! Yes, my grandma made soup by going to the butcher, asking for cheap bones and boiling the living daylights out of them. "Bone broth" shouldn't be sold like a cold-pressed juice for goodness sake! Okay, I'm done here. This was supposed to be a quick aside. See! I told you not to get me started. Read more.) 

But, why soup? I can describe any food. A haiku about fried chicken. A sonnet about burritos. But, soup...

Maybe it's because it reminds me of growing up. As a single parent working two full-time jobs, my mom didn't have a lot of time to cook. So, she threw a bunch of bones and meat into a crock pot to make broth. Then throughout the week, we'd throw in veggies and meat that would cook in minutes and voila, a meal!

Then there's my grandma who'd make us drink a whole bowl of Chinese soupy something before we could eat. Believe me, most of the time it was not good, but it was healthy (she claimed...). Three words at which most Chinese kids shudder: bitter melon soup. The horror! It was something my brother and cousin and I tortured through, sometimes making jokes like "I'm going to put as much as I can in my mouth then go to the bathroom and spit it out." We'd try and then see chopsticks come flailing towards our temples followed by angry threats from my grandma I didn't understand. Well, I did. Not the words because I don't know Chinese, but the gist. Something along the lines of "I'm going hit you! When I was your age, I was 90 pounds! Fine, get sick. See if I care!" Oh man, I love my grandma. Isn't she cute and cuddly? (If she knew I wrote this, she'd glare at me with a five pound cleaver in her hand. She was a cook, so she usually had a cleaver handy. Oh, the love.)

Finally, there's college. I lived off soup because I was broke and it was cheap and easy to make. Safe to say, I did not gain the freshman fifteen.

Also safe to say, I have a soft spot for soup. Soupy McSouperson, you've been a good friend. Always there to warm me up, make me laugh, make me cry....what? This is getting weird? Sorry.

Alright, here's the moment of truth. My favorite places to get soup in San Diego.

1.  Clam Chowder @ Ironside Fish & Oyster (Little Italy)

2. Pho @ Pho Hoa (City Heights), Pho Cow Cali Express (Mira Mesa), Pho T Cali (Kearny Mesa), Phuong Trang (Kearny Mesa), Pho-Ever  (Vista)- I know my pho.

3. Wonton Noodle Soup @ Minh Ky Chinese Restaurant (City Heights)- This has egg noodles, ground pork wontons (Chinese meat dumplings), BBQ pork and green onions swimming in a clear broth. To...die...for. Make sure you have the chili oil on hand!

4. Pozole @ where ever you can get it. It's a very traditional Mexican soup made up of tender pork chunks and hominy. Think of menudo but without tripe. Comfort food to the max. The Waterfront Bar and Grill (Little Italy) serves some and it's received good reviews. I've had pozole at random restaurants throughout the county. I love getting it at Northgate Gonzalez Markets (countywide), which is a gem in itself.

5. Soon du boo @ Convoy Tofu House or Grandma's Tofu and BBQ (both in Kearny Mesa).

6. Souplantation (uh...err where)-  Don't hate. I'm no food snob. I get my soup where I can get it. I mean, the flavor lacks sometimes, but add a little salt and hot sauce...BAM! The best ten bucks you'll spend on all-you-can-eat soup.

7. Ramen @ Izakaya Masa (Mission Hills) and Santouka (Kearny Mesa).

8. Sinigang - I need help with this one! It's one of my favorite soups of all time. Sour Filipino soup made with either pork or seafood. Problem is, the only time I've had really good sinigang was at someone's house.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Why? Because they have the fried chicken donut sandwich w/ red velvet waffles. That's why.

Better than Roscoe's? Dare I say it. Guess what? I don't have because my photographer did. And, he worked in LA, so that's saying something.

Who even came up with the chicken and waffles combo? Probably someone eating breakfast and had leftover fried chicken from last night. Brilliance by accident? Maybe. Either way, Streetcar Merchants in North Park is the place to get your fix on.

The restaurant located at 30th Street and Lincoln Avenue serves several things. Donuts and coffee for breakfast, beers for the evening and chicken and waffles for ... all day long. The owner told me he did this intentionally so his business wouldn't be pegged as a "breakfast place" or "evening place."

You can get these items a la carte or, of course, combo style as you see them here. They also serve some "off the eaten path" items that are actually very true to southern style cuisine. We're talking fried chicken giblets - liver, heart and gizzards. I love 'em, but definitely can't have a whole plate. One or two and I'm good.

Given I haven't try this yet, it looks phenomenal. It's their Southern fried chicken doughnut sandwich with red velvet waffle with cinnamon cream cheesecake butter.

Let me just write that again...Southern fried chicken doughnut sandwich with red velvet waffle with cinnamon cream cheesecake butter. Shut the front door!

The only downside to this place is their menu can get confusing. It's sort of all over the place. For instance, I didn't even see the red velvet waffle option. And, when I took a while the person at the register seemed to get impatient with me. Big no no. I'm no diva, but I may or may not fall in love with your restaurant in the next 15 minutes, so give me some love and support here. That's something I can get over though. Everyone has bad days.

Streetcar Merchants? A definite must-try in San Diego (but maybe take a look at the menu first before going to the counter) and a great add to the eccentric North Park vibe.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Somali Food in San Diego

Curry and cumin. Lamb and goat. Seasoned rice and spaghetti. Those are some of the flavors and foods of Somali cuisine found in City Heights. San Diego is home to the second largest Somali population in the U.S.

Abdikadir Osman sits with me to talk about Somali culture and cuisine.
Continuing NBC 7's series celebrating San Diego’s rich cultural diversity, here are the places we visited and the dishes we tried:

1.       Fatuma Restaurant (4869 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105).
- Combo plate with grilled goat, fried tilapia, rice and vegetables.
- Soor, which is a style of corn grits. That was served under seasoned spinach.
- Mixed fruit drink (tastes like guava juice).

Faridas East African Cuisine (1754 Euclid Ave, San Diego, CA 92105)
- Chicken and beef sambusas (fried meat or vegetable pastries).
- Combo chicken plate
- Traditional Somali tea, which is like a fragrant milk tea.


If you like spicy, make sure you ask for the green sauce – or as online reviewers like to refer to as “the green stuff.” The restaurant may give a banana with your meal. If you can resist, don’t eat it right away. It isn’t an appetizer. Traditionally, the banana is eaten with the meal, like a condiment.

In the 90’s thousands of people escaped Somalia as a result of the Somali Civil War. Before then, imperial powers and civil unrest had already displaced many Somalis around Africa (notably North and South Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti) and the world.

There are between 10-20,000 Somalis residing in San Diego.

Abdikidar Osman welcomed us into his business, Fatuma Restaurant, and explained customers can sit and eat at tables or take off their shoes and eat on the carpet on the ground. Traditionally, Somali food is eaten that way, using hands.

At Fatuma Restaurant, you can eat at a table on on the ground
“One of the most important things people should know about Somali culture is we are very open-minded people. We like to talk, and Somalis are well known for sitting around having tea,” said Osman.

When asked what a first-timer should try at his restaurant, he recommended their lamb and goat with rice dishes.

The goat is boiled for two-three hours to make it very tender. It’s then spiced with cumin, curry, pepper and Fatuma’s secret mix of other spices. Many people like the goat grilled after it’s boiled to give it a deliciously gristly crunch.

(left) Combo plate: goat, tilapia, rice and salad. (right) Soor or corn grits with spinach.
In 1990, Osman came to the U.S. by himself. He had two things – $19 in his pocket and a positive attitude. Noticing the Somali community in San Diego didn’t have the best access to the food they needed, he opened a market in City Heights and then a restaurant. He named his restaurant Fatuma, after his wife who currently resides in Ethiopia. Together they have six children.

Abdikadir Osman talking to photojournalist Jeff Herrera
Somalis are Muslim. They eat Halal food which means it’s prepared following Islamic principle.

“For the Somali community, going out and trying to eat that food, there was no accessibility there,” he explained. “For me it was a business opportunity and at the same time serving the community.”

Although Somalis are, geographically, a divided people, Osman says San Diego has united them.

“The most amazing thing in San Diego, compared to other cities, and I can fully say this – the community, the elders in San Diego are very united elders,” he said. “We were divided back in Somalia because of the civil war, but once we come over here it’s a completely different mentality.”

Elders are the most respected – the decision makers – in Somali communities.

** If you’ve been watching/reading this “Off the Eaten Path” series celebrating San Diego’s diversity through food, share your thoughts with reporter Candice Nguyen by emailing her at or messaging her on her Facebook page.  

** A TV segment of this will air Friday August 28th on NBC 7 at 4:30 p.m.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Vietnamese - Beyond Pho!

To see the NBC 7 TV segment, click here

Vietnamese food is harmonious. There are many different flavors, textures and temperatures that go into one dish to create culinary harmony. Soft with the crunchy, savory with the sweet and sour, the hot and the cool – you can experience it all and even cater it to make it your own (think Sriracha, plum sauce and lime slices).

Pho, specifically, has made a name for itself in San Diego, and now more people are venturing a little further past their comfort zones to discover other traditional Vietnamese dishes. Here’s a list of my favorite local places to try some of those foods.

The bolded businesses places we highlighted in our TV segment on NBC 7.

Pho (beef rice noodle soup): Pho Hoa (4717 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115), Pho Cow Cali (9170 Mira Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92126) and Pho-Ever (485 S Melrose Dr, Vista, CA 92081)

Bún bò Huế (spicy beef noodle soup): Hoai Hue (4660 El Cajon Blvd #102, San Diego, CA 92115) and Pho Cow Cali (9170 Mira Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92126)
Vietnamese egg rolls: Phuong Trang (4170 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111)

Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches): Saigon Sandwiches and Deli (4133 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105) and A-Chau (4644 El Cajon Blvd #111, San Diego, CA 92115)
Bún (rice noodle “salad”): Mien Trung (7530 Mesa College Dr, San Diego, CA 92111)

Images: Vietnamese Food in San Diegomages: Vietnamese Food in San Diego

There are 44,000+ Vietnamese people in San Diego County, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, and they make up the second largest Asian population in the area. A few years ago, the city of San Diego designated a several-block stretch of El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights “Little Saigon.” In the 70’s and 80’s many Vietnamese immigrants ended up there after what’s known as The Fall of Saigon.

The Cao family runs Pho Hoa – a.k.a. “the pho place with the cow on it!” Pho Hoa, located at Euclid and El Cajon Boulevard, has been around since 1984. Since then, An Cao and his father have been waking up every morning at 4 A.M. to work on and perfect their broth. It’s a glorious broth indeed! If you ask pho-enthusiasts who’ve tried it, they’ll describe it as a “clean tasting broth” (not implying others are dirty). What they mean is that it tastes pure. It tastes like nothing with the word “instant” in its name was added. It tastes like it’s supposed to, and that’s a intentional thing by Cao and his father.
“We keep it as consistent as possible. That’s something we really hang our hats on to,” he said.

Some tasty ways to change up your pho experience – if you’re into rare meat, ask for the beef on the side. You’ll cook it as you go by dipping it in the hot soup. Ask for their house chili oil sauce. It’s fabulous. You can also ask for something called “nuoc beo,” which is essentially the oil skimmed off the broth. Some say it gives the soup an extra punch of flavor.

Across the street you can find Hiep Diep’s family’s business, Hoai Hua, which loosely translates to “nostalgia Hue.” Hue is a city in central Vietnam known for its spicy cuisine. That is where Diep’s family is from.

“The universal language for everyone is food. We speak through our food. The culture that we have is spoken through our cuisine,” Diep said.

Hoai Hue is specifically known for its bun bo hue, which is a spicy beef noodle soup. It’s ingredients include lemongrass infused beef broth, rice noodles, fresh vegetables on the side and different cuts of meat. Often times the dish includes blood cubes, but you can ask for the soup without it. The thought of eating blood may curdle some people’s, well, blood. It’s not strange tasting at all. It has a very mild mineral-like flavor that takes on the taste of the soup. It has the texture of hard jello.

“It tastes like bone marrow and bone barrow is the new thing for people to eat,” Diep said.

Bun bo hue is a dish fit for royalty. It was served to the royal family of Vietnam with Hue was the imperal capital. Ironically enough, the noodle soup originated as peasant’s food, which explains the blood cubes. Plain and simple, poorer communities eat and cook with the ingredients they’re able to afford.

Hoai Hue serves many other traditional dishes like steamed rice cake. Try those too. Really delicious.

Finally, we visited Saigon Sandwiches & Deli on University Avenue. Thuyt Nguyen and her son Tom Nguyen have been making banh mi for San Diegans for decades. A banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich with a French twist.

During French colonization, the French taught Vietnamese people about baguettes, cold cut meats, pate, etc. Since Vietnam didn’t have other vegetables from Europe, they improvised with local ones like carrots and daicon. Add all those things together, and there you have the banh mi!


San Diego Tacos!

To see the NBC 7 TV segment, click here

I don’t understand how someone can try to find “San Diego’s Best Taco.” That seems, not just impossible, but unwise. Like, you’re-probably-going-to-make-a-lot-people-mad unwise. Hence, this article is not about the best or favorite tacos, but rather the different tacos San Diego has to offer and the stories they tell about the people and places from which they come.
For this part of NBC 7’s food/culture series, we visited these local spots:

  1. - Las Cuatro Milpas (1857 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113)
  2. City Tacos (3028 University Avenue, San Diego, CA 92104)
  3. Tacos Perla (3000 Upas Street Suite 105, San Diego, CA 92104)

Off the Eaten Path: Tacos

Las Cuatro Milpas 

Barrio Logan is one of the oldest and most culturally rich neighborhoods in San Diego and, in many ways, the same can be said about Las Cuatro Milpas located on Logan Avenue. Everything about this place is old school. The ladies behind the counter have worked there for years. The menu with only seven items has never really changed. Ladies make handmade tortillas in the back, not for show, but because the restaurant…actually needs tortillas.

The place opens early in the morning and closes at 3 p.m. There’s usually a line of people down the block. A few minutes there and my photographer and I were being told what to order from other customers left and right. People had their favorites and they wanted the world to know.

“The chorizo and rice. The beans and rice!” exclaimed one customer who said those items were so good her family catered them for her quincenera.

“The fried beef tacos!” said Sergio De Los Rios, who’s been coming to Las Cuatro Milpas since grade school.

Talk about a family-owned business, the restaurant has been owned by three generations of the Estudillo family at the same Logan Avenue location.

Natividad Estudillo and his sisters now run the restaurant. Natividad says his grandparents came to the U.S. in the early 1900’s fleeing The Mexican Revolution.

“It was our grandparents dream since they came to this country,” he said. “People like what they like, and if you keep it simple they come back.”

We asked Natividad’s sister, Manuela, why they don’t update their popular menu. She responded, “Too many things. It’s better to do the right thing.”

Owner Gerald Torres says when people try his tacos at City Tacos in North Park he wants them to taste the different flavors of modern-day Mexico.

“There are so many more recipes and flavors that people don’t know here,” he said. “Mainland Mexico, Guadalajara, Mexico City…” Torres was born and raised in Mexico City. Since then, he’s lived in several places including other parts of Mexico, San Diego and Miami.

From bay scallops in cream sauce to seared mahi, City Tacos serves up affordable tacos with a gourmet twist. Not only do they highlight flavors from different regions in Mexico, they highlight North Park.

“North Park is great. It’s fantastic, vibrant and young; people here are very open-minded,” said Torres.

Located at 30th and Upas streets, Tacos Perla is another new taco shop in San Diego that’s taking the traditional taco to the next level.

Consulting Chef Oso Campos is from Tijuana. He spent seven years backpacking across Mexico’s coastline.

In return for a roof over his head, he would help different families clean and cook. Campos says the flavors he learned from the mothers and grandmothers he met on his more than 2,000-mile journey appear in his taco and sauce recipes.

Campos is also not afraid to push limits. In addition to typical garnishes, you’re able to order roasted crickets, also known as “chapulines.”

“In my personal opinion, they’re great with flavor, protein and no grease,” said Campos.
Roasted crickets are commonly eaten in certain parts of Mexico. In fact, they’re eaten all around the world where other sources of protein can be difficult to come by.

Although the practice of eating bugs, or “entomaphagy,” is harder to digest psychologically for Westerners, crickets and insects are valued by other cultural communities for being high in protein and typically low in fat. They usually take on the flavor of whatever sauce or seasoning they’re mixed with.

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report about the benefits of bug eating to our world’s food insecurity.

The food lesson this week: whatever your cup of tea is, there’s probably a taco out there in San Diego just for you. All of them are a little different. They tell a different story about the people who make them and the places that influence their flavors.

Check out the map below to pinpoint the taco spots mentioned in this piece, along with some must-try local Chinese food restaurants.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What Color is Your Breakfast This Morning?

Of course it was spicy, but it wasn't as intense as it looks. You're looking at the Spicy Beef and Vegetable Soup at Myungin Dumplings on Convoy Street.

The establishment is based out of LA, and they have a picture with Anthony Bourdain on their wall. If it's legit, I'm sold. If there was some photoshop action going on, that is unforgivable. The Bourdain plug is not to be messed with foodie world! Check out their video of Bourdain.

By all accounts, this place looks Bourdain ordained, immortalized, pedestalized, foodie festishized. Actual words cannot describe the food/culture holiness he brings upon this world.

I didn't get the dumplings. What's wrong with me? Don't answer that - that was rhetorical. I'll have to come back and try them, but this time I got the spicy soup. It was surprisingly mild compared to what it looks like it's going to taste. The kimchi-tasting beef broth is filled with delicious Chinese vegetables (different mushrooms, sprouts, etc.). There was also shredded beef and some clear noodles. The soup was served with a bowl of fluffy white rice and some ban chan, aka Korean appetizers that usually consist of kimchi and other fermented vegetables.

It's a breakfast that'll wake you up in the morning. Next time, dumplings!