Decadent Dishes You Must Try in San Diego
WRITTEN BY: NICOLE FERA PHOTOGRAPHED BY: JOSIE GONZALES
Flower headbands, crop tops, fanny packs, and offal. All things that seem to be trending right now, although one of them may not be something you recognize or even know what it is. If that one thing is the fanny pack, then consider yourself lucky to have escaped that fad, not once but twice in a lifetime. But for most of you, I’m willing to bet you may not have heard of the term offal. Offal, as described in the dictionary, is the entrails, and internal organs of an animal used as food. But what does this mean exactly? Well, for many daring, innovative chefs it means taking parts of an animal that may not have been considered mainstream in the past and using them to create unique, daring and delicious dishes.
More and more unique meat dishes have been popping up on menus all over San Diego’s restaurant and bar scene. To some it is a new fad, but to others it’s a way of life that they grew up on. The idea of using different cuts of meat and utilizing all of the animal’s parts not only produces some interesting dishes and ideas, but also doesn’t allow for waste. Sustainability is a word that comes to mind when discussing this style of cooking, and it makes sense that these culinary dishes are becoming more apparent as our generation is transitioning into a more earth-friendly way of living. With all of that being said, it is still a big jump for most of us to even get up the guts to try some of these…well…guts.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting some of the bold restaurants in San Diego that are bringing this trend and new ideas to life with their offal dishes, and I can tell you that once I tried what they had prepared, all my inhibitions about them went out the window. In the end, it’s just a different cut of meat and I figured I’d better do my part in securing a more sustainable world by eating and trying as many unique things as I could get my hands on.
The Lion’s Share
629 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92101
THE LION’S SHARE, located right on Kettner Boulevard, was the last stop on my out of the box eating experience, and I fell in love as soon as I walked in the door. The ambiance of the restaurant was so unique to anything I have experienced before with its intriguing artwork, ever-present taxidermy, and overall theme. It is a dimly lit restaurant and bar that manages to somehow feel upscale without being pretentious at all. All of the artwork and décor was so inviting that I walked around the restaurant several times surveying all of it again and again. It felt like I was on the inside of a modern man cave, and I couldn’t wait to see what they had to offer. Executive Chef Mark Bolton greeted us as he walked in the door and then excitedly set off to whip up two of the dishes found on his unusual menu, (Rabbit) Hand Pie and Tacos de Lengua. I won’t say that the thought of these dishes worried me, but I was definitely skeptical as I waited to try them out and spoke with one of the owners, Hassan Mahmood.
Q: How long has The Lion’s Share been on the SD restaurant scene and why haven’t I been here? I’ve already fallen in love, and I haven’t had anything to eat or drink yet!
Hassan Mahmood: Well thank you! It’s been a collaborative effort in putting this whole place together. My partner, Roy Ledo, and I opened up The Lion’s Share about three years ago, and it’s our first restaurant together. We tried to make it a place where people can come, relax and enjoy unique meat and food dishes. We also pride ourselves on our elaborate cocktail drinks that we serve here.
Q: You’ve nailed the ambiance, and I’m sure the food is just as amazing. Just glancing over the menu, I’ve noticed you have venison, antelope, and boar as well. These aren’t things that you can find at just any restaurant here in SD. Who comes up with all of these salivating meals?
HM: Although the idea of the restaurant came from Roy and myself, our Executive Chef, Mark Bolton, took on complete creative control of the menu and we couldn’t be happier with what he has come up with. He understands our style and theme of the restaurant, and he also takes amazing feedback and knows how to make it all come together and work.
Q: I’m glad that the readers will be able to see photos of these dishes, because they’re a lot different than what I was expecting. These plates are beautiful and so ridiculously tasty. How are these dishes prepared?
HM: Well, the tacos are made with lamb tongue, parsley, radish and corn tortillas. What makes them unique is obviously the fact that we use tongue as opposed to more traditional meat in the tacos. It’s a prime example of what Mark’s helped us achieve here and the theme of our restaurant. The second dish, the (Rabbit) Hand Pie, is made with braised rabbit, duck fat crust and a carrot puree.
Q: Although both of these dishes are amazing, I cannot stop eating the (Rabbit) Hand Pie. I would never have guessed that it was rabbit, and I could lick the plate clean of that carrot puree. What would you say your chef’s concept and inspiration is?
HM: I think that Chef Mark takes the ideas and concepts we have for great food and drinks made out of interesting choices of “manly” meats, and then transforms them into delicate, decadent dishes. Just as you have said, they’re elevated into something that you might not be expecting.
Q: Are the weekends in here packed with everyone wanting to get a taste of these dishes?
HM: We’ve actually managed to keep a relaxed environment in here on the weekends, which is how we prefer it. We want people to be able to have good conversations while enjoying their food and specialty drinks to go along with it.
Q: You’re also one of the few places that I know of in San Diego that have a kitchen that is open late night. Was that something that was important to you guys?
HM: Yeah, definitely. We serve food until 1am, and we tend to get a lot of people coming in who work at other restaurants and places Downtown who are looking for a good place to grab a hot meal and a tasty drink after a long shift. It’s definitely nice being able to provide that to these people.
Aqui Es Texcoco
Chula Vista, CA 91911
I began my culinary journey at AQUI ES TEXCOCO, a hidden gem located in Chula Vista that is known for their barbacoa, traditional Mexican lamb BBQ. The dish that I was interested in trying was the Grilled Lamb’s Brain Tacos. And I know what you’re thinking—brains? That can be a scary thought if it is not something that you are traditionally used to eating, which I’m sure most of us are not. However, as soon as I arrived at this restaurant, I knew all of the food and cooking was going to be authentic and made with great care and love. As the chefs got to work preparing the dish for me to try out, I got the pleasure of sitting down with Francisco Perez, the owner and passion behind Aqui es Texcoco.
Q: Aqui es Texcoco has been in San Diego since 2008, but you’ve been doing this a lot longer than that haven’t you?
Francisco Perez: Oh yes! Our restaurant in Mexico has been around for 25 years, so we’ve been doing this for quite some time.
Q: What inspired you to bring your authentic cuisine to San Diego?
FP: While running the restaurant in Mexico, Tijuana to be exact, we found that a lot of people from San Diego were traveling down just to eat at our restaurant. We wanted to make it available to them without having to leave their country, and there seemed like a lot of opportunity in San Diego.
Q: I’m sure the local San Diegans appreciated and anticipated this move for you. What adjustments, if any, did you have to make when opening this branch in Chula Vista?
FP: Well, at our restaurant in Tijuana, we only serve lamb on the menu. We wanted to expand our dishes and what we serve to give people more American options that they were used to, while still serving dishes from our roots and culture. We had to find a balance between the two and help introduce people to our traditional style of cooking.
Q: The fact that you only served lamb at your Tijuana location opens up the door for the fact that you have some interesting dishes involving that type of meat. Specifically, I am referring to the Grilled Lamb’s Brain Tacos that I will be trying out today. What can you tell me about this style of cooking and this dish?
FP: Since we only serve lamb at our restaurant in Mexico, we want to be able to prepare it as many ways as possible and by using as much of the animal as we can. For example, we use the shoulder, different parts of the head, the ribs and so on. It’s a very traditional style of cooking that our clients there are used to growing up on, but we want to showcase it the best way possible on the menu at all of our locations and the tacos are one way that we do that.
Q: Does sustainability and/or honoring the animal as a whole come into play at all?
FP: Of course. In Mexico, growing up and cooking, you learn to use all of the ingredients that you have and try not to waste any part of the animal. That is how these delicious dishes are born, and they’re some of the delicacies that we now have today.
Q: I am lucky enough to have just tasted these delicious tacos, and I am shocked at how much I love them. I had a completely different picture in my mind about how they would look and taste, and I was happily mistaken. Can you describe this dish to our readers and let us know how exactly your chefs make them so delicious?
FP: The taco is definitely one of the more unique dishes that we serve, even though it is quite traditional to our culture. We grill the corn tortillas, which we make here at the restaurant. They are grilled up to add some texture and crunch and then stuffed with the cooked lamb’s brain, chopped onion and of course, epazote.
Q: What exactly is epazote?
FP: The best way I can describe it to an Italian girl like you, is that it is arugula to Mexicans. It’s a herb that we use quite frequently and in this dish, it gives great flavor to the brains and taco.
Q: That makes perfect sense to me because, of course, I am familiar with and love my arugula. The flavor of the taco is amazing and has made me really open to trying all of the interesting dishes you have on the menu. Is that what your style of cuisine is about?
FP: Definitely. This restaurant and my food concept are all about traditional recipes that we have brought to San Diego. I wanted to cater to what people were traveling to Mexico for and also expand the menu and give people a taste of what we do. Fortunately, we have had a lot of success and just opened another restaurant in Los Angeles.
Q: Congratulations on all of the success! It is very clear that you are amazing at what you do to get me to eat lamb’s brain and rave about it! Are there any other interesting dishes on the menu that involve some unique components?
FP: We’re proud of all our authentic lamb dishes, since that is where we started, and we serve as much as we can of that. On our menu we also have traditional lamb’s head, ribs and tripe. These may be traditional to a lot of our local customers, but I know they are unique to a lot of the people we serve them to. That’s what our food and what we do here is all about!
1536 India St.
San Diego, CA 92101
Part of my foodie exhibition included a place in Little Italy that is a bit different than what you’d traditionally expect to find in that area. INDIGO GRILL is a newly renovated Latin restaurant that is found right in the heart of Little Italy. When it first opened, it was the only restaurant in the area serving Latin cuisine. It has since paved the way for some other non-Italian restaurants to open their doors and continues to serve some of the best food you can find there. Executive Chef and Partner of the Cohn Restaurant Group, Deborah Scott, is the head of this restaurant and the one responsible for all of the interesting dishes that can be found on the menu. I had the pleasure of getting to visit the new Indigo Grill and speak with Deborah about one of the more unique items that can be found on the menu, her Grilled Ahi Ribs. As soon as she walked up to the restaurant to let us in, I could tell that she was not only an amazing chef, but also had a great personality. Her striped, red, plaid pants clued me into the fact that she is an individual, and I had no doubt that this would shine through in her food.
Q: First of all this place looks amazing! Although I had never been to Indigo Grill before the renovation, I can definitely appreciate the style and ambiance it now possesses. It feels modern yet quirky and unique with its use of all different kinds of tables and chairs throughout the restaurant. Does the design of the restaurant have anything to do with the food that you serve here?
Deborah Scott: Definitely! We not only worked on revamping the restaurant physically, but we recreated the menu that we have now. We created something that draws from Latin influences and added a modern twist to it.
Q: Indigo Grill became your baby in 2001, but I’m assuming you’ve been doing this for quite some time to ace it the way that you have. How did this all come about?
DS: Oh yeah, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve had some practice. I’m originally from Virginia Beach, and I attended culinary school and worked in restaurants long before my move to San Diego. I worked in many restaurants, coming up with new and exciting menu items, before teaming up with the Cohn Restaurant Group, becoming their partner and transforming Indigo Grill into what it is today.
Q: Well just from looking around at the design of this place and taking a look at the menu, I’m excited to taste the Grilled Ahi Ribs that I can smell being prepared as we speak. What makes this dish so unique?
DS: Well, it’s definitely the most unusual dish that we have on the menu. Most people are used to eating ahi tuna, but I haven’t been to any other place that is serving up the ribs. It’s not something that you would traditionally see on a menu, and that’s a prime example of what we like to do here.
Q: It sounds and smells delicious and after the last restaurant and dish I enjoyed, I am definitely open to trying something new! Can you describe how these ribs are prepared?
DS: We’ve taken the ribs of the ahi tuna, as opposed to the traditional meat of the fish, and marinated them in a soy-panca pepper sauce. The marinade is what gives the ribs the delicious flavoring and then we grill them up, searing that all in.
Q: Would you say that this is one of the most popular dishes on the menu? Because from what I just tasted, I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying this dish.
DS: I will say that it’s the most unusual dish we serve, simply because it’s such a different part of the fish that no one uses. I think most people are open to trying it because ribs are something our culture is fairly used to and so is ahi. All we had to do was think outside of the box and combine the two together for something entirely new.
Q: That seems to be what your style of cooking is all about. Where do you get your inspiration from when coming up with your menus?
DS: Well, I’ve never been a conformist, so my hopes when cooking and designing a menu is to do things as uniquely as possible. I focus on presentation and what looks and tastes good. When coming up with new items for our menu, I try and take advice and ideas from all of our amazing chefs that work here and go from there. It’s finding a balance between the traditional and the new, exciting things you can do with food.