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From Meatloaf Sandwiches to Mac ‘N’ Cheese and Everything in Between, Seven San Diego Restaurants Show How Delicious Comfort Food Can Really Be

Written By: Alexandra Huynh Sorry, Mom! The 7 Best San Diego Spots for Comfort Food
Photographed By: Sarah Wilson 

Every dish is an experience. Cooking is intimately tied to the senses and old memories. The familiar scent of cinnamon cooked in sugar, the sizzle of chicken in a pot of hot oil, the warm velvety texture of an oozing plate of mac and cheese. It’s a simple concept, but there’s something about creating a truly authentic comfort dish that many restaurants seem to miss: making the diner feel right at home. For many of the chefs and restaurateurs in the San Diego area, their recipes are representations of their childhood and experiences. There is no manual that defines comfort food—some of the dishes featured here came from recipes passed down for generations while others were simply inspired by a trip to the nearby farmers market. Some chefs put a creative spin on their dishes, grabbing influences from countries like Japan, Mexico and France, while others opt to stick to mom’s recipes exactly how she used to make them.

Each of the following dishes has a personal story, so diving into one is like letting the diner step into the chef’s home. More importantly, authentic comfort food is defined by hospitality, fresh and quality ingredients and, of course, love.

PB&J Club

After stepping inside Brian’s 24, the elegant interior of the more than 100 year old building evokes a swank establishment with daunting menus and microscopic dishes. However, the friendly and courteous wait-staff and the oversized burgers and pancakes create an immediately inviting atmosphere. A beaming chandelier in the middle of the room and a completely tin ceiling complement the upscale setting in Brian’s 24. An open copper kitchen sits beside a sprawling mahogany bar previously owned by Joan Crawford. The Gaslamp Quarter restaurant is the only 24-hour full service restaurant in the area. The warm, familiar environment makes Brian’s 24 a great spot for overdue family brunches and those late-night comfort food cravings.

The PB&J Club is just one of 200 comfort food items on the menu. Between three layers of thick-cut sourdough bread lie generous coats of peanut butter, strawberry preserves, grape jelly and sweetened cream cheese. This is what dreams are made of: A childhood staple turned into a guilty pleasure of adulthood. Although the dish is on the sandwich menu, the pure decadence makes it a wonderful dessert item. You’ll be reminded of eating on the playground swing set, except the bread hasn’t been squished in your lunch bag and the Wonder Bread is now toasted sourdough. It’s safe to say that after consuming this sandwich, PB&J without cream cheese will no longer seem like a viable option.

Brian’s 24 is known for its colossal pancakes, tender and crispy chicken and waffles and enormous omelets. The quality of the food is everything. The meat for the burgers, for example, is ground by a local butcher—never frozen. Customers keep coming back, however, because of the hospitality and family feel of the restaurant. “We’re not one of those intimidating places with intimidating menus, where the average person doesn’t know what half the things are, ” owner Andrea Epstein said. The establishment is family operated by Andrea, her brother Brian, her sister Robin, and her mother Ida. They have a staff of 40 employees she considers an extension of the family. “I get comments from the customers all the time about how fun it is to come in, and how everybody feels welcome and comfortable, ” Epstein says.

Native Knowledge: Brian’s 24 gets busy for breakfast, so come early. This place also gets very busy when the clubs close, so beat the crowds by arriving before 1:30 a.m.

Andrea’s Top 5 comfort foods

1. PB&J

2. Ice cream

3. Pancakes

4. Chocolate

5. Burritos

Brian’s 24
828 Sixth Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
619.702.8410 | www.brians24.com

 

Meatball Torpasta

Type in #Torpasta on Instagram or Twitter and you’ll find thousands of mouthwatering variations on classic Italian pasta dishes neatly nestled within a vertical Italian garlic roll. The choices, ranging from the classic meatball marinara to chicken Alfredo, are placed on a “rocket stand” that delivers the dish with both style and functionality. Although Torpasta is utensil-free, hungry customers typically start off with a fork to mend the overflowing locks of pasta and end up eating it like a burrito. Thanks to its innovative and irresistible carb-on-carb concept, the Torpasta (torpedo pasta) has organically become a household name at Devine Pastabilities.

The sweet scent of Italian herbs and sautéed garlic greet your senses upon entering the small Midway Drive establishment. At Devine Pastabilities, your dreams of a carbohydrate-filled world have come true. If you’re feeling guilty about ordering both spaghetti and meatballs plus a basket of garlic bread, why not just combine the two? The sesame-toasted Italian roll crunches on the outside and unveils a softness that soaks up the thick, fragrant red wine marinara.

“I used to eat spaghetti as a little kid on a slice of bread, ” owner and founder Damien Devine said. “I would pile on the spaghetti, take a bite, and half of it comes flying out the back.” He eventually gave his spaghetti tacos a sophisticated makeover by hollowing out the bread, adding garlic butter, toasting it and adding a variety of sauces. The enthusiasm of Damien’s family and friends toward his refined creation gave him the lift he needed to start his own business in 2002—at the height of the Atkins diet, ironically. He rented a little space with a table, a toaster oven and a fridge in the back of Dos Amigos Taco Shop on Adams Avenue to test market his sandwich. As customers began coming in droves, Devine left his cubicle job to pursue Devine Pastabilities full time.

On top of the variety of pasta sandwiches, Devine Pastabilities fills its menu with many other options such as the Torsalad, which is a choice of salad in bread, and the Torpedo, a pasta-less sandwich that includes a steak and cheese option and traditional pasta plates for people who can’t wrap their minds around the Torpasta concept. Devine Pastabilities also offers gluten-free pastas and pizza crust.

Regulars come in and out; some have been coming here for decades and still order the same item. Others are more adventurous and opt to try something new each time. Regardless, Devine believes it is the care they put in the dishes and the sincere, humble staff that keep people coming back. It’s a modest establishment built on quality and warmth, where the pasta-bilities are endless.

Native Knowledge: Devine Pastabilities supports local middle schools and elementary schools by doing music group fundraisers and farmers market booths, donating proceeds to the schools.

Damien’s Top Stops for Food and Snacks

1. Rebecca’s Coffee: Amazing sweet and savory scones with homemade jam and fresh bold coffee

2. Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop: Fresh tacos, the best salsa

3. Phil’s BBQ: Excellent ribs and chicken

4. Chris’ Ono Grinds Island Grill: Amazing Kalua pork and chicken

5. Señor Mango’s: Fruit salad, smoothies, tortas; fresh fruit always in season

Devine Pastabilities
3545 Midway Dr Ste E
San Diego, CA 92110
619.523.5441 | www.torpasta.com

 

Fresh Peach Pie

A wooden sign reading, “Baked with Special Love” hangs above. Below, massive wonders of blissful confections await in the glass case. Sugar-glazed delights topped with whipped cream are on display, along with mountainous peaks of meringue and lines of fresh peaches stretching every which way. The scent of pecan pie and freshly baked pastries fills the air as a tray of steaming muffins and enormous cinnamon rolls make their way to the front. The monumental display case shows off the 25 different pies at Village Kitchen and Pie Shoppe. It is a sweet sight of nostalgia that brings you back to an afternoon in your grandma’s kitchen.

In the summertime, customers savor the fresh peach pie, which consists of a simple flakey crust piled high with the season’s sweetest peaches and dollops of whipped cream. Village Kitchen’s lemon meringue pie is known as the lemon meringue pie by which all others are measured; it stands 12 inches high with fluffy clouds of meringue and a perfect lemon custard. The Snickers cream is a delectable mix of fresh cream and Snickers. As temperatures drop, people flock toward the classics, like pumpkin and apple. Other favorites on their extensive pie menu include fresh boysenberry, coconut cream and key lime.

Owner and founder Annette Bradley credits the popularity of her pies to a simple concept: fresh and homemade. Most of the recipes were the ones she grew up with from her mother. The made-from-scratch concept applies to everything else in the restaurant as well—the fish and chips, the country gravy, the fresh biscuits, the corned beef hash. They make two homemade soups every day; the split pea soup uses ham hocks from the local butcher down the street. They also roast their own turkeys for the turkey dinners

and sandwiches.

The establishment, which opened 20 years ago, definitely has a homestyle feel. Birdhouses line the shelves inside and fresh flowers rest on the tables. The outside patio has umbrella tables that get a nice breeze from Tamarack Beach. Many of the cooks and waitstaff have been at Village Kitchen for over two decades and passed the job on to their children. The sense of community is integral to the Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe experience while you enjoy classic dishes just the way you remember them.

Native Knowledge: Since it’s a residential area, neighbors and dog owners on their morning walks love to come by and sit at the patio tables outside to have breakfast.

Annette’s Top Dessert Picks From the Menu

1. Pineapple upside-down cake

2. Bread pudding

3. Key lime pie

4. German chocolate cake

Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe
950 Tamarack Ave
Carlsbad, CA 92008
760.729.6414

Parlor Pot Pie

An old Victorian house lies slightly off the beaten path among the green hills of Little Italy. Vibrant colors are juxtaposed with dark wood, reminiscent of an organic New Zealand farmhouse. “It’s like stepping into your own backyard to pick fruits and vegetables, ” manager Jake Hopkins says. A fig tree in the back is harvested to make jams. It’s a popular brunch spot with dishes like Cure, which comes with homemade gravy, fresh biscuits, tots and a choice of sausage or fried chicken. The large bar near the entrance serves wine, sangria and a great selection of beers. Among other things, Queenstown Public House is known for its burgers, sandwiches, wild Atlantic salmon and, of course, pot pies. The extensive menu serves rustic and charming farmhouse classics with a distinctly Kiwi spin.

Queenstown’s pot pie is something of a wonder. The pot pie comes out hot and fresh under a sheet of buttery puff pastry. Inside, there’s a whole slow-roasted hen with carrots, peas, celery and onion, along with some thyme for a vibrant kick. You can see the skin coming off the chicken and smell the fresh aroma of herbs and vegetables brewing from the skillet, which is presented on a wooden cutting board dashed with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Everything about the dish makes you feel like you’re staying at a New Zealand farmhouse. Although the enormous pie is an ideal dish for sharing, many finish the whole pot pie themselves—it’s that good. Going with the New Zealand vibe, Queenstown also offers a couple of mouthwatering lamb dishes such as their lamb skewers, the juicy lamb burger and rack of lamb. Hopkins says he hopes in the future to incorporate New Zealand’s prevalent dish, the meat pie, into the menu more.

People who want to grab a bite and hang out on the porch patio with their dog appreciate the dog-friendly atmosphere of the restaurant. A fireplace in front is lit up at night, and is a great spot to sip a glass of wine while people-watching. Since the restaurant is tucked away, a lot of its business comes from those who have stumbled upon the place and want to check it out. The pastoral backdrop of Queenstown Public House is a fun and relaxing atmosphere to enjoy one of the many savory comfort dishes on the menu.

Jake’s Top 5 Spots for Food and Drinks

1. Polite Provisions

2. Carnita’s Snack Shack

3. Panama 66

4. Mr. A’s Deli

5. Quartyard

Queenstown Public House
1557 Columbia St
San Diego, CA 92101
619.546.0444 | www.queenstownpublichouse.com

 

Rustic Fried Chicken

Even though it’s the new kid on the block, Rustic Root in the Gaslamp Quarter presents its take on classic American cuisine like an old pro. Plus, under the soft glow of overhead lights, there’s a full bar and rooftop menu upstairs. Executive Chef Antonio Friscia brings 25 years of culinary experience to this new favorite dedicated to bringing food back to what really matters: the best ingredients and the best taste. Rustic Root spotlights locally sourced meats, produce and seafood to transform classic American dishes like fried chicken into flavor-infused works of art.

Few classic American dishes have taken root in our national culture like fried chicken. But with great recognition comes a great responsibility to live up to those high expectations. Rustic Root raises the bar for scrumptious fried chicken by sticking to simplicity and relying on the quality and freshness of their ingredients. Rustic Fried Chicken is marinated in buttermilk for hours before being dipped in a homemade batter and fried, resulting in a moist interior and light crispy exterior—exactly as fried chicken should be. Served with a divine side of butter beans, rich sweet potato purée and zingy habanero honey mustard, the Rustic Fried Chicken is warmly familiar and absolutely delicious.

Along with fried chicken, Rustic Root’s other staples include the double-cut pork chop with a rhubarb chutney, fried Brussels sprouts and fingerling potatoes plus its take on surf and turf: beef tartare and Hamachi sashimi. Chef Marcel Childress uses influences from Japan, Mexico and France and the highest quality ingredients to push simple American dishes into unexpected, but flavorful, territory.

Rustic Root is not a timid wallflower when it comes to ambience either. Unconventional, modern and upbeat, the 2, 500-square-foot rooftop and 3, 000-square-foot downstairs are decked out with life-sized animal topiaries, backstage kitchen lighting and a crossword puzzle wall. Culinary creativity and conceptual range put a fresh and vibrant take on classic Americana at Rustic Root.

Up on the Roof: In addition to the sprawling downstairs dining room and patio, Rustic Root has the only rooftop restaurant in the Gaslamp.

Rustic Root
535 Fifth Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
619.232.1747 | www.rusticroot.com

Roasted Brussel Sprouts and Mac & Cheese

Picture a dimly lit, open backyard setting where vines weave in and out of wooden lattice walls and a nearby fireplace burns with soft flames. As evening approaches night, gas lanterns flicker on. People gather around the large community tables and mingle on the wooden benches. You order at the counter, there are no reservations and the food is cheap. It’s a relaxed atmosphere where family and friends gather for quality comfort food and grab a beer, some wine or a champagne slushy. Welcome to Soda & Swine.

The food is brought to you in trays and hot cast-iron skillets. It’s very rustic and very simple. The specialty meatballs go on just about everything, from spaghetti and sliders to the enormous dirty fries. They have five different meatball types to choose from: the swine, which is a smoked pork; the hog, which is chorizo with chipotle BBQ; the bovine, which is a beef and marinara sauce; and the hen, a chicken with mushroom cream sauce. They also started a vegan as well as a gluten-free beef and chicken meatball. At just $3 a slider, these carnivorous delights are an addictive bargain. In addition, the mac ‘n’ cheese at Soda & Swine is something else. This ultimate comfort food dish comes out bubbling in a blazing cast-iron skillet. The dish is made with nutmeg and chipotle to give it a special flavor and massive mounds of cheddar cheese. It’s gooey, it’s wild and it’s delicious. Make mom proud by ordering a side of Soda & Swine’s Brussels Sprouts-—they come with bacon, so you know they’ll taste good.

The laidback atmosphere of Soda & Swine is a great family environment during the day. Since it’s connected to Polite Provisions, there’s more of a bar crowd at night. Also, if customers want to go next door and have a cocktail, Soda & Swine will deliver the meal. The insanely busy weekend nights require cranking out a lot of food in a short amount of time. Chef Nate Mankowski likes to make sure the food stays on top of its game by sourcing local products from farmers and maintaining a personal and professional relationship with his suppliers. Soda & Swine’s impressively long list of soda flavors paired with the backyard setting and familiar comfort dishes makes you feel like you’re at a family picnic, except the food’s definitely better than that last reunion.

Native Knowledge: Soda & Swine tries to get as involved with its community as possible through a hands-on approach, such as selling lemonade at local cancer fundraisers.

Nate’s 5 Favorite Things to Cook at Home

1. Different kinds of grilled cheese

2. Fresh seasonal salads

3. Fresh fish

4. Wild game: deer, rabbit and bison

5. Liver and onions and heart tartare

5 Most Popular Menu Items:

1. Sliders

2. Dirty fries

3. Mac ‘n’ cheese

4. Brussels sprouts

5. Spaghetti

Soda & Swine
2943 Adams Ave
San Diego, CA 92116
619.269.7632 | www.sodaandswine.com

 

Meatloaf Sandwich

Duck Dive’s all-wood interior, complete with wavy ceiling ridges, almost makes you feel as if you’re inside a wooden surfboard—which fits the restaurant’s Pacific Beach location. Along the back wall there’s a huge underwater photograph of a woman duck diving, her silhouette perfectly outlined by the bright blue surf. People cruise in with their sandals and trunks to hang out and grab a bite or a drink at the bar. The dog-friendly patio also allows customers to spend quality time with their canine companions while back inside, the spacious bar serves wine, cocktails and craft beers.

Aside from the classic burgers, tacos and seafood dishes, Duck Dive makes a meatloaf sandwich that is the definition of comfort food. “Obviously nobody wants to eat mom’s meatloaf, ” Rob Mcshey, Duck Dive’s general manager, says. “This is a chef’s take on mom’s meatloaf.” In that first bite, the sandwich is meaty, nutty from the Swiss cheese and creamy from the tangy thousand island sauce. The meatloaf lies in between sourdough bread from the local bakery and is lathered with caramelized onions, served with the housemade fries. Mom might know best, but Duck Dive’s meatloaf sandwich knows even better.

Most of Duck Dive’s recipes are the brainchild of Executive Chef Bento Garcia. One of the favorites, the voodoo salmon tacos, contains a special sauce mixture of a local IPA beer, sriracha and secret spices. The salmon is placed inside a blackened flour tortilla and topped off with fresh papaya salad. With the open-air set up and being two blocks away from the beach, it’s always summertime at Duck Dive.

Native Knowledge: The top 3 menu items are the Duck Dive burger, ahi poke and the Voodoo salmon tacos.

Rob’s Top 5 Places to Eat and Drink

1. Pacific Beach Shore Club

2. Pacific Beach Local

3. Downtown San Diego

4. Little Italy

5. North Park

Catch the Lingo: A duck dive is when a surfer grabs the front of their board and pushes it down to go underneath a wave they don’t want to ride. This way they avoid getting slammed by the wave by popping back up after it rolls toward shore.

Duck Dive
4650 Mission Blvd
San Diego, CA 92103
858.273.3825 | www.theduckdive.com

G O T  I T /// From My Mama: 7 San Diego Restaurant’s Serving Comfort Food Favorites.