Dispatch from San Diego: All the Leaves are Brown

The leaves may be brown and the skies grey this time of year in my beloved Upstate NY, but Shawn and I were on vacation just last week in sunny Southern California, and it was anything but muted.

San Diego County, snaking up California's coast from Mexico, is soaring palm trees, glittering water, blue skies and vibrant flavors. It is, basically, the antidote to a fall season that's come too soon. Don't believe me? Ok, here's the view from the pool deck at our hotel:

Oh, and that tiny house at the bottom of the frame? That's the house Maverick rode up to on his motorcycle in Top Gun to woo Kelly McGillis. Yeah. Sexy results.

I was truly on vacation, from PR, pageants and food writing, so I didn't take detailed notes at any of the restaurants we visited in Cali, but I wanted to share some of the tastiest bites and our favorite spots during our fabulous vacation.

At the Oceanside Terrace at George's at the Cove, in La Jolla, the views were breathtaking, even if the fumes from the coves jammed with sea lions and hundreds of birds took our breath away in a very different way.

On the night we visited George's (also my birthday), ceviche was the appetizer special, and it stole our hearts. Less acidic than most ceviche dishes I've tried, this starter was more like a tomato salsa accented with fish (in this case, halibut). The acid in the citrus and tomato "cook," the fish without heat, changing the texture but not the temperature. I loved the generous slabs of avocado on top, which added luscious mouth-feel to each bite, along with the crunch of the tortilla chips. The ceviche was bright and sweet, while the avocado was creamy and the chips were salty. You know, yum.

At Hello Betty Fishhouse, in our hotel, The Springhill Suites in Oceanside, I had two dishes that wowed me. Garlic and beer butter peel-and-eat shrimp served with thick slabs of garlic toast to soak up all the earthy, salty, shrimpy sauce and hamachi crudo with fresh Serrano chiles and crispy fried onions. The hamachi, a delicate white fish, sung with bold, assertive, clean flavors - bright and fresh - sort of the antithesis of the homey, comforting shrimp. Both were fabulous.

In Solana Beach, the chic Wild Note on Cedros, an upscale street of shops, wineries and breweries just blocks from the beach, served us delectable lobster dumplings. They were served in a simple soy sauce sweetened up a bit with maybe a little honey or fruit (maybe fig?), and the lobster filling and potsticker wrappers were supremely delicate and soft, with micro pea shoots on top which provided freshness to the dish.

Jennie's Cafe, in Oceanside, is comfortable and welcoming, with this fun sign over the counter:

For my birthday breakfast, I had the California Benedict, which replaced boring Canadian bacon with avocado and REAL bacon! I was wondering how avocado would work with the hollandaise, and the jury came back with a positive verdict. The bacon, saltier and smokier than a sad slice of Danish ham, stood up to the creamy fattiness of the avocado and the buttery richness of the hollandaise sauce. I grooved on the double fat dose, completely. This was a genius combo, plus, as the above sign promises, calories don't come from food!

In Carlsbad, we found Garcia's Mexican Restaurant just a couple blocks from the train station, thanks to Zomato. I didn't grab a picture, but the beef taquitos there were utterly delicious, and this was one of the cheapest meals we ate all week. They were deep fried all crispy, with soft, shredded beef inside each, and guacamole and really excellent, spicy salsa served alongside elevated their simple flavors. You could see flecks of red chiles in the salsa - it was so good we chewed through two bowls. 

When I first visited San Diego, back in the very early 90s, my parents and I visited Old Town and ate at Cafe Coyote. It was the best Mexican food I've ever had, and still ranks in my top five. So of course, I insisted we go back. We started with appropriate beverages:

Then I wolfed down this mammoth plate of carnitas with house made tortillas and the most flavorful pinto beans I have ever had the privilege of eating. That's right - beans were a privilege. It's tricky to season beans correctly so that they're savory without being heavy or too salty. These hit that mark with perfection.

The heap of pulled pork shoulder, slow cooked in its own fat, was no slouch, either. A mouthful of pork with raw onion and a squeeze of lime in one of those perfect tortillas was a savory, chewy, fatty bite I won't soon forget. Cafe Coyote has multiplied in size about threefold since I first ate there, but they haven't compromised one iota in quality.

One more! At Bagby Beer Company in Oceanside, the pork belly sliders are something special. Pork belly is one of those buzzy ingredients that all cool restaurants serve now, but I can't help it. I love bacon's thicker, more luscious sister, I just do! But these little sandwiches combined crispy, fatty pork belly with a layer of thick jam made of jalapeƱos, plus peanut butter and crispy onions. I know the peanut butter would throw off a lot of you, but hey, peanut butter and jelly with salty bacon makes sense in a salty/sweet/spicy/fatty flavor profile kind of way. You need to eat these things!

So, as you can imagine, I'm back to real life now and struggling to purge my liver of all the day drinks and regain some vestige of a healthy diet. Except I'm heading on business travel to Portland next week, so what's the point? Someone hire me a trainer! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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