Recently I took a couple weeks and drove from the Bay Area down to SoCal and So.So-Cal, or as the locals call it, the San Diego area. Since I usually think of SoCal as the stuff just south of Santa Barbara (i.e. LA and Orange County), I’ve decided to dub anything south of Orange County to be So.SoCal because it is just Sooooo far south and also because it takes a lot of sitting in traffic to get there.
And since I’m always in search of some good eats to try, I’m happy to report I found a couple places in So.SoCal that are well worth checking out. The first is in Oceanside of all places. Oceanside is mostly known for two things: 1) Camp Pendleton, the Marine base; and 2) good surfing. As I discovered at the California Surf Museum (tubular, man!), Oceanside apparently has some of the best and most consistent waves along the entire California coast. It also has the longest pier in all of California. And don’t forget those Marines! I embarrassed myself (and I don’t usually embarrass easily) by accidentally (yes, it really was accidental!) driving onto Camp Pendleton on my way back from my yummy dinner at Oceanside slow food resto The Flying Pig Pub and Kitchen. I made the mistake of trying to intuit my way back to my hotel, assuming that the road along the harbor would eventually cross the road where my hotel was. Instead it lead straight to the military base and I suddenly found myself heading into a gated area with no way to turn around, cars ahead of me and cars behind me, all stopping to show their passes to get on the base. Der! I had to admit to the nice boy in fatigues with the heavy Southern accent that I was lost and just needed to turn around. Thankfully they didn’t court marshal me–but he did joke that I was going to have to join the Marines for trespassing! He actually had to stop traffic from going on to the base at all the stations so that I could drive across four lanes of entering traffic to hit the immediate exit, which must have been put there for intruders like me. Ooops!
Thankfully I’d relied on Siri (and Yelp) to find my way to the Flying Pig, which is located in sort of a random neighborhood-y looking area, across the street from houses and next to some auto repair shops only a few blocks up from the beach. Having never been to Oceanside, I wasn’t really expecting there to be much in the way of anything other than fast food joints in town. Interestingly there are a couple of barbecue joints (maybe because of the southern military boyz), that actually sounded like they were pretty good listed on Yelp. Of course, when Yelping, you have to consider the source–let’s face it, lots of Yelp reviewers don’t have the most sophisticated palates. You can usually tell this when things places like Subway and Chipotle are actually ranked as top restos in the area. I feel like it’s always a safer to consider the number of stars in the rating when balanced with the resto web site and, since I used to work in PR, what kind of press room the establishment has. And since I wasn’t in the mood to fill myself up with a lot of meat and sides, I didn’t want to go for the barbecue places.
The Flying Pig Pub and Kitchen is not the highest ranked place in Oceanside on Yelp, but it’s ranked fairly high and when I checked their web site and saw the words “slow food” on the side, I knew that would be the right place for someone traveling from the Bay Area (home of the Slow Food movement, thank you Alice Waters!). Menus are usually pretty good indicators as well, which was the case for the Pig. Traveling alone, I decided to sit at the bar. Both the wine and beer lists (no full bar here, folks, but a decent beer and wine selection) are presented to you placed between old record album covers. As a child of the 70s who still has her first ABBA album, I loved this touch! Clever, nostalgic. The whole vibe of the place was, as might be gleaned from the name, upscale pub. They even had large beer barrel tables. The menu consists of “Piggybacks,” or starters and sides, “Lighter Fare,” or small plates and “House Fare,” or entrees. Two women next to me at the bar ordered the Bacon Mac and Cheese, which looked pretty outrageous. I think they took a hefty portion of it home–for a starter, it was sizable. I went for the beet salad. I love beets. So much so that I have a hard time resisting them whenever I see them on a menu, particularly beet salads. I definitely could have shared the salad, but since it was a combo of frisee and beets, it wasn’t that bad size-wise. It also had blue cheese (another thing I’m a sucker for) and was topped with a house-made granola and port wine reduction. The granola was a nice touch–it gave the salad some additional texture and a much needed crunch to counteract the softness of the beets and the willowy bite of the frisee.
I was seriously thinking of stopping at the salad, but too many of the entrees sounded like they were worth trying. I was very tempted by the shrimp and grits, but it sort of sounded like a lot after the salad and my waitress recommended the pasta of the day. The chef makes his own pasta daily–on the day I was there, it was goat cheese mascarpone gnocchi with pork belly, mushrooms and arugula. I went with the waitress’ recommendation and got the pasta–as she pointed out, the shrimp was always on the menu (not that I was going to be a regular all of a sudden since I don’t live there, but anyway…) and since the chef makes the pasta by hand it seemed worth trying. And it was. The gnocchi was actually cut into little squares, about 1/4-in. thick rather than rolled into a strip and cut into little nuggets branded with fork tines, like regular gnocchi. I liked the non-traditional take of cutting little squares of pasta instead of tiny dumplings. The pork gave the whole thing a ham-my and smoky sort of flavor, which complemented the earthiness of the mushrooms and arugula quite well. I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting next to me at the bar from LA named Steve, also a food lover, who had also discovered the Pig via Yelp. He had their chicken and dumplings and the daily fruit crisp and said those were also good. The Pig is definitely worth a squeal if you’re in the area.
I must have had a hankering for pasta that week because I went for the noodles again the following night while staying in San Diego’s Little Italy. Now I have to admit that when it comes to Italian food I’m an East Coast snob. As far as I’m concerned it’s pretty hard to beat Italian food (and pizza, for that matter) in the Northeast–in fact, I think it’s damn near impossible. Having lived in Boston for 15 years, I know that it’s pretty difficult to find a bad meal in Boston’s North End. There’s no better pizza (or apizza, as they call it) than in New Haven. And there’s just so many great Italian cooks in NY that even my brother’s college roommate’s Jewish mother made a killer Italian meatloaf and Baked Ziti. Italian food is in the blood of the Northeast. California–not so much. For all the amazing food in San Francisco, its “Italian” neighborhood, North Beach, just doesn’t compare. One of the ways I’ve come to determine whether an “Italian” neighborhood is really an authentic, Northeastern type of Italian neighborhood is by its pastry shops and, more specifically, by their cannoli. To my estimation real cannoli should be crisp, have fresh ricotta or mascarpone weeping out of the middle and NOT be covered in chocolate chips! Not that Northeasterners don’t have some cannoli dipped in chocolate or some with chips, but I have yet to find a proper cannoli in California or one that isn’t drowning in mini chips and that is just a damned shame! Every cannoli I see in California looks and tastes like its been sitting in the fridge for days–not crisp, semi-soggy, congealed cream cheese (What the hell? Cream cheese?) and frickin’ miniature chocolate chips. Bleccch…
With this admitted prejudice in mind, I was a little worried about finding somewhere to eat in Little Italy, even though most of the places looked fairly serviceable. So I decided I’d consult San Diego Magazine’s Best Restaurants List, to get an idea of the best restos in San Diego. Thankfully one of the best–PrepKitchen, was right in Little Italy. PrepKitchen is a bit of a local chain–there are additional branches in La Jolla and in Del Mar further north, but the Little Italy branch was named “Best of the Best (Casual)” resto by the magazine’s food critic, Troy Johnson. That was good enough for me, so I made my way past all the Little Italy pizza joints and old school Italo restos with names like Mona Lisa (seriously!) and made a bee-line for PrepKitchen.
Like with the Pig, I was not disappointed! That night I asked for a table rather than sit at the bar. My server was really attentive and nice, even though I was a woman dining alone. This is not always the case for single diners or for women. What’s up with that anyway? I know there’s some stereotype out there that women tip poorly, which often gets them seated by the kitchen in restaurants, but that’s BS–I always tip well unless it’s totally undeserved. Anyway, I had a great waitress who gave me good recommendations on wine and my food. With a beet salad on the menu, I was tempted to have beets two nights in a row, but I also spied an heirloom tomato panzanella with burrata and that just sounded so good I had to go for that. It was good! Man, what is better than burrata? I don’t know–it was creamy, gooey–fresh cheese that good almost makes you want to give up the aged variety (well, not really!). The heirloom tomatoes were sweet and the toasted bread held up under their juice and the balsamic well.
For my entree, I ordered their Local Shrimp Radiatore with tomatoes, fresno chile, pesto and breadcrumbs. This was also very good. The components were sort of layered in the pasta bowl and meant to be mixed together on your own with the pesto on the bottom, radiatore, tomatoes, crumbs and shrimp. Eaten one layer at a time or mixed together, it was all good–the buttery breadcrumbs, along with the al dente radiatore gave the dish good texture–a bit of crunch with the firmness of the little curly-q pastas. The olive oil in the pesto was definitely a great olive oil. Good stuff!
After dinner I walked around Little Italy a bit and spied some mini chocolate chip covered cannolis at the only Italian coffee bar in the neighborhood. Needless to say, I kept on walking. After PrepKitchen, I didn’t want to spoil my good So.SoCal eats experience with anything so-so…
Flying Pig Pub and Kitchen
626 South Tremont St.
Oceanside, CA 92054
PrepKitchen Little Italy
1660 India Street