2016 was a year of exciting openings, with talented cooks flexing their culinary muscle to shape some of San Diego's most innovative and introspective dishes in years. Of the many, many new plates we've eaten this year, these six bites and dishes were the very best. Do your tastebuds a solid and add them to your must-eat list for 2017.
BIGAAddress and Info
There’s a ton of delicious new baked goods at BIGA, but the one thing you must try is the wood-fired croissant. Golden brown and crisp on the outside and chewy and soft on the inside, they’re a bulkier, more substantial variation on a classic that wholly satisfies. It takes a full 72 hours to prepare them from start to finish, so only about two dozen are available each day. The croissants typically come out of the oven at 8am and can sell out in less than an hour. Time your visit accordingly.
BraceroAddress and Info
Through some miracle of science, the segments of pineapple, melon, and strawberry in this shockingly delicious brunch dish from Bracero are doubly sweet and delicious. The accoutrements (Greek yogurt, honey, and a salty housemade granola that’s heavy on crunchy nuts and seeds) completes the experience.
Mary’s fried chicken and waffles
EncontroAddress and Info
This elevated presentation of an American classic is one of a handful of “chef’s plates” available on Encontro’s dinner menu. Well priced at $16, it features top quality, expertly fried chicken and crunchy Belgian waffles studded with diced Black Forest ham and cheddar cheese. A generous drizzle of Vermont maple syrup and Tabasco butter forms a sweet and smoky sauce that brings the elements together. And, thanks to the addition of braised collard greens and melted onions, you can say you ate your veggies!
Green curry chicken pot pie
Pop Pie CAddress and Info
Considering the fact that the chef at Pop Pie Co. is A) from Thailand, and B) trained in pastry, odds are good that if there’s a green curry pot pie on the menu, it’s going to be delicious. That’s true in the case of this University Heights pie shop and then some. The curry isn’t just delicious, it’s ambrosial… and then there’s the crust to take into account. That flaky, buttery crust! Co-partner Steven Torres says it’ll stick around until the end of January. You know what to do. Run, don't walk.
Bolognese al forno
BarbusaAddress and Info
Like any good bowl of bolognese, Barbusa’s rendition hugs you from the inside out. Baked in a rich tomato sauce with veal, sausage, and short rib, it’s comforting but not too heavy. Traditionally, the sauce is served atop tagliatelle, but here, it’s baked with cheese, English peas, and anelletti -- a ring-shaped pasta that looks like Spaghetti-O’s. This modern update puts the sauce front and center, ups the comfort food score, and makes the dish easier to eat, with no fear of sauce splashage.
Ice cream sandwich
Herb & EateryAddress and Info
This outstanding ice cream sandwich is scientific proof that sometimes when you join two tasty elements, the result is exponentially more delicious than the sum of its parts. In this case, it’s a scoop of banana chip gelato sandwiched between two peanut butter and fennel cookies. Each are perfectly excellent on their own, but together, the texture and flavor payoff is huge. Best of all, it’s priced so reasonably that you have no choice but to get one.
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This casual Italian cafe in Gaslamp specializes in Neapolitan pizzas, though there's a lot more to love besides the lightly charred (and reasonably priced) wood-fired pies at Biga. Fluffy focaccia, served with toppings à la pizza or in a sandwich with cured meats and cheese, shared plates of house-made mozzarella, and oven-roasted vegetables are all enticing for dinner, while breakfast polenta bowls are an inventive alternative to typical rolled oats in the morning.
Despite its Little Italy locale, Bracero Cocina de Raiz specializes in modern Mexican cuisine. The two-story restaurant features an open kitchen, a crudo bar bursting with Baja seafood, and a menu composed of hot and cold small plates, tacos, and meaty entrees. The cocktail program pays homage to Mexican drink with a well-rounded selection of tequila and mezcal, plus a variety of bacanoras, raicillas, and sotols.
Decked out with recycled wood planks and copper accents, North Park's Encontro takes its rustic American theme seriously. The format is casual counter-service, but the dishes are far from rushed: portobello fries are served crispy with a Parmesan sprinkle; Brussels sprouts are charred and sprinkled with bacon; pink slices of flat iron steak are spread over a spinach salad. You cannot (or should not, rather) come without trying Mary's Fried Chicken and Waffles. Twenty-four taps rotate craft beer options that can be sipped at any of the communal tables inside or at street-side high stools. And because cravings have no sense of time, a late-night window lets you grab food to-go, like a milkshake made with local ice cream.
This University Heights bakery and cafe slings sweet and savory pies that would put Sweeney Todd to shame. Pop Pie's genius is obvious in the handheld, five-inch diameter creations that feature flaky, all-butter crusts and fillings like slow-braised beef with mushrooms and dark ale gravy. The sweet ditties are smaller at three inches and hit traditional cravings like apple crumble, as well as more rich and modern interpretations like dark chocolate ganache with pistachio and matcha pastry. Early risers stop into Pop Pie -- whose interior is outfitted with a neon sign that says "in pie we crust" -- for coffee and pint-size morning pies, like the Earl Gray tea-flavored special.
There’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in Little Italy, but this modern Sicilian trattoria owned by the Busalacchi family (who also operate Busalacchi’s A Modo Mio in Hillcrest and Trattoria Fantastica) is one of the best options in the neighborhood, or anywhere. It’s upbeat and buzzy inside, with pop art posters and modern decor, but service is old-school (i.e. attentive!) and the prices are completely reasonable. When in doubt, opt for pasta: all of the different varieties, from bucatini to gnocchi are rolled out in-house. If you judge an Italian restaurant by its bread basket, then Barbusa and the wood-fired garlic focaccia it serves in lieu of bread, will pass with flying colors.
From celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, Herb & Eatery is a casual Little Italy cafe and market that sprung up adjacent to its mother restaurant Herb & Wood -- success begets success, after all. The bright and airy white-walled space functions equally as a store and eatery: beer, wine, and fresh flowers are for sale alongside the coffee counter, and salads are served at the nearby deli section. It's a touch more elegant than your average lunch stop though, with poke or charcuterie as salad toppers, and seductive sandwiches featuring combinations like fried chicken with kimchee. When you can hunker down at one of the wooden tabletops with a Bloody Mary or mimosa, suddenly a sandwich stop becomes so much more than a sandwich stop: it becomes a place to pass an afternoon.