For your next trip to San Diego, forget the "I'm so hungry, let's just stop here" method of choosing a restaurant. While you're at it, forget the "wherever my finger lands" technique for menu selection.
Acclaimed restaurateur Tracy Borkum not only runs two of the area’s best restaurants, she’s also brimming with generous enthusiasm for the “competition.” And she agreed to take us on a tour of her favorite local eateries.
Borkum owns the award-winning Cucina Urbana and Kensington Grill in San Diego, as well as the brand new Cucina Enoteca in Irvine — all known for their distinctive décor and creative cuisine at moderate prices.
Here are the restaurants she’s passionate about (including her own, of course) — from hidden gems to culinary luminaries.
FABULOUS AND AFFORDABLE
In 2011, San Diego Magazine named Cucina Urbana the “Best Italian Restaurant.” Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli’s stuffed fried squash blossoms are a crowd favorite. Borkum’s weakness is the porchetta and brie panini for lunch and ricotta cavatelli and duck conserva for dinner.
The magazine’s “Best Neighborhood Restaurant” and “Best Small Plates Menu” award went to Kensington Grill, where Chef J.C. Colón puts a gourmet spin on American standards. Borkum loves the mac ’n shrooms that, for a mere $1.50 more, can include truffle oil. “That takes it to a whole other level,” she said. Or try the hog bar, a pork sampler with treats like sun dried tomato and pistachio sausage.
Azuki Sushi does a stunning modern take on Japanese. “It’s very unknown and should be very known,” Borkum said. What to order there? Her emphatic answer: “Anything!” But press her and she’ll confess a weakness for the superb sashimi or the R U Kidding Me? roll.
Café Chloe is a little taste of Paris in the East Village, where you can spend hours chatting with friends. The menus change seasonally, but look for the smoked trout salad or mussels belgique with pommes frites.
For some nighttime pizzazz, head out to the Little Italy hot spot Craft & Commerce for artisan cocktails and old-school American food done to perfection. Borkum’s choice is the fried chicken with buttermilk slaw.
FAST FOOD FEASTS
A lunch run to Lucha Libre in Mission Hills is worth the 10-minute drive for Borkum and her staff. She usually orders the “vegy taco.” “But the guys in my office go all out with the big guns,” she said. That’s the surf and turf burrito with steak, shrimp and avocado. And lucha libre wrestling fans will dig the décor.
At The Kebab Shop in downtown San Diego, Borkum can’t resist the döner kebab wraps with a side of cucumber dill salad. “Seriously, it is so addictive,” she said. “I always swear there isn't any way I can eat a whole wrap, but somehow I always do.”
BURGERS AND BEEF
The Lodge at Torrey Pines serves a “drugstore-style” hamburger that’s phenomenal, said Borkum. “You can enjoy it poolside, dipping your toes and watching a few rounds of golf.”
The historic Waterfront opened in 1933, just after the repeal of Prohibition, and it serves what she calls “the perfect hangover cure” — a gem of a hamburger and a Bloody Mary.
For amazing hand-cut steaks, settle into a leather booth at Cowboy Star in the East Village. “I don’t eat a lot of meat but I love the rib-eye here.”
LUSCIOUS IN LA JOLLA
“Brilliant” is what Borkum calls the $9 prix fixe lunch at Chedi Thai Bistro in La Jolla. Executive Chef Sutharin Pia Kampuntip offers dishes that are “absolutely amazing,” like the green papaya salad or any of their curries.
George’s at the Cove is home to two restaurants and a bar. At the moderately priced Ocean Terrace, enjoy a spectacular view of the blue Pacific while you savor grilled Mexican shrimp with tabbouleh salad and a glass of crisp white wine (or two). Downstairs, there’s fine dining at the California Modern. Borkum finds it impossible to narrow down the choices on Executive Chef Trey Foshee’s menu. “His seafood is spectacular and his vegetarian is amazing.”
If you’re one of the one percent — or just want to live like it for a night — doll up and dine out at Addison at The Grand Del Mar. Executive Chef William Bradley is masterful, and Borkum is particularly excited about their new chef de cuisine, Anthony Secviar, who’s just arrived from the world-renowned French Laundry in the Napa Valley. “I’m eager to see him work his magic,” she said.