A Taste of the Caribbean and Italy on Streets of the Gaslamp Quarter

San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter can be viewed as home to a wildly improbable mix of restaurants, or, alternatively, as the nucleus of a truly cosmopolitan and diversified family of eateries.

In either case, the going hasn't been easy for the entrepreneurs there in recent years. However, redevelopment really does seem to be taking hold these days, and, with the approach of the convention center and the rush of business it is expected to bring, the struggle to succeed should be moderately downhill from now on.

The attractions are many, ranging from sandwich shops to modest sushi establishments, coffeehouses, the tasty Eastern European-Jewish cuisine at Croce's and quite a bit more.

Additions to Variety

Two establishments that have opened in the past year have made the selection even more varied. Tropical Star, housed in a refurbished Fifth Avenue structure just north of Market Street, is a true delight, thanks to its lengthy menu of Cuban and other Caribbean specialties. Scorsolini's, occupant of a modest Market Street storefront, is more basic and family-style in its selection of Italian dishes, but nonetheless fills a niche, especially if a visit to the nearby Gaslamp Quarter Theatre is part of the evening's schedule. Prices at both are quite reasonable.

The recorded merengue music plays constantly at Tropical Star, and in its vibrant insistence makes the feet itch to take a turn around the floor. The staff apparently is inured to the beat, however, because this is very much manana- land, and the service is likely to be a good deal slower than even we laid-back San Diegans find typical. There is a certain charm to the pace, though, and the savory, spicy cooking is in any case well worth the wait. (The mood also is reinforced by the surroundings, which would have been recognizable to turn-of-the-century guests were it not for the tiny retail section that sells Caribbean canned goods and vivid tropical shirts.)

The kitchen has the alarming habit of being out of things (there was no bread one day, for example, which put the Cuban sandwiches out of the picture), but the menu is sufficiently broad to fill in the gaps. The cooking has quite an authentic flavor range, especially in those dishes drawn from the Cuban and Colombian cuisines.

Oddly enough, chips and salsa appear on the table before the order is taken, and, while this Mexican offering has nothing to do with the menu, both items are incontestably first-rate. The salsa has a sharp cilantro bite and a delayed heat that is an absolute pleasure to anyone who likes food that fights back; it is exceptional.

Appetizers run quite a gamut, but most center on savory mouthfuls of some sort of dough filled with a highly seasoned meat mixture. The empanadas are Colombian-style, which means wrapped in a crisply fried cornmeal pastry. The alcapurria are rather more exotic; one would be unlikely to guess that the thick, crunchy covering for the spiced beef filling is made of grated green bananas. Bananas appear more forthrightly and no less deliciously as platanos maduros , or fried slices of ripe plantain, and as tostones , or slices of plantain dipped in a strong garlic sauce before being crisped in hot oil.

At lunch, the Cuban sandwich is a good bet if the kitchen happens to have stocked the delicately crusted, French-style bread this favorite requires. This is a standard daytime meal in Cuban neighborhoods in Miami and elsewhere, and bakeries that otherwise specialize only in breads and pastries are quite likely to offer it. The recipe is invariable; a split length of crusty bread is spread with butter and mustard, then layered with thinly sliced roast pork, spiced ham and dill pickles. Like most Cuban food, it is simple, but hearty and good.

Among hot dishes are a well-made picadillo , the typical hash of finely ground beef (and sometimes pork or ham, too) seasoned with onions, garlic, bell pepper, capers, vinegar, tomato sauce and raisins. Some recipes include diced potatoes, carrots and other vegetables; but, although this one is relatively uncomplicated, it has quite the right flavors and is delicious with its traditional complements of firm white rice, savory black beans and sweet fried bananas.

The pernil de cerdo asado , or roast pork, is another typical Cuban dish that arrives with rice, beans and bananas. Tropical Star serves a generous portion that is tasty enough, although on the day it was sampled the meat was on the dry side. Among other interesting entree choices are the pastel y arroz con gandules, or Puerto Rican-style pork tamale garnished with a stew of rice and pigeon peas; the arroz con pollo, or Caribbean chicken with rice, and the bistec encebollado , or thin steak topped with sauteed onions and tomatoes.

Tropical Star makes little in the way of dessert, but does make a point of pushing its Cuban-style espresso, a tiny cup of which is strong enough to keep one's eyes wide open for the rest of the day.

The proprietors of Scorsolini's lined the walls of this Market Street storefront with mirrors, but otherwise have done little to bring this small, unassuming place into the 1980s. The mood is very casual and home-style, so much so that you sometimes may get the impression that you're dining at your own kitchen table.

This mood matches the menu, which is Italian home-style and concerned primarily with pasta, mostly but not exclusively in tomato sauce. A single leap toward grandeur is made with the escargot bourguignonne appetizer, but these snails in garlic butter could just as well have stayed in the can--Scorsolini's does not give them a shining treatment. A more amusing starting snack is a plate of pizza bread, or slices of crusty bread, spread with tomato sauce and cheese and run under the broiler until the cheese has melted.

The kitchen does understand soup, and serves a wonderful plate of stracciatella , the Roman dish of chicken broth enriched with beaten egg and Parmesan cheese. The tossed salad, included with most dinners, is acceptable in light of the low prices, but nothing more. It includes commercial boxed croutons, an annoying fact in light of all the fresh bread on the premises, some of which turns up with the entrees in the form of likable garlic bread.

The standouts among the pastas are the tortellini alla panna and the cannelloni. The first is a bowl of savory rings of meat-stuffed dough that arrive bathed in a rich bath of cream mixed with bits of ham and mushroom. The cannelloni, or crepes stuffed with a tasty blend of minced chicken and spinach, arrive steaming hot beneath a coverlet of melted cheese and well-seasoned tomato sauce. Linguine with white clam sauce was flavorful enough, although the clams seemed present in a rather shy and tentative manner; the mostaccioli in marinara sauce was perfectly ordinary but quite acceptable.

There are very few formal entrees. The choice is between broacted chicken and several shrimp preparations, of which the most appealing may be the garlic-and-bread-crumb-coated shrimp De John (a misspelling of the famous shrimp de Jongh popularized by Chicago restaurants in the early 1900s). The broasted chicken has nothing in common with the slimy, half-roasted, half-broiled but primarily steamed product introduced commercially in the 1950s. At Scorsolini's, it is marinated and coated in flour before being cooked, and, on arrival, appears to have been fried; the meat is succulent and, quite simply, good.

The restaurant offers commercial spumoni for dessert, period, and certainly could make an effort to serve several other sweets.

TROPICAL STAR

644 Fifth Ave., San Diego

236-8300

Lunch and dinner daily

Credit cards accepted

A meal for two, with tax, tip and a glass of wine each, about $15 to $25.

SCORSOLINI'S

335 Market St., San Diego

696-9171

Dinner served 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays through Tuesdays; closed Wednesdays

Dinner for two, with tax, tip and a glass of wine each, about $20 to $30.

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