San Diego is not one of my fave destinations, but on this trip we discovered Ocean Beach, and my perspective has changed. This laid-back community has fiercely defended its right to boycott large chains, though 7-11 and Starbucks have managed to sneak in. Restaurants and other stores are locally owned and operated, and OB'ers like it that way. You can bike or walk your way around this beach area and, wherever you go, you'll meet friendly people, mostly dog owners, who will stop and chat. Most of the restaurants are small and short on decor, with prices to match (at least for San Diego). The streets always seem to be full of people, and it's fun to walk by the never-ending line outside of Hodad's, a long-time burger establishment that was listed as one of the top 5 burger places in the U.S. by CNN. 'Bohemian,' 'quaint,' 'quirky' -- you can use all these adjectives to describe OB. I like to say, 'friendly,' 'unpretentious' and 'colorful.' This is my new favorite place to be in San Diego.
1. The O'Bistro Cafe, (8.5 out of 10 stars) on Voltaire Street, is dog friendly. Bowls of water are placed around and outside the restaurant, and dog biscuits are available. If you want your pooch to dine with you, just order a doggie burger for $2.95. The people menu doesn't change much here, and there's nothing haute cuisine, but the food is well prepared, well seasoned and delicious. You can't go wrong with the fish tacos, whether you choose lobster, mahi mahi or shrimp. A thin chipotle-ranch dressing with a sprinkle of finely grated Cotija cheese makes these special. Hot sauce, seasoned black beans and yellow rice on the side are perfect accompaniments. There's more than tacos to choose from. The grilled salmon with dill sauce is offered with smashed garlic potatoes. If you don't want potatoes, you can substitute mixed veggies. Linguine with clam sauce comes with a dozen small clams, and the chef here knows how to make it to suit a die-hard italian food critic. Pasta with pesto-gorgonzola sauce can be had with or without grilled chicken. The menu also includes pork chops, steak, sandwiches, soups and desserts that we didn't try. We would have eaten at this quaint, Bohemian restaurant every night, but we decided to move on to some other OB fave spots.
2. The Tilted Stick, (8.5 out of 10 stars) also on Voltaire, rather close to The O'Bistro, doesn't look too inviting from the outside. It's a small sports-type dive bar/grill with a very limited menu. Cheeseburgers with fries can be had for $5.50. The wings are super crispy and popular, but the mahi tacos are one of the most popular menu items. Two tacos, each with a palm-sized piece of grilled mahi mahi, sit on a bed of tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce and the usual taco stuff. A double flour tortilla, grilled, is what holds each taco together, though you will feel like you need a bath when you get done eating. These are my son's fave mahi tacos, and they are a super bargain at 2/$7.75. No sides, but you don't need any with the amount of fish you're getting. Dogs are not allowed in because there is no outside patio, and the Board of Health nixes it. There's not much ambience, either, but the bargain food prices more than make up for that. And don't worry about food safety, because California food laws are strict.
3. Sapporo, (9 out of 10 stars) on Newport Avenue, is a small but popular Japanese restaurant with great sushi at very reasonable prices. For about $20, you can order 3 rolls (enough for 2 people for dinner, or about 6 for appetizers). The rolls come sliced into serving portions with a blob of wasabi paste, some pickled ginger strips and lite soy sauce. You can request hot sauce, but the do-it-yourself mixture of soy and wasabi makes a perfect dipping medium for the sushi rolls. The menu also mentions tempura, noodles and other typical Japanese fare, but who cares about those when all that great sushi is awaiting you.
4. Third Corner Wine Shop and Bistro, (9.5 out of 10 stars) on Bacon Street, brings that touch of sophistication that most OB restaurants lack. You can still come in casual dress because this is OB, where everything is laid back. The menu, however, is seriously dressed up with some really good stuff. The wait staff is friendly and accommodating. The food is a bit pricier but still reasonable for San Diego. If you want wine, just pick a bottle from their store at regular retail prices and pay $5 to have it uncorked at the table. The food is good. So good that you had better make a reservation if you want to eat here because the secret is out and the lines get long.
Pan-seared scallops with roasted potatoes and green beans in a white wine lemon sauce ($18) is so delicious, you will beg for more bread to sop up the yummy sauce.
Grilled salmon, tomato and fennel confit and mashed potatoes ($16) is just as good as it sounds.
Mussels, topped with 3rd Corner fries and saffron aioli ($14) blew us away. First off, it's a huge plate of mussels. If the fries on top scare you (as it did us), you can skip them or get them on the side, or, as we did, sub a baguette that you can use to sop up the amazing sauce. What's so great about this dish is the mussels. We asked where they were from because they were unlike any mussels we've ever tasted. Answer: Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, where they are farmed, not wild. Since they don't bury into the sand, there's no grit, the flavor is sweet, mild and tender and we could eat these all day long.
Joao's Tin Fish Eatery and Pub, (8 out of 10 stars) located in Liberty Station, Point Loma, is a fairly new (1 year+) franchise restaurant in the Tin Fish chain. Ocean Beach is a smaller neighborhood within Point Loma. Just up the hill from OB, Point Loma is separated from it by more than distance. It's an upscale historic area, with architecturally beautiful buildings, and the real estate and everything else is a bit pricier. Joao's has a Portuguese bent, and I don't just mean the menu. Films of Portuguese fishermen reeling in fish play on wide screens alongside regular TV. The restaurant has caught on, kind of, with mixed reviews. Some love it, some hate it. It's reported to have THE best fish tacos anywhere. It was the fish tacos we were after, till we got there and got sidetracked with the other menu items. The bacon-wrapped crab-stuffed shrimp just sounded too good, as did the grilled salmon. There were no disappointments here. The ambience and food will be bringing us all back. Expect to pay $15-$20 per entree and that will include two sides. A delightful mesculin mix salad with house balsamic dressing counts as one side and you can have vegetables, potatoes, fries or coleslaw for the other. Fish tacos are about $6 each and you can pick from cod, halibut, salmon, shrimp, eel and crab. Though we didn't try any Portuguese dishes, we noticed several on the menu, and there's always next time.