As I was perusing through another year of Lick the Plate features to highlight in my year-end recap, I was pleasantly reminded of what a fabulous group of restaurants I had the pleasure of experiencing and sharing. Plus, I had the added bonus of one of my best fish stories columns ever and a fun interview with Encinitas Mayor Tony Kranz.
With that I’ll get right into it and share some of my top culinary experiences of 2023, a few fun adventures and a short wish list for 2024.
I’ll start with The Cottage, which transferred some of its La Jolla magic to Encinitas and has been packing them in ever since.
In the same general vicinity on El Camino Real, Mendocino Farms was a sandwich and salad revelation for me. I find myself going out of my way to pick up any one of their chef-driven sandwiches, and their salads are my new favorite.
Heading west to coastal Encinitas, Manna completely blew me away and proved that breakfast can still be original and delightful. The culinary talent in that kitchen, which includes chef-owner Andrew Bachelier and chef de cuisine Marlaw Seraspi. rivals any kitchen in San Diego.
As evidenced by the crowds, the word is out and rightfully so as they are creating the best breakfast/brunch offerings I’ve experienced.
Next I’ll head over to the still kind of funky Leucadia Farmers market, where it had been a long time since a new vendor got me all worked up.
Howard Solomon and his Pastrami Stand did that and then some with his classic Chicago Style hot dogs, pastrami stacked high on perfect rye bread, and matzo ball soup that was healing in its chicken and matzo ball goodness. The word is out on this gem, so my advice is to get there early before he sells out.
My final stop in Encinitas is the return of authentic BBQ with Smoke & Salt located behind The Leucadian bar, featuring the creative culinary touches of chef/owner and longtime Leucadia local Jarle Saupstad.
Heading up to Carlsbad I absolutely loved the whole experience at Lola 55 at The Beacon La Costa shopping center that is also home to the Wise Ox and Shake Shack, all worthy reasons to visit this rejuvenated area.
Mak Mak Organic in Oceanside was one of my favorite dining experiences of the year. Its Asian street food dishes were inspired by chef-owner James Limjoco’s global travels. Trust me on this one, it’s all that and then some.
Brine Box, which sits at the end of the historic Oceanside Pier, nearly a half-mile out to sea, is the latest hit from proprietors Jessica and Davin Waite and chef de cuisine Rachel Hurley. They are sourcing locally and sustainably from purveyors like our now-famous fishmonger Tommy Gomes, which makes the Brine Box experience even more local…and worth supporting.
Not far from Brine Box is the Q&A Restaurant and Oyster Bar in downtown Oceanside. It’s part of the Brick Hotel, Frankie’s Oceanside cocktail bar and Coco Cabana, a rooftop tropical cocktail bar, all from Grind & Prosper Hospitality.
Q&A is derived from culinary director Quinnton “Q” Austin and is the North County extension of the Louisiana Purchase in North Park. As a big fan of oysters, I found them to be among the best in the area.
Allmine in Oceanside was a recent feature, and the experience is still ingrained in my culinary memory. It’s an all-scratch kitchen and the culmination of a career in hospitality for owner Roxana Pavel, a talented and delightful woman who hails from a remote village in the mountains of Romania where scratch cooking was the norm. Again, please take my word on this one.
On the fun feature side of Lick the Plate, I had a great conversation with Encinitas Mayor Tony Kranz, who had the good fortune of growing up in Encinitas and experienced its culinary revolution firsthand.
I also mourned the losses of Karina’s, Chinatown and A Little Moore, which still sits empty over six months since it closed. I won’t even get into that frustration.
All that said, one of the highlights of the year was my annual “Fish Stories” feature that literally fell into my lap while watching sunset at Beacon’s, a beautiful nightly happening with a great mix of locals and tourists.
I heard a sound I was familiar with, like a large fish hitting the deck of a boat, or in this case, the pavement behind me. I turned around to see Danny Sheehan, a 15-year-old student at Coastal Academy, holding a massive 40-pound yellowtail he had just speared in the kelp beds. I thought, “Well, hot damn, here is my fish story!” With that, Danny shared his epic adventure and some of the resulting meals his family prepared.
I’ll wrap this up with two simple requests for 2024 for the many restaurateurs I’ve met over the years.
The first is a traditional Sonoran-style bacon-wrapped hot dog with stewed beans, tomatoes, onions, poblano lime cream, salsa verde, queso fresco, guacamole and cilantro. This beauty can work on just about any menu and I’ve not found one like this anywhere in North County.
The second is a simple, classic Cuban sandwich with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard on Cuban-style bread melted together with a panini press. I’ve found some fancy variations on a Cuban, but fancy is not necessarily an improvement on this classic sandwich.
And if I’m missing out on either of these I would welcome a message to fill me in.
And here is to another year of culinary goodness in 2024!