By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was one of last year’s most surprising dining developments, in which Thai restaurateur Su-Mei Yu of the long-established Saffron in Mission Hills partnered with Karina’s Group, which owns several Mexican seafood restaurants throughout San Diego County.
The result was a walk-up window named Karina’s Ceviche & More. The venture replaced Yu’s famous (and diminutive) rotisserie chicken shop that she ran next door to Saffron on India Street for more than two decades. Yu kept Saffron and remodeled it around the time Karina’s came along.
Patrons of Karina’s can consume their ceviches, seafood cocktails, tacos or burritos in Saffron’s indoor-outdoor dining sections. Or they can seize a stool along a two-tiered outdoor-seating area just to the right of Karina’s. When the food is ready, it’s delivered to wherever you chose to sit.
The popular “ceviche Karina’s” requires two stomachs to fully consume if you order it in plate form for $10. The other option is more doable, served on a tostada for $4. Either way, the very-green construct is a commingling of lime-marinated shrimp cloaked in avocado, cucumber, cilantro and Serrano chili sauce. It tasted bright, fresh and dramatically tangy.
On my most recent visit, we skipped the ceviches and gravitated to the “more,” starting with tuna sashimi arranged prettily in some seriously sweet mango puree. Not even the accompanying soy-jalapeño sauce or the fresh jalapeños perched atop each rectangular piece of gorgeous fish could tone down the cloying aspect of the dish. One piece was enough for me, although my sweet-tooth companion relished every bite.
From the taco offerings, we ordered grilled cod, lobster and surf and turf (shrimp and steak). All three were street-size beauties with exceptional flavor. The meat in the lobster taco ($5) was particularly luxurious — tender, sweet and abundant although overly bathed in what an employee described as a “spiced cream cheese sauce.” Half the amount of this velvety condiment would have been super.
Glistening, ruby-red ahi poke on a crispy tostada shell proved tasty with the enhancements of pickled red onions, cilantro and a judicious application of spicy mayo. It’s listed among the regional Mexican ceviches, which include various combinations of shrimp, octopus, white fish and ahi “cooked” in lime juice and strewn with peppers and other veggies.
Yu’s mouthwatering rotisserie chicken appears in burritos on Karina’s menu. They’re also available whole or in parts at Saffron next door, where you can essentially blanket your table with a cross-cultural feast of tofu salad rolls, pad Thai noodles, Mexican ceviches, Baja-style tacos and the crispy-skinned birds.
The closest we came to crossing international lines was by adding a chicken burrito to our lineup. But did it fall into the Mexican or Thai ballpark? We weren’t sure.
It encased a mix of juicy white and dark meat swaddled in tomatoes and shredded lettuce. But the elusive Thai spices I came to appreciate on these chickens over the years were lost in the translation. Actually, without the support of Karina’s kicky hot salsa, the burrito was rather bland.
At the walk-up, I’ll stick to the ceviches, poke and seafood tacos. Sure, they’re everywhere nowadays but not always boasting such decent quality, particularly when presented this casually in paper baskets and with plastic utensils.
As you’ll see if choosing to dine on Saffron’s property, the partnership with Karina’s is a win-win strategy for both businesses because customers come in direct eye shot with the tempting cuisine from each kitchen. Only here have I ever lusted over a bowl of tom yum soup kissed with hot chili peppers while sinking my choppers into a marvelously snappy ceviche.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.