What intrigues them

Posted: January 1st, 2016 | Communities, Food & Drink, Top Story | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr.

Chefs, restaurateurs share their dining preferences

Forget the notion that chefs and restaurateurs who work 60-plus hours a week never have time to indulge in San Diego’s teeming culinary scene. Though perhaps not as frequently as the people they feed, and rarely on weekend nights, it’s practically an industry requirement they break away for meals presented by their competitors and colleagues.

With their discerning palates always in high gear, we asked several movers and shakers in the business what dish sent them over the moon in 2015, and what restaurant they haven’t yet visited that sits at the top of their bucket list for the year ahead.

Stephen Gage (Photo by Rob Forsythe)

Stephen Gage (Photo by Rob Forsythe)

Stephen Gage, executive chef at Underbelly II
3000 Upas St., North Park

Favorite dish: “For sure it was the clam chowder fries at Ironside Fish & Oyster. I call it ‘the fat kid’s dream.’ It’s much like poutine, but with thick clam chowder poured over the fries — a straightforward appetizer that’s very satisfying and filling.”

Must try: “A good friend of mine, Davin Waite, will be opening a small noodle shop in Oceanside right next door to his other restaurant, Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub. He’s very talented and always thinks outside the box so I’m super excited to try the food at his new place.”

Lety Gonzalez (Courtesy of Alternative Strategies)

Lety Gonzalez
(Courtesy of Alternative Strategies)

Lety Gonzalez, head chef at Uptown Tavern
1236 University Ave., Hillcrest

Favorite dish: “I can’t stop thinking about the Scotch egg I had at Soda & Swine’s newest location in Liberty Station. It was perfectly soft boiled and wrapped in chorizo and panko crumbs. I’ve had Scotch eggs in other places, but this one melted in my mouth and I didn’t even need the aioli served on the side.”

Must try: “I’ve never had the opportunity yet to try Solare Ristorante in Liberty Station. They have an authentic Italian chef who I follow on Facebook and Instagram. He goes to all his purveyors every day for fresh ingredients.”

Sam Khorish (Courtesy of Heat Bar & Kitchen)

Sam Khorish (Courtesy of Heat Bar & Kitchen)

Sam Khorish, co-owner of Heat Bar & Kitchen
3797 Park Blvd., Hillcrest/North Park border

Favorite dish: “After living here for 20 years I finally went to Bronx Pizza for the first time, and the thin crust blew the socks off my feet. I got their white pizza with ricotta, basil and olive oil, and another one that I customized with tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni and jalapenos. That’s the one I still go back and get. It’s the best pie in town.”

Must try: “I’ve been dying to go to Chef Patrick Ponsaty’s restaurant in Escondido called Belamy’s. He won the ‘Master Chef’ title in France last year, and I had his food at Lowe’s Coronado when he worked there, and loved it.”

Molly Brooks-Thornton (Courtesy of Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant)

Molly Brooks-Thornton
(Courtesy of Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant)

Molly Brooks-Thornton, general manager and sommelier at Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant
2202 Fourth Ave., Bankers Hill

Favorite dish: “It was the Tiger Bomb brunch sandwich at Tiger! Tiger! It’s made with pork belly, arugula, Gruyere, a sunny-side egg and aioli — a great way to start the day, and it makes more sense to me than a pastry because it has all the major food groups in it.”

Must try: “Since I’m becoming more of a connoisseur of ramen, I plan on going to Izakaya Masa in Mission Hills. It’s the first thing out of people’s mouths when you ask them where the best place to go is for ramen and Japanese cuisine in general. They’re also open late, which is important when you work in the restaurant industry.”

Johan Engman (Courtesy of Rise & Shine Restaurant Group)

Johan Engman
(Courtesy of Rise & Shine Restaurant Group)

Johan Engman, owner of Breakfast Republic and Fig Tree Cafe
2730 University Ave., North Park
416 University Ave., Hillcrest
with additional Fig Tree locations in Pacific Beach and Liberty Station

Favorite dish: “The brisket with the house sauce at Brazen BBQ was the most amazing thing I had last year. I don’t know how exactly they make it taste so good, but I’ve been back a couple more times for it.”

Must try: “I’ve been hearing from industry people with very good palates about the Wine Vault & Bistro on India Street. It sounds like they always come up with new menus paired with wines, and I’m a big fan of that.”

Hanna Tesfamichael (Courtesy of Hanna’s Gourmet)

Hanna Tesfamichael
(Courtesy of Hanna’s Gourmet)

Hanna Tesfamichael, chef-owner of Hanna’s Gourmet
2864 Adams Ave., Normal Heights

Favorite dish: “A humble, but memorable meal I had last year was at Zimology 21 in the Gaslamp Quarter. Their chicken and waffle is to die for. The waffle was very light, and the chicken was moist inside with the perfect crunch outside.”

Must try: “The next restaurant on my list is Meze Downtown. I’ve looked at their menu and see they put twists on traditional Greek food with untraditional ingredients, which is my kind of thing.”

Russell Rummer, executive chef at Croce’s Park West
2760 Fifth Ave., Bankers Hill

Russell Rummer (Courtesy of Bay Bird)

Russell Rummer (Courtesy of Bay Bird)

Favorite dish: “It was the char-grilled Akaushi ribeye at Island Prime, which was one of the best steaks I think I ever had in my life. It literally melted in your mouth.”

Must try: “What I am most excited to try is Richard Blais’ Crack Shack. I can’t wait to see the combination of his fine-dining training in a fast, casual atmosphere. And I love chicken with eggs!”

—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. You can reach him at

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