Sam Wells

San Diego Magazine Best Restaurants

From upscale modern Mexican to a hole-in-the-wall Thai spot, food critic Troy Johnson reveals his 10 favorite new eateries of 2015.

By Troy Johnson | Photography by Paul Body, Jaime Fritsch and Sam Wells

This year, Mexican food went high-end. Four-star chefs took over one-star parking lots. A tiny Thai empire expanded. Plenty of notable restaurants opened in San Diego in 2015. Food critic Troy Johnson picks his 10 favorites, and dishes on what makes them so special.

The new face of vegetarian

the “Yo Soy Feliz, ” a tostada with black bean purée and grilled portabello mushrooms, and Mexican coleslaw

America needs to eat less meat, for many, many reasons: chief among them our health and the environment. The problem has always been that vegan restaurants were either culinarily challenged or smelled like questionable hippie hygiene. Not so at L.A. transplant Café Gratitude. The clean, modern restaurant is entirely plant-based (they can’t call it fully vegan, because a few of their dishes use honey), and offers enough standouts that even unrepentant carnivores won’t miss the meat... much. One winner is “Mucho, ” the Mexican bowl with black beans, guac, pico de gallo, nopales, salsa verde, cashew nacho cheese, spicy pepitas, romaine, and sprouted probiotic brown rice. Another is “Warm-Hearted, ” the grilled polenta with braised summer squash, sautéed kale, roasted tomatillo sauce, salsa verde, cashew queso fresco, pepitas, scallions, and cilantro. Sure, it’s a little new-agey. But they’re just serving health food and a positive message, not converting you to worship an alien race. San Diego needs about 30 more healthy, meat-alternative concepts like this. 1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

A sign of progress for the Gaslamp

Chef Daniel Barron has cooked some of the more exciting meals I’ve had in San Diego. He’s bounced around a bit, from Blue Point downtown to La Valencia in La Jolla, and now he has a new home in Blush. With a clean, modern décor (if a bit loud), Blush is technically a cocktail concept—drinks topped with fresh-fruit ice—but Barron’s kitchen makes it more than that. Try his yellowfin tuna poke with blue crab, Aspen Ridge beef, asparagus, and truffle; the crispy miso pork belly; or the lollipop-cut Jidori chicken wings. Barron isn’t afraid of meat, and he’s aging and curing in his kitchen. He’s also serving a foie gras ramen. It’s the most action this corner has had in a long, long time and a good anchor for eastward growth downtown. 555 Market Street, Gaslamp

Four-star food, one-star parking lot

burger with blue cheese and tomato-onion jam

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