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COAST BUSTERS

I haven't visited San Diego in a long time, not since I was a little girl. The zoo is what I remember most about the trip, the children's section in particular. Color slides from the family archives substantiate my memories. Lights, please?

Slide one. Here I am, four years old, pixie haircut, impish grin, standing in the goat-and-tortoise exhibit.

Slide two. I attempt conversation with a tortoise. Behind me, the goats begin their approach. Notice how they seem mesmerized by the pompom trim dangling from my summer top.

Slide three. You can't see much of me in this one. I'm totally besieged by nanny goats nibbling my midriff. My family insists I'm still laughing at this point, but I can only take their word for it, since this is the last slide. My guess is they stopped photographing when my giggles escalated to shrieks.

Lights?
I ask you, could there be any more conclusive evidence of direct psychological cause and effect between early childhood experience and later adult behavior? In light of this traumatic "goat incident," can you possibly call it coincidence that I nibble for a living and have a dining accomplice called Goat?

I didn't think so. It makes sense, then, that I ask Goat to accompany me on my first jaunt to San Diego in three decades. It seems only fitting. Goat is mucho fun on a road trip, and besides, he's sort of permanently on vacation at the moment.

Our stay will extend for five nights, overlapping the Fourth of July at the neon-new Pan Pacific hotel. My working plan is to explore the "alternative" side of San Diego dining--the side Arizonans rarely see in print.

Right up front, I'll admit I have preconceived notions about the quality of dining in San Diego. Since California's second-largest city is such a popular vacation spot for Valley residents, I expect it to be very white-bread, eatingwise. You know, Franchise City.

I am dead wrong.
No sooner do I peruse the Yellow Pages in our hotel room than I realize San Diego is much more than Phoenix-by-the-Sea. Why, it looks to be a veritable melting pot of ethnically diverse influences; an eater's paradise! I'm wrong about that, too, of course.

San Diego dining has its ups and downs, just like any other city. We have some good meals and some not-so-good meals. Fortunately, we hit a roll in the beginning, with two great meals back to back. I'll tell you about those in detail, and summarize my epicurean disappointments at the end. Whatever you do, do not miss the opportunity to eat Ethiopian food, Ethiopian-style, at Blue Nile Restaurant. What a trip! We're talking no utensils here, a fact I let Goat grok for himself. "Oh, no," he says, panicked. "Aren't they gonna bring us any silverware?" No, they're not, which makes this meal all the more charming, I think.

In terms of ambiance, Blue Nile lies somewhere between Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe and a funky coffee house. The decor is modest but comfortable. A wooden trellis over the center of the square room creates an intimate feeling. Seated in our booth behind a curtain of brown and tan wood beads, we have privacy but do not feel closed off.

The patrons here are eclectic and include Ethiopian expatriates, middle-aged couples and women with babies. The service is decent. The vibes are good. The food is even better.

Our samosa appetizers are deep-fried pastry triangles filled with either mildly spiced lentils or spicy ground beef. They are very good and very hot. We have no trouble eating them sans fork and knife. They are the perfect self-contained finger food.

Our main course is more daunting. It is an altar of food, a feast for the eyes and imagination. Our waitress brings us a large shallow bowl, eighteen inches across. It is lined with injera, a thin, spongy unleavened bread, like a cross between a tortilla and a crepe, that's made from teff, or millet flour. Arranged in piles on the injera's surface are our salads, our cooked vegetables and our entrees.

Additional injera, cut and rolled, is served in an attractive coil-weave basket. These pieces of traditional Ethiopian bread will transport food from platter to mouths. Actually, it's not too difficult. I learn by watching other diners, and Goat, who is dismayed at first, learns from me.

This is how you do it: 1) Unroll some injera and rip off a small piece; 2) grab some spicy meat and salad with the injera in the same way you'd pick up a doughnut with a sheet of waxed paper; 3) pop the whole thing into your mouth and enjoy. This is an ingenious and ecological approach to eating if ever there was one. Our two entrees are quite different from each other. Koulwa resembles an African version of fajitas without the sizzle: small morsels of beef grilled with green pepper, onion and tomato. Some of the beef is a bit chewy, but I would still recommend this dish, especially for novices at nonutensiled eating. It's easy to manage.  

Doro wat is more problematic. It consists of one small chicken leg and one hard-boiled egg in a spicy berbere sauce as dark as Indian curry and as thick as mango pickle. Goat picks up the leg and eats it with his fingers. I break the egg into pieces, dip it in the sauce and consume it wrapped in injera. I'm glad have we ordered the salad of tomatoes, jalapenos and onions. Goat and I scoop it up and use it like fresh salsa, though Ethiopian food is plenty spicy to begin with. When we need to dampen the burn, we attack the complimentary salad of cool, crisp lettuce in the center of our platter. The obvious downside of using bread as your utensil is that you end up eating a lot of it. Injera is relatively tasteless, but filling. I think it expands in your stomach. Though we are very hungry and everything tastes great, we eat and eat without seeming to make a dent in the repast before us.

Which is too bad, because the best part of the meal comes at the very end, when everything is gone save the big piece of spongy bread lining the serving platter. While I'm finishing off the tomato-onion salad, I discover that the dressing-soaked injera beneath it is quite wonderful.

The best way to finish your meal is with fresh-ground, brewed-to-order Ethiopian coffee, served in a delicate black ceramic coffee pitcher and sipped from a small, handleless cup. The coffee is strong but not bitter. It needs no sweeteners and is best consumed black.

Utensils or no utensils, Goat and I are very happy with our dinner at Blue Nile. When next in San Diego, I plan to return.

If I lived in San Diego, I do not doubt that I would also be a frequent customer of Pho Hoa. Located on El Cajon Boulevard in a commercial area thick with Southeast Asian businesses, this Vietnamese restaurant is unlike any in Phoenix at present. It is a "pho-ateria," an eatery totally devoted to serving beef-and-rice-noodle soup.

Pho is a comfy concoction of beef and rice vermicelli suspended in a light beef broth flavored with cilantro and spring onion. To this, the eater adds his or her choice of fresh bean sprouts, thai (purple) basil, a squeeze of lime, sliced jalapeno and fresh mint leaves. Pho can be consumed any time of day, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

At Pho Hoa, the making and serving of this multipurpose soup has been refined from an art to a science. The center of the spacious restaurant is filled with long cafeteria tables; smaller tables line its perimeter. Within reach of every diner is a condiment and implement station holding soup spoons, chopsticks, Sriracha chili and fish sauces, napkins, ashtray and toothpicks.

When we visit on Independence Day morning, the restaurant is a bustling, hustling place. Every table is packed with pho devotees, sipping and slurping away. Most of the customers are Vietnamese, but our presence doesn't shock anyone. We are seated immediately, our table bused and cleaned with incredible efficiency. Before our order is even taken, a plate of the fresh pho additives--sprouts, basil, lime, mint and jalapeno--is deposited on our table. This is no act of mind reading, simply part of what makes this pho-machine run so smoothly. As nineteen of the twenty menu items are variations of beef-and-rice-noodle soup, there's a pretty good chance one of us will be ordering it. As it turns out, both of us do. I order pho dac biet, a superduper version with several cuts of beef (brisket, flank, steak) as well as tripe. Goat sticks with the tried and true and orders pho tai chin, or well-done steak.

We are not disappointed when our pho arrives. We each receive big steaming bowls of fragrant-smelling broth filled with noodles and beef. The steak in my soup is actually pink, as it should be--a truly impressive accomplishment. We toss in our fresh vegetables and begin to eat in earnest.

During our short wait, I've learned something from the Vietnamese diners around me. Eating pho is a two-utensil process. Your dominant hand holds the chopsticks, the other your spoon. The spoon serves as an intermediary platform for transferring food from bowl to mouth. In fact, broth and noodles are taken in simultaneously from the spoon, hence the resulting sips and slurps. Parties come and go. Places are cleared and set. All the while a mirrored disco ball hangs still above a parquet dance floor covered with tables--remnant of a previous life or current nightlife, I do not know.  

What I do know is that I take thorough delight in my dining experience at Pho Hoa. I feel I have entered another culture, another world, but feel surprisingly at home and safe, completely comfortable. We are treated not as outsiders, but as guests.

Restaurant finds like Blue Nile and Pho Hoa make me like San Diego very much. But that's only half of the story. My "musts-to-avoid" list includes Five Star Thai Cuisine, 816 Broadway, an attractive but highly overrated cafe serving truly mediocre Thai food; Phuong Nam, 540 University Avenue, an upscale Vietnamese eatery trying to pass off its bland Americanized cuisine as authentic; and Vito's Restaurant and Bakery, 1743 India Street, a dirty, cavernous, ghostly, mom-and-pop red-sauce restaurant in San Diego's tiny "Little Italy" district. After a day ogling baby Shamu at Sea World or walking the paths at the zoo, do not--I repeat, do not--waste your money at this trio of culinary losers.

Oh, and mamas? Don't let your babies be nibbled by goats.
Look how I turned out.

Blue Nile Restaurant, 4703 Federal Boulevard, San Diego, 1-619-264-4724. Hours: 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Monday.

Pho Hoa, 4714 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego, 1-619-283-6431. Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

for blue nile

"Oh, no," he says, panicked. "Aren't they gonna bring us any silverware?" No, they're not.

Whatever you do in San Diego, do not miss the opportunity to eat Ethiopian food, Ethiopian-style, at Blue Nile Restaurant.

Our main course is an altar of food, a feast for the eyes and imagination.

for pho hoa

Every table is packed with pho devotees, sipping and slurping away. Most of the customers are Vietnamese.


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