Chef JC Colón of Hotel Republic shares his favorite SD eats to help us savor the city.
t’s a well-established rule that if you want to know where to find the best places to eat in a new location, you should ask a local. Even if I believe I know a city well, a local will be sure to send me to some amazing spots that may have passed under my culinary radar. The added bonus of the business in which I work is that, more often than not, those locals happen to be chefs.
I confirmed this rule once again on a recent trip to San Diego. Although I’ve visited on a few occasions, I would never claim to have anything but the most passing knowledge about its food scene. So I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with Chef JC Colón of the Hotel Republic, a recently renovated boutique hotel in the rapidly redeveloping area of downtown San Diego. My wife and I planned to meet Colón at noon in the lobby on the Saturday of our weekend visit. However, we were instructed that if we wanted to experience something really special before then, we should prepare for a morning start and head toward San Diego’s harbor, so we did just that.
The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is a pop-up fisherman’s market that opened in 2014. Situated on a short pier near Seaport Village and close to the USS Midway Museum, it officially opens to the public at 8 a.m. However, the locals caught on quickly and now arrive long before the designated opening time. By the time we arrived a few minutes after 8 a.m., the small market was already jam-packed, with long lines at each of the stalls. The crowd was quite a mixture: chefs looking to select fish for a daily special, whole families reflecting the diversity of San Diego and who showed their keen eye for fresh fish, and a selection of tourists like ourselves.
At each of the stalls, the fresh catch was displayed on ice, including opah, skipjack, red mullet, mahi-mahi, swordfish, thresher shark and wahoo — offerings you might never see in your supermarket. Next to the fish, in large glass tanks, were spot prawns from San Nicolas Island, fat spiny crabs and locally caught live sea urchin.
There are many benefits to staying in a smart hotel when traveling, but one of the great disappointments for those who love to cook is that when visiting a market such as this, you have to look on in envy as others choose from the superb local supply and discuss what they’ll do with their catch when they get home. Fortunately, two food stalls had set up shop to prepare fish from the market for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to indulge.
Loaf and Fish offered tacos and sandwiches made of the opah and thresher shark, grilled to order. Island Life Foods took inspiration from Hawaii and served up rice bowls consisting of plain or spicy tuna poke, topped off with a fresh sea urchin, which was expertly opened at the back of the stall. We sampled the goodies from both vendors and spent the next hour contentedly wandering up and down the pier until the crowd thinned as the fish supplies dwindled. The market was supposed to remain open until 1 p.m., but by 10 a.m., the action was pretty much over.
Back at Hotel Republic, Chef and his colleague, John Ricklefs, the director of food and beverages, had been planning the perfect way for us to enjoy a lovely San Diego afternoon. “Time to go and eat seafood and drink pink bubbles,” Ricklefs announced, as they pointed us toward the door and asked if we minded a short walk before lunch. After about 20 minutes of gentle strolling, we found ourselves in Little Italy, one of the oldest districts in San Diego and once home to nearly 6,000 Italian families who had arrived in the city in the 1920s to support its once-thriving tuna industry. With the decline in tuna fishing, Little Italy had, in turn, suffered a sharp decline of its own. In recent years, however, it has begun to thrive again. New restaurants complement the old-school Italian places that had been there for generations. Little Italy now also plays host to one of San Diego’s most popular attractions on Saturdays, the sprawling Little Italy Farmers Mercato.
Our guides’ restaurant of choice, Ironside Fish & Oyster, was close to the mercato (a farmers market), and the outside seating proved to be perfect for people-watching. “It’s where we like to come on our day off,” Chef explained. As we sat on the shaded patio eating fresh grilled fish and seafood — some straight from the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market — and working through a couple of bottles of chilled sparkling rosé, I understood why this is a popular hangout.
We stayed at our table for nearly four hours. The wine was excellent, the food even better, and the conversation with our new chums better still. But if we thought our lunch at Ironside Fish & Oyster signaled the end of our eating adventure, we were mistaken. People in the hospitality industry don’t think like that.
During our extended lunch, the conversation had turned to the important matter of tacos. San Diego, being so close to the border with Mexico, naturally lays claim to some of the best. Our new friends’ favorites were to be found at Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista, the second-largest city in the San Diego metropolitan area. So we hopped in a car and rode the 10 miles south of downtown in search of a topped tortilla.
Once there, we joined a long line and were told the wait for the house specialty of Tacos Adobada (pork marinated in red chiles, vinegar and oregano) would be around 40 minutes. That’s a heck of a long time for a man my age to wait in line for anything, let alone a taco. As soon as the line ahead of us shortened enough for us to enter the taqueria, however, the smell and sight of the glistening red pork meat rotating on its vertical spit were enough to confirm that the wait would be worthwhile.
By the time we received our heaving tray of tacos, there was not a seat left in the restaurant. Never to be brought down by such minor matters, we headed through the door, found a sill on an outside window and lined up our tacos for an impromptu picnic. The folds were every bit as good as Colón and Ricklefs had promised. What had taken nearly an hour to prepare ended up being devoured in a little over five minutes. We were soon back in the car, wiping our lips and burping adobada fumes without embarrassment as we headed back to the city, where Colón and Ricklefs had arranged one more surprise for us at another favorite downtown spot, The Lion’s Share, a highly regarded restaurant and cocktail bar.
Despite being exhausted by our early start and filled almost to capacity with seafood and pork tacos, the well-made cocktails and small plates prepared by Chef Johnny Dolan were hard to resist. My wife and I found ourselves ending the evening fighting over a plate of confit duck wings in buffalo sauce. Then we said goodbye to our new friends, and my wife and I waddled slowly back to the hotel.
I had asked Colón and Ricklefs to show us a side of San Diego’s food scene that might be missed by regular tourists. By the tightness of my trouser belt, there was very little doubt that they had succeeded beyond expectations. As I said, if you want to find the best places to eat in a city, ask a local. But if that local happens to be a chef, pack some running pants.