San Diegans who want authentic food: Head to the strip mall

It’s an incredibly fun, interesting time to be a foodie. At the cheaper, more pedestrian

It’s an incredibly fun, interesting time to be a foodie.

At the cheaper, more pedestrian level of fast food, there have been striking attempts by some chains to up their game. Last year, Carl’s Jr. began offering a prime rib sandwich that was much juicier and more flavorful than expected. It is no longer available, alas.

Much more famously, in 2019, Popeyes introduced its decadent spicy fried chicken sandwich with a killer first bite, leading to lines around the block. Forbes called it a “phenomenon.” Its intense flavor made Chick-fil-A’s alternative — and those offered at costlier sit-down restaurants — seem bland. Both Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s have since introduced their versions, which are reverse-engineered copies of Popeyes, down to the pickles and type of bread. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness, to quote Oscar Wilde.

Yet some of the most fundamental problems with restaurants persist — though they are probably due to the public’s appetite. Still, it remains perverse to me that in so many versions of pizza, the crude, strong flavors of tomato sauce are dominant, not the potentially far more subtle bread, cheese or toppings.

And as a huge fan of soup, it remains perverse to me how often the dominant flavor is salt — whether one is having New England or Manhattan clam chowder, French onion soup, tomato soup or ramen. Sorry to date myself, but this odd fact always reminds me of the first episode of “Star Trek,” in which the Enterprise crew encountered a deadly salt vampire, which killed people by extracting the salt from their bodies. In the America of 2021, such a vampire would have a target-rich environment.

But such concerns are footnotes to the biggest questions of all: Should the quality of restaurant food be what matters most? How much should ambiance matter? How much should wanting to make the scene and be noticed at a trendy spot matter?

Growing up reading restaurant reviews in The Washington Post, the only raves I remember were about fancy places serving French or Italian cuisine or upscale steakhouses.

It was only after I moved to Los Angeles County in 1990 that I encountered a far more interesting approach. Food critic Jonathan Gold, writing his Counter Intelligence column on and off for LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, felt that, “If the restaurant you have been directed to lies between the 7-Eleven and the dry cleaners in a dusty strip mall, then you’re probably at the right place.” Gold, who died too young at 57 in 2018, believed that the best food was often at ethnic restaurants determined to serve authentic versions of the dishes from the nations where their chefs were born or their families are from.

I quickly concluded he was right. I kept his columns on the passenger seat of my car and nearly every weekend would venture into the San Gabriel Valley to try Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai spots.

Thirty-one years later, I still think he’s right.

At the Japanese restaurant Yakitori Taisho, in a strip mall on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, many of the yakitoris — grilled meat, seafood and vegetables on sticks — make other versions of these foods seem primitive. The steak bites with a dollop of wasabi, the scallops and the pork belly with green onion are superb.

Three blocks away, in another strip mall, is Mongolian Hot Pot, a Chinese restaurant where at their tables, guests cook various meats, seafood, noodles and vegetables in heated broth, both normal and spicy. I prefer combining lamb, rib eye, quail egg and fresh egg noodles, which have a tremendous synergy together. The lush taste has no American analog.

Eleven miles north, in a strip mall in Mira Mesa, is R&B Filipino Cuisine. I have always loved the various superb pork dishes in Filipino food, starting with sisig and lechon kawali, which R&B excels at. But of late I can’t get enough longsilog, a simple but utterly delicious breakfast of garlic rice served with fried eggs. The bonus: R&B serves large portions.

Gold — the only food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize — isn’t the only great critic who gravitated to strip malls. The late Anthony Bourdain, the L.A. Times’ Gustavo Arellano and, locally, Kirk K. are believers, and I thank them all. You can’t eat ambiance.

Reed is deputy editor of the editorial and opinion section. Column archive: Twitter: @calwhine. Email: [email protected]