By Catharine L. Kaufman (a.k.a. The Kitchen Shrink)

Some of San Diego’s Best Bites

Operating way below its potential for years in San Diego’s centrally located University Town Center area, equidistant from North County and Downtown, the original UTC shopping mall served adequately a growing residential community and expanding business parks for decades, albeit with modest success.

Until this dozing Sleeping Beauty was suddenly shaken awake several years ago by a trio of noteworthy events: Westfield’s acquisition of the mall; the loosening of SoCal’s transportation purse strings that resulted in the investment of a fortune in public transportation—namely, the extension of San Diego’s light rail Trolley to the area, including UCSD’s sprawling campus—and a seemingly unstoppable construction boom that resulted in the creation of a virtual city, with luxury residential towers, commercial enclaves and modern business buildings quickly filling in the spaces around low-rise homes and condominiums.

Simultaneously, the once modest Westfield-UTC mall bloomed into a gorgeous people-place with upscale stores, fashion boutiques, a state of the art movie theatre, ice skating rink, fitness services from gym to yoga and other disciplines, beauty supply stores and an eclectic array of restaurants that are sure to satisfy every preference and taste bud. Wide, beautifully landscaped and art-embellished walks link these together, with comfortable and interestingly varied lounging and sitting furniture providing resting places for the weary.

Being hosted by Westfield management recently enabled me to visit several restaurants, each of which turned out to be more delightful than the last. First was Din Tai Fung—originally founded over 60 years ago by a Taiwanese family in Taipei as a cooking oil retail shop, now a dim sum palace that excites palates around the world with fresh and authentic dishes. The aromas of ginger, seared pork, and hot chilies filled the air as bamboo steamer baskets were brought to the white linen-draped tables. Delicate dough pockets were filled with everything from spicy chicken and Asian vegetables to molten bittersweet chocolate that burst in your mouth with a savory or sweet surprise.

From Far Eastern to Southwestern nibbles, we then strolled to a quaint and fun little bistro touting high quality organic and sustainable modern Mexican fare. Tocaya Organica’s fresh and snappy house guacamole blended with lime pepita and pomegranate seeds, red onion, fresh cilantro and jalapenos, piled on fried plantains just got the party started. The wide choice of salads, bowls, burritos, tacos, and quesadillas would please even the most finicky carnivore or vegan. The taste of Tocaya ended on a sweet note with a Churro Waffle Skewer drizzled with strawberry and hot chocolate sauces—all washed down nicely with a trio of sassy Margaritas—strawberry mint, cilantro lime, and prickly pear. Ole!

Just getting warmed up by now, we headed to a fine and fancy little bottle house with the mythical name of Raised by Wolves, selling vintage and collectible spirits of all kinds—some quite rare and pricy. Tucked behind the retail area and accessible through a hidden wall behind a rotating mahogany fireplace, was a naughty little “speakeasy”-themed bar buzzing with beautiful people enjoying themselves amidst baroque décor. Hardcover-bound books filled floor to ceiling cases, while handsomely framed portraits of wolves and other canine descendants graced the walls. A massive circular bar was the hub of activity as guests indulged in such designer libations as “Penicillin,” a healing blend of scotch, ginger, honey and lemon, “a smoky, spicy, modern classic from the living legend Sam Ross,” or a “Part-Time Lover,” shaking things up with Blanco tequila, mescal, pink peppercorns, and pomegranate juice.

A bit tipsy by now, we ambled just steps away to The Winery, an elegant yet casual restaurant and wine bar with a French twist. As the host graciously offered me a goblet of Martin Ray Rose, and toasted to our good health al fresco with a warm fire pit ablaze, he then proudly mentioned that their grapes are sustainably harvested in the bucolic wineries of Paso Robles along the Salinas River (SIP Certified).  Some fun bites paired with the wine included Alsatian pizza reminiscent of the French countryside topped with smoky Gruyere cheese, caramelized onions, and prosciutto. Pork belly lollipops and spoons of Ahi tuna were finished with another glass of wine, this one perfectly dry with notes of wild strawberry, called “The Boyz,” named after the three partners of the Winery Restaurant—J.C. Clow, William Lewis, and Chef Yvon Goetz, along with head winemaker Kevin Sass who blended the heady concoction.

Starting to get a little full at this point, though still feeling great, we made our way to an oldie but very goodie—True Food Kitchen, inspired by the nutritional philosophy of modern medicine man, Andrew Weil. Equally tasty and healthy dishes based on Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory principles, that evening’s treats included the unbeatablevegan burger made from shredded ruby beets accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts. We ended True Food Kitchen’s fall menu with the restaurant’s seasonal signature dessert: a generous slice of gluten free squash pie with coconut whipped cream topping.

By the time we waddled to Javier’s, our final culinary stop, happy tumult filled the air throughout the mall, along with aromas of sassy empanadas and sopes that reminded me of Rio’s Copa Cabana beachside promenade. Although sated, I could not resist a taste of zesty lime and cilantro ceviche with tender shrimp and scallop, paired with handcrafted chips, and a margarita de casa. I slept like a baby that night.

Putting a cap on this memorable evening, my host surprised me with a beautiful gift basket filled with wine, Godiva chocolates, and other goodies, compliments of the Westfield Management team.


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