Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A New Day and a New Time for The Gourmet Club

The Gourmet Club now meets on Wednesday mornings at 11 a.m. Pacific on signonradio.

This week, our in-studio guest is Chef Bernard Guillas of The Marine Room. We'll talk about what's new with the restaurant and some of his interesting products, like his line of fennel pollen, which I discovered at the Fancy Food Show in town last January (try the "Divine Desserts" spice blend for baking).

Mike Mitchell of The Oceanaire will be calling in with "The Mitchell Report" and fill us in on his latest local cooler than cool dining experience.

Ron James will be off this week, but join Robert Whitley, Maureen Clancy and me for good conversation about food and wine on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon Pacific on signonradio.com -- or podcast the show to listen at your convenience.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

The Gourmet Club: Things Change...

Well, scratch Peter Rowe and Vegas high-roller eating.

Instead, we'll be talking to Alberto Cortes, executive director of Mama's Kitchen. They're holding their big Mama's Day fundraiser at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla on May 9. Mama's Kitchen delivers nutritional meals, free of charge, to those with AIDS and other critical illnesses. We'll talk to Cortes about how the program works and what restaurants will be participating in the event.

Join us today at 1 p.m. Pacific at signonradio.com or podcast the show later. Next week, we air at our new day and time, Wednesday at 11 a.m. Pacific. Chef Bernard Guillas of The Marine Room is set to join us in studio.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Doubling Down on Dining in Vegas

Do you have to be a high roller to eat well in Las Vegas? San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Peter Rowe just returned from cruising celebrity chef dining rooms on the Strip--everyone from Charlie Trotter's Restaurant Charlie to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Carnevino. He'll be in studio with us on The Gourmet Club to give us an idea of how much of your winnings you need to fork over for a "name" dinner.


Also joining us this week is food writer Maureen Clancy to chat about asparagus, everyone's favorite spring veggie.

And, we'll chat about Bravo's Top Chef with Brian Malarkey. Who bit the culinary dust this week? Well, let's just say our first Top Chef couple is now reunited. Brian, who is executive chef at Oceanaire, will give us his take on what happened, which you can also find on his Bravo blog. And, Mike Mitchell, Oceanaire's general manager, will be on to talk about new restaurants with us.

Join The Gourmet Club online on Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Pacific on signonradio.com. Or podcast the show and listen at your convenience.


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My Piece on Eclipse Chocolat Runs in Today's U-T

Last January I wrote an entry on Will Gustwiller's wondrous place in University Heights, Eclipse Chocolat. It led to an appearance by both of us on KPBS's "These Days" and a request from the San Diego Union-Tribune's food editor to write it up as a cafe experience.

Which, of course, I did.

The story appears today on page 31 in the weekly Night & Day section.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Cupcakes Squared: Dessert Gets Personal in Pt. Loma

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been more or less flat on my back, thanks to an inflamed sciatic nerve. So, it had to take something special to get me up and moving last week. It came in the form of an email announcing the opening of a new bakery in Point Loma making, of all things, square cupcakes.

As soon as I could, I headed over to Cupcakes Squared, an 800-square-foot shop on Voltaire, next door to Stumps market. I got there when the bakery opened at 11 a.m. and for the next hour there was a steady flow of people stopping in to buy treats for themselves.

Cupcakes Squared is owned and run by Robin Wisotsky, a graphic designer of 25 years who catered her way through her training at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She spent years as a personal chef, learning her skills from a friend who was an L.A. restaurateur and with whom she partnered. “I’m really more of a chef than a baker,” she says, “but that background has given me the confidence to try new ingredients.”

Wisotsky is by no means the first to come up with the idea of a cupcake bakery, but she may just be the first to have created square ones, a strategy to set her pastries apart without getting goofy about colors and toppings. But it required her to find molds that would suit the purpose. Ultimately she had to have them custom fabricated, along with custom papers that she designed. The cupcakes, at just over two square inches, are elegant and have the advantage that they travel without toppling over and can be set together to create the illusion of a sheet cake.


Currently, there are about 20 flavors in rotation with up to eight being offered daily. When I was there, she was setting out her three regulars—Chocolate2, a French chocolate with chocolate buttercream frosting laced with a hint of orange oil, Vanilla2, Hawaiian vanilla with vanilla buttercream frosting and Red Velvet, a cocoa and vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting—as well as Coconut Lime, Lilikoi, Mocha and Lemon White Chocolate. Astonishingly, she’s baking 600 a day and selling out by evening.

Coconut Lime

The cakes are moist and sing with flavor from impeccable ingredients, like rich Vermont butter, Cacao Barry chocolate (which just merged with Callebaut) and astoundingly fragrant Hawaiian vanilla beans, which she buys from a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. After six months of recipe development and testing, she also decided to cut back on the amount of sugar she uses to further emphasize the flavors. Toppings are kept to a minimum. An espresso bean for the Mocha cupcakes, freshly toasted flakes of coconut and a sprinkling of lime zest for the Coconut Lime cupcake and a light finish of tiny walnut pieces for the Red Velvet.


Perhaps the most decadent cupcake I sampled that morning was a surprise Chocolate Peanut Butter cupcake she brought out, still warm from the oven.

Chocolate Peanut Butter

The chocolate cake was sumptuous but the frosting was even more extraordinary, molten peanut butter-flavored buttercream of such a richly sensuous texture and flavor that it seemed unrelated to any peanut butter of childhood.

If I have one complaint, it’s that the Lilikoi is not a great success. This is a vanilla cupcake with passion fruit buttercream frosting. I struggled but couldn’t tease out any passion fruit flavor, which should be pretty distinctive. The cupcake tasted perfectly good, but wasn’t the flavor advertised. So, before you order it, see if you can get a taste to make sure that particular flavor sparkles.

The bakery is just that, not a café, although Wisotsky does have coffee, tea, water, milk and soy milk for sale. And, if you’re craving only the gooey stuff, you can buy “icing shots.”

Cupcakes Squared is located at 3772 Voltaire St. in Point Loma.

Have some thoughts about Cupcakes Squared or other bakeries in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

So, Who is This General Tso Anyway?

And where do fortune cookies come from? We'll find out all this and so much more when we talk with New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee. Her new book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, addresses these and other mysteries surrounding Chinese food. The book is a great read and Lee's research will surprise many readers who probably never even stop to think about the places and people involved in keeping them happily fed.

Joining us this week in studio is food writer Maureen Clancy. She's just returned from Boston, where she tried Clover-made coffee. The machine, which I wrote about when I covered Caffe Calabria, makes an espresso-like drink with a French-press technique. Starbucks just bought the company that makes them -- putting Caffe Calabria in a difficult position since they bought a machine last spring. *

And, we'll chat about Bravo's Top Chef with Brian Malarkey. This week, Ryan had to pack his knives. Good decision? I kind of think super slob and double soup spoon dipper Mark should have been booted off myself. Bad attitude versus unsanitary behavior? No contest in my opinion but Brian, who is executive chef at Oceanaire, will share his thoughts, which you can also find on his Bravo blog. And, Mike Mitchell, Oceanaire's general manager, will be on to talk about new restaurants with us.

This time Robert's away this week, so it'll be Ron James and I sharing hosting duties. Join us on online on Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Pacific on signonradio.com. Or podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

*Earlier I had written that Maureen was going to be talking about salads -- it was a miscommunication. Clover -- salads. Well, it happens ;)

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Earth Month and the Markets

April 22 is the 38th annual Earth Day, but lots of organizations have declared April "Earth Month" and are finding ways to draw attention to more sustainable living and eating.

At Henry's Farmers Markets, you can save money on over 100 organic products on sale from Wednesday, April 16 to Wednesday, April 30.

Janet Little, Henry's nutritionist, is going to offer a couple of seminars on "Raising Your Organic IQ." This is hugely helpful for those of us who want to go organic but can't afford to do it completely. Janet will provide information on the items grown with the least amount of harmful chemicals and tips for buying healthy alternatives.

I recently did a story on this for a newsletter I write and learned that prioritizing can be done without feeling like your head is going to explode. For instance, berries tend to be very high in pesticides, so this is where you can get a lot of value in buying organic. On the other hand, if you're weighing the difference between buying a conventional or organic avocado, the thick skin and the fact that avocados may not require as many pesticides to produce means there may not be as great a health value in buying organic.

An issue for parents, according to
Urvashi Rangan, project director of Consumer Reports’ Greenerchoices.org and an environmental health scientist, is that studies have shown that incorporating organic food in your children's diet can make a difference in lowering the amount of pesticide residue in the body. Pesticides are neurotoxins and when they build up, even at low levels, it can affect a child's developing brain and neurosystem.

Janet Little's seminars will be held on April 16 at 11 a.m. at the Henry's in Oceanside and the next day, also at 11 a.m., in the Carlsbad store. If you can't get enough info or can't make her talks, check out her blog.

OB People's Organic Food Market, not surprisingly, considers every day Earth Day. But, they do have some special ways of marking Earth Day. Shoppers will get five percent off all purchases from the Bulk Department. You can buy their natural canvas shopping bags at cost. And, you can enter a drawing to win a Schwinn Clear Creek Comfort bicycle. Kids can get into the fun as well. Stop by and pick up a black paper grocery bag and color it with an Earth Day message. Bring it back to the market and get a prize.

Visit the Whole Foods booth at the Earth Fair in Balboa Park on Sunday, April 20. On Monday, April 21, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Hillcrest store will have the Conscious Goods Veggie Bus (yep, it's even powered by veggie oil). This eco show–room offers an interactive experience, telling how small, organic family farms work synergistically with a group of socially conscious vendors. Tuesday will be the La Jolla store's turn -- sometime around 12:30.

Finally -- while this isn't Earth Day specific, it is a farmers market, which to my mind is close enough -- the Carlsbad Village Farmers Market is holding its annual strawberry festival on Wednesday, April 16 from 1 to 5 p.m. and Saturday, April 19 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. We're talking strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, strawberry smoothies, chocolate-covered strawberries, strawberry cheesecake and, of course, sumptuous, juicy naked strawberries. The market is held in Carlsbad Village at 2930 Roosevelt St. in the public parking lot between Carlsbad Village Dr. and Grand Ave.

If anyone has other Earth Month/Day-related market events to report, let me know!

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Farm House Cafe's Olivier Bioteau on the Gourmet Club

We overflow with great guests today. Olivier Bioteau, chef/owner of the new Farm House Cafe in University Heights will also be joining us in studio.

Chef Bioteau opened the Adams Ave. restaurant after a six-year stint as a private chef in Rancho Santa Fe. But some will recognize him from the long list of restaurants he's cooked at -- The University Club, Vignola, Crescent Shores Grill and French Side of the West. Originally from the France's Loire Valley, Bioteau was classically trained in France and is a certified chocolatier.

Join Robert Whitley and me today (Ron is off) for the Gourmet Club at 1 p.m. Pacific on signonradio.com.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Gourmet Club Goes to Sea

Put on your waders and grab a net. The Gourmet Club's doing seafood, and not just any seafood but New Orleans seafood.

Ralph Brennan, a third-generation restaurateur, owns and operates Ralph's on the Park, Red Fish Grill and Bacco in New Orleans, as well as Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in the Downtown Disney District of the Disneyland Resort.

He'll be with us on Friday's show to talk about what's going on in New Orleans and his gorgeous new cookbook, Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook.

Crawfish spring roll with roasted corn relish and chile-garlic sauce

Want to know how to prepare crawfish, alligator and turtle? You'll learn in marvelous detail, but the book is also filled with recipes for traditional dishes like Maque-Choux (a sweet corn side dish) and more contemporary twists on the traditional like Crabmeat and Eggplant "Cannelloni" (the eggplant replaces traditional pasta tubes). And there's a wonderful selection of dessert recipes, like Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie and Praline Bread Pudding. Plus, you'll find a very helpful seafood cook's manual, a glossary of Creole and Acadian food terms and an ingredients source list.

If you're keeping up with Bravo's Top Chef, you know who had to pack her knives and go home this week. What's Brian Malarkey's take on the decision? Listen in and find out. Brian, who is executive chef at Oceanaire, will be on the show to share his thoughts, which you can also find on his Bravo blog.

Ron's away this week, so it'll be Robert Whitley and I sharing hosting duties. Join us on online on Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Pacific on signonradio.com. Or podcast the show and listen at your convenience.

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Foodstuff Miscellany: Out and About in San Diego

Looking for something interesting and food related to do this spring?

Eat Healthy: This coming Saturday (April 12), a new cable program, Healthy Lifestyles for Kids, will be filming at the Scripps Ranch Farmers Market & Art Festival, beginning at 9 a.m. Take the kids, take the dogs and head on over to EB Scripps Elementary School at 10380 Spring Canyon Rd., just off the I-15 at Scripps Poway Parkway. For more information, go to www.srfm.org.

Treat Mom: Will Gustwiller at Eclipse Chocolat just had another tasting dinner last week. Now, he's planning Mother's Day Brunch with seatings on May 10 and 11 at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. He's already fully booked for the Sunday 1 p.m. seating, so if you want to go, better hurry up and get a space for you and Mom. The menu is on his blog and the cost is $35 a person. Call for reservations at 619-504-5310.

Do Good: Finally, Mama's Day, the 17th annual Mama's Kitchen fundraiser, is coming up on Friday, May 9, at 6:30 at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine. Mama's Kitchen is a non-profit that provides nutritional meals to those in San Diego County with HIV/AIDS and other critical illnesses. If you're a foodie and you care about the well being of others in the community, this is the place to be. Some 70 restaurants will be participating, including Jade Theater, Blanca, Parallel 33, The Marine Room, Rice and George's at the Cove. Last year, Mama's Kitchen provided over 319,000 home-delivered meals to its clients, but federal funding is tight and likely to decrease. This event provides nearly 10 percent of the org's annual budget. Tickets are $125 each and can be purchased by calling 619-233-6262 or ordering online at www.mamaskitchen.org.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Back to the Ballpark on The Gourmet Club

Opening day was this week and the Padres are back swinging. Maureen Clancy, former U-T food writer and critic, will be on The Gourmet Club this week to give us the latest on what some of us think is the best part of going to a game: ballpark food.

We'll also have Mike Mitchell of Oceanaire calling in with his weekly report on new restaurants in town. And, we're going to hear from his Oceanaire colleague, executive chef Brian Malarkey, on the latest installment from Bravo's Top Chef. Brian writes a blog for Bravo, which you can read here.

It's going to be a busy meeting of The Gourmet Club. Join hosts Ron James and Robert Whitley--and me--on Friday at 1 p.m. PDT online on signonradio.com. Or you can podcast it and listen at your convenience.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

El Tigre and Mercado International 2000: Chula Vista’s Culinary Charms

After a childhood of seemingly interminable waiting for my mom in the parking lot of the Encino Gelson’s market, I never thought I’d say this—and she’ll certainly laugh—but some of my most enjoyable days are spent at the grocery store. And if you can find a buddy who enjoys it as much as you, well, how lucky is that? Well, I’m very lucky. Deb Schneider, a wonderful chef and author of Baja! Cooking on the Edge, has become a great pal and we recently spent a fun day roaming from Latin market to Latin market.

Our first stop was Northgate Gonzalez, which Deb hadn’t yet seen. Since I’ve already covered the various gems you can find there, I’ll just move on to our next stop. We headed down to Chula Vista to check out the new El Tigre on Third Ave., which neither of us had been to. Deb is a fan of the older market in Nestor and I’ve been to the one in Escondido, which seemed a bit tired to me. This was before the announcement that Northgate Gonzalez was taking over the El Tigre chain.

This new El Tigre is light and bright with wide aisles, but I actually thought it was so antiseptic it could be any supermarket in San Diego, except that this one happens to sell a lot of Latin American products. And, for some reason they weren’t fully stocked. The produce department, in particular, seemed to be crying out for more, more, more.

However, there were some happy surprises. Their fish department, for example, is filled with lovely fillets of catfish and red snapper, a variety of shrimp and an amazing display of octopus.

They sell campechana del mariscos, a seafood mix of octopus, calamari, fake crab and mussels used for Seven Seas Soup. You can find a good recipe for this in Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. (It’s too long to print here.)

In that same part of the store is the bakery and you’ll find a beautiful display of pastries and bolillos (large sandwich rolls), very similar to what you’d find at Foodland or Northgate Gonzalez.

Pick up an elephant ear, those flaky sugary cookies made from puff pastry, and go over to the in-house coffee bar, D’Volada, for an espresso or latte—made with their own mix of Mexican and Colombian beans—or a calming cup of tea. Try a fresh brew of gorgeous chamomile buds.

On the opposite side of store, alongside the produce department, is an astounding array of dried chiles, corn, beans, lentils and nuts. There were at least a dozen varieties of dried chiles in huge bins. Unfortunately, no chipotles, which Deb needed for a recipe she was testing. Rounding out the selection of dried items, were rows upon rows of dried, packaged herbs, peppers, teas and the like in a rainbow of colors.

Going up and down the aisles, Deb and I found some interesting South American products. I took home a bag of maiz cuzco gigante—giant corn that’s meant for toasting in oil.

This isn’t exactly popcorn, but it does make for an interesting snack. Just heat up a teaspoon or so of vegetable oil in a skillet and add enough corn to cover the bottom of the skillet. Let ‘er rip over the heat, tossing frequently, until the corn kernels are golden brown. Then drain on a paper towel and top with salt or other seasonings. These are the perfect little nosh, but also are nice on a salad.

The giant corn wasn’t the only unexpected item. While heading toward the produce department, Deb and I found ourselves laughing at the display of statuary hovering over the frozen food aisle. Enough said.

Back on the streets, we headed out for the other El Tigre but somehow we got lost. Lucky us. As we drove down Third we noticed a little white market called Mercado International 2000. Since we weren’t making any progress finding the other El Tigre we returned to Third and satisfied our curiosity.

This was a wonderful find. Maybe I like my markets to feel more like a treasure hunt, but I loved Mercado International 2000. It’s small and kind of dark, but festive and packed with lots of interesting items.

One of the first things we did was scour the refrigerated section at the entrance. Deb pulled out a couple of cans of Pulque, hugely excited to see this in a San Diego store. I was game to try it and bought a can.

Pulque is fermented agave juice, not to be confused with beer and certainly not with tequila, which is distilled. While its origin is unknown, it’s been around Meso America as a traditional beverage at least since pre-Columbian days. In Aztec culture, drinking pulque was part of religious celebrations and limited to specific holidays for the masses. To make pulque, the sap of the agave plant—called aquamiel (honey water)—is extracted and fermented, reaching an alcohol content of between two and eight percent. Today, there are still pulquerias, where pulque is served, but it’s also canned, which is what I bought.

While I love sipping a good tequila añejo (old) or reposado (rested), the pulque didn’t move me. At all. The milky white liquid had a flat taste to me, almost like soapy water. I’m told that the canned pulque isn’t nearly as good as what you would get at a pulqueria, but even so, I don’t think I’d seek it out. What I could have tried, however, was to mix it with mango or pineapple juice to create a curado.

Mercado International 2000, like other Hispanic markets, has a wonderful tortilleria and it has bustling meat department with flags from Latin American countries hanging overhead.

I loved the panaderia, with its vast selection of pastries, including a conical puff pastry filled with cream that I bought and hugely enjoyed.

There were some wonderful items in the frozen food section. I bought empanada dough, which I’ll soon be experimenting with. And, I found a box of frozen arepas de choclo (sweet corn).

I had made these from scratch a few weeks before with my friend Debra so I thought I’d give these a try. Arepas are a flat cornmeal pancake, perfect for grilling, baking or frying, especially when stuffed with cheese. Debra and I fried them and made sandwiches with sliced queso fresco and then fried them again to get the cheese to melt a little. I thought I’d actually try these frozen ones for dessert, since they’re fairly taste neutral, and served them hot with dulce de leche ice cream. Next time I’ll stick with the cheese.

What was successful came from a box of achiote rojo, a sauce long associated with the Yucatan.

This is one of those must haves for the pantry. It’s a blend of Mexican spices—annatto seeds, cumin, ground oregano, allspice and ground ancho chile—that come together as a vibrant red-orange paste. Crumble this into a bowl and add some minced garlic, orange juice, a little vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste to create a thick liquid for a marinade. It’s perfect for chicken, shrimp or a fillet of fish like snapper or cod. My friends Armando and Paula slather it on turkey for both the oven and the grill, and claim it creates the most tender and tasty turkeys. Achiote isn't at all hot, but very fragrant and flavorful and you also wind up with a gorgeous dish.

Of course, you don’t need to buy a box of achiote. You can easily make it from scratch. Here’s a wonderful recipe from whatscooking.us for homemade achiote sauce with chicken legs:

Chicken legs with achiote sauce
Makes 6 servings
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 45-60 minutes
Cooking method: marinate, baking

For this recipe you will need:

1 TBSP annatto seeds

½ tsp cumin

½ tsp ground oregano

1 tsp whole allspice

2 TBSP ground chile ancho

4 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup vinegar

½ cup fresh orange juice

½ tsp olive oil

6 pieces chicken drumsticks and thighs

salt and pepper to taste


  1. Dry-toast annatto seeds along with the rest of the spices in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until fragrant, around 2-3 minutes.
  2. Cool slightly and grind in a food grinder (I used my blender on high speed)
  3. In a large bowl whisk together spice mixture, garlic, vinegar, orange juice, and oil until well blended.
  4. Coat chicken pieces with salt and pepper and arrange in a baking dish.
  5. Add the annatto sauce and marinate overnight.
  6. Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C)
  7. Cover baking dish and bake for about 45-60 minutes. Chicken should be tender and fall right off the bone when tested with a fork.
  8. Serve with white rice and enjoy!

At Mercado 2000 International, I also found a marvelous variety of hot sauces, including Salsa Huichol, which certainly burns, but Deb swears is the best. And I got a delicious sweet/hot apricot sauce, called chamoy (in Mexico, typically pickled apricots or plums are the fruit base and are mixed with chile powder), which you can use to dress everything from pork rinds, or chicharrones, to fruit.

Finally, I was captivated by the many varieties of Mexican chocolates for sale. I’ve always bought Ibarra, but here I also found Don Gustavo, Casero and Moctexuma. I was a sucker for the handsome Moctexuma design and bought a box, which has turned out to be very good.

By now, three markets into our shopping spree, Deb and I were famished. It happens that Mercado International 2000 has a little taco shop alongside the parking lot. Serving a variety of tacos, torta, mulitas, tamales and other treats, it tempted us to try lunch. I ordered a lingua de res taco (tongue) and a mulita (kind of a thick corn tortilla sandwich with grilled chicken, cilantro, scallions, avocado and cheese).

They’re served on paper plates with sliced cucumber and radishes. Everything was fresh and popping with different flavors. It’s a tasty, delightful mess, alone worth the visit.

El Tigre is located at 1058 Third Ave. between Emerson and Naples Sts.

Mercado International 2000 is located at 1415 Third. Ave. between Orange Ave. and Quintard St.

Have some thoughts about El Tigre, Mercado International 2000 or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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