The BEST of 2013 from LA to San Diego

The year flew by once again and my food journeys from Los Angeles down to San Diego have been mostly successful, although there were several duds along the way as well. My picks for 2013 includes mostly Orange County restaurants, but also, a handful of those from the counties we are flanked by. Please click on the links for an extensive review of each restaurant.

Let’s begin with Los Angeles county and one of our favorites this year was David LeFevre’s Fishing With Dynamite. This tiny eatery is always packed with people and once you sit down to a meal here, you will understand why. The freshest of seafood from raw to cooked will always tantalize the tastebuds.

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David Myers’ Hinoki and The Bird was definitely an experience in itself the minute you walk through the doors. Food leans towards Japanese-inspired although there are other Asian countries represented as well. Our favorite was the sambal skate.

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Lying on the cusp of LA county and Orange County is Long Beach, where Michael’s Pizzeria is located. The pizza crust here is chewy and toppings unique, but pizza isn’t the only thing on the menu. Duck confit is fantastic and they also do an afogatto well, one of my favorite desserts!

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Orange County has seen a lot of restaurant openings this year, but the one closest to my heart is Pie-Not, bringing me a piece of home locally, but in such a delicious manner. In fact, the pies here are so much better than the ones in Australia the only thing I miss is the “tomato sauce” we slather on top (not to be confused with ketchup!).

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Next door to Pie-Not is SideCar Doughnuts, possibly the ONLY doughnut shop I frequent. These doughnuts are like no other doughnuts you’ve ever eaten. Flavors change weekly and doughnuts are made fresh in small batches throughout the day. Thursdays and Fridays offer vegan and gluten-free options.

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One of my favorites this year has been Mare Culinary Lounge, the brainchild of Alessandro Pirozzi of Cucina Alessa. Not many people realize it is hidden within the Holiday Inn in Laguna Beach off PCH, which is a sad thing because the food is incredible.

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I don’t think Little Sparrow requires much introduction because it has been receiving so much press all over. The kitchen helmed by Eric Samaniego has an outstanding charcuterie platter all created in-house and a separate bar area with killer craft cocktails that puts most bars in OC to shame.

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It wouldn’t be a Mad Hungry Woman list without a shout-out to an obscure hole-in-the-wall in the middle of Little Saigon. Rice Paper Bistro totally impressed me this year with its fresh, tasty Vietnamese fare by Le Huynh, a self-taught chef. So many favorites to choose from, you’ll just have to read about it yourself.

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Last but not least in OC is ARC, the brainchild of Noah Blom and Marin Howarth. The restaurant does not possess any stoves and everything is cooked in a wood-fire oven whether it be meat or vegetables. The house-made bacon is a must.

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Surprisingly, San Diego gave us two Japanese offerings beginning with Ristorante Kaz, a Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant with some of the most unique pastas around. The uni spaghetti is a stand out as well as the cold angel hair pasta with shiso leaves.cold pasta (640x480)

Last but not least is Rakiraki, a ramen shop with some of the best ramen I’ve ever had. I’ve returned here several times and each time, the consistency has remained the same regardless what time of day you visit. Besides ramen, they also have THE BEST chicken karaage I’ve ever tasted. 

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Prepkitchen Little Italy San Diego

This will be my last full review for 2013. My next post will be the year-end recap of the best of 2013. See you all in 2014 for more restaurant reviews.

I can already feel this restaurant will be one of those favorites we will return to over and over again. Prepkitchen’s brunch menu is different to its dinner menu and there is also a separate lunch menu as well, so no matter what day, or what time of day you are here, you can be sure to be wow-ed by the selections and not feel like you’re limited to choices.

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The words “made in-house” are like music to my ears and always excites me because I know I’ll be in for a treat. It is also a great way for me to gauge a chef’s passion, talent and how the kitchen team comes together in preparing an all in-house menu.PREPKITCHEN LITTLE ITALY -- SD2 (640x360)

If you are a coffee drinker, Prepkitchen offers a “coffee buffet table” where customers can help themselves to unlimited coffee for only $1.

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I’m going to start the sweet offerings with Jojo’s Fresh Baked Pastries ($3), and although I forgot to ask our server who exactly Jojo is, our selection of the day came in the form of cranberry orange scone served with cranberry pear jam. The tartness of the cranberries gave the scone a lovely sweet-tart finish that even I enjoyed. I didn’t find it overly sweet in any way or form. The accompanying jam had wonderful hints of pear but possessed the acidity of the cranberries as well.scone (640x425)

I don’t have a sweet palate, but those of you who do will love the butterscotch banana nut bread served with dulce de leche dipping sauce. The bread possessed enough sweetness for me on its own but I did taste the dipping sauce as well — would go great with vanilla ice cream in my opinion!

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Donut Holes ($5.50) are the in-house pride and joy and your server will recommend them to you again and again if you don’t order them. Just order them for the table! Ricotta doughnut holes are moist on the inside and sprinkled with powdered sugar on the outside.

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Out of the brunch items, Housemade Biscuit & Chorizo Gravy ($12) was one which jumped out at me, and was a generous portion which I would not be able to finish on my own. The accompanying fried green tomatoes were deliciously tart with a crispy exterior and although the menu stated padron peppers, the dish wasn’t spicy. The fried runny egg on top added an even more unctuous finish to this already rich and hearty dish.

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I’ve had whole wheat pancakes before and trust me when I say they are usually not very good. I really enjoyed the fluffy and airy Whole Wheat Pancakes ($11.75) topped with sugar-sweet persimmons currently in season. Usually, whole wheat creates a dense texture, but they seem to have these well-perfected. Walnuts add a lovely crunch while the date butter gives it enough sweetness for my palate. However, the spiced maple syrup with its very “holiday” aromas — our server revealed to us it is infused with cinnamon, star anise, cardamon, all-spice and nutmeg — was rather enticing especially this time of year.wholewheat pancakes (640x425)

Wild Mushroom Omelet ($12.75) is a delicious savory option with artisan ham and an array of mushrooms stuffed within. Slices of brie are laid on top with a hint of black truffle oil to give it an even earthier finish.

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Up to now, everything I’ve tasted has been great, but I didn’t expect that the piece de resistance was still to arrive. Local Mussels & Fries ($15.50) using Carlsbad mussels are delivered fresh daily and steamed to perfectly with white wine, garlic confit, aioli and bay leaf. The fries were prepared so well they remained crispy even after we soaked them into the umami-filled broth. This is a must-order.

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At the end of your meal, you are given a dessert menu. I was too full to indulge in desserts, but I saw something really interesting called the Kitchen Sixer ($7). I asked our server what that was and she said it was for customers to buy the kitchen staff a round of beers! What a cool way to show your appreciation! I did exactly that and they actually come out and thank you! Way cool!

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Prepkitchen is on my list to re-visit in 2014 and I suggest you do too. They have several locations including Del Mar and La Jolla making it no excuse for you not to give them a try.

Prepkitchen (Little Italy)
1660 India Street
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-398-8383

Prep Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Bonefish Grill opens in Tustin

I was invited to a preview of Bonefish Grill months ago and returned again because what little I tasted was only a teaser and I wanted to try more before giving a verdict. Although the restaurant is part of a chain out of Florida, the restaurant does not have a chain feel to it. In fact, each location has its own unique design and this particular one is no different. I especially love the bonefish design on the back wall created with little pieces of metal components.

Start with a non-alcoholic refresher such as the Blackberry Smash ($3.50) in lieu of the regular soda or iced tea. We loved this fruit-filled drink which isn’t overly sweet either.

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We started with Bang Bang Shrimp ($10.90), something I tasted at the preview and is Bonefish’s signature dish. The lightly battered shrimp are tossed in a creamy sauce with a hint of spice and they remain crispy even till the very last one. It reminds me of a very good honey walnut shrimp — a dish I really dislike — without the cloying heaviness of mayo overuse. This is highly recommended.

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Singapore Calamari ($9.90) is another great appetizer to share. The calamari is flash-fried with thin strips of red and green peppers and served with a sweet spicy Asian-inspired sauce.

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I love soup and naturally, Corn Chowder + Lump Crab ($6.90/cup or $7.70/bowl) caught my eye. It was a little thick for me, but the flavors were incredibly rich comprising a smokiness from the bacon and a subtle sweetness from the corn. There were bits of crab in every mouthful, leaving you feeling extremely satisfied indeed.

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On Tuesdays, there are lobster specials and I wasn’t about to forego the Lobster Sliders + Fries ($7.90) I was teased with at the preview. These sliders are served on brioche rolls and there is a generous portion of lobster sandwiched in between. I like how it is not mayo-heavy and the bits of crunchy celery makes for delicious eating with great textural contrast. I was told they weren’t going to be on the Tuesday menu for much longer, so I hope you get a chance to try these before they disappear completely.

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Our server suggested the Tilapia Imperial ($20.50), stuffed with a mixture of shrimp, scallops, crab meat, Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses drizzled with lemon caper butter. It was a bit heavy for me and the portion was pretty big so it can easily be shared.  

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If you are into surf and turf, the Lobster and Steak Duet ($16.90) off the specials menu may be the best bet. For under $17, you get a 6oz sirloin steak and a cold water lobster tail complete with a butter dipping sauce on the side. For $6 more you can upgrade to filet mignon.

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With your entrees you also have your choice of sides. Butternut Squash Ravioli ($3 extra) are four raviolis stuffed with a sweet butternut puree enveloped in a brown butter sage sauce.

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The Garlic Whipped Potatoes is a must because it is light and airy, yet decadent. I am always surprised when potatoes blow me away because the only potatoes I like are crispy French fries.

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Those with a sweet tooth will love the desserts. I’m partial to the Key Lime Pie ($6.70) with a roasted pecan crust. The filling is wonderfully tart, just the way I like my sweets, and the crunch from the crust adds a fantastic component to the finished product.

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If you’re a chocolate fan, Macadamia Nut Brownie ($6.70) is the one you must choose. The flourless brownie comes with raspberry sauce, vanilla ice cream and is sprinkled with crushed macadamia nuts.

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Bonefish Grill is located at the Tustin Marketplace and there is ample parking so take your family for dinner because it’s definitely a family-friendly establishment.

Bonefish Grill
3040 El Camino Real
Tustin, CA 92782
Tel: 714-368-7613

Bonefish Grill on Urbanspoon

AnQi redeems itself plus a giveaway

I’ve had a love hate relationship with AnQi ever since it opened. Love the decor, don’t quite love the food. Through the years I’ve been back several times and each time, my thoughts and feelings have stayed pretty much the same …… that is, until now. I recently came for lunch with a bunch of friends and was surprised that I actually enjoyed my meal this time. We all took turns ordering something and the following was the meal we experienced. Surf & Turf Roll ($13) were sushi rolls with wagyu beef, spicy tuna, delta asparagus and chili aioli. On the menu it sounds messy, neither here nor there, but it definitely tasted rather good. surf & turf roll (640x425) Chicken Potsticker ($8) were good with scallion and a balsamic fig sauce. The wrapper wasn’t too thick and the filling was nicely seasoned. potstickers (640x425) I wasn’t too keen on ordering pho here, but I didn’t say no. I’m partial to pho-ing in lil Saigon and anywhere else just doesn’t seem right. However, Traditional Vietnamese Pho ($9) — we ordered both chicken and beef — wasn’t half bad. The broth could have been deeper and richer, but it sufficed. The rice noodles were a tad overcooked resulting in them being soft, but the bean sprouts helped add some crunch to the bowl. pho (640x425) Vietnamese Crepe Salad ($13) was one of my favorites. Banh Xeo as it is known in Vietnamese, this crepe is stuffed with chicken and pork ragout, bean sprouts and beech mushrooms and topped with quinzoi herb, sweet chili gastric, charred frisee, sliced okra, red and yellow peppers and beech mushrooms. The complexity of all the flavors combined together is quite impressive. I like how this dish includes other vegetables you wouldn’t find in traditional banh xeo such as frisee. banh xeo (640x425) The Misoyaki Butterfish ($23) was also absolutely delicious. The pairing of Bhutanese red cargo rice was genius. I love butterfish (black cod) and this was very well executed. misoyaki butterfish (640x425) Unfortunately, An’s Famous Garlic Noodles ($10) is still not one of my favorites, but everyone else seemed to like it. garlic noodles (640x425) The bo luc lac, or Flamed Tossed Cubes of Filet ($19) was very flavorful, although not 100% authentic. Served with jasmine rice, the beef is tossed with broccoli, as well as white button mushrooms. bo luc lac (640x425) I’m not ordinarily a dessert eater, but Vietnamese Banana Fritter ($9) was ordered for the table to share. Even with the blood orange caramel, it wasn’t overly sweet. Of course, I loved the home made vanilla bean ice cream served alongside. banana fritter (640x425)

This is my last giveaway of the year. Christopher Gialanella, Publisher of Riviera Magazine is offering one of my readers (plus a guest) the opportunity to lunch at AnQi with him (along with me), in 2014. The rules of this giveaway is: you must be following ChristopherRiviera and me on Twitter, leave a comment on this post with your Twitter handle, and you will be entered into the competition. Entries must be submitted no later than midnight on Dec 25th. Good Luck!!

AnQi by Crustacean
3333 Bristol
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-557-5679

AnQi on Urbanspoon

a long awaited visit to Tar & Roses

It took a while for me to post this, another birthday celebration, this time with my closest friends, at Tar & Roses, a restaurant I was invited to try when they first opened, but never had time to visit. Now, almost two years of opening, it was still on our list-to-try, so a reservation was made to share a meal with the people I love.

Although there is a patio out back, the restaurant is smaller than I had imagined, therefore, reservations are vital. tar and roses (640x425)

Our server Matthew was great, allowing us as much time we needed to peruse the menu, seeing it was our first time there. Since there were a bunch of things we wanted to try, we made it a democratic process whereby everyone was able to offer input on the night’s feast.

We started with Popped Corn ($7) reminiscent of kettle corn, but SO much better because this popcorn was coated with brown sugar flavored with bacon fat. Crisp bacon bits were dotted around the popcorn so you get a little surprise every few bites. The salty, sweet crunchy goodness was taken up a notch by a hint of chili, leaving a bit of heat to the finish.

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One of the specials of the evening was Chicken Oyster Skewers ($7) which I enjoyed tremendously because of its aromatic nature. I know one of my friends found it too greasy but I thought the tartness of the tamarind sauce really helped cut the fat and ended up being a great accompaniment for the next dish as well.

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Duck Liver Pate ($9) arrived in a little glass jar with a layer of duck fat covering a creamy spread which we schmeared liberally over the grilled sourdough slices. The peppadew pepper salad added a freshness to the unctuous duck liver pate but there wasn’t much of it, so I suggested pairing the tamarind sauce for the chicken with the liver. Turns out, it was a great combo!

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Ordinarily, I’m a huge fan of Bone Marrow ($11) but I didn’t care for the one here. There was an excessive pool of oil underneath the marrow itself. The onion marmalade had a great flavor on its own, but wasn’t acidic enough to cut the greasiness of the marrow. We also didn’t taste any salt on the marrow which resulted in a bland gooey blob tasting of nothing. Definitely not one of my favorites.

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I’ve had pig tails before and loved them, however, Crispy Pig Tails ($8) here were not really crispy. Underneath the thin layer of almost crispy fat lies a thick gnarly fatty, sinewy and very gamey interior which the sriracha, honey, cilantro could not mask. I did not care for this one at all.

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Our next dish is a seasonal one with thinly sliced sweet persimmons. Persimmon Salad ($12) comprised of pomegranate seeds, goat cheese, greens and candied walnuts. While the persimmon and pomegranate were great together, and the dressing perfectly light and refreshing, I’m still not a fan of goat cheese (chevre) so I ate around it.

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We all agreed that Squid Ink Fettucine ($13) was a great dish, but severely under-seasoned. I love octopus, and while I enjoyed its natural flavors, it was in desperate need of salt. I usually have my salt and pepper grinders in my purse, but had changed bags so didn’t have them with me. Boy was I kicking myself for forgetting.

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Same goes for the Ricotta Gnocchi ($11) with asparagus, pea tendrils and lemon. The gnocchi itself was perfectly executed — pillowy morsels of pure heaven. The sauce was again lacking salt, a shame because like the fettucine, would have been two outstanding dishes of the night.

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For our next set of dishes, we agreed on vegetable sides. Wood Roasted Sunchokes ($9) was a perfect choice because not everyone at the table has had them before. The chunks of delicious Jerusalem artichokes were topped with goat cheese, lemon and crunchy hazelnuts. Everyone loved this.

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No matter how often we order Brussels sprouts and how many restaurants offer it in one form or another, I never tire of them. Wood Roasted Brussels Sprouts ($9) shared space with salty pancetta, rich nuggets of chestnuts and mustard seeds. This dish was loved all around and fought for every little bit left on the plate.brussels sprouts (640x425)

King Trumpet Mushrooms ($9) were also delectable. I love this mushroom because of its meaty texture and use it often at home. There isn’t much water content so it doesn’t shrivel up like regular mushrooms. Topped with a soft egg and flavored with rosemary and chile de arbol, this is a must for anyone who loves mushrooms!trumpet mushrooms (640x425)

Roasted Beets ($8) were prepared with the skin on, retaining all the flavor within. Feta, tarragon and horseradish make for good accompaniments to the sweet red and golden beets. Fragrant, salty and sweet. 

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After the vegetable, Matthew came back to take our orders for entrees. Hangar Steak ($26) was cooked to a perfect medium rare, sliced, and plated over potato cream, chanterelle mushrooms, tomato and charred onion. The meat needed more salt but otherwise, well executed.

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When our last dish, the Whole Fried Snapper For Two ($58) arrived, there were ooos and ahhs all around. We didn’t expect such a display to grace our table. A whole fish with its head and tail intact is scored criss cross, lightly floured and then deep fried. The fish was perfectly seasoned and while there was a delicious dipping sauce served alongside, it really wasn’t needed. The cold soba noodles on the side was also tasty, lightly coated with sesame oil and topped with nori strips.
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I could have stopped here, but of course, my friends weren’t about to leave without having some dessert. The only one which was calling out my name was Affogato ($8), a generous scoop of Tahitian vanilla ice cream and some robust Stumptown coffee which we poured over the luscious cold mound. Absolutely incredible!

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The Chocolate “Tar” Bar ($9) was quite rich with something crispy to give it a textural crunch including hazelnuts. The salted caramel ice cream was also a good addition.

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I was surprised by the Sticky Toffee Pudding ($9), a moist sponge cake-like “pudding” complete with whipped cream, making for a really delicious finish to our meal.sticky toffee pudding (640x425)All in all, we had a lovely time, but we all agreed, the star of the night was definitely the snapper!

Tar & Roses
602 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tel: 310-587-0700

Tar & Roses on Urbanspoon

Spice Lounge (San Diego) is sultry with great tasting grub

It’s funny that I eat more Indian food in San Diego than I do in Orange County. Last year, I had a fabulous Divali meal in the Gaslamp and now, another delicious Indian spot in the Pacific Beach (PB) area of San Diego.

Spice Lounge is a small cozy place with very alluring decor. The red hued theme is paired with modern Indian-style knick-knacks and you can sit in the lounge-y area or at the tables depending on whether you’re here for drinks and appetizers, or a full-on meal.

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The menu offers a wide range of items which appealed to me, as well as some dishes I’ve never tasted before, such as Bhel Puri ($5.95). Generally eaten as a snack, this street food comprises puffed rice, tiny bits of potatoes, onions, wafers and crisp noodles mixed with chutney, cilantro and red onions. My son couldn’t stop eating it. The flavors were tart and refreshing, basically, a great way to whet your appetite.bhel puri (640x425)

I’ve always loved pakoras so Chicken Pakora ($4.95) was in order. White chicken is marinated and battered in a chickpea  coating and fried. Light and tender, these are the best type of “chicken tenders” ever. The accompanying tamarind chutney was beautifully sweet and sour and made in-house.

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I am a huge fan of chicken wings and Spice Wings ($4.95) are kind of tandoori wings if you will, marinated in yogurt and spices then roasted in the tandoori clay oven and served with mint chutney. I could have eaten another order of these luscious and tender wings packed with flavor.

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Lamb Naan ($6.95) was a different take on the regular naan I’m accustomed to and makes for a great appetizer to share. Ground lamb, finely chopped onions and cilantro are stuffed into a homemade naan and baked in the tandoori oven. The meat is seasoned well and very savory. The mango chutney it is served with is absolutely delicious and would go well with so many things — I’m thinking on a cheese plate!

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I convinced them to let me take a photo of the tandoori oven, shown here with a naan being cooked, which we ate right after it was ready — incredible!naan in tandoori oven (640x425)

I’ve always ordered Vindaloo because of its spicy nature. This time we ordered chicken ($11.95) but it’s not too hot or too tart. A zesty curry sauce cooked with tomatoes, onions, potatoes and infused with paprika, lime juice and tamarind chutney, it is light and unlike any vindaloo curries I’ve had before. My son couldn’t get enough of it!

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The same goes for the Lamb Kebab ($13.95) which my son ate some of and then devoured the leftovers the next day. Lean ground lamb marinated in mint, onion, green chili and herbs are cooked in the tandoori oven. The meat is seasoned to perfection and very succulent.

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My favorite, however, was the Dal Makhni ($7.95), an ideal vegetarian dish of mixed lentils simmered slowly with tomatoes, ginger, onions and spices.

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I ate everything with a little bit of Achaar ($1.95) mixed Indian pickles made in house. I’d cut off a small piece of the pungent vegetables and eat it with a mouthful of whatever I was eating. SO GOOD! I wish they jarred it so I could buy it and take it home.

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The Indian fare here is not heavy and did not leave me feeling like I needed a nap after. Everything is fresh and light both on the stomach and on the palate. I highly recommend going with friends and sharing everything!

Spice Lounge
859 Hornblend Avenue
San Diego, CA 92109
Tel: 858-272-1600

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