Saturday, December 17, 2005 | Ethnic supermarkets thrill me. Why? Because they showcase a bit of a country’s culture, packed into many aisles with a variety of foods and non-edibles we won’t find in commercial grocery stores. San Diego is home to many well-stocked ethnic markets (Indian, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Vietnamese, Persian and many more). Most have restaurants and/or deli sections for take-away foods. For all things Japanese, I love Mitsuwa Market Place, a one-stop shopping venue for housewares, drug store items and all Japanese foods – fresh, frozen or packaged.

At Mitsuwa I run in for just-made high-quality sushi or sashimi to eat at my desk – it easily beats the usual supermarket variety in flavor and price. I buy fresh shitake mushrooms, any kind of sushi-type fish – tuna, yellowtail, black cod – and condiments, fresh vegetables, sake and rice bran oil for frying (it takes high heat and isn’t overly greasy). The books and magazines, housewares, plates and platters are worth a look – especially if you want to find unusual gifts for the holidays.

Order a bowl of noodle soup or gyoza (the smaller, delicate version of the Chinese potsticker) at Takara just inside the front door of Mitsuwa. Here you can sit, slurp noodles and pretend you’re in a far away land. Yes, English is spoken. Mitsuwa Market Place, 4240 Kearny Mesa Road (in the Staples/CompUSA shopping center), (858) 569-6699. Open daily from 9 a.m.

I heard from a pal that the black bean soup with Madeira at Rainwater’s was so good that he ordered it twice…in the same meal. He swooned over its deep color, thick texture and flavor enhanced by the nutty Madeira. Rainwater’s on Kettner, 1202 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, (619) 233-5757, www.rainwaters.com.

If you’re out on Interstate 8 and need a quick bite, try the main drag in Alpine. Donato’s, a 20-year-plus mainstay for locals dishes up pastas, pizzas and great meatballs in a zippy, thick tomato sauce. Year-old Fred’s Old Fashioned Burgers serves up fresh, good hamburgers with all the trimmings, and other good sandwiches alongside crunchy crinkle fries – good enough for the sheriff I saw in the drive-through. Fred blends shakes and malts to just about any flavor you wish.

Further down the street next to the storage facility is Alpine Taco Shop for crisp rolled tacos and sides of refried beans and light white rice that won’t overpower the well-spiced carnitas in a double corn tortilla soft taco. My carne asada maven (a 16-year-old who knows his burritos) gives said burrito high marks for good flavor and no grease. I concur. Donato’s Italian Restaurant, 2654 Alpine Blvd., (619) 445-4006; Fred’s Old Fashioned Burgers, 2754 Alpine Blvd., (619) 445-1264; Alpine Taco Shop, 1903 “A” Alpine Blvd., (619) 445-8907.

At 9 p.m. on a Monday night, Little Italy’s Extraordinary Desserts was packed … for good reason. Here you can nibble dessert or something savory, sip a glass of wine or have a coffee. What I like is the occasional unusual drink or food that owner Karen Krasne presents – things she finds as she travels the world. I tried a delicious sparkling sake by Harushika ($16 a glass or $22 for a small bottle). The subtle flavors of apple blossoms and sweet lychee meld well with savory cheese as well as dessert. Its expense comes because it needs refrigeration during the journey from Japan to here. Extraordinary Desserts, 1430 Union St., downtown, (619) 294-7001, www.extraordinarydesserts.com.

Tidbits: Fusion confusion, we hope not. D-Mood opened about a month ago and features “fusion Middle Eastern” in University Heights. D-Mood, 4628 Park Blvd., University Heights, (619) 297-6663. Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch.

Chef on the move: Executive Chef Fabrice Poigin moves on – after the first of the year – from his work with Chive, Laurel Restaurant, Kensington Grill and Urban Kitchen Catering.

Pet Peeve: Servers who presume that mixed company at a table means the man will order the wine and take the bill. Not necessarily so. As my mom always says, never assume anything. Ask.

Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at www

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