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Dispatch from the Pandemic

As of January 2021, San Diego County remains under an indefinite regional stay-at-home order, and restaurants and bars may offer take-out/to-go sales only. Visit the San Diego County website for an up-to-date list of business and services open around the county.

Cardellino’s fried chicken

There’s a new restaurant in Mission Hills without an indoor table in sight. Instead, the simmering hum of weeknight service—a cacophony of disparate conversations, clinking glasses and silverware—disperses into open air. At Cardellino’s slender patio for dinner one July evening, I smile at staff beneath my mask, wider and longer than usual so my eyes crinkle in the way that I hope says, “Thank you so much for serving us in this weird and risky time.”

Since March 2020, San Diegans have been sheltering in-place in some restrictive capacity or other, with March and April experiencing a near-complete stop to indoor business, unless business was considered an essential service. The county eventually allowed some businesses and public areas to reopen in May, only to see many of them, including restaurants and bars, again shutter—partially, or completely—shortly after the July 4th holiday. In September, indoor restaurant dining remained closed, although take-out and outdoor dining was available (which included bars that were able to serve food). As of this publishing (January 2021), indoor and outdoor dining is once again closed under a statewide, regional stay-at-home order.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our culture—from how we travel, shop, and connect with others. Dining culture is no exception. Ahead is a brief summary of some of these changes, which at once offers new ways to support our local restaurants in this current moment, as well as a glimpse of how we’ll dine in the months to come, and beyond.

Say Hello to the Restaurant/Upscale Market Hybrid

As of January 2021, San Diego County remains under an indefinite regional stay-at-home order, and restaurants and bars may offer take-out/to-go sales only. Visit the San Diego County website for an up-to-date list of business and services open around the county.

With the state of indoor dining here one day and gone the next, restaurants have been forced to reimagine their spaces to keep their doors open. One result is the hybrid cafe and market, which isn’t a new concept, but has been sprouting up all over the county during the pandemic. What is most interesting to me, is the range of upmarket, specialty offerings from North County to Downtown. 

In North County, consider Homestead in Solana Beach, where guests can now pick up fresh produce, eggs, canned goods, and deli meats alongside their menu of sandwiches and salads. The Gluten Free Baking Co. in North Park went a similar route, offering gluten-free pantry items, locally made hot sauce, and dry pasta, to pair with its sweet and savory baked goods. All-day cafe Herb & Eatery in Little Italy expanded their shelves to include more cookbooks, glassware, and condiments, as well as a curated selection of boutique spirits, canned and batched to-go cocktails, and bar tools to complement their pre-covid wine selection. As of January 2021, their Instagram account says they are currently closed for renovations.

Sit-down Restaurants Try Take Out

The pandemic has also highlighted all of the take-out options available, especially from restaurants you typically wouldn’t consider partaking in this format. These are the restaurants you go to specifically for the entire culinary journey, from pre-dinner cocktails and appetizers, to the main course, and dessert because maybe you’ve planned for a night beyond the usual surroundings—read: monotony—of your home. And maybe, for one evening, you’d like to peel off your work-from-home uniform of yoga pants and actually slap some make-up on your face (and when I say you, I really mean me, but maybe you can relate). And as much as you might enjoy cooking your own meals, it’s always a joy to be served in a welcoming space and not have to contend with dishes afterward. 

For now, sit-down restaurants like Blade 1936 in Oceanside, Barbusa in Little Italy, and Jeune et Jolie all offer menus you can enjoy at home. 

Al Fresco Dining—Here to Stay?

In a move to keep businesses open during the second shutdown order, while maintaining social distancing during, then-Mayor Kevin Falconer signed an emergency executive order in July 2020 allowing restaurants to expand onto sidewalks, parking lots, and on-street parking spaces. As a result, cities including La Jolla, Downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy neighborhoods have intermittently closed their streets to vehicle traffic to allow for expanded, open air dining. 

I’ve also seen businesses sharing patio space, like Dija Mara in Oceanside, whose Balinese-insipred dishes were, for a time, served next door at neighbor Exhale’s covered patio. In North Park, French bistro The Smoking Goat expanded outdoor dining thanks to neighbor Blue Foot Bar. And in University Heights, Madison’s new patio parklet takes over on-street parking stalls with enough room to accommodate guests at Parks & Rec. With ideal weather nearly year-round, I hope this European-esque, convivial sidewalk dining culture that’s emerged is here to stay, long after the pandemic has gone.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, we are, at best, doing what we can to adjust—our routine, mindset, future plans—amid a rapidly shifting landscape. Imagine trying to cook a dish when the recipe instructions keep changing every other step, or running a marathon without a finish line, or (in keeping with the culinary theme) firing up the grill using damp charcoal. That the world can again change in an instant perhaps heightened the experience of the evening out on Cardellino’s patio. Maybe it made the fried chicken crispier, the pizza cheesier, the tender meatball even more savory. Or maybe it’s because the hospitality team at Cardellino, like the rest of San Diego’s food makers, growers, wranglers, and producers are doing what they’ve always done. After all, everyone’s gotta eat, pandemic or not.  

Photos: Ligaya Malones for The Curious Passport // Cardellino restaurant, Mission Hills, San Diego

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Fruits and vegetables from Imperfect Produce displayed on kitchen island.
Fruits and vegetable from Imperfect Foods

When California’s stay-at-home orders were implemented in March, it seemed like we were at peak no-contact, coronavirus vigilance: All but essential businesses like grocery stores and hospitals were permitted to stay open, while everything else–restaurants, gyms, salons, malls–were ordered closed. In response to limiting my (and risking others’) exposure in grocery stores, I thought it would be practical to sign up for a produce delivery service. This is particularly relevant today, several days into California’s latest modified stay-at-home order. 

While I have access to a number of worthy produce delivery options in San Diego, I chose Imperfect Foods for their mission to “rescue” misshapen and discolored, or excess fruits and veggies otherwise earmarked for the dumpster. Unfortunately (and rather ironically), as food insecure as the U.S. is, including in San Diego, Americans create a comparable amount of food waste. 

And since receiving my first produce box in May, I’ve learned a few things about their goods, and their delivery process that I both enjoy and am more mindful of when I’m meal planning for the week—which doesn’t always happen because I live an obscenely short walk to a Mexican restaurant that makes a tasty California burrito, and easy no-cook dinner option. If you’re considering replacing or supplementing your in-person grocery trips with a grocery delivery service like Imperfect Foods for social distancing reasons or otherwise, I’ve gleaned the following takeaways after shopping and cooking with Imperfect Foods produce for six months that might prove insightful. 

How It Works

In brief: Choose from a weekly box template of conventional or organic produce, which is made up of surplus inventory and completely edible, yet “imperfect” fruit and veg. Then, receive an email indicating when it will be time to make your produce selection. Typically, you have several days to edit and confirm your order. Each week, you’ll be able to view what Imperfect Foods has filled your box with, though you can totally remove items from your box, increase the number of existing items; or add new items, including meat (ground beef to pork chops), seafood (like lump crab and trout or salmon fillets), grains (I’ve added wild rice once), and dairy products (including eggs). You can also choose to skip a week as needed, as well as donate a box of produce on occasion, like I did during Thanksgiving week.

Things To Know When You Sign Up for Imperfect Foods

  • Customization: When available, you can choose to always have certain items delivered (in my case, that’s shallots, avocados, garlic, lemon, and limes). On the other hand, you also have the option to never have a certain item included in your box. Regarding the delivery schedule itself, you do have the option of skipping a week (or weeks) if necessary, which I opt for when I know I won’t be cooking as often. This was the case during summer, when San Diego County reopened some semblance of restaurant dining. 
  • Shelf Life: I’ve learned that produce tends to spoil quicker than produce purchased at the typical grocery store, so I’ve found it helpful to have a plan for them in the several days immediately following my box delivery. Or if I don’t plan to use produce up right away, I’ll chop it up and throw it in the freezer for another time. Conversely, I was surprised that some fruits (such as the red pears, and blueberries when available) lasted a bit longer than expected.
  • (Free?!) Extra Produce: Occasionally I’ll receive a few extra shallots, avocados, and squash from what I originally ordered. Is it a mistake? Or are they trying to move inventory? Whatever it is, I’m not complaining; though this means I sometimes end up dumping the additional produce because I didn’t have enough time to work it into my weekly meal plan before they spoiled. One week, I unexpectedly received a bunch of slightly withered kale that I did not use because I picked up greens from the grocery store just days before. As efficient as I try to be with the food I bring into the house, sometimes waste does happen.

Edible Things I’ve Made So Far With Imperfect Foods:

  • Bon Appetit’s carrots with avocado and mint as a side dish to baked chicken
  • Pears with peanut butter and cinnamon snack
  • Green goddess (shallot) kale salad with sweet potato, avocado, pepitas
  • Hot chocolate with oat milk and cacao powder
  • I doctored store-bought marinara with summer squash, shallots, mushrooms
  • Guacamole using limes + avocados (which were smaller than what the grocery stores usually stock)
  • Sinigang, a tangy Filipino stew traditionally flavored with tamarind, using kabocha squash

Connect with The Curious Passport

  • Keep up with my real-time travels and eats from San Diego and beyond on Instagram
  • Join me on Facebook
  • Support my immersive, sensorial travel and food journalism: send me a coffee!

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