San Diego Eats: posh student dining at The Bistro on UCSD campus
Every time I visit San Diego, someone always brings up dining at The Bistro on the University of California, San Diego campus. But alas, the last few years I have always visited just a week or two in August and over Christmas holidays, so school is out and the campus restaurants are closed.
This time, I was able to visit just as students were finishing up their term, so finally was able to try out this special restaurant.
I was genuinely surprised by how nice this "school cafeteria" was!
Of course, it should be mentioned that there are other, more "normal" cafeterias on campus where you take the tray and go to different stations to pick up your food. But if you look at the prices at The Bistro, they really aren't so bad. Also keep in mind that there is no tipping allowed, so these prices are inclusive of service charge.
The menu clearly is partly Asian with dishes like ramen and a whole range of sushi rolls, and partly Asian-fusion, with a chicken congee with chimichurri or a french toast with "ginger maple syrup" (that last one is kind reaching for that Asian inflection, I would say).
When we went for lunch, they brought out a complimentary nori cone of fried wonton strips. I thought this was a really creative presentation! It was served with sweet and sour sauce - really a throwback to old Chinese-American restaurants! - and what kind of seemed like an edamame hummus. I must say that I miss getting these fried wonton skins in restaurants nowadays - they are so "authentic" now that it's quite the rarity to encounter these crunchy things.
The other impressive aspect was that they offered both cold and warm water, quite the nod to Asian diners who may prefer warm water.
To start, we ordered the Sun God roll, which included shrimp tempura and spicy tuna inside, with seared salmon on top. In general I love crunch, and I love spice, and this combined both with the tempura and tuna, with added tempura crunch on top. Everything tasted fresh, with an abundant innards-to-rice ratio. I would definitely order this again.
For my main, I ordered the Spicy Yellow Curry Seared Tofu. I spied it served at a neighboring table, and it was just visually very attractive. I was in the mood for something lighter and with plenty of vegetables, after being on the road and eating not so healthily, so this just hit the spot. Usually I don't go for slabs of seared tofu because sometimes they can be quite hard or dry, but this tofu was tender and soft. The sauce was on the sweet side, but verifiably spicy.
It's hard to tell in the photo below, but the portion size was so enormous I took half of it home!
My mom ordered the Hoisin-glazed Roasted Chicken, which was also a huge serving. Underneath the leg, is a whole bone-in breast. The skin was nicely thin and crisp, although the meat itself wasn't the most flavorful, relying on the rather salty hoisin sauce that was drizzled around.
We had the chance to return for Sunday brunch. The dining room was packed with students who ordered not just one main course, but two! Some ate the second main course on the spot, while others had them to go. Maybe since it was the end of the term, they were trying to use up their dining credits?
As a beverage, I ordered the San Diego Sunset, with berries, Thai basil, ginger, and lime syrup. Since I don't really love alcoholic beverages, I was quite happy with the cocktails and ice teas they offered, none of which were alcoholic.
For my brunch dish, I had my heart set on the Tri Tip Taro Hash from the moment I saw it on the menu the day I had come for lunch! I love corned beef hash, with the salty beef mixing with crispy potatoes of the hash (if done well). So I was curious about this Asian fusion version.
I would say this dish came out just okay for me. The tri tip wasn't particularly flavorful, lacking the brininess of corned beef, and the root vegetable hash was rather soft and mushy. I know there are lots of definitions of "hash" but I prefer mine to have the crunchy golden edges of starch frying in fat, and this was perhaps the opposite of that. The ponzu slaw could have used cabbage that was sliced more thinly, and more ponzu, though it was a welcome dose of vegetables. Overall, the dish wasn't bad, but I'd try something else next time.
What looked much more promising was my mom's Bistro Benedict. You can order this with pork belly or salmon, and we asked whether it was smoked salmon or cooked fresh salmon, and the waitress confirmed it was the latter. Underneath the salmon was a taro cake and spinach, and it was topped with the egg and a sriracha hollandaise. My mom reported the hollandaise wasn't very "sriracha," but overall this seemed like a cool twist on benedict composed of some pretty quality ingredients.
The most popular dish of the table was the Seared Ahi and Noodle Salad, which my dad, sister, and brother-in-law all ordered. While we were waiting for a table, we saw this being served at a table near us and no doubt the visual presentation swayed their decision-making (one reason why I wish all restaurants would have pictures in their menus!).
Indeed, this dish looked amazing, and was even topped with a soft-boiled soy egg, like the kind that comes in ramen.
Overall, there were a few misses, but these were much outweighed by the hits. The kitchen is creative, the dishes well-prepared, and the service friendly. I'd love to come back during term time to try The Bistro again; honestly a lot of dishes appealed to me and I would be excited to try them all.