By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Forget the “secret menu” at In-N-Out Burger. It was fun and exclusive until the company published on its website descriptions of “animal style” burgers and other code-word items for the world to see.
In a number of local restaurants, however, clandestine meals are available for those in the know. Some are dishes that appeared briefly as hot-selling specials. Others were born on a whim by chefs who cooked for fellow employees or a table of close friends — and for reasons of culinary greatness, they discretely stuck around.
We hacked into several establishments in and around Downtown and discovered tempting dishes you won’t see printed on their menus or websites.
535 Fifth Ave. (Gaslamp Quarter), 619-232-174, rusticroot.com
The lavish “RR burger” at Rustic Root evades the ground-floor menu because Chef Marcel Childress created it expressly for the rooftop patio. But ask and ye shall receive an 8-ounce patty made of ground chuck, short rib and flank steak. Prepared in the secondary kitchen upstairs and brought down to the main dining room, it’s tucked into a brioche bun with a fried egg, bacon jam, aged cheddar, caramelized onions, mustard aioli, lettuce and tomatoes.
1917 India St., (Little Italy), 619-238-1917, barbusa.com
The restaurant’s matriarch, Lisa Busalacchi, likes eating broccoli whenever she comes in. So Chef Nino Zizzo makes sure it’s always in the kitchen and uses it for making a pasta dish that has caught on since the establishment opened a year ago.
Available upon request, the cruciferous vegetable is sautéed in garlic and olive oil and then tossed with thick spaghetti (bucatini). It’s finished off with Pecorino Romano cheese. “The broccoli completely disintegrates into the pasta and looks like pesto,” Zizzo said, adding that he makes the dish for customers about twice a night.
1250 J St., (East Village), 619-232-7662, themissionsd.com
Amid hearty breakfast plates comprising various combinations of eggs, meats, potatoes, black beans and other ingredients, customers can opt for the 2+2+2, a straightforward meal of two eggs, two strips of bacon and two plain or blackberry pancakes. Available Monday through Friday, the unlisted option began as a $5 special two decades ago at the restaurant’s existing Mission Beach kitchen. Today it sells for $9, extending also to its North Park and beach locations. Another secret: Ask nice and you can purchase pancakes singly rather than in standard trios.
Carnitas Snack Shack
1004 N. Harbor Drive, (Embarcadero), 619-696-7675, carnitassnackshack.com
The unctuous “quadruple bypass” is a secret upgrade to the eatery’s top-selling “triple threat” sandwich. What you get is the addition of pork belly on top of an established stacking of pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pepperoncini relish and house aioli. Not recommended by heart doctors, it’s available also at the Shack’s North Park location, 2632 University Ave.
Le Parfait Paris
555 G St. (Gaslamp Quarter), 619-245-4457, leparfaitparis.com
A hot spell last summer prompted Ludi Ryon and her husband, Guillaume, to tap into their pastry selection for making macaron ice cream sandwiches.
“We made them at first just for ourselves. Then our staff tried them and we started thinking of ideas for toppings,” Ludi said. “It’s a secret item that we usually mention only to customers when they order gelato.” Constructed with four-inch chocolate or raspberry macarons, they’re filled with vanilla gelato and topped with a choice of chocolate, caramel or berry sauce.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room
400 J St., (Gaslamp Quarter), 619-858-2277, theoceanaire.com
Fois gras served in a restaurant celebrated for its ambitious seafood selection? Yes indeed. Chef Kyle Viera is a fan of the goose liver and keeps a hushed supply of it in the kitchen. Available through word of mouth as an appetizer, he pan sears the fois gras and serves it with brioche toast, seasonal fruit compote and a dash of sea salt.
1047 Fifth Ave., (Core District), 619-515-3003, curadero.com
There’s more than meets the eye on Arriba Room’s taco menu, which omits the octopus or goat stew tacos that are sometimes available. Located a floor above Curadero in Kimpton Hotel Palomar, Chef Brad Kraten sources whole octopus for Curadero’s raw bar. When there’s a surplus, some of it lands in the tacos served upstairs after it’s braised in garlic and olive oil. And when goat meat comes in, he simmers it in onions, chili peppers and cinnamon before folding it into corn tortillas.
Sally’s Fish House & Bar
1 Market Place (Marina District), 619-358-6740, sallyssandiego.com
Ingredient experimentation by one of Sally’s sushi chefs a few months ago resulted in an off-menu roll that “hits all your flavor senses,” Executive Chef Jay Payne said.
Known as the SSS, which stands for “Sally’s summer secret,” the creation features crab, cucumber and tempura shrimp on the inside, and seared ahi, avocado and crispy shallots on the outside. It’s drizzled in ponzu and sweet chili sauces, and will be replaced by a different secret roll in late September.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.