A Light Lunch at Prep Kitchen in Little Italy

Another cool spot I visited in San Diego was Prep Kitchen. The restaurant has three locations, of which I went to India Street in Little Italy, only a few blocks from my office. Apparently my colleagues frequent the place for their Happy Hour special, which allows customers to try some of their signature tapas ($5 a piece) and get hooked before actually committing to a whole dinner. My work mates recommended popping out for a sandwich there, which is exactly what I did when my boss asked me to lunch.

The decor is kind of cool and industrial, with those exposed ceiling frames, fans and pipes that seem to be so popular these days. Communal 8-seat high tops and high chairs in the middle of a spacious dining room, a snazzy and comfortable bar and a great view of the street from the private 2- and 4-seat tables lining the window-ed side of the restaurant. A chilled bottle of cucumber and lemon infused house water is brought out right as one sits down. The menu is a tad chaotic, with the items not organized into sections but just kind of slapped together into one long list – salads and gnocchi and some beautiful sandwiches all in one row. This, as well as the fact that everything looks pretty delicious, makes it difficult to choose. I was having a tough time, specifically in picking between the Fried Scallop Sandwich with avocado and pickles and the Corned Beef Sandwich. Our server, however, was very nice and explained his own preferences until I landed on their Mahi Mahi Tacos. It was seasonal and I was kind of on a roll with the tacos on this trip, having decided to review as many of these as I could.

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To begin, I decided to follow up my cucumber lemon water with a cucumber mimosa, which had the perfect amount of bubbly to put a smile on my face, but which was light enough to be able to get some work done after. It tasted very faintly of cucumber which – as a wise man at a Hendrick’s tasting last week said – tastes like the color green. A perfect midday drink with very soft flavors that fanned my hunger.

47We ordered a Pumpkin & Kale Salad, which came with fried, crispy cubes of ciabatta bread, some sherry vinaigrette, toasted pine nuts and a few paper-thin layers of Parmesan grated over the top. We asked for all the good stuff on the side and, unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of these sides, but bear with me through the description! This was a fulfilling salad and perfect for the still cool spring weather, as it was comforting and hearty while still maintaining a lightness. The pieces of ciabatta were crunchy, not too oily but adding a nice warm element to the salad. The pine nuts added a nuttiness which hinted at the nuttiness of the Parmesan. The pumpkin slices, though a bit too small in my opinion, were cooked to a nice texture where they still had a bite but were smooth and mushy on the exterior. The pumpkin caramelized beautifully and had a natural honey-sweet flavor that offset the salty cheese and the extra tangy sherry vinaigrette well. The excess vinaigrette was soaked up by the ciabatta, which made for nice bombs of flavor when bitten into. The kale stood up to all of the ingredients in its firm, fibrous texture. I had actually never had raw kale like this before and I really enjoyed it as an alternative to cabbage or lettuce, since it was a bit more hearty and had plenty of country body to it. It somehow just tasted healthy. A very satisfying salad which will leave you glad to have gone with the healthy choice.

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49Next up, the Prep Kitchen Fish Tacos, made with marinated and grilled mahi mahi, slices of ripe avocado and a mango, jicama slaw with a bit of chipotle aioli drizzled over the top. A gourmet taco with good quality fish and creative ingredients, just like the grilled swordfish taco at Top of the Market and very much unlike the creamy mess of a seafood taco at Lucha Libre. On retrospect, I kind of regret not taking our server’s suggestion and getting their Corned Beef Sandwich, just because I saw someone order one and it looked amazing. Also, I kind of overdid the taco thing on this trip, and it would’ve been nice to take a break from the tortilla to munch on chewy, crusty bread for a change. But as far as fish tacos go, this one was one of the best I had in the city. The tortilla was warm and chewy, though a bit too thick for me. The fish was marinated in a spicy chile sauce as well as some lime juice and was packed with flavor. It was grilled to a great texture too, perfectly cooked through but not overcooked or tough in the least. Little pieces of sweet (yet slightly acidic, still) mango were tossed in with shredded jicama, which picked up the flavors around it and added the crunchy hydrating element that cabbage normally would have provided. This creative crunch alternative also contrasted very nicely with the velvety smooth, buttery soft pieces of avocado that were thin enough to not overpower the fish in texture but that added a wonderful smoothness and nutty, delicious flavor to the dish. A very light drizzle of chipotle aioli over the fish added a nice calm heat to the fish and some extra creaminess and moisture to each bite. All in all this was a very neat and clean taco, with not too much dairy dripping out of it and making everything soggy. The fish was flavored and cooked deliciously and really shined through in its quality, even through the thickness of the tortilla.

51Judging from the dessert menu, the place definitely seemed like one where you don’t skip dessert, so we ordered the Meyer Lemon Cheesecake to share. The slice was topped with a chunky blueberry ginger jam and some candied almond slivers. Satisfying, though nothing particularly spectacular. The cake itself was correct, rich and dense but still light and frothy somehow, very smooth overall. The crust was a bit wetter than I would’ve liked, with not too much of that buttery crunch I was expecting from a graham cracker type crust. The warm jam spooned over it was nice, with the juicy, plump blueberries bursting out their acidity when bitten into, mixing with the sweetness of the liquid and the floral tones of the ginger as well. That floral freshness of ginger did, unfortunately, seem to get lost in the acidity both of the cheesecake and the strong flavor of the blueberries but I appreciated the idea. Maybe adding some mint into the dessert (chopped leaves sprinkled over the top perhaps) would have cut the acidity and allowed the ginger a chance to shine a bit more. The almonds added a crunch, but really just did the dirty work that the graham cracker crust neglected to do.

A nice light lunch, satisfying though nothing too provocative. I would recommend getting the sandwiches though, which they seem to be more popular for. This was an instance of getting the pizza at a sushi place – not the best call. But nonetheless, good.

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