11 Superheroes of the San Diego Dining Scene

We unmask the identities of local heroes who fight to make the city a tastier place to live
July 18, 2016
by Darlene Horn

San Diego Comic-Con touches down this week, July 21-24, and while the city will be filled with celebrities, comic book personalities and creators who are heroes of pop culture, we’re turning our attention to a few local champions who stand out in the culinary world. As we've dubbed them, “Dr. T-Bone,” “Sugar Mama,” “Food Waste Vanquisher,” "Coffee Girl” and more, these guardians of good food have taken a personal pledge to wake the masses every morning with magic beans, rid the scene of hard scones and processed foods and so much more.

The hero: Danilo "The Dreamer" Tangalin Jr.
His lair: JRDN in Pacific Beach and incoming Decoy Dockside Dining in San Marcos
Superpower: Juggling the life of a husband and dad of two small children (3-year-old daughter and newborn son) while leading a culinary team in a multi-property setting
Origin story: Born and raised in the mountains of the Philippines, DJ, as he's known, grew up helping his family run a cantina. Their compound was surrounded by bamboo trees that he says talked to him while he slept, leading to dreams of cooking for the masses. He brought those dreams to Hawaii where he worked at the famous Aloha Stadium, tirelessly skewering fried mochi balls, after which he attended the Academy of Culinary Arts in New Jersey. It was there he found his mission: to prepare delicious meals using only the highest quality ingredients, a tradition that he continues in San Diego. When DJ is not overseeing the kitchen in JRDN or training the staff at the new restaurant in San Marcos, you can find him at home helping to care for his daughter and newborn son.

The hero: Vivian “Sugar Mama” Hernandez-Jackson
Her lair: Azucar in Ocean Beach
Superpower: Sugar-coating stress, break-ups, bad days and toddler tantrums
Origin story: Vivian was born and raised in Miami where her Cuban parents taught her the importance of azucar, or sugar. But it was her training at Le Cordon Bleu in London where she honed her super sugar skills, eventually bringing them to San Diego. She now runs a beloved bakery in Ocean Beach, where she has defeated the hockey puck scone, the over baked chocolate chunk cookie and, most importantly, the "all fluff no stuff" desserts. Sugar Mama's arsenal of secret weapons include guava cheese pastries warm out of the oven and salted toffee cookies — two things that cause people to fall under her magic spell after just one bite.

The hero: Accursio "Primo Pasta" L​ota
His lair: Solare in Point Loma
Superpower: ​Blinding diners with authentic Italian dinners incorporating fresh pasta, handmade ravioli and other Sicilian dishes. 
Origin: ​L​ota ​was born into the Sicilian Order of Vigilante Chefs, guardians of the culinary galaxy, cutting his teeth on his mother's and grandmother's confections ​of almonds, ricotta and orange peel​, and honing his skills at the Four Seasons in Milan before ​destiny called: a Southern Californian city under the plague of pedestrian plates. Enter Lota, swinging in on sheets of fresh pasta and saving the day with sliced swordfish belly, handmade porcini ravioli, and pistachio-studded pork loin ​at Solare Ristorante.

The hero: Kristianna “Cheppie” Zabala 
Her lair: Nomad Donuts in North Park
Superpower: Whipping up one-of-a-kind creations that blow minds and change perspectives on what's possible with a donut with unusual flavor combinations such as watermelon tamarind chili and honeydew mint prosciutto
Origin story: Born in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, Zabala discovered her superpowers at the tender age of 10 when she baked her first cake. She flexed her muscles on the savory side before discovering her true calling: pastries. Formally trained in San Francisco, Zabala was later honored as part of the Michelin Star team at the Village Pub. After time as executive chef in the kitchen at Petco Park and Bertrand's at Mister A's, she moved to North Park where where slays bagged donut mixes and pre-made fillings by incorporating fresh fruits, veggies and savory items into her donuts for the betterment of pastry lovers everywhere.

The hero: Miguel “Food Waste Vanquisher” Valdez
His lair: The Red Door Restaurant in Mission Hills
Superpower: Protecting San Diego from excessive food waste and delivering incredibly fresh dishes
Origin: As a San Diego native, young Valdez starting honing his superpowers at home. His mother, aunt and older sister taught him to cook everything from scratch, and he learned how to use ingredients from their limited garden, which he also tended, while creating little waste. Valdez also worked in agriculture in Washington where he identified his archenemy: toxic chemicals used on produce. Since settling into his lair at The Red Door, he's vanquished these foes by using organic produce grown from The Red Door's own garden in La Mesa, making everything from scratch in the restaurant (including all ketchups, sauces, etc.) and eschewing waste by canning and pickling.

The hero: Brandi “Coffee Girl” Kirschbaum
Her lair: Heartsleeves Coffee in Little Italy
Superpower: Turning zombies into instant humans by use of magic beans
Origin story: Born and raised in Phoenix, Kirschbaum moved to San Diego in 2009 where she ditched her job as a risk analyst to chase after her dream of running a coffee shop. The seed was planted when she had her first cappuccino at age 14, which, like a magic potion, turned the previously introverted Kirschbaum into a non-stop talker. From that moment on, coffee was her destiny. The mission of Coffee Girl is to help energize people one cup at a time, and every morning, she vanquishes her her arch-nemesis, Lethargy. Coffee Girl is proof that dreams can come true with a little help from caffeine.

The heroes: James “Defender of Meat” Holstag and Trey “Dr. T-Bone” Nichols
Their lair: The Heart & Trotter in North Park
Superpower: Rescue innocent bystanders from the death-grip of processed foods with their sausage link lassos and tomahawk weapon
Origin story: Holstag and Nichols hail from a small family farm in Virginia. One day the two youths were playing on the farm when a cow kicked them both, sending them flying into a tree and knocking them out cold. Was it that fateful knock or destiny that led them to open one of San Diego's most innovative butchers? Either way, the dynamic duo grew into the superheroes they are today, defeating their arch-nemeses — hormones, antibiotics, preservatives and chemicals — and protecting the people of this fair city by selling locally sourced meat and leading classes on butchery.

The hero: Ingrid “Tiki Diva" Alvarez
Her lair: High Dive Bar and Grill in Bay Park
Superpower: Transforming a relatively unknown watering hole into the city's best upscale dive bar and educating women about beer
Origin story: Alvarez's story began a decade ago when she bought High Dive and jumped head-first into the city's burgeoning craft beer scene. Her first mission was vanquishing macrobrews by partnering with some of the best breweries in town. To offer an alternative to the primarily male-driven beer scene, she started Chicks for Beer — a monthly gathering where women could meet brewers for a dynamic five-course pairing in a friendly space.

The hero: Matt "The Silent Crusader" Gordon 
His lair: Solace and the Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas and Urban Solace in North Park
Superpower: Ridding his restaurant of weak commercial food and beverage options while quietly effecting change in the ingredients available to restaurants around San Diego.
Origin story: Gordon's story begins in Los Angeles followed by a family move to Arizona when he was eight. He attended Northern Arizona University, and it was while in college that he got a taste of the gastronomic world, working five fishing seasons in Alaska and as a sous-chef back in Northern Arizona. After a stint in San Francisco, he opened his first restaurant in San Diego, Urban Solace, followed by Solace and the Moonlight Lounge. He was among the first notable chefs to make farm-to-table dining catch on in the city.

The hero: Steven "Rum-Runner" Tuttle
His lair: Kettner Exchange in Little Italy
Superpower: Magically turning mescal naysayers and tiki-haters into die-hard fans, with just one drink
Origin story: Our young cocktail hero got his start in San Jose before coming to San Diego for business school. Tuttle always had a knack for experimenting with spirits, though, so at the ripe age of 21, he trained under bartender mentor Sam Ross of Milk & Honey to make cocktails his business. He then worked his way up from El Dorado and Craft and Commerce to Kettner Exchange, where he creates potent tiki-inspired cocktails with a deft slight of hand that make even rum-haters swoon with delight. Rum-Runner isn't without enemies, namely premade colada mix and vodka.

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