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Kingfisher Takes San Diego by Storm

Chef Jon Bautista talks about the long road from secretly dropping out of college to leading the modern Vietnamese hit

In 2004, Jon Bautista made his mom cry. She spontaneously wept when he told the family he’d enrolled in culinary school. To be fair, in the same breath he also broke the news that he’d dropped out of the undergrad program at SDSU to do so. Parents have news thresholds, and hers was breached.

“This was before Top Chef,” he says. “She just said, ‘You’re never going to make any money.’”

Now, 17 years later, Bautista is chef of one of the city’s most raved-about restaurants, Kingfisher, a partnership with the local family who owns the beloved local restaurant, Crab Hut. It’s modern Vietnamese. It’s also a bit Franco-Californian, because Bautista spent five years as chef de cuisine of George’s at the Cove under Trey Foshee. It’s a bit Filipino, he says, because he is Filipino. Cooking has never been more borderless.

The Golden Hill restaurant is booked months out, with a long waiting list (they do have a few walk-in tables). Their duck—dry-aged in house, lightly smoked, brushed with palm sugar—is the treasure for early-birds. They only sell eight of them a night, and zip they’re gone. For this podcast—the first recorded in-person at the San Diego Magazine offices since 2020—Jon brought a beef tartare with toasted quinoa, pickled ramps, crispy shallots, chiles, cured egg yolk, sesame-rice crackers, watercress, lettuces, herbs. The not-secret ingredient—Red Boat No. 5 fish sauce—makes it a killer riff on a classic. And the joy of abundant ingredients is very Vietnamese (think of the pile of greenery you’re presented with your pho).

“This is everything,” Bautista says of Kingfisher. “I was struggling during the pandemic. For the first time in my adult life I was unemployed. I was drinking too much, I gained weight, I was depressed. And then this happened.”

We talk about the long road to here.

In “Hot Plates,” we yap about The Friendly’s expansion to Pacific Beach, and what that says about America’s love affair with little places that could. Herb & Sea is throwing a party for Wildcoast, the San Diego-based group that does great work conserving marine ecosystems, with a five-course “Treasure Fish Feast” featuring lesser known local fish (eating only salmon and halibut and sea bass is not only boring but also creates a pretty unsustainable future). Over in North Park, Bivouac Ciderworks is throwing a four-course dinner to celebrate Women’s History Month that pairs Mexican-inspired dishes with special small-batch ciders (Mexican Hot Chocolate Cider, a beer-cider hybrid, etc.). Also, the owners of Tahini are opening up a Middle Eastern-inspired specialty coffee shop called Finjan, and this June the owners of Don Pietro are partnering with Gustavo Rios for a two-story, jungle-themed concept in Old Town.

For “Two People, Fifty Bucks,” Jon shows the breadth of his food arts by nodding to both Callie and the almighty Filet-O-Fish, David raves about Cafe Madeleine, and I get wistful about my glory days as a struggling writer in Golden Hill and fondly recommend Krakatoa.

Thanks for listening, everyone.

Jon Bautista

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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