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The Magic of Woodsmoke

Exploring why chefs are turning in their gas-powered ovens for live wood fire at Park Hyatt Aviara’s Baja-inspired restaurant, Ponto Lago

We’ve been here for two weeks and I’d like to stay another thirty. I’ve brought my overnight bag and a note from my wife. Gonna make my case. We’re at Park Hyatt Aviara, a 200-acre resort, one of the classic San Diego properties built far above a wetland preserve in Carlsbad. The ocean is right over there. We’re sitting at a long dining table in Ponto Lago, their Baja-inspired restaurant and a star of the recent $50 million makeover of the property. You can smell the crackling red oak and the char on various excellent proteins. I see a mezcal collection.

I’m talking with chef Christopher Carriker about the magic of woodsmoke. David’s talking to him about the magic of heavy metal music. There is a hamachi and blackberry aguachile, a Sinoloan specialty, with sliced fresno chiles, green onion, and mint. There’s a charred octopus zarandeado with chorizo aioli, chicharrons and kumquats. It’s Baja ideas mixed with French sauce skills and the unbeatable San Diego seafood and produce.

Carriker is from Portland, which isn’t short on a food scene. But, for a chef, he says, it’s nothing like San Diego.

“The farms we have right up the road? It’s incredible,” he says. “I had to get used to the long growing seasons when I came here. I’d think, ‘well, it’s winter guess I have to switch to root vegetables,’ and then realize summer fruits were still in season. Crazy.”

This episode we dive into why every chef and restaurant is turning their gas powered ovens in for piles of expensive wood. Chef Chris walks us through the various woods and their very specific charms  (citrus burns hot, is best for searing), and why Baja cuisine is so compelling.

In “Hot Plates,” we discuss the new concepts being opened by chef Phil Esteban’s Open Gym groupWhite Rice Bodega in Normal Heights, and Wavy Burgers (Filipino-style burgers) in National City. One of North County’s hottest restaurant groups, Leucadia Co. (Moto Deli, Valentina, etc.) is opening two new locations of Hamburger Hut (Wagyu burgers) in Encinitas and Oceanside. The mighty Carruth Cellars’ run in Little Italy is coming to an end in the middle of June, but the good news is that just about the same day they open their massive spot in Liberty Station, a 10,000 square foot wine wonderland with a gourmet cheese shop and expanded menu. And finally, Societe Brewing is expanding into a new location in Old Town, continuing the signal that the historic part of San Diego is getting a blood transfusion.

For “Two People, Fifty Bucks,” Troy raves about Amalfi Cucina Italiana’s pan-fried artichokes and pizza, and marvels at the surreal man-made wonder that is Lake San Marcos. David raves about the bratwurst at Bagby Beer, and chef Chris gives a nod to a fellow wood-smoked restaurant and one of San Diego’s best, Fort Oak.

Thanks for listening, y’all. Tune in next week when we broadcast from Stone Brewing Liberty Station for the kickoff of a new video series with the city’s homegrown beer heroes.

CHef Chris Ponto Lago

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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