By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The most recent LGBT-owned bar and restaurant to have opened in Hillcrest just hit its first anniversary. In the successfully spirited year it has enjoyed, and with the local dining scene in a rapid state of flux, the occasion feels as though it arrived in a blink of an eye.
Until last week, I had only ducked into the imaginatively designed insideOUT for cocktails, failing each time to immerse myself in the Mediterranean-inspired dishes crafted by chef and co-owner Maryjo Testa. (When I’m out boozing, I rarely slow down to eat.)
Having cooked in kitchens throughout Europe over a 17-year span, Testa first impressed me with her culinary talents earlier this century when she owned Salad Style in Downtown San Diego. There, she not only raised the bar on salad-making but proved a sharp knack for bringing continuity to ingredients that many of us would never consider pairing: black currants and asparagus in her then-famous cous cous salad; and sunflower sprouts with carrots and quinoa in a miso-dressed vegan salad are among the memorable match-ups I recall.
I craved one of her salads again. And I was eager to try a handful of other dishes on her midday menu, available from 2 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, which aligns directly with happy hour.
With a vegetarian friend in tow, we started off with the only salad on the daytime menu — a Caesar festooned harmoniously with fried artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. Testa effectively retains the core essence of a Caesar with focaccia croutons and Parmesan cheese, yet by tossing in the former two ingredients, she spares it from tasting pedestrian.
Those same fried artichoke leaves show up in a shareable portion on the own. They’re dusted in truffle sea salt and Parmesan and served with bright lemon aioli for dipping. It’s an appetizer tailor-made for beer and cocktails.
Like a handful of restaurants around San Diego County have begun doing, Testa recently added arancini to her menu. The trendy fried rice balls, which actually became popular in 19th-century Sicily, are typically filled with mozzarella or minced meat, and served on a bed of marinara sauce.
Testa nails it by simply incorporating Parmesan and lemon zest into the orbs, which sported commendably crisp exteriors and creamy innards. We wished only for a little more of the spicy tomato sauce sitting beneath.
For a few days leading up to our visit, we were hell-bent on ordering the papas bravas, those revered Spanish-style fried (or baked) potatoes draped typically in spicy tomato aioli. Fingerling potatoes are ideally used here in what was a deconstructed presentation. The tenderly cooked, thinly sliced potatoes were served generously alongside a ramekin of very spicy “brava” sauce. It was backed up by a second sauce, the aforementioned lemon aioli. According to the menu, however, it was supposed to be garlic aioli. No big deal. The two sauces jived to the potatoes both separately and when mixed together. Although I imagine that garlic condiment in the scheme would have been divine.
Just when I’ve had it up to my neck with avocado toast — nowadays available just yards away from wherever you’re sitting — along comes this construct using excellent multi-grain bread from San Diego’s acclaimed Sadie Rose Baking Company.
Testa pretties up the toast with a frisee of pickled red onions, grated cucumber, thinly sliced radishes and edible flowers. The bread slices were perfectly toasted and the layer of mashed avocado spread across them was discernible. All combined, the contrast of flavors and textures was poetic.
A top-selling peppered-steak sandwich, plus poke-soba salad, and cheese and charcuterie plates are the remaining choices on the daytime menu. The food coincides with attractive happy-hour drink bargains, which include wines by the glass for $5 and $6 and intriguing martinis for $8 apiece.
Located in the unmistakable cherry-red Eitol Towers, insideOUT is appropriately named; when you walk inside and pass the spacious bar, you’re basically outside again, within a terraced courtyard where you can perch under the open sky with a cocktail in one hand and a fabulous nosh in the other.
Dinner service at insideOUT runs daily from 5 to 10 p.m. That menu includes dishes such as grilled octopus, Maple Leaf duck breast salad, chicken Milanese and paella-style fideo rosa.
— 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