Good place to eat in San Diego: Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park

A gorgeous dessert from Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park

The restaurant that earned two visits in a four-day vacation.

After a couple hours walking around in Balboa Park, enjoying the Japanese Garden very much, and (to a lesser extent) the Art Museum, I was flagging and in need of a little snack or caffeine. We had heard about Prado, the only restaurant on the grounds there. Since it was in a touristy spot, and without competition, we kinda figured it would be A) poor quality food, B) way overpriced, or C) both. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was D) neither. It’s not cheap food, but for the quality and the ambiance, I do not think it’s at all overpriced. (You can find the menus at the bottom of this page.)

The complementary appetizer is a crispy cracker/flatbread, that comes in poppyseed and parmesan, accompanied by a bit of bean dip that is rather like a thick hummus, but with herbs. Quite tasty, and a welcome departure from bread and butter.

We were originally going to split an appetizer, but then I spied a wedge salad on the menu, and had to have that. Eric hates bleu cheese, so he ended up ordering a three-skewer trio. One mini-kabob, each with a nicely-done piece of meat and three appropriate sauces: steak with chipotle honey, chicken breast with cashew curry, and shrimp with mango ginger sauce. They were all tasty (I did take a tiny bite of each; Eric’s so nice to share!), and just the right size for a mid-afternoon snack. I loved my wedge salad! It was simple and classic, but done just exactly right. Instead of one behemoth wedge of lettuce, there were four petite ones, with ripe, red, diced tomatoes and crispy bacon in the center of the four, and bleu cheese dressing drizzled generously over all. (Forgive me; no pics. We were hungry!)

So we were originally planning on one appetizer; now we were up to two. But as soon as we saw a gorgeous dessert go by, we knew we couldn’t stop there! The dessert that seduced us was their flan, which is the photo at the top of this post. Confession: I shot this photo on someone else’s table, without their permission. Just pointed my camera over there and clicked once.

What a lucky shot, huh?! That tells you how gorgeous the dessert and the sunlight was! We were seated on their lovely outdoor terrace.

And the waitress was happy to take our picture.

Back to the flan… It’s speared with a shard of sugar glass, and accompanied by a nest of shredded phyllo and fresh berries. Although we were enticed by the flan, the waitress described it as more like a cheesecake in texture, and we’d already been there, done that. (See my review of El Callejon in this post.) So instead we ordered the tres leches cake.

But it was not just cake. Below is the architectural marvel that is this dessert: a pistachio meringue base, filled with caramel bananas, topped with tres leches cake, topped with vanilla bean ice cream — and all that is topped with a thin slice of crispy-fried plantain.

I hate to say this… As beautiful as the tres leches dessert was, it wasn’t my favorite. It’s not that the dish wasn’t well executed; it certainly was! It was just too sweet for me. If you eat a lot of sweets and/or you love tres leches, you might find this dish fantastic. But since I’m fairly accustomed to very little sugar, I’m more sensitive to the taste and actually prefer things that aren’t so sweet.

Still, we were so happy with our first experience there that we decided to go back for dinner a couple days later.  That evening, we were seated indoors, so I tried to be very inconspicuous about my photo-taking. That coupled with the fact that it was very dim indoors, means that I don’t have any pictures of the indoors or our entrees. The decor was the very definition of eclectic — for example, the room was lit mostly by a hodge podge of mis-matched table lamps, and they had several lighting fixtures that consisted of vessels made of antlers, filled with multi-hued glass orbs. Yeah, it sounds a little weird, but it really worked with the whole of the decor.

Eric ordered… hmm, I’ll have to get back with you on that. I don’t remember the exact dish. It was something steak, I believe, and quite tender. I ordered the crabcakes; they are meant to be an appetizer, but I wasn’t terribly hungry, and plus, I was saving room for dessert, round two! (I appreciated the fact that the waiter didn’t try to upsell me; when I said I wasn’t that hungry, he graciously suggested the appetizer section.) I usually don’t order crabcakes, because it’s just so hard for any version to live up to the best I’ve ever had, at Cafe Sebastienne in the Kemper Museum in Kansas City. But these stood up on their own. They come with a spicy sauce, which I asked for on the side, but I did use a fair amount of it. It was not too overbearing for this spice wimp, and added a just-right punch to the delicate cakes.

So, on to dessert! I ordered the dessert that really caught my eye the first time I looked over the menu: pumpkin creme brulee! Although it was the least attractive of all the desserts we ordered (or spied), it was the tastiest, in my opinion! The custard was perfect — silky smooth, hinting of pumpkin, cinnamon and cloves, and peppered with vanilla bean specks. The brulee was nicely crunchy. What I really think could be nixed on the dessert is the “cinnamon chips.” I can’t imagine how they’re made, but they look like bacon, and tasted like cinnamon-y burnt sugar. I have nothing against bacon! Just not so much on my pumpkin dessert. (Chef, if you wouldn’t be offended to take suggestions from an everyday cook, I would drizzle the serving dish with something caramel, sprinkle the pumpkin seeds over that, then let the creme brulee stand on top of that in unadorned glory.)

Eric had the “Triple Chocolate Threat.” Although my photo didn’t come out so great, it was a beautiful presentation, and a delicious combo. The menu describes it as: chocolate cookie crust, dark chocolate baked custard, dark chocolate ganache, and salted caramel ice cream.

So, as you can see, we thoroughly enjoyed our two visits to Prado in as many days, and would recommend it to anyone.


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