April 4 2012 02:55 PM

Which of San Diego’s ‘world famous’ dishes are really of global renown?

One day, ROFERGT will stand for Rolling on the Floor Eating R. Gang's Tots
Photo courtesy of R. Gang Eatery

When it comes to selling food, simply saying your dish is delicious just doesn’t cut the mustard. Everyone thinks their food is delicious. So, restaurateurs will tag on modifiers that sound impressive but don’t have a lot of meaning: Their signature entrée. Their gourmet hamburger. Their world-famous dish.

However, that last one does have a real definition: well-known around the world. But, really, beyond McDonald’s, there aren’t many restaurants that are genuinely globally known, are there? We contacted seven restaurants in San Diego and asked them to explain how world-famous their creations really are.

World Famous Creamy Aioli
Tabe BBQ

This Asian-inspired food truck prides itself on its aioli sauce, which it serves on its sliders and special OMG Burrito. In justifying its designation, co-owner Richard Morris notes that Tabe BBQ has hosted visiting chefs from Japan and Amsterdam, and the aioli has been featured on the Food Network and MSN’s webcast Appetite for Life.

“I think we have done enough to classify it as ‘world famous,’ never mind the hundreds of foreign visitors we have had asking about how they can make it back home,” Morris says.

(Soon to Be) World Famous Tots
Restaurant: R Gang Eatery

Owner and executive chef Rich Sweeney isn’t quite ready to commit to the “World Famous” epithet, but he believes that social networks are propelling his restaurant’s handcrafted, no-filler tater tots to international cult status.

They’re so flavorful, he says, that customers sometimes don’t believe there’s actual potato in them.

“The more we talk about them online, the more word travels around the world,” he says. “Our tots have been featured in local, national and international media, and when you throw in the tourists who visit our restaurant that talk about them when they return home, well, they’re bound to be world-famous at some point, right?”

3683 Fifth Ave. in Hillcrest,

World Famous T-Rex Sandwich
Mama’s Grill

Asked whether Mama’s Grill’s T-Rex sandwich is actually world-famous, Ahab Nimry, whose mama is the Mama, laughs and says no.

“You see ‘world famous,’ all the time,” he says. “World-famous gyro. World-famous sub. You can never really verify it.”

Instead, Ahab and his brother Bashir set out to invent a sandwich that could be world-famous, a sandwich so big that it fit into a sort of world-famous, competitive-eating genre of food. The sandwich contains one pound of meat—roast beef, salami, ham, bacon—plus two kinds of a cheese, lettuce, tomato and pepperoncini, smashed between two slabs of focaccia.

7420 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in Kearny Mesa

World Famous San Diego Chicken Sandwich
Old Town Liquor & Deli

The World Famous San Diego Chicken is a marinated and grilled chicken breast served on sourdough with bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and special mayo, but the secret ingredient, staff tell us (after making us guess), is TLC.

As for how world-famous it is, according to the deli manager, people come from as far as Orange County and Imperial Beach to eat it. In other words, it’s world famous if your world is limited to southern California.

2304 San Diego Ave. in Old Town

World Famous Hash Browns
Maryjane’s at the Hard Rock Hotel

“It’s kind of a love-hate relationship with the hash browns in the back of the house,” Maryjane’s head chef Emiliano Sotelo says. “They’re really good, but they’re extremely labor-intensive.”

Here’s the process: They take shredded potatoes and mix them with white cheddar, scallions, heavy cream and pepper. Then they plop it onto big trays, bake it in the oven, take it out, cool it down, form it into pucks and sear them on a flat-top grill. Sotelo has the hard numbers—28,332 pounds of potatoes died last year to make approximately 61,000 orders of the world-famous hash browns.

To his knowledge, the hash browns haven’t been formally recognized on an international level, but when you sell that many orders to tourists and convention-center visitors, Sotelo says it’s pretty much a given that you’ve cultivated a global following. Also, Dan Aykroyd loves them, and he’s a famous Canadian!

207 Fifth Ave., Downtown

World Famous Mai Tai
Bali Hai Restaurant

Bali Hai isn’t famous for its take on the Mai Tai, but for strictly adhering to Trader Vic’s genuinely world-famous original recipe for 50 years. The widespread recognition may also have something to do with the drink’s open-source mixology. Owners Susie and Larry Baumann have no problem sharing the recipe with newspapers or other bartenders, and it’s also available online at Wikitender.com.

2230 Shelter Island Drive in Shelter Island

World Famous Chicken

Bandar’s top-selling item for the last 12 years is their Persian-style, char-boiled and boneless tenderloin kebab, marinated in a saffron-onion-lemon-juice sauce. It’s been hailed as being among the best chicken dinners ever invented by virtually every restaurant reviewer in the city. Bandar’s owners provided us with a long list of quotes proving just that, but not one from an international source.

But, like Maryjane’s, executive chefs Shokooh and Behrooz Farahani are confident in the designation because of Bandar’s Downtown location and connection to the Convention Center, claiming repeat customers from Russia, Germany, Canada, Mexico and countries along the Mediterranean.

845 Fourth Ave., Downtown

Bonus: In San Diego, there’s a restaurant called “World Famous” (711 Pacific Beach Drive in Pacific Beach), which presents a paradox: How could it possibly be world-famous from day one? The manager told us he didn’t know much about the name’s origin, except that it was catchy.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.