Little Italy's Food Hall is a hidden gem full of amazing food options. Sam the Cooking Guy joins us for a "virtual tour" of the Hall, some Little Italy "pro tips" and an exclusive sneak peek at his next cook book!
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All in San Diego Podcast – With AJ and Sara
AJ: Welcome to “All in San Diego,” today we're going to be talking to one of our all-time favorite San Diegans, Sam, the cooking guy.
Sara:: Sam is a part of a real gem here in San Diego, the Little Italy Food Hall.
AJ: He's going to give you a virtual tour of the food hall. That's going to make you want to jump in your car and head there right now. And he'll give you some great insights into all of Little Italy as well.
Sara: Here we go. Join us as we go all in on Little Italy with Sam, the cooking guy.
AJ: Sam, thank you for taking the time to join us, my friend.
Sam: Aaron and Sarah, I'm so happy to be here.
AJ: Is that what it says on my screen?
Sam: No, it's what it said in your email.
AJ: Oh yes. Well, that's what the A in AJ is for. When I say busy, I mean, you've got another cook book coming out. I can't wait to talk about it. Are we allowed to talk about that?
AJ: Can't wait to do that. The YouTube channel is on fire. And at this point one in every five restaurants in San Diego is owned by Sam.
Sam: Okay. A hundred percent not true at all.
AJ: Well, you’re a perfect guest for this show, because it's all about the people and places that make San Diego awesome. You are one of those people. So, you check off that box and you are a big participant in an up and coming place. Everyone knows about LEGOLAND and Balboa Park and the zoo, but this Little Italy Food Hall is something that a lot of people are missing out on. And it's so fricking cool.
Sam: Yeah, I’m so surprised. I'm here all the time, but I'm surprised when people will say to me, “Where's your restaurant?” And I go, “It’s in Little Italy.” They go where to go in the, Little Italy Food Hall. There's a Piazza. They closed up Date Street and made it a pedestrian Plaza. I have not been to Little Italy in years.
And I think Little Italy is such a great park. Look, we forget that it's good to play tourist in your own town.
Sam: I think what we all need to do is revisit Balboa Park, go to the beach. Holy crap. How many people live, 15, 20 minutes from the beach here and never go. We take it for granted.
AJ: Well, you drive by Little Italy when you're going to the downtown area or to the airport. And you see Mona Lisa's Deli and you know the two or three places that you've gone to a few times, but you have to go all the way to the other end to find this gem, this food hall, which is unlike anything that had been in San Diego previous to it. Right?
Sam: I'm trying to think were there others. No, Liberty Station had a food hall.
Sara: That's true. That’s true.
Sam: I think what makes it interesting you guys, is that the Piazza Della Famiglia, if we're going to use the proper term, which used to be on Date Street between India and Columbia is now this Piazza.
There's a fountain that I say looks like somebody went to Italy and stole a fountain and brought it back and rebuilt it here. It's the only spot in San Diego that you can drink alcohol outside in public. It has to be from one of two restaurants on the Piazza happens to be the one.
Sara: You can't just bring a flask?
Sam: You can’t just bring a flask.
Sara-1: Okay. Let’s be clear.
Sam: You can’t post up with a case of beer and a cooler. No, you can't bring and you can't take away from the Piazza. It has to come from, either of the food hall locations. But it is so nice. It is so sophisticated is so lovely. There's music on weekends, there's umbrellas. There's tons of tables.
It's one of the reasons why our restaurants did okay during the pandemic, because before all these little Parklets started getting built, we had outdoor tables that could be sat at and food consumed, but it's really, really nice.
Pre-pandemic, there was a guy that would come, I don't know, he's probably 70 and he's saying like Sinatra and Dean Martin kind of stuff, he had this big following of Italian women and they'd post up in a whole bunch of tables and it was charming an aft and then there's other stuff that comes from time to time, different kinds of music.
Outside of Graze or one of our restaurants down there. We have a saxophone guy that comes and guitar and Friday nights are great. We love it. Music and lots of fun and lots of people, and the tables are all separated to be socially distant and responsible. And it's a really nice spot and you stand in the middle of the Piazza and you look West and you see Palm trees and then you see ocean and you see boats.
Just come discover the city if you haven't done it before. And I'm not saying just Little Italy, come to the piazza and our restaurants. I'm saying Coronado, if you've not been for a long time, it doesn't get much better.
Sara: But don't you feel like it's one of those few places in San Diego where you get there and you park, and once you get into the center of it, you feel transported. You really feel like, wow, like, am I even in San Diego anymore?
Sam: Yeah. I had a woman the other day say, they're from La Mesa. They hadn't been for a long time to Little Italy and certainly never been to the Piazza. And we're standing, talking. She goes, “The feeling here is just so very different from everywhere else.”
See, it's a great thing. Discover your city, ladies and gentlemen, we should start that campaign. La Mesa, I'm in love with La Mesa. I love downtown La Mesa
AJ: Quite honestly, that's the entire intent of this podcast is to introduce people to new places, but then take deep dives and inspire them to go back to Balboa Park.
Sam: It’s fantastic. It's a great, it's a great idea.
AJ: Well, it's a great thing to do because we have so many gems. And I would like to point out that Sam said we have live music, not live music is going to come back someday because when I clicked on your events calendar, there was stuff on it.
Sam: Oh absolutely.
AJ: You guys are doing it.
Sam: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And people want this, people are ready to flex their outdoor social muscles again.
AJ: Yeah. Oh, you talk about, feeling like you're transported. It does feel, you go to old town and you'd feel like it's a different experience than a few blocks away.
Sam: No, that's it.
AJ: And the cool thing about the Little Italy Food Hall is it solves a problem that you have, whether you're going out with your spouse of 15 years or taking someone on a first date, you don't have to agree on what you want to eat. You don't have to have that debate.
Sam: No. You want to have a Chinese food, a bowl of noodles from Mein Street Asian they're there. You want Ambrogio 15 Pizza, arguably some of the best pizza, I think in San Diego, super said, beautiful. The guys are from Milan; they know their pizza.
There's Pizza Snobs, which is, you want a snob making your food, right. There is Wicked Maine Lobster is in there, Bobboi Gelato. And of course Not Tacos is there. And then we just opened up. A couple months ago our second Samburgers location, one's at Seaport Village and one's there.
AJ: Let's talk. Let's not assume people know how cool Not Not Tacos is. Before we move on to Samburger, the concept there is what?
Sam: The concept there is not Mexican inspired tacos. And I think people look at me and they go, “The guy's a freaking racist. He hates Mexicans.” Trust me. I do not hate, well, wait a second, Sarah. We got a Yelp review. The woman said, I don't know what her voice was, but I'll make up one.
“You are making a mockery of the Mexican people by not making Mexican tacos.” I was like, “What?” So, that doesn't even get a response.
AJ: Part of the problem was she sounded Italian which makes it even more.
Sara: Yeah. You've been spending too much time in that piazza, okay.
Sam: I was just trying to make up one on the spot.
AJ: I love it.
Sam: And I say this, look, we're in San Diego. We have some of the best Mexican food in the country. There is no question, I don't think anybody can count the number of taco shops that we have.
AJ: That’s insane.
Sara: Yeah. Seriously.
Sam: Plus, if we didn't have great Mexican food here, from the Little Italy Food Hall to real Mexico, where the best Mexican food in the world is, is 20 minutes.
Sara: Yeah. Go a little further.
Sam: The last thing San Diego needed was a Jewish boy from Canada, bringing Mexican tacos here. Let's make something different. And so the stuff that we make are, tacos. What do you need to make it a taco? You need a tortilla. I could put this wallet in a tortilla. It's still a taco. It’s not going to be very good and hard to chew through, but it's still a taco.
So, the stuff that we have are things that Korean short rib and smoky pulled pork with macaroni and cheese, we have a cheeseburger taco. Funny enough, whenever I'm with anybody and they try it, they go, “Oh, my God, it tastes just like a cheeseburger.” I go, that's why we called it done. We have a Mediterranean lamb taco with Siddiqui on the tortilla. Our tortillas are amazing with a mashed potato taco.
Sara: Oh my God! That one is so good.
Sam: It's so good. It's the dumbest thing ever.
Sara: I know mashed potatoes. It's so freaking good.
Sam: The dumbest stupidest thing ever. Of course, it's served with potato chips on tots because that's a requirement. You need some textural component to what would otherwise just be a fairly, soft kind of taco.
Sara: You have one with a flipping hot dog sticking out of it.
Sam: We do. Yeah. I have a hot dog taco, by the way, it's so simple, but all it gets, is some yellow mustard and a New York style, dirty water onions like you would get off of a hot dog cart in New York.
AJ: That’s amazing.
Sam: Honestly. It's so damn good.
AJ: I think you've listed all of them except for my personal favorite, which is the pastrami.
Sam: I was just going to say the pastrami.
Sara: Oh, yes. Yes. It's so good.
Sam: It's got horseradish and mustard and the coleslaw. There's a dill pickles on top of it. There's a melted Munster cheese. We have a great pastrami. We finished on the flat top, so it starts to get crispy and the fat melts a little bit. And then the cheese melts on top of that, it goes on to crispy onions. It's really good. I named after my grandfather, Izzy, we call it the “Izzy.”
Sara: Oh, my God. It's so good.
Sam: So Nashville, hot chicken taco they're tacos that you normally wouldn't have. And we think they're great.
AJ: So I hope you're picturing this as your lesson and you're out, you're outdoors now. You've got these amazing tacos in front of you. You're maybe chugging alcohol that you bought at one of the approved places.
Sam- Chugging. Why are they chugging? Why do they have to be chugging?
AJ: They haven't been out in a very long time and they're enjoying---.
Sara: They're just intravenously taking your booze.
Sam: That is so funny.
AJ-1: It's magical.
Sara: Under the stars. I mean, it's just a dream.
Sam: No under the stars. There’s lights that go across the Piazza. nighttime. Honestly, it's really beautiful.
AJ: So, you got to try Not Not Tacos and then you'd have to come back a second time to try Samburgers. I love this because you've had such a following on YouTube and you put up these burgers and people go nuts and now they can actually go try them.
Sam: Yeah. I've done. As you said on YouTube, a lot of burgers. And every time we do 200, 300, 400,000 views and not very much time. That's so we said, let's take some of those burgers and put them down there.
And so I think there are six different burgers you can get. There's the not so basic basic, which is kind of shake shackish like. There’s a jalapeno, a teriyaki bacon, a blazing saddles, that's a little bit spicy and double bacon cheddar. So, the point is you go in, you choose the burger you want, then you choose your protein.
So you can say, I want the not so basic basic with the ground beef blend, which is chuck brisket and short rib and so delicious. You could have ground chicken, we use chicken thighs and honestly our teriyaki bacon burger with the ground chicken Patty is ridiculous. And I'm not saying that so you come.
I'm saying that so that you. Okay, well, yes, come have the burger, but also think about a ground chicken as an option for home that the carnivores are going to be like, “No fricking way, buddy am I going to have that stupid chicken.” But I'm telling you it is so great.
So, there's also a ground salmon, and then of course we have Beyond, I shouldn't say of course, but we have Beyond. So, get a single, a double fries tots, whatever. It's all good. We've got some great sides.
Sara: Oh, your tots.
Sam: it's really fun. Yeah. It's really fun. Yeah. Our tots are great.
AJ: Before we move to the book, which I think we're going to get an exclusive sneak peek at the next book, at least I'm calling it that because it makes it sound very exciting.
Sam: Actually as I'm thinking about it now, I really can't see that.
AJ: Okay. Well, we won't move on.
Sam: Okay. Go ahead.
AJ: But the one riddle you have to solve to get to the Little Italy Food Hall is where do you park? What's the pro-tip. Do you park far away and walk?
Sara: Sam's pro-tip is you just move into a condo right above it so you don't have to park.
Sam- Look, it's not simple. There is parking, there's underground parking, paid underground parking. It's actually pretty expensive right here at the food hall. Below it, there's a parking structure, two blocks away street parking. Certainly at nights on weekends is really at a premium.
The Little Italy Farmers’ Market, which I think is arguably the best farmers’ market in town is Saturdays from like 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM. It's five blocks long. It's really great. Saturdays, daytime up to 3:00 PM, it’s impossible to park. That being said, you park a few blocks away and then you jump on a Lime or you walk. It's not terrible. And if you haven't been down here, you get to walk through fricking Little Italy, you past the restaurants and, stores.
There’re all kinds of pasta meats and cheeses and salamis, and the stuff's hanging in the window. And this is the largest Little Italy, wait for it. Not in California, not in the Western United States, but in the country. And I know people that are going to be like this, “Hey, Hey, wait a minute. Now there are no way that the Little Italy is the biggest one. For sure there is going to be Boston or New York.” That kind of thing.
Sara: New York. Yeah.
Sam: You think, right? Those have maybe a much more storied past, much more history than those Little Italy's, but for size, this one kills. And the Little Italy Association, the LIA, as we call them, have done a tremendous job of pushing this Little Italy to the front. To making it well-known. To making it a great spot. They do a really good job here.
Sara: It's always pristine too. I feel like every time I've gone, I've kind of wonder do people just scurry around at night while we're all asleep and clean this place up?
Sam: We also have the little Italy association and you'll see guys in blue LIA shirts with orange vests, they're setting up things for the farmer's market. They're cleaning, they're changing the flags. They're putting lights up across the street. These are the little beavers in the background that make this place really spectacular.
Sara: You can tell there's a real pride
Sam: Yeah, absolutely real pride. You said it. Yep.
AJ-1: Get out. Enjoy it. So, no details about the book.
Sam: Here's the problem. The problem is I would not give the name out because (a) it's not a hundred percent cemented yet. And I think it's such a great name that I don't want to tease it before I can show it on the book cover. I can tell you the book will have a lot of what we do on YouTube. A lot of the stuff in the channel will be there.
It seems to be what the appetite is. The last book, they're all different. There's no point writing 12 dessert books, unless that’s your whole thing. But the first book was just random stuff that I liked.
The second one was like shortcuts. The third one was a grilling book. The fourth one was this leftover book. Recipes with intentional leftovers that would show you 20 main ingredients, like how to make a perfect roast chicken, how to cook a steak gorgeously perfectly. So, it's beautiful, medium rare. Wall-to-wall top to bottom, intense side to side kind of thing.
But then what you do with those things, when you've got some leftovers, what you turn that chicken into, what do you turn the steak into that kind of stuff. Short ribs that become just, all great stuff. So, the book is, just to finish to cap that up things from YouTube, and that's not the name of the book because that's a horrible name, actually.
AJ-1: Well, that's great. You were a very early adopter of YouTube. How did you know that that was a place for you to be when you jumped on there?
Sam-1: Truth is my friends. I would so like to take credit for it. It was my son, my oldest. Max came one day and he said, so we've been on now YouTube 10 years. Max came and he said,
“I don't think I want to go to law school.” So, now he's 32. So, he was 22. He finished college, had been accepted to law school here in San Diego. He'd written, whatever that test is, you got it. And he goes, “I don't think I want to go to law school.” Like, whoa. Okay. “What’s the plan?” He goes, “I think I'd like to be part of what you do.” And I go, “I don't need a cook.” He goes, “No, not that because I think what I see dad is I see TV starting to wind up and I see YouTube getting huge. I think we could do that together.”
So we started 10 years ago doing a thing called “The Sam Live Cast.” That was, I think we were really early adopters of the video podcast concept because it was part podcast talking. People in the back that would come on screen, we'd discuss back and forth.
And then about the halfway point, I would go in the kitchen. I would make something or I would start making something. Then it would go in the oven. Then I would come back and sit and we talk. Food stuff, make fun of food network people, but also what went on with our days, things that you talk about on a podcast.
Sam: So, that started in 2011. In 2018 after, was that seven years nobody was watching. I mean, we had 30,000 subscribers, which is nothing to sneeze at. But we'd get, like views of like 400, 500, 1,000 even still, some of those have nothing on them.
Sam: And then we said, maybe we need to change this concept. Let's get rid of the podcast part. I don't think it works in this environment or maybe not yet. We'll concentrate on cooking and those videos could have been an hour, one hour and 15 minutes long. So, we shortened them. They're all somewhere around, I'd say from 10 minutes now to 20 minutes generally.
So, we go from 30,000 subscribers in July or May of 2018 to a million in August of 2019. We basically gained a million in a year. And then August of 2019 to August, 2020, we gained another million. We're at 2.8 million something now, and by August of this year, we'll be at 3 million. It's just crazy stuff. It's crazy stuff.
AJ: It's wild that here you are a same personality, same brand, same thing, cooking. You changed the length of the videos and it made all the difference. That's wild.
Sam: I think it made it much more accessible.
Sam: Much more watchable. I don't know I want to sit down and watch an hour's worth of something on my computer or on my phone, but we also started really paying attention to who was watching. Of this almost 3 million, 85% are guys. I said, between the ages of 18 to 44.
And before I would show up for a shoot and I'd be like, “Oh, what do I feel like cooking today?” And I might open the pantry and go, there's a head of iceberg. I got some bacon, let's make an old school wedge salad. I'll make some blue cheese, whatever. It was not a whole lot of thought to it. And now there's thought to it. So, now we put up a video and within a few days, we'll get 200,000 views, a good one will get, 500,000, 600,000.
We did one on, Mediterranean chicken sandwich. It's just a great marinade, cooked, super-hot on the grill. So, it gets some beautiful crispy edges, but we made our own non to it and a little sauce so that together. That thing is now two weeks old I started. It has like a million and five views or something. It was crazy.
Sara: Yeah, but let's face it, Sam. Anybody can get on there and make a video about how to make a Mediterranean sandwich, but San Diego fell in love with you and your personality and your like ability and you're down to earth.
Sam: You’re so nice.
Sara: No, but that's really what people connected with and having all those videos, even the longer ones, it gave everybody a chance to get to know you so that when you go and you go on this new adventure with the Little Italy Food Hall, everyone can't wait to support you because we feel like you're ours. Like you belong to San Diego.
Sam: You've said such nice things. I would like to be able to call you every morning when I wake up and just get a little pep talk to start my day. Look, I'm under no delusion that everybody in the world loves me. Yeah, we have a lot of followers. We've got a great fan base and the restaurants benefit from it and the books and all that, whatever stuff we sell. It's all good.
But there's absolutely people that don't particularly like me all that much. And it might be a jealousy thing. I've been a cook slaving away for 20 years. I was this guy with no fricking training. Now he just shows up and all of a sudden everything's roses for him.
Sara: This guy smashed potatoes into a tortilla.
Sam: But I think the one thing that no one can say about me is that I'm either fake, I'm phony. Or there's two versions of me. My wife, Kelly would say, if you like me on YouTube or on TV, you'll like me off because I'm the same person. She also says, if you hate me on TV or YouTube, you'll hate me off because I'm the same person.
Sam: It's good. Just having one version of yourself. I remember years ago, a guy in the knife business, who supplied knives to lots of very famous cooks and stuff on TV. Said, “If you think that people you see cooking on TV are the same when they get off camera.” He goes, “They're not, you're the same.” He goes, “It's weird that you are so much the same.” He goes, “But other people, Bobby Flay, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, all these guys, there's one of them on, and then there's another of them off.”
AJ: It's funny, Sam, you know, I'm a big fan of cooking in these cooking shows and when they shifted to doing more reality, like competition shows. And people that used to just talk to the camera while they cooked were now being followed with cameras and you saw their real personalities. You could absolutely say you're like, “Oh my God. Giada is a bitch.”
Sara: I was wondering if you were going to say that.
Sam: I mean, look at this whole Ellen thing. She's like the sweetest happiest, most fun party girl on the planet. And then the audience leaves and she walks backstage and you're not allowed to look at her. And it's a hostile environment. I don't know how much of that is true, but I think that enough people came on and said, “Oh yeah, it's been ugly here for a while.”
AJ: Yeah. And it's funny because, if you had to guess who was the most successful guy well, statistically true on food network. And I happen to know a guy and he is exactly the same as you see him on camera.
Sam: See that's exactly what I would have thought. Exactly what I would have thought. Yeah.
AJ: A hundred percent. So authentic.
Sam-1: I saw Alton Brown at a giant food convention in Chicago once and he was standing, In the middle of one of those giant convention halls and his arms crossed and he was looking around and his entire body dripped with, if you get one inch closer, anybody, I'm going to hit you. I don't want to be nice. I don't want to talk. And you would never have approached him because you could just feel the vibe.
AJ: I had him on over the phone as a guest one time and he had the exact same vibe. And in fact, at one point I referenced something from a book and he goes, “I'm surprise to hear you say that. I didn't think radio personalities read books.”
Sam: He's enable. He had this policy for a while. I guess it's changed maybe in the early days of phones; he wouldn't allow his picture to be taken with a phone.
Sam: It had to be taken with a good camera. Come on, dude. Get the stick out of your ass right now. Right now.
AJ: I've always, I remember when I first moved to San Diego, the first time I was flipping through the channels and I saw you on TV and I stopped. Because I like cooking shows and you drop food on the floor and you picked it up and you rinsed it off. And I was like, who is this maniac?
Sam: Who doesn't do that? You show me. Look, the only people that don't do that are people that don't cook on television. So, that's me, but they wouldn't even show it falling. I met a guy, his job was a follow along cook for the Rachel Ray Show. So, as Rachel Ray was slicing a chicken breast to butterfly, he was doing the exact same thing with identical ingredients in case she burned it, he could bring out the exact same pot with the chicken, with the breadcrumbs and the Parmesan crispy to that point and just swop it out.
AJ: The cooking equivalent of a stunt double. I've never heard of that.
Sam: Yeah, she cut herself. I read in an early one of her shows and hard to make fun of her. She's really successful and has done very well.
Sam: I like it. But she cut herself---.
Sara: Yeah, but here we go.
Sam: ---once. And so they stopped the re the taping. They, fixed it, crazy glued it because you can do that. So, they crazy glue it to probably put some makeup on. Back the tape up a couple seconds and then continued like it hadn't happened.
So now, I'm on TV. I cut myself. I remember an episode, I spent the next five minutes with a giant watered up ball of paper towels in my hand, because it wouldn't stop bleeding
Sam: And we didn't show the blood. It's kind of gross and stuff. But if I drop something, if I cut myself or if I burned myself. We leave that stuff in. I've always thought it was just stupid. And I do that anyways, but I can't tell you how many people come up and point out that nonsense and go that's the stuff that makes us feel like it's okay to make mistakes.
AJ: But the beauty of that is that, cutting yourself and then showing the whole process of dealing with it is actual reality, which is now the opposite of what they do on these cooking shows. Every show has to have some plot now they can't just cook. It's like grandma's coming over with her best friend and it's going to be the first time. I don't care about any of this nonsense. And I know it's not real.
Sam: How about Ina Garten and Jeffrey?
Sara: I was just going to say, she's like, “Jeffery's upstairs taking a bath right now.”
Sam: And Jeffrey walks in and she's like, I made your favorite dinner and the Johnson's are here and we've gathered flowers and it's beautiful. And he's like, “Oh, I didn't know. This is great.” And how lovely and stuff. Come on, man. Quit dragging up fricking Jeffery it's enough with him.
AJ: I know. And honestly, if he was eating all the stuff she's making, just for him, he'd be morbidly obese by now. It's not happening.
Sara: Jeffrey's having three sticks of butter a day.
Sam: Oh, boy.
AJ: Well, boy, Sam, it's always so fun to talk to you, and we're so honored to call you a friend.
AJ: Thank you for taking the time and just to go full circle. We wanted to get caught up with you as one of the people that make San Diego awesome. But we wanted to encourage people to check out the Little Italy Food Hall as a place that makes San Diego awesome. Put it on your I'm going out into the world bucket list and put it near the top and go do it.
Sam: You don't have to wait to have relatives in from Nebraska to go see stuff that you haven't seen. It's really good, really healthy to have things look forward to. And then go see it. And look, if you hate Little Italy, if you hate me, you don't want to come down there, then go find another part of San Diego to take advantage of. It's gorgeous everywhere here. I love this City
AJ: It's amazing. You're the best, man. Thanks for taking the time.
Sam: You guys are awesome. Thank you.
AJ: Well, there you go. I have a feeling, this is going to happen a lot with this podcast, but, that episode made me hungry.
Sara: I know seriously, where are we meeting up next?
AJ: Exactly. Well, thank you for listening. If you have a minute to leave a review. Reviews, help more people listen. The more people listen, the longer we can do this. And, we're having a great time doing it.
Sara: Thank you. See you guys next time