I have a love-hate relationship with San Diego. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word. I love the weather and natural beauty; I “regret” the lack of culture and good food. I have discussed this dilemma with many San Diegans—why is San Diego, the eighth largest city in the country, bigger than foodie playgrounds San Francisco and Seattle, so devoid of intellectual curiosity and an ambitious restaurant scene? The two go hand in hand, if you ask me. If you’re not curious about the outside world, and, let’s say, never travel to places other than Las Vegas (Disneyland for adults) or Hawaii (San Diego on steroids), how do you expect to compete as a cosmopolitan city if you don’t know what other cities have to offer? Hone your taste buds by eating a shrimp po’ boy on toasted buttery bread in New Orleans; or paper-thin egg pasta with Brussels sprouts and pancetta in North Beach, San Francisco; or Szechuan soup spiked with chili oil and scallions in Flushing, Queens; then tell me you don’t demand more from your chefs back home. I don’t blame it on the chefs either. Try making an inventive meal and having someone who thinks “Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade” is tops push it around on her plate.
Luckily, we’re starting to come around. In the 13 years my family has been here, I’ve seen highways widen and condos go up overnight on vacant hills, and I have seen restaurants go from mediocre to good, if not great. As Riviera San Diego magazine editor Troy Johnson put it in a recent review of Cafe Chloe: “I’m yet another native who thinks his city isn’t cool enough. An apologist for Tommy Bahamas and tribal tattoos. Guilty. It’s getting better. We’re no longer a chain depository.”
And so we set out, spurred by the visit of Andrew’s sister Eileen from Brooklyn, to Linda Vista and Downtown, to Escondido and Encinitas, to the much-talked-about restaurants I had scribbled on a list but mostly never made it to, for fish tacos on the beach, Pad Thai in a BYOB hole-in-the-wall, and double IPA from one of the country’s premier microbreweries. I’m with you, San Diego; let’s do this.
If there is one dish that San Diego is known for, it’s fish tacos, borrowed from beach-stand vendors in Baja. Whether you like it battered and fried, or lightly grilled with a spritz of lime, where to get the best fish tacos in the city is a circuitous debate. My friend prefers the Brigantine in Del Mar, but I find their tacos inconsistent at best (though, if you go, order the blackened swordfish taco). I’ve also heard the lobster taco, in particular, is worth a try at World Famous in Pacific Beach. Chef Trey Foshee does an upscale deconstructed version at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla. But there is one spot that consistently comes up as someone’s favorite, and we were headed for it, at the end of Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, just steps from the sand: South Beach Bar & Grille.
We went for the taco trifecta [pictured above]. From left to right: teriyaki-and-pineapple-marinated mahi (my favorite), wine-and-garlic-sautéed spiny lobster (a little subtle under all that dressing), and a completely satisfying fried pollock (what’s not to like?). The garnish—pico de gallo, cabbage, crema, and melted cheddar cheese—was delivered in heaps and thus a little overpowering, but overall the tacos hit the spot. Note to purists: they use flour tortillas in lieu of the traditional corn. And avoid the ceviche taco—a soppy afterthought.
Now what I’d really come back for is the fried calamari. Normally, I hate fried calamari: frozen-then-fried gummy rings that non-seafood-lovers usually opt for when there’s no meat on the menu. It’s a tasteless sea equivalent to bad French fries. These, however, were hand-cut in-house from calamari steaks (thickly, as you can see) and were surprisingly tender. We added a little Valentina hot sauce (props for not putting the ubiquitous Tabasco on the table) and took these down heartily.
Ocean Beach is not for the faint of heart. Newport Avenue [pictured at top] is a divey strip of second-hand stores and bikini shops that seem designed for a tourist set that left years ago. A youth hostel sits at the midpoint of the street, and you will more than likely get panhandled by homeless teenagers on skateboards. But these few short blocks are home to not only a fish taco destination but a top burger joint as well. Hodad’s consistently tops reader’s polls, citing the bacon burger as lead contender. Insiders will have to tell me when there’s not a line out the door and around the corner so I can finally try it (though I have issues with not knowing the origin of the meat… Sysco, anyone?).
After lunch, we took a walk on the pier.
Next, I’ve always loved Thai food, and Sab-E-Lee had been on my list for a while. A six-table eatery on a missable corner in Linda Vista, we had come prepared with beer (BYOB) and the knowledge that a “4” on the spicy scale here equals an “8” anywhere else.
From left to right: Pad Thai with shrimp (very nice), green papaya salad (sinus-clearingly spicy; a positive!), Nahm Tok (charbroiled beef, rice powder, onion, chili, lime—this was much better at Pok Pok in Portland), steamed and sticky rice, and chicken Panang curry.
Since they had run out of fried whole fish in a spicy homemade sauce, we opted for sticky-sweet garlicky chicken wings, also similar to those we had at Pok Pok (and decidedly different from the their American counterparts). Overall verdict: If Sab-E-Lee were closer to home, I’d be getting take-out a lot (as the constant stream of customers was doing while we ate), but I wasn’t as impressed as I’d hoped to be. Still, it’s a great option to know about when in the neighborhood—a goes-without-saying superior choice over P.F. Chang‘s or the Cheesecake Factory when shopping at nearby Fashion Valley, for example.
After dinner, we listened briefly to a DJ at Bar Dynamite in Mission Hills-slash-the-highway, got distracted by three guys in Lucha Libre costumes eating tacos with their masks on at Lucha Libre Taco Shop (paid actors?), and then—we are bad, bad, bad—finished the night with French fries and the legendary homemade ice cream sandwich at Starlite (a must-try: the Brandt beef burger with melted onions and Gruyère). Starlite is also my go-to when picking people up from the airport at night—cute bar, fun cocktails, and a menu that goes until midnight.
The next day it was a road trip to Escondido for a visit to Stone Brewery, a frequent recommendation for its award-winning craft beer, its backyard gardens, and the kitchen’s dedication to seasonal, local, and organic produce. They use “natural” meat (I would have preferred “organic” since “natural” doesn’t really mean anything) and are 100% high-fructose-syrup-free (though, it may not surprise you, I didn’t see many people drinking fruit juices at the bar). Also, don’t miss taking the Del Dios (S6) Highway to get there (through Rancho Santa Fe)—it’s a two-way country road that curves between massive hillsides and along Lake Hodges.
Eileen started off with the Stone Ruination IPA Soup, and had a glass of it for good measure (the ultimate pairing, I suppose). The soup has “tons of roasted garlic, extra-sharp white cheddar cheese, and more than a splash of Stone Ruination IPA.” (The orange color comes from smoked paprika and that’s a broccoli tempura nugget bobbing at center.)
We couldn’t stop stealing the thick and meaty applewood-smoked bacon from Andrew’s Bruschetta BLT sandwich, which also had organic tomato, arugula, roasted garlic mayonnaise, and Carlsbad Gourmet whole grain mustard on (very tasty) house-made toasted ciabatta bread.
I had a satisfying Cubano-Style Sandwich with house-cured ham, homemade habanero pickles (they made the dish for me), Gruyère cheese, and Stone IPA mustard, also on house-made ciabatta.
Eileen found the Spicy Almond Crusted Tilapia a little on the sweet side—probably the organic honey butter sauce that accompanied the stir-fried green beans, maitake mushrooms, barley, and quinoa.
That night, dinner at one of my favorite places: Yu Me Ya, AKA the Sake House. They had me at reggae. That is, it’s a small Japanese tapas house run by two beyond-welcoming women from Osaka, yet it always has a decidedly-not-Japanese reggae soundtrack. (No sashimi here; for traditional Japanese I always go to Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach, and I have yet to hit less conventional sister restaurant Hane Sushi in Banker’s Hill.)
Insider tip: Yu Me Ya is small and popular, so if you’d rather not nurse an Asahi for an hour in the entranceway, it’s best to make a reservation Tuesday-Thursday, the only times they take them, as opposed to walking in on the weekend (closed Sunday and Monday).
First up, I always request Yuka’s favorite dry sake from Osaka; I can never remember the name, of course, but it translates as “fly into the clouds,” which she says is the desired effect anyway. As she pours, she administers the same guidelines time and again: “It’s bad luck to lift the glass to take your first sip” (i.e. pull the dish toward you and sip directly from the rim). “When you have finished the sake in the glass, pour the sake that has overflowed from the dish into your glass.” Will do!
We begin with seaweed salad, silken tofu with bonito flakes and green onion, and “tuna carpaccio” and avocado in wonton cups. See the origami bird on the napkin? Everyone gets one when they sit down. We asked Yuka if she folds them herself. She said, “Every night, about 80 of them,” and then motioned like she was shooting herself in the head. “Usually with lots of sake.”
These sausages (a result of German influence in Japan) taste suspiciously like hot dogs but are a guilty pleasure here, especially with the spicy mustard sauce.
My two staples: vegetable roll (oh, delicious gobo—looks like carrot but so much better) with brown rice (though tonight they had only white rice) and steaming shrimp shumai dumplings. (Other great picks: black cod miso and baked baby scallops with mushrooms)
After dinner, we went to a concert at Solana Beach’s Belly Up, an intimate venue for up-and-coming bands and a few headliners. Tonight was Miguel, a young R&B performer with an attitude somewhere between Usher and Kanye.
Next, you can’t come to San Diego and not eat Mexican food. My neighborhood favorite is Fidel’s, but we thought it might be fun to take Eileen to a classic: Old Town Mexican Cafe in—you guessed it—Old Town (plus it’s near the airport and she had a red-eye). Old Town is a bit like the Mexican section of Epcot: historically it is the birthplace of San Diego but visit during the day and you’ll see a lot of fanny packs and jumbo margarita specials.
Old Town Mexican Cafe is known for its corn tortillas made fresh on-site. This was at 8pm on a Wednesday.
A tasty rotisserie chicken (mole sauce on the side) and tender carne asada tacos
Carnitas (pork) taco and chicken enchilada verde—when in doubt, always go with carnitas, and it was no exception here (translation: that enchilada was dry, dry, dry).
Finally, Eileen had successfully departed full and tired, but I had to add one more spot to the mix: a new pizzeria in Encinitas that has finally saved us from the city’s mediocre pizza offerings, particularly in North County San Diego where we live.
Blue Ribbon Pizzeria is run by Wisconsin-born Wade Hageman and his wife Kristi. The restaurant offers a handful of (often local) handcrafted beers, but Wade unapologetically prefers tall-boy PBR’s (also on the menu).
In for lunch for the first time, we tried the bruschetta special: at left, the BLT salad (butter lettuce, applewood-smoked bacon, cherry tomatoes, aioli) and, at right, the Caprese (mozzarella, tomato, basil). Other appetizers worth trying are the full BLT salad, creamy burrata with arugula, and La Quercia prosciutto with apple butter, pommery mustard, and housemade pickles.
Jeez, I want to dive in all over again. The dough undergoes a 3-day fermentation, which I learned in Italy allows for easier digestion and avoids that “bloated pizza belly” since it essentially continues to ferment in there. At top, the “Rustic” (tomato, mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage “from sustainable Duroc pork,” roasted peppers); at bottom, the “Red Oak” (tomato, mozzarella, ricotta, La Quercia prosciutto, arugula). It’s also the first pizza I’ve found that is almost as good when heated up the next day.
If you have room, the one-and-only dessert is worth getting: a takeoff of the butterscotch budino (this one with dark rum, vanilla bean, and sea salt) served at L.A’s Pizzeria Mozza. Blue Ribbon even posted the recipe if you want to take a crack at it.
And, to wrap it all up, San Diego might have a ways to go on the food front, but she sure is purdy! A couple shots from the 360-degree-view atop Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in La Jolla (a must-see with visitors):
Looking south toward Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, and Downtown
Looking north toward La Jolla, Solana Beach, and Encinitas
Other recommended restaurants:
Local/sustainable/organic: Urban Solace, Solace and the Moonlight Lounge, Sea & Smoke, Blind Lady Ale House, Tender Greens, True Food Kitchen, Urban Pi
Breakfast/Brunch: Prepkitchen, The Red Door, Snooze Eatery, Claire’s on Cedros, R Gang Eatery
Baja Border: Plancha Baja Med (pop-ups)
Burgers (grass-fed/organic): Public Priority House, Burger Lounge, The Craftsman, Pure Burger
Dessert: Extraordinary Desserts
Fancy: Addison, George’s California Modern
French/Bistro: Cafe Chloe, Whisknladle
Italian: Buona Forchetta, Davanti Enoteca, Bencotto
Japanese: Sushi Ota, Sushi Dokoro Shirahama, Azuki Sushi, Nozomi
Mexican: Fidel’s Little Mexico, El Comal, Haggo’s Organic Taco
Pizza: Buona Forchetta, Blind Lady Ale House, Urban Pi
Thai: Thai Society