San Diego is known the world over for many things — the beach, the weather, its proximity to Mexico — but until recently, that list didn’t include food. Some people may not be hip to the fact that San Diego is in the middle of a culinary awakening. Sure, this remains the land of Cali burritos, carne asada fries and fish tacos, both of which are delicious and in good supply. But there are inventive tasting menus to be had, an acceptance and celebration of the fact that San Diego is smack-dab in the middle of exceptional marine biodiversity and plenty of ingredients plucked straight from the farm and garden and delivered to you on a plate. This is a list of must-hits while in San Diego, and includes everything from casual tacos and ceviches to sit-down extravaganzas worthy of a robust expense account. What’s common to everything on this list is simple: it’s all exceptionally delicious.
Head Chef Aarti Sanghavi is serving what could easily be described as San Diego’s best and most interesting food right now. Local La Jolla favorite The Hake closed up shop for several months during 2016 and reopened in October to rave reviews and with a newly-installed ocean view. Growing up in an Indian kitchen, Sanghavi was inspired by the flavors of her youth and from other travels, notably to Baja California and Mexico City. Because of this, her cooking is globally-informed and her menu all the better for it. In Sanghavi’s kitchen, tuna is cooked all the way through, carnitas style, a welcome and intriguing change from pork. Opah, a lesser-known fish local to California’s waters, is ground up and seasoned like chorizo, coming adorned with a 63-degree egg and house-made naan. It bears striking resemblance to its meatier cousin and will, undoubtedly, become a signature dish of hers. The surprises extend to Proof, their house bar helmed by mixologist Joan Villanueva, who is a savant when it comes to creating and mixing and who has a penchant for creating his own bitters. After trying one of his proprietary on-menu cocktails, don’t be shy to ask for an off-menu follow-up. thehake.com.
Fresh fish is something easily found in San Diego. At Ceviche House, they specialize in — no surprise here — ceviche, which comes to diners in various forms: tostada, bowl or lettuce wrap. All dishes are made to order, whether it’s one of the aforementioned ceviches or tiraditos, which are raw fish slices akin to sashimi. Not sticking to just Peruvian specialties, Ceviche House also serves aguachiles and tostadas, a nod to San Diego’s closer southern neighbor, Mexico, and is perfect for those who like to kick the heat up a notch. In particular, the yellowtail tiradito with avocado, bean sprouts, citrus soy, thai basil, chili flakes and garlic is a perfect SoCal-Peru-Asian mash-up with just the right heat, freshness, acid and umami. Facebook Page.
San Diego’s go-to spot for agave spirits is more than “just” a bar. North Park’s 11-year-old mainstay, Cantina Mayahuel, has just about everything you could want from an agave plant: tequila, mezcal, sotol, bacanora, raicilla and anything else that may filter through its doors. They’re also serving some of San Diego’s best Mexican food, with a limited menu, befitting cantina-style. Another bonus are the prices: both the drinks and food are reasonably priced in a city that’s getting more expensive by the minute — part of this is their commitment to making rarer Mexican spirits available for people to try. Enhancing this are nightly specials — locals favor the Tuesday mole con pollo — and the knowledgeable and friendly bar staff, who quickly become friends. Facebook Page.
TRUST, which is just over a year old, has brought glory back to Hillcrest. Known to be the epicenter of San Diego’s dining scene just a few years ago, since then other neighborhoods have stepped up and in. TRUST still manages to elude a certain swath of the city, which is ridiculous, because TRUST is, easily, one of the best restaurants in San Diego. A modern, smartly designed space by Jonathan Segal plays host to New American cuisine that won’t make your eyes roll. Chef Brad Wise uses live fire to cook up fresh vegetables, meats and seafood with high flavor and creative combinations: wood-grilled cauliflower with golden raisins, mint, serrano aioli and curry vinaigrette, for example. The menu is comprised mostly of shared plates, like pork sausage with snap peas, gnocchi, sourdough bread crumbs, morels, kale and arugula cream, and are portioned generously enough to actually share. One tip: always get whatever ricotta agnolotti is on the menu, the “late night style” flat iron steak and the profiteroles, which are topped with salted caramel and filled with banana cream. You can thank us later. trustrestaurantsd.com.
Paradise Point’s in-house restaurant was yet another San Diego spot to shake things up in 2016. Tidal brought in a new executive chef, DJ Tangalin, who streamlined and remade the menu in his signature style: California coastal with Mediterranean and Filipino influences. Tangalin has trained in many upscale and Michelin-starred kitchens, which shows in the modern presentation and execution of his dishes. Expect bold flavors that play off of sweet, salty, acidic, bitter and sour and plenty of seafood. Some dishes are obviously Filipino inspired: instead of a plain bread basket, you can try pandesal, which in Tangalin’s world comes out sweet with garlic parmesan and turmeric butter. Seared pacific swordfish is served with stewed mung bean, bitter melon berigoule, pancetta and spinach. For carnivores, a Jidori chicken is served adobo style, with a twist: a side of broccoli rabe and patatas panadera accompany it. All this in a breezy, open space that looks out directly onto Mission Bay. Facebook Page.
Every city has a go-to fried chicken spot and San Diego’s is The Crack Shack, now with two locations in Little Italy and Encinitas. Of course, the fried chicken here is stellar, but you’d be remiss not to tour the menu a bit. The chicken oysters, which are fried bits of dark meat that are usually discarded, are juicy and more flavorful than any chicken you’ve ever had. The sandwiches are also not to be missed: the Coop Deville is a fan favorite, with fried chicken, pickled fresno chiles, lime mayo and napa cabbage on brioche. There’s an option to add cheddar and bacon but, honestly, the sandwich is perfect as is. Both locations have hybrid indoor-outdoor seating and a fun, irreverent atmosphere, so all you have to do is show up ready to enjoy — just make sure you get enough biscuits with miso butter to go around. crack-shack.com.
The Taco Stand
Feeling the burn for Tijuana-style street tacos but not interested in braving the border wait back? La Jolla’s The Taco Stand will take care of that for you, offering slightly California-ified versions of Mexican street taco classics They have the standard street taco offerings, from pork on a spit for a delectable al pastor to some of San Diego’s best fish tacos and a range of agua frescas and paletas to wash everything down with. One thing to know is the parking isn’t great and it is always exceptionally crowded — but you wanted the Tijuana taco experience, right? Plus, that means the tacos are guaranteed to always be fresh and made-to-order, which is one of The Taco Stand’s main promises to its customers. letstaco.com.
The Red Door
While many restaurants call themselves “farm-to-table,” few restaurants live it in practice. Enter: The Red Door in Mission Hills. They source direct from a number of farmers and other food producers in San Diego County, which sometimes includes owner Trish Watlington’s personal garden. Chef Miguel Valdez brings his personal touch to the restaurant’s vegetable-heavy but varied menu, adding surprising flavors and playing with textures in a way that will surprise even the most staid meat eater. As an added bonus, the owners closed their previous next door neighbor, The Wellington, which they also owned, due to the complications of sourcing ethically-processed beef in San Diego (the county lacks a beef processing plant). It was wisely replaced with The Bar by Red Door, which has an inspired bar menu and original garden-inspired cocktails. thereddoorsd.com.
The Little Lion Cafe
Opened by the grandchildren of the now-shuttered Ocean Beach favorite The Belgian Lion, the Little Lion Cafe is an oasis at the edge of Sunset Cliffs. If there was one overriding philosophy determining the menu, simple and delicious would be it. The menu spans genres and cooking styles, with Jidori fried chicken sitting alongside a superfood bowl of in-season vegetables and quinoa. The tiny, railroad-style dining room manages to be cozy rather than overbearing and the atmosphere warm and welcoming. It’s a favorite for brunch-goers, with good coffee and standard favorites like baked eggs in cream with leeks and goat cheese or a poached egg selection that changes daily. What fewer people know is that, at night, they dim the lights and serve dinner with the same unpretentious, sprawling style and spot-on execution that they tackle breakfast and lunch with. littlelioncafe.com.
TJ Oyster Bar
The best sit-down option for Baja-style mariscos north of the border, TJ Oyster Bar in Chula Vista is churning out addiction-worthy tostadas, aguachiles, soups, tacos and, true to its name, oysters and other raw shellfish. The original, in Tijuana, coined the term “Tijuana-style seafood,” which generally means as fresh as possible raw or barely cooked seafood, often in tostada, taco or cocktail form. TJ Oyster Bar has a sprawling menu, all seafood-oriented and we say keep it simple: start with raw oysters, move on to a tostada and cap it off with some tacos or a stew. tjoysterbar.com.
Kettner Exchange could be considered a victim of its own success — the fact that it turns “clubby” after 10 PM has turned some serious diners away, but that’s their loss. Chef Brian Redzikowski, now a few years in and formerly of Joel Robuchon and Nobu, is still cooking really solid food while Steven Tuttle and his lauded bar staff continue to churn out creative craft cocktails. The bar program has been so successful that Tuttle’s Kettner tiki creations spurned a new venture for the restaurant group, The Grass Skirt, which is a tiki bar and poke shop in Pacific Beach. At Kettner, however, Redzikowski continues to shine, particularly at his monthly Chef’s Table dinners, where he lets loose and cooks to his heart’s desire. Lately, that means more French fine dining, which is a win for everyone. kettnerexchange.com.
Carlsbad Village’s latest newcomer is shaking things up in a big way. Inspired by live-fire Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, Chef Andrew Bachelier brought the concept to San Diego County. The result is Campfire: a restaurant designed from a Moonrise Kingdom fever dream with fired-up meat and fish, market-inspired cocktails and — lest you think they forgot — s’mores. One of the most heavenly dishes on the menu is beef brisket with chimichurri, sushi rice and furikake, best paired with the roasted broccoli with chermoula, lime and candied peanut. The Charred Parsnip cocktail is made with charcoal, tequila, lime and salt and places you squarely in the fire without any actual smoke. The roasted whole fish is also always a solid bet, even with the catch changing daily. Though it’s a 30-40 minute drive outside San Diego proper, it’s well worth the hike for some of the county’s most creative and comforting food and drinks. thisiscampfire.com.
Cesar is tucked into a shopping center right behind Fairbanks Ranch Country Club. In an area not especially known as a dining hotspot, Richard and Terumi Mazzera set up shop in late 2016, arriving to Rancho Santa Fe from Berkeley and bringing their famous restaurant with them. The original Cesar, which is still open next door to Chez Panisse, is a tapas restaurant inspired by Richard’s travels and culinary discoveries in Spain. He’s a Chez Panisse alum, himself, which means that the excellent food he serves is ethically sourced and seasonal. Expect an ever-changing tapas list with plenty of vegetables, the finest imported Spanish ham, a sprawling sherry list and one of the best paellas this side of the Mediterranean. cesartapas.com.
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub
Being along the coast, San Diego is expected to have good sushi. The best is found north of the city in Oceanside, where chef Davin Waite is waiting to blow your mind with his one-of-a-kind omakase creations. Waite sources only sustainable fish from local fisherman and, to quote him, ingredients are, “carefully chosen, grown or made from scratch.” In a town called Oceanside, that’s a good thing to hear, especially at a joint billed as, “where the chefs eat.” We could tell you about all the wonderful things on the menu but really, you just have to go, submit to Waite and power through the omakase. That’s when he shines, and everyone will be better for it. seabasstropub.com.
Grand Ole BBQ y Asado
Often touted as San Diego’s best Texas-style barbecue, Grand Ole BBQ y Asado in North Park has other tricks up its sleeve. For example, an entire Argentine asado menu, which BBQ master Andy Harris sometimes cooks up in tandem or in place of its Texan options. That means choripan, Argentine cuts, morcilla, chimichurri and brisket, all in one place. Basically, this is full-on barbecue heaven. The line starts when they open and they close up shop when they run out. Recently, Grande Ole’s popularity has skyrocketed, meaning meat lovers should make sure to hit the opening bell. grandolebbq.com.
Los Angeles-native Isabel Cruz is at the helm at this Pacific Beach cantina dedicated to fusing Mexican and other Latin American flavors with Asian inspiration. The simple fact is that everything on the menu is great, whether you want tacos (we say: spring for the carnitas), chile relleno, the ahi platter or pepita-crusted catch of the day. This being Southern California, Cruz makes sure vegetarians are at home as well, with soyrizo tacos, lots of tofu, a kale salad with jicama and cumin vinaigrette and plenty of bowl options, served with rice. Isabel’s Cantina also has a commitment to using sustainable and organic produce, which shows up in everything from the lettuce Cruz uses to the fish she cooks. This is Mexican-fusion home cooking at its finest, and fans might also want to check out Barrio Star, in Banker’s Hill, which is Cruz’s love letter to more modern Mexican-style cooking. isabelscantinasd.com.
If you’re hanging around Ocean Beach long enough, you’ll inevitably hear someone ask: “Have you been to Azucar yet?” This cozy restaurant on the main drag in “OB” is San Diego’s best bet for Cuban food, with a French twist, befitting owner Vivian Hernandez-Jackson’s culinary training. Doubling as a bakery and cafe, Azucar dutifully serves guava and cheese-stuffed pastries alongside perfectly executed Cuban sandwiches. The coffee is excellent too, coming from Gavina Coffee Company, who started their business in Cuba in 1870 and moved it to California in 1969. Talk about keeping it true-to-home and local. Facebook Page.
In a city that is known for Mexican food, other Latin American countries’ cuisines are sometimes overlooked. There are large Salvadoran communities all over Southern California, and San Diego is no exception. Silvia’s, in National City, is known for its pupusas, which are stuffed with beans, cactus, chicharron, cheese, chicken, pork, jalapenos and any combination you can think of, often with a side of yuca frita. It’s cash only, but that shouldn’t be a problem: most pupusas clock in around $2. It’s easy to miss as it’s in a shopping center and overshadowed by a large (and high quality) poke place, so keep your eyes peeled. Facebook Page.
Tacos El Gordo
This is a relatively uncontroversial choice. The Tijuana taco chain has two confirmed locations — one in Otay Ranch and the other, more crowded, location in Chula Vista. A third location in National City, which recently and ominously changed from Tacos el Gordo to Tacos El G, is also serving up piping hot, fresh and delicious Tijuana-style street tacos. The key is to go when the crowds are there: though you’ll have to wait, you guarantee you get whatever meat is fresh off the grill or spit. Adobada is the move here, but lengua (tongue) is another favorite, as well. This is your move for when you’re feeling the border burn but don’t want to have to deal with crossing and waiting on la linea to return to San Diego. tacoselgordobc.com.
In San Diego’s Mexican heart of Barrio Logan is Salud, a taqueria with a sprawling and truly delicious menu meant for everyone who walks through the door. It’s billed as a casual eatery, meant to bring people together to eat unassuming, well-crafted food while drinking plenty of San Diego’s excellent craft beer — no frills. Just good Mexican food. The tortillas are made by the locally-famous San Diego Taco Company and if beer isn’t your thing, we recommend you try the horchata. If it is, down the block is Border X, a brewery with Mexican-inspired beers like the Blood Saison, flavored with Jamaica or the blonde Horchata Stout. A short walk further down the block reveals the famous murals of Chicano Park, necessary for learning history of Mexican culture and heritage in the United States and San Diego. saludsd.com.
This partially open-air restaurant in La Jolla Cove is San Diego’s best answer to California-style Mexican food. Expect tostadas, piled high with octopus alongside aguachiles, michelada-steamed mussels, blue corn squash quesadillas with huitlacoche, grilled fish al pastor tacos and a satisfying grilled avocado taco with bean puree, corn and lime. They have regular chef drop-ins, who take things into their own hands by introducing specialties more in their own wheelhouse, like when Susana Trilling from Oaxaca came and treated the restaurant to mole con pollo tacos with fresh blue corn tortillas. Drinks, like the Death Star with mango-pineapple-chili infused tequila, sangrita, lime, Mandarin-Napoleon and a tajin-Chamoy rim, further cement Galaxy Taco’s commitment to experimentation with classic Mexican flavors. galaxytaco.com.
Header image from Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub