4229 Front Street, Hillcrest
You might call this place Hillcrest’s secret. It’s an old house beside an open field in Hospital Land. All the UCSD nurses and doctors come here to avoid their own cafeterias. Plus, prices are low, subsidized-cafeteria range, so the joint is always run off its feet.
That doesn’t mean it’s not fun and the food ain’t good. It is. Letty’s has been serving coffee and more since the 1940s. It has only a small room inside but plenty of space out on the wooden decks built around the house, with tables, green umbrellas, lots of flowerpots. Interesting food specials change daily to keep those white-coats coming back.
The Bacon Breakfast Burrito is a steal. The Hawaiian Salad with mangoes, pecans, blue cheese, is really good for around $6. So’s the BBQ pork sandwich.
Mainly I come to sit, eavesdrop on ER talk, look across the open field, and have a Hillcrest meal without paying Hillcrest prices.
2953 Beech Street, South Park
It’s not just the patio and the excellent sandwiches — Grant’s Marketplace is special because these are the guys who got this part of town off its backside, made it okay to settle around here with your kids and start bringing all these great turn-of-the-century houses back to life.
When Joe and Kim Grant took what was a crummy corner liquor joint and turned it into a classy grocery-winery-café with seriously good sandwiches, people looked again at this end of South Park.
Sandwiches to try: hot pastrami, Joe’s Favorite (turkey, Gruyère, avo), the Californian (turkey, avo, bacon), and the BLT. All standard fare, but the bread’s great, and the stuffings are generous. Plus, you feel a part of the community; everyone hangs out here.
The one pity? They aren't allowed to let us sip a beer or a glass of wine on their deck. That would mean dropping into the bureaucratic labyrinth for months on end.
1125 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
There’s something about the way Mark Prendergast and Dave Toth (Mark’s Irish; Dave’s Canadian) have set up this pub that gives it a magical camaraderie; it's a haven for downtown’s lost souls. Regular-hour food prices are a bit high (dishes like shepherd’s pie run $10–$12), but the daily happy hour from 4–8pm offers plenty of cheap options, such as the Canadian staple Poutine (fries, gravy, fresh cheese curd), or sophisticated little numbers like mussels in white wine and garlic sauce, both around five bucks. The Stout Burger’s a beautiful half-pound mess around $8.
The main reason to come is the chat; a lot of these guys and gals make you use your little gray cells. Sports are big, especially hockey. When Stanley Cup season’s on, watch out. The place fills with Canucks, East Europeans, Russians, and East-Coasters.
1548 Quivira Way, Mission Beach
This is the place with signposts such as “Pago Pago, 4942 miles”; “Mustang Ranch, $100 from Vegas”; “Dog Beach, 50 Butt Sniffs” — though it’s really just an ordinary sandwich/snack joint, set up to keep Mission Bay boatyard workers from starving.
What makes it a must-visit is what happens on weekends, when they shift the operation outside. They sell brewskis, really sloppy dogs (try the spicy sausage hotdog), excellent burgers from the palapa, and during the summer, have jammin’ live music from bands like Swamp Critters playing on the grass.
The Tiki Bar is every Friday–Sunday in the afternoon, from 2-6pm. Live music’s usually Sunday afternoons only (and not during winter). It’s a scene. Everybody gathers, catches a brew from the four-sided Tiki Bar, and orders eats from the deli, such as the grilled chicken burger or Ville de Paris salad or the occasional spaghetti dinner (a great value at around a Lincoln).
Sundays, it’s a picnic. You can dance on the grass to the band, and nobody looks stupid. This is where you’ll find that time-warp, knockabout waterfront town we came for in the first place.
He used to drive his own gastro truck around town, cooking up not just Indian but South Indian (some say the real Indian) food that everyone could afford.
Problem was, most people couldn’t find him. So Allen Sem found a place (Spice Court) in Little India where he could set up in the back.
“I am Tamil,” he says, “from Hyderabad, so I know southern Indian cooking. Just like your Southern cooking, it is more flavorful, more exciting than northern Indian food. Nothing is canned. Every sauce I make here.”
For starters, try the dosa. Along with Hyderabadi biryani, it’s one of the go-to southern dishes, a way-big fermented rice crêpe — a crispy golden flute with spicy potato inside — and rich sambar (lentil soup) to dip it in, plus dollops of sauces: green mango, sautéed onions, coconut, green coriander, and if you really want to be daring, a lethal little bowl of red chiles, featuring the ghost chili. Allen says it’s “the world’s hottest chili.”
Allen’s place is modest — four tables in a grocery shop, no giant golden elephants — but he is the real thing.
7837 Girard Street, La Jolla
This is the time of year for Girard Gourmet. “We have a one-acre garden up in Julian that my husband François tends each week,” Diana Goedhuys told me. She looks and sounds just like Julia Child. “We have been composting it for eight years, and it’s really starting to pay off, everything from eggplant to eggs to pears to peaches. We have 40 fruit and nut trees. And it will all come down to enter our little food chain here.”
The beans I have with my roast chicken, the squash, the parsnips, chopped and sautéed beautifully with potatoes, all have come down the mountain and all have vibrant flavors. And we’re paying eight, ten bucks for these full, mostly homegrown meals.
Stephanie, the gal in the Hobbit-like seating on the sidewalk, is spooning up a soup of tomatillos and zucchini that were also plucked from François’s garden, you can bet.
“It’s a meal,” she says. With a chunk of eight-grain bread, it cost her $3.77. In La Jolla? Go figure.
Hey, if this place is good enough for Tiger Woods… Seriously, he used to come down with his buddies for paintball war games at the military range nearby, then pop into the Campo Diner. Always had a cheeseburger, medium rare, with fries.
Debbie Benjamin and Carmen DeLaGuerra-Sylva, two gals who grew up around Campo, bought the place a couple of years ago and now run it for what it is: a for-real down-home country diner. It’s like the glue that holds the scattered people in this rural area together. Heck, there’s pretty much nothing else for 20 miles either way.
It’s hard to miss, too. Bright paint outside, right at Cameron Corners on Highway 94. Inside has that traditional counter with squishy red stools. Breakfasts, like omelets, are around the $8 to $10 mark, but you can get two eggs with home fries and a biscuit and gravy for $5.95. Burgers — certified Black Angus beef — go from $7 (quarter-pounder) to $8 (half-pounder with fries or coleslaw).
Warning: watch out for the triple-decker Clubhouse Sandwich. It is truly ginormous. For snake-jaws only.
600 Palm Avenue, Suite 300, Imperial Beach
In this location, they have no right to succeed. It’s the graveyard of a bunch of previous brave wannabe eateries. But Meijo Sushi, the Vietnamese-owned Japanese place on the edge of I.B., is a wild success. Something about the owners’ fun-loving personalities has endeared them to locals.
Like, they have masu, wooden sake boxes, dangling, each with the name of a customer. Guy comes back from a WestPac, first thing he does is fill his personal masu with sake and down it. Then he’s really home.
Main dishes can get up there, but the place has daily specials, such as sushi mix, fried gyoza (dumpling), tiger eyes (calamari stuffed with salmon), or dream rolls (with tempura shrimp, avocado, and cream cheese inside, and tuna, shrimp, and spicy crab outside) — all falling between $5 and $9.
And they don’t skimp. The sushi mix has five different kinds of fish on rice, plus nine sushi rolls. And it comes on china with a beautiful Japanese motif. And yet, somehow they keep it lighthearted and down to earth.
They even have tacos — except they spell it with a k. Tako in Japanese means octopus. Tako salad is chopped and seasoned octopus with vegetables.
You should visit this deli for its fabulous arty bathrooms alone. And for its quirky, beautifully carved, purpose-built house. And for its musicians who play in the patio at night. And because the place is open 24 hours every day except the Sabbath, which is celebrated from Friday lunchtime till Sunday lunchtime.
The people who run Yellow Deli are a community of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They try to live like the early Christians.
Their house-restaurant is a collection of rooms, caves, alcoves, barn doors, raw wood, and poles, like a ship (an ark, maybe?).
And, man, they deliver on the food. Yes, it’s a little bit nuts-and-twigs, but they have beef and lamb sandwiches. And salads come direct from their garden in Valley Center, picked today. And wonderful wholesome soups. The potato-cheese soup’s to die for. You can get a cupful for four bucks and change. And the veggieburger would fool even my dedicated carnivore Carla.
But don’t expect TV screens. “TV has replaced the hearth,” says one of the crew.
“‘Hearth,’ ‘heart,’ same word.”
Instead, they have live bands of guys playing mandolins, zithers, and drums, and they hold discussions on subjects like “Should spanking be allowed?”