I’ve moved around my entire life, so my memories are loaded with the kind of special meal you associate with a meaningful person, place, or time. Some of the special meals I’ve chosen remind me of dishes or drinks I’ve loved elsewhere and sought out in San Diego. Some tie me forever to local neighborhoods I’ve called home. But fear not — I wouldn’t recommend a place just because it gives me the warm fuzzies. All these spots have proven worthy of my many repeat visits.
2806 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
My first beer was Orion, brewed near my high school home on the island of Okinawa. The crisp rice lager still satisfies, especially paired with great sushi. That’s not a given in the U.S., but this Shelter Island seafood spot more than accommodates. When old friends visit, we hit Umi to share some cold Orion, nostalgia, and a Love Boat. That would be the smaller of Umi’s boat-shaped sushi-platter combos. A rainbow roll, two hand rolls, and ten nigiri happen to comprise the perfect-size sushi order for two people — no need to be in love to enjoy it.
5025 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Like many a transplant, my first San Diego address had a 92107 zip code. I chose O.B. for the beach and counterculture — not so much for the food. Still, BBQ House quickly became my favorite, thanks to tender roasted meats lathered in the house sauce — a thick, brown, less vinegary take on Kansas City style, spiced to order. I instantly became a regular, meeting a friend there every week to talk about writing over ribs or beef sandwiches, often between rounds as we bar-hopped Newport. Now that the larger, remodeled restaurant has a legit taplist, who needs the other bars?
3933 30th Street, North Park
Any coffee drinker who doesn’t yet understand the value of fresh-roasted beans needs to visit Calabria and see what they’re missing. The Italy-inspired coffeehouse was the first roaster I found when I moved here, and it saved my mornings from the burnt, expired beans of a certain ubiquitous global chain. These days, Calabria stays open at night, when its wood-fired oven starts churning out Neapolitan pizza made with Italian-sourced ingredients including organic San Marzano tomatoes and Galloni’s 16-month-aged, hand-salted prosciutto crudo di parma. Compared to this exquisite cured meat, pepperoni may as well be stale coffee.
2312 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
I grew up eating Cornish game hen, and I’m always surprised the tiny, immensely flavorful, mostly white meat chicken hybrid isn’t more common in restaurants. I found it on the hilariously elaborate menu of this Russian (and Sakartvelan) spot. The cult favorite offers walls covered in black marker where hundreds of satisfied customers have scribbled their appreciation that every meat dish here is always cooked to perfection. Its chicken tabaka flattens and fries a Cornish hen, making its skin — the best tasting of any fowl — especially crispy. They don’t take cards, so bring cash, and don’t forget your Sharpie.
16451 Bernardo Center Drive, Rancho Bernardo
I’m a reluctant supermarket shopper. Partly because I dine out a lot, but mostly, as an unrepentant food snob, it takes four stops to satisfy my exacting shopping list. Brothers Provisions may be my closest thing to a one-stop shop — excellent beer, fine wines, local coffee, and an in-house deli that prides itself on top-shelf meats and cheeses. Sourced globally, Brothers’ cheese counter never fails a curious palate (I love the petit Basque). But it’s the house-smoked meats I treasure most. Especially my cold-cut obsession, pastrami — fatty, tender, succulent and more than worth the 25-minute drive.
1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
The one thing I’ve missed about living in L.A. is access to great macrobiotic bowls. These construct a wholly balanced meal by adding seasonal vegetables for their respective nutritional benefits — including the detoxifying superfood extraordinaire: sea vegetables. I couldn’t find this locally until Café Gratitude opened last year. Its I Am Whole bowl starts with a bed of sprouted rice and quinoa, then adds sea vegetables, locally grown greens, roots, beans, nuts, and seeds. Garlic tahini makes it delicious, though it helps that my body instantly recognizes and responds to the taste of nourishment in every bite.
2494 Imperial Avenue, Sherman Heights
Tacos El Paisa
Wherever in the city I’ve lived, you can bet I’ve checked out every burrito shop within a two-mile radius. Because not a week goes by that I don’t want to grab a burrito on the way home and declare victory on the day. El Paisa is my current go-to spot, thanks to fresh flour tortillas, a dozen tasty choices of meat or fish, a full patio bar, and drive-thru window. But mostly I’m hooked on the house-made roasted arbol chili salsa. Its dark, earthy, smoky spice is near thick enough to chew on, and I crave it nightly.
1521 30th Street, South Park
I go to Hamilton’s for the same reason as anyone: beer. However, it’s also my local, making it the place I’m most likely to order food when I drink. Like the taplist, the pub menu covers a lot of ground, including 6 kinds of wings, 9 awesome takes on grilled cheese, and 16 burgers. But my favorites are the unique sandwiches Hamilton’s calls potato hammys, which feature vegan potato patties conceived as an alternative to veggie burgers. Since I’m not vegan, I order the bacon, fried egg, and avocado-topped hammy hash. It makes that brunch-time beer feel more appropriate.