An Azerbaijani couple created Cafe 21 in a parking lot.
2736 Adams Avenue, San Diego
Azerbaijan meets California. The cutest patio this side of the Black Sea, with birds singing as you eat, long communal tables, medieval drapes, lovers’ nooks, and a happy hour bursting with totally interesting tapas, $5 each. Must-haves: the fondue, a combo of melted parmesan, cream cheese, and fontina, with bread, organic fruits, and veggies; the potato pancake with braised short rib, caramelized onions, and blue cheese; even a duck slider. Azerbaijani couple Alex and Leyla Javadov created this little paradise in a parking lot, and now also in the Gaslamp. Open from breakfast till late every day. But happy hour, with the sun shafting in and drinks half off, and those tapa deals full on, is magic.
1401 Imperial Avenue, Imperial Beach
Talk about table with a view: the BreakAWAY café, inside the indoor skydiving place Airborne San Diego, has a bar and tables right next to people swooping and swirling away in a transparent tunnel, riding vertical winds of up to 200 mph. While you’re watching, you can do anything from gulp coffee to chomp in to their most interesting burger, the Buzz Burger ($11.99). It comes smeared with bacon jam and includes a plentiful salad. Other pretty interesting sandwiches: the garlic cheese ($8.99) and the Launchpad chicken sandwich ($11.99, basically breaded chicken tenders). Coming soon, beer and wine, so you can hang around and socialize after your $70 ride. Or you can just come and watch other human dolphins cavort.
362 E. San Ysidro Boulevard, San Diego
This place stands right where San Diego’s first hippie commune, the Little Landers, started a century ago. But its roots are really TJ. Their quesatacos ($2.95) were supposedly invented at the famous La Ermita off TJ’s Aguacaliente Boulevard. This is when they grill the cheese straight under the taco till its welded to the corn tortilla. Then they add a meat like adobada or birria and their excellent house-made salsas and — qué sabroso! But the star turn here: Revo Fries. Thirteen bucks. Worth it. Two meats, say chicken and pork, tons of thin stick fries, guac, crema, cheese crumbles, and salsas. It’s a glorious mess. How do you know this place is so good? It’s always crowded.
1404 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, San Diego
It’s a 1960 Shasta Travel Trailer. It’s also your last chance for breakfast before Sunset Cliffs, and it’s right where surfers come in the morning to, yes, check the day’s surf. The bracing breezes turn all Richard Aguirre’s snacks, toasted cheese sandwiches, and hot dogs into gourmet experiences. They just taste better out here. This is Aguirre’s idea of a 1950s-style snack shack. The drink to ask for is his own concoction: cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and black tea. They open 30 minutes before sunrise and close 30 minutes after sunset.
1015 25th Street, Suite B, San Diego
This is right next door to the much-better-known Humberto’s taco joint. But it holds its weight in delivering bang for the gastronomic buck. Start off with a mountain of fresh fruit, cottage cheese, honey, bananas, granola, and strawbs. (Cost: $4. Or $5 if you want to upgrade to medium.) But what you’re really here for is “My Super Torta.” Eight bucks. Watch them load the carne asada, ham, pan-cooked eggs, cheese, onion, pickles, strips of bacon, pork, all stuffed into a nice crisp torta. It’s a monster. Instant coffee only, but you’ll need it to get it down.
301 Palomar Street, Chula Vista
We’re talking old-school Japanese eatery, in the style of izakaya after-work pubs in Japan. White paper lanterns, dark wood, paper walls, a half-circle sit-up counter surrounding the cooks. They say the place has hardly changed in 30 years. Gansen the sushi chef has been working here 25 of those 30 years. You can tell it’s for real by the number of Japanese customers, including families with kids, parents, grandparents sitting together. Nothing’s terribly expensive, and they have a great happy hour from 5–7 every day. Most everything costs $3.95, from 16-ounce Asahi beers to nigiri to rolls to grilled squid to sautéed pork ginger to sautéed pork kimchi to grilled mackerel. If this place is secret, it’s a crowded one.