7229 El Cajon Boulevard, La Mesa
BBQ aficionados can be particular, but this hole-in-the-wall in La Mesa should satisfy lovers of brisket and tri-tip. The meat is smoked for hours until tender in a tangy rub. Customers then can add the sauce they want: a Texas-style red or a tangy Carolina yellow. The root-beer BBQ beans are slightly sweet but not cloying. The ancho chili potato salad is excellent, amusing the palate with flavors alternately cool and spicy. If you choose your beef in a sandwich, add the crispy fried onion rings for a salty crunch (they go with both kinds of sauce).
1813 South Coast Highway, Oceanside
The Whet Noodle isn’t a traditional Japanese ramen house — and that’s to its benefit. There are about five broths available, including a fish tonkotsu that tastes light but has that joyous umami typical with the pork kind. The ever-changing ceviche flight includes three kinds of ceviche made that day using flavorings such as passion fruit and cucumber mint. Vegetarians will love special dishes such as the banana-peel tacos (tastes like meat, I swear) and the tempura-fried squash blossoms.
4140 Morena Boulevard, Bay Ho
(No longer in business.)
This bistro on Morena Boulevard is a real find for people who want stylishly seasonal cuisine in a relaxed setting. Newly installed chef Jeff Larson (formerly of the Michelin-starred Goose and Gander in Napa Valley) knows how to promote the natural flavors of food in fun ways. The yellow tomato gazpacho is tangy and fruity, while the watermelon poke will make non-meat eaters appreciate why this food has caught on big in San Diego. Both the pasta with tomato sauce and steak frites are high-quality examples of how comfort food should be. The wine-and-beer list is small but carefully curated to provide the perfect taste complement to any dish offered.
3105 Ocean Front Walk, Mission Beach
This is a great spot to take out-of-towners who want to eat by the beach. The upstairs eatery on the Mission Beach boardwalk featues tasty Asian-influence tapas and a great view of the ocean. The takoyaki meatballs (basically deep-fried battered octopus) are a great app, while the Thai-style skirt steak has a pungent citrus flavor that spices up what might be an ordinary dish. The green-curry mussels with Chinese sausage are a fun dish to share. The sunset margarita is a nice cocktail to have while waiting to see the green flash (make sure you ask for salt on the rim).
4130 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
More of a bar than a restaurant, this new drinking establishment has a small but tasty menu and is a fun place to start or end a pub crawl. The jerk-shrimp skewers are sweet, spicy, and satisfying, but the Korean chicken oysters bring just enough heat to make those cocktails taste better. The hen-egg pizza is a basic Margherita-style pizza — burrata cheese and cherry tomatoes — with a runny egg on top. Hundred Proof is setting itself apart by having boilermakers featuring top-grade whiskeys paired with craft beers. My new favorite cocktail is the Fernet con Coca, which features tequila, Fernet Branca flavored with lime, and Mexican Coca-Cola.
1047 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
For people who want a private hideaway in the Gaslamp on crowded party nights, the Arriba Room is about as hidden as it gets. Located in the event room above Curadero, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Hotel Palomar, the Arriba Room is open only from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, offering reasonably priced gourmet tacos in a room stocked with vintage videogames. The setting is unpretentious and the tacos are first rate, usually with braised pork, beef, and chicken dishes. Make sure to do tequila shots, because the place makes two types of palate-cleansing sangritas: one red and citrusy, one green with a cilantro sweetness.
8401 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
This breakfast-lunch spot on La Mesa Boulevard has some clever takes on classic morning dishes — especially the latkes egg Benedict, which uses potato pancakes instead of bread. The chilaquiles have a tangy tomatillo salsa that seems perfectly paired with the runny egg on top. The salmon lox plate comes with house-pickled cucumber rather than a jarred pickle. Weekends are best, as there is music on the patio all day and $5 mimosas.