Food you’ll talk about later
– Ian Anderson
Ensenada-Tecate Highway, Kilometer 85.5, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja
You may not think you want to drive 90-minutes beyond the Mexican border for a meal, but from the moment you take a seat, the reasons for doing so become clear. Whether within its haybale dining room, or on rustic outdoor furniture amid blue skies and green vineyard rows, the tranquility of Baja’s wine country exorcises all the noise, pollution, and stress accumulated in your city-dwelling soul. Start with oysters and any crudo dish available: all the seafood hails from the nearby Pacific, and its freshness shows. Produce comes from closer still, grown here on the El Mogor winery estate, along with the herbs and olive oil adding to the aromas wafting from the wood-fire, outdoor kitchen. Suckling pig ($24), ribeye ($74, for two), and whole striped bass ($47) each present a worthy complement to local wines. But since you came all this way, try the Rosarito-raised quail ($19). The skin of these specially fattened game birds grills to a crisp, offering yet another reminder why you left all those chickens behind in the city.
Avenida Revolución 1059, Baja
The world has changed considerably since 1927, but much of the charm of this Tijuana restaurant has remained intact. Particularly upon entering from bustling La Revu outside, its wood panels, white linens, and checkboard tile floors feel like a time capsule to that other era, when Prohibition-era San Diegans crossed the border to drink martinis and feast on steak. All of the above remain valid reasons to visit, especially with classic steak dishes providing so much exchange rate value. You may order a chateaubriand, ribeye, or that classic steak pate in a puff pastry — Beef Wellington — for about $17, give or take few cents. Of course, the restaurant’s claim to have invented the Caesar salad has become reason number one to travel south: theatrical tableside construction of the classic salad translates to $7 before tip, and exemplifies the world’s best known use of lettuce.
101 N Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas
Pronounced less like the northern California city and more like Chai-Co, the name of this Washington D.C. favorite reflects a menu combining its East Coast co-founders’ respective experience cooking at the high end of both Chinese and Korean cuisines. You can play spot-the-influence with any of the eatery’s deceptively simple dishes, tidily served in small stainless steel bowls. But for a deeper dive, reserve your spots for one of ChiKo’s nightly Kitchen Counter meals. With service at 5 pm and 7:30 pm, the $55 tasting menu includes interactive service with chef de cuisine Eric Brannon, who will guide you through a sampling of the restaurant’s best dishes. This may include crispy Korean fried chicken wings; littleneck clams in a soy sesame vinaigrette, beef skewers made with the popular Cardiff Crack tri-tip from Cardiff’s Seaside Market, and a can’t-miss cumin lamb and noodle stir fry. Even the sautéed vegetables are something you’ll talk about later.
3077 North Park Way, North Park
Usually, pizza’s more an any-night-of-the-week meal than an excuse for a night out. But Tribute raises the pizza game with a litany of pies inspired by pizza joints around the planet, then elevated with organic and other high-minded toppings. Thus you might get You Knew This Was Coming ($18), a tribute to the “everything bagel” crusts of Dallas-area restaurant Zoli’s NY Pizza. Tribute adds smoked cheddar, aged mozzarella, shaved red onions, and pickled jalapeños to a crust dressed with sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and Icelandic sea salt. Add “fancy pepperoni” for two bucks more. Other fancy items employed by this pizzeria include wood-roasted vegetables ($15) and the appropriately named Handsome charcuterie boards, which feature the likes of soppressata, prosciutto, and manchego cheese ($23). Diners get all this, plus craft beverages and tasteful décor, without sacrificing the joys of watching pizza dough tossed in the air and then shoveled into a wood-burning oven.
2505 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
San Diego’s apparently bottomless appetite for noodles continues to spawn new ramen bars in every corner of the county, including the arrival of international chains that soak up most of the media spotlight. Nearly lost in the slurping din is this little Balboa Park-adjacent shop I think the most underrated in town. While the requisite creamy tonkotsu broth with pork belly ($12) lands true, more exciting are a handful of alternatives for vegans and omnivores alike. These range from roasted duck in a chicken soy broth ($14) to seasonal farmers market vegetables over a stock of black garlic oil, creamy mushroom, and ginger ($13). For summer dining, I highly recommend chilled soy-based ramen with salmon sashimi ($14). But most often when I visit the small, modern dining room prior to a show at the Old Globe Theatre, I’m there for the sesame- and peanut-rich tan tan ramen, made vegan or with spicy ground chicken ($12).
569 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
The sophisticated yet casual airs of this buzzy new spot nails this Encinitas moment: a worldly beach town as hip to street art as it is to new age spirituality. The breezy vibe pairs well with the talents of Angelo Sosa, veteran of two Top Chef series, who seems to have embraced the sense of place here. Simple pleasures include a flight of guacamoles (traditional, chipotle pineapple, and poblano pepita for $19), and street tacos of carnitas, fish, barbacoa beef cheek, and mole ($10-13 per order of three, or $17 for a flight of all four). Latin American-inspired small plates reveal a focus on quality ingredients, whether regionally sourced fish or hyper-local produce from Aschbrenner Acres, an urban farm only a mile from the restaurant. But if you’re looking for flash, hit the ceviche menu. The Hawaiian ahi crudo places high-grade sashimi in a bath of coconut milk, turmeric, and kefir lime juice with splashes of chili oil ($19). Finish, as suggested, by sophisticatedly drinking the cold broth from the bowl, like cereal milk.
3175 India Street, Mission Hills
I doubt there’s a single restaurant or bar that’s been recommended to me more than Starlite, and for a good while, my impression was that the clientele must be made entirely of artists, writers, and musicians. Perhaps the late-night menu — the comfort food til midnight daily, including full dinner service on weekends — attracts a type. Maybe creatives merely crave cold-to-the-touch copper mug drinks and one of the city’s longest standing craft cocktail lists. Starlite was the hip new spot in San Diego before there was a hip new spot every week, and twelve years later, it can’t claim that new kid everybody’s talkin’ about cachet. But passing through its hexagonal entryway still feels like taking a step into a better reality, fashioned of slate walls, starburst lighting, and black leather booths. And the grilled octopus ($18), Jidori chicken ($25), and house burger ($17) still highlight an overperforming menu. It’s more like an accomplished older cousin who’s cool without even trying.
So succulent, I can’t stop eating
– Mary Beth Abate
2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Juniper & Ivy, one of the first restaurants to take root in the then-sleepy north end of Little Italy five years ago, still garners high praise on both local and national best-restaurant lists. Under chef Anthony Wells, the menu changes nearly daily, taking advantage of whatever local seafood, fruits, and vegetables are in season. There are just a few signature dishes that have remained a bit longer, notably the dry-aged whole roasted duck, with its delectable confit legs and honey-glazed roasted breast, the off-menu In-N-Haute Burger, an irresistible ode to In-N-Out’s Double Double, and the wildly popular dessert, Yodel. Even there, Wells can’t resist tweaking Yodel’s beloved original chocolate iteration by switching it out with seasonal versions. There’s been an apple cider edition, featuring apple pudding, Dulcey chocolate, matcha roll and a pour-over of apple cider caramel; a strawberry springtime delight Wells described as “if red velvet proposed to strawberry shortcake;” and the latest summertime inspiration, frozen watermelon pudding encased in a white chocolate/pistachio shell on a bed of malt crunch, drizzled in warm raspberry ganache.
4161 Voltaire Street, Point Loma
Once a pop-up at local farmer’s markets, Cesarina’s owners, Giuseppe Scognamiglio, Giuseppe Capasso, and Niccolò Angius opened their brick-and-mortar establishment a mere six months ago, snagging CUCINA enoteca and The Smoking Goat alumnus Patrick Money as executive chef and serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The kitchen’s centerpiece is a pastificio, or pasta factory, where more than a dozen varieties are made, including rolled, stuffed and twisted shapes that you mix and match with eight or so different sauces and toppings including polpette, octopus meatballs, guanciale, and earthy porcini. I’m partial to Bucatini Amatriciana, a thick, hollow, spaghetti-like long pasta in fresh tomato sauce and a shower of guanciale croccante and Pecorino Romano, but the pasta/sauce/topping combinations are nearly endless. An array of antipasti, several specialty pasta dishes and chicken, beef or seafood entrees round out the bill of fare, and did I mention that there’s a full vegan menu as well? Desserts include a novel twist on the ubiquitous tiramisu — it’s prepared tableside. Freshly brewed espresso is dramatically poured over three long, homemade ladyfingers, followed by big dollops of frothy whipped mascarpone and a dusting of cocoa. Extra points for service as warm and attentive as a nonna’s hug.
1917 India Street, Little Italy
It’s been three years since the Busalacchi family overhauled their old school Po Pazzo into the sleek, sexy Barbusa. They added a six-seat crudo bar, a chef’s table next to the open kitchen, a wood-fired pizza oven, and a pop art gallery of famous Italians, attracting a whole new audience for the southern Italian menu inspired by their Sicilian heritage. I often take advantage of their happy hour menu, grazing on seasonal oysters, Gamberi Grigliato and Fiori di Zucca at bargain prices. When I hear pasta calling, I usually choose Carbonara con Piselli, a generous nest of house-made fettuccine in a pool of creamy sauce, chunky squares of crispy pancetta, sweet caramelized onions, fresh green peas and, nestled on top, a gleaming yellow egg yolk, ready to be gently folded into the piping hot pasta for a final enrichment. If I’m throwing caution to the wind, I order the Bone Marrow Cavatelli: pillowy little ricotta pasta canoes that soak up the creamy sauce, interspersed with nuggets of Sicilian sausage, topped by a roasted marrow bone so succulent that I can’t stop eating it even when I’m full, so full that I can’t make any dessert recommendations. They look delicious, but I’ve never had enough room left to try them.
4301 La Jolla Village Drive, Suite 1000, La Jolla
Located in a prime, street-level space at the newly fancified Westfield UTC mall, Javier’s boasts elevated Mexican cuisine in a gorgeous, clubby atmosphere. Large, comfortable booths, hobnail leather chairs, intricate stone mosaic floors, a sculptural rope overhang at the bar that resembles the underside of a giant mushroom, and dozens upon dozens of candles provide a luxe backdrop. The menu is large and varied, ranging from prime center-cut ribeyes and tomahawk chops and sustainable seafood especiales to guisados de la casa. The trio de ceviche is a light, refreshing and starter with your choice of ahi, camarone, pulpo, or pescado. Or, go for sabor a provincia, a shareable platter of empanadas, quesadillas, taquitos and sopes. My entree choice is usually costilla de res, Angus short ribs slowly braised in a spicy tomato and serrano chile sauce, the meat rendered falling-off-the-bone tender; or fideo del mar, linguine, shrimp, and Dungeness crab in a cream sauce, topped with a juicy white Mexican wild prawn and a perfectly caramelized wild scallop. The bar game is strong, offering a large array of martinis, tequilas and specialty cucumber, jalapeño, pineapple, and tamarind margaritas.
1953 India St, Little Italy
At first, you’ll be mesmerized by the voluminous clouds of pink cherry blossoms cascading from the branches of two faux trees that provide a breathtaking backdrop to the bar, but step into Cloak & Petal and there’s a slightly edgy feel, from the graffiti inspired artwork to the Biggie Smalls montage and, yes, the sweary piece right out front that has likely caused a bit of pearl-clutching. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of an abandoned Japanese subway, but if that’s the case, abandoned subways must be pretty awesome, especially if there’s sushi involved. C&P delivers the goods on that account with a moriawase (chef’s choice) sashimi platter that has sixteen pieces of high quality fish for just $30, but I recommend upgrading to the prized toro (fatty belly) option for another $8. Other outstanding entrees include a perfectly rendered duck breast, its seductively rosy interior atop a swirl of beet puree and scallion oil, and miso-glazed black cod perched upon a purple-skinned sweet potato and a slim spear of stem ginger. Hit them up on Thursdays from 8-11 pm for sultry live jazz in the back dining room.
2659 State Street, Carlsbad
Feminine, charming, and très chic, from its soft coral crushed velvet booths and Art Deco touches to its inventive cocktail program, Jeune et Jolie brings modern French cuisine to Carlsbad, just a few blocks from its beloved sister restaurant, Campfire. The short, tight menu features traditional French ingredients sometimes paired with the decidedly non-traditional, such as grenouille (frog legs) in fermented chile and tamari, Ris de Veau (sweetbreads) en sauce chasseur and cabbage and agneau, Frenched lamb lollipops, wax beans, potato fondant and charred shishito peppers. Mille Feuille, a sumptuous combination of passion fruit, pistachio, honey, and lavender, gilded with gold leaf, is a must-have sweet finish. Stop in on Mondays for chef Andrew Bachelier’s newly launched L’Ordinaire prix fixe menu, a fresh and playful three-course spread that changes weekly based on whatever is available from farms, fishmongers, ranchers, and other purveyors, for just for $35 per person, with select wine pairings for an additional $15.
640 Tenth Avenue, East Village
When a big, juicy steak is calling your name, Cowboy Star is ready with all the prime cuts. The cattleman’s cut ribeye is a visual feast with its perfectly Frenched rib bone. Or, indulge in the Hokkaido Wagyu New York steak, flown in from Japan, aged 23 days and served alongside a saffron poached honey onion, a sauce with house-cured coppa and black truffle, and sautéed asparagus. As much as I love their steak, though, I’m especially partial to their Sunday Supper, a weekly rotating menu, served only in the bar, that includes bacon-wrapped, gruyere-stuffed, truffle-gravied meatloaf, prime rib, short ribs, bourbon-glazed pork chops or my favorite, buttermilk fried chicken. The deeply browned, pebbly crust shatters perfectly bite after bite, revealing the sweet, juicy meat underneath. Do save room for warm, buttery chocolate chip bread pudding, bathed in a pool of golden butterscotch and accompanied by a scoop of scrumptious dark chocolate ice cream.
802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
2736 Adams Avenue, University Heights
Leyla and Alex Javado’s American-Azerbaijani fusion menu marries local, organic ingredients with homey, comforting flavors and warm Middle Eastern spices. Start with a shareable flight of house-made, fruit-infused sangrias that pack a potent punch. Standout appetizers include the vivid beet-cured salmon ceviche served on crisp taro chips, or smoky baba ganoush on a thick slice of crusty sourdough bread. I love the turkey börek, a rolled spiral of thin, flaky dough wrapped around spiced ground turkey and fried golden brown, under a tangle of seasonal greens, a sprinkle of tangy sumac and a sunny-side up egg. Another favorite is the luscious grass-fed beef and arborio rice stuffed cabbage rolls in a puddle of savory tomato sauce.
3731-A India Street, Mission Hills
Celebrate any special occasion at the Wine Vault and Bistro’s wine pairing dinners, held every Thursday through Saturday. The three- or five-course prix fixe menu changes weekly, so you may find yourself dining on delicacies such as herb-rubbed quail with parsnip and chestnut risotto and cider-brined pork loin accompanied by bacon braised cabbage and black pepper/red wine pear compote or pepper crusted petite filet, confit marble potatoes and charred onion plus a lamb chop, winter vegetable gratin and rosemary pan jus, depending on whatever is fresh and in season. At $27.50-$42.50, plus $15-$20 for the optional wine pairing, it’s one of San Diego’s best, most reasonably priced nights out for wine and food lovers. And while they’ve hosted hundreds of different wine pairing dinners over the past decade or so, they have never repeated a menu, instead using a labor-intensive process dubbed “carnage” to pair each course with the perfect wine. Pro tip: reservations are recommended, and must be made by phone.
You gotta have snails
– Ed Bedford
2233 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan
Give yourself plenty of time to relax in this very cool garden eatery, right in the middle of the Barrio’s arty district. It’s in a newly restored house, and boasts chefs Francesca Penoncelli and her husband Mario Cassineri (both ex Bice). Most interesting pasta: Ubriaca (“the drunkard”), gemelli noodles cooked in red wine, with a strong sausage. More subtle: Sombreri, with saffron and mascarpone cheese, which has a sweet thing going on. Also try Mezzaluna, with pear ravioli, Gorgonzola, and walnut sauce. But half the pleasure is just sipping wine, chomping pasta, and chewing the fat with friends under the trees. (“Ciccia” means “Fatty,” but is used here like “Darling.”)
4609 Convoy Street, Suite F, Kearny Mesa
For some people this is like seeing your life pass before you, only in food. The great thing is: no language barrier! You just see it, like it, grab it. But take care. Each plate only costs $2.60, and before you know it, you’ve had a dozen of these things. Sure-fire goodies include squid and yellowtail nigiri, and toro, the fatty belly of the bluefin tuna. Or touch a screen and get a non-sushi item, say, udon noodle. They’ll zip it along the track to you in moments. Also aboard the train: some very un-Japanese dishes, just in case you get a craving for, say, New York cheesecake.
2414 San Diego Avenue, Old Town
It just seems right that this mezcaleria sits on the edge of Old Town’s Campo Santo, the historic graveyard. Tahona (“Flour Mill”) brings two great traditions: Oaxacan food (they say Oaxaca has the richest culture for food in Mexico), and mezcal. Food stand-outs include tempura of squash blossom stuffed with goat cheese; pulpo negro (“grilled octopus with chorizo, pepitas — pumpkin seeds — sweet potato, and chili negro aioli”), and carne asada with cream and onion ashes. Or, since we’re talking Oaxaca, a mole flight. Best deal, shishito peppers, sautéed, with queso fresco. And hey, this is a mezcaleria. So every time you raise a glass together, you’ve got to yell “Cruzado!”
1166 Orange Avenue, Coronado
First off, this joint is French, so, you gotta have snails. Yes, there’ll be a lot of clacking of those shell-grabbers, but the sauce they’re in makes it worth it. Also, while we’re thinking French, the steak tartare - raw - has surprisingly pleasant flavors helped along by capers, cornichon (tart French pickles), and a quail egg yolk. Or know what you’re getting with good ol’ cassoulet or moules marinières. And if in doubt, their French onion soup is excellent and filling. Inside or outside? Patio is ideal for lengthy dinners on warm evenings, discussing - why not? - whether it’s Marseilles or Marseille, Paris or Paree.
9494 Black Mountain Road, Mira Mesa
Surati Farsan means “A love of snacks” in Gujarati. Huge choice. Mostly sweet. But for savory foods, split a thali with a friend. Thali is a sampler they give to truck drivers in India to make sure they get all the food groups. It has three vegetarian curries, two appetizers, yogurt, and four puffed or flat breads, salad, poppadom, and dessert. Leave room for a masala dosa, a giant crepe stuffed with spiced onions and potatoes, with a veggie soup you can pour over it. And must-have to end: the chaat (snack), dahi sev puri. Scrumbo crisp savory-sweet veggie snack inside a hard shell. Magic. The rest: you’re on your own.
3643 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
Trust me: you’ll be led in by your nose. That mysterious berbere spice is in the air, along with the garlicky, sautéed smell of lamb chunks coming out steaming from the kitchen. Sit in tent-like canopies on goat pelt stools. Order yebeg — lamb — and prepare to eat with your right hand, using injera fermented bread as your wrap. Or if you’re daring, order Kurt — spiced raw meat with a nostril-shocking special mustard. Or a vegan dish. Then, order coffee. Watch them sauté the green coffee beans in a pan, hand-grind them, and pour them into boiling water in a pot. Then drink it, the elixir from Ethiopia, the mother country that gave us coffee in the first place.
It’s the visuals, specially at night, that suck you in. This once-awkward little round and square ex-sushi place has blossomed into a colorful and intimate Italian small-plate eatery and watering hole. They do unusual pizzas and interesting wines, and instead of sports, the large screen shows Italian street scenes and whales lunging at you. Their crunchy “seasonal pizzas” are cheap and delicious, specially in “pizza fritta” form. Also good: saccottini tartufo, little bag-shaped pasta stuffed with ricotta and black truffle. Crowning touch, a beautiful sweet, but not too sweet, summer cherry wine. Have it with the gelato they make next door.
502 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
It says “Thai,” but it’s more Lao Issan, and it has the food to prove it. Even the name Sab Lai means “I like it a lot” — in Lao. And what could be more Lao than larb meat salad? It’s the unofficial Laotian national dish. And the mix needs to have plenty of fish sauce, lime juice and the crunchiness of roasted ground rice, along with minced chicken or other meat. It’s worth asking for sticky rice — another Lao specialty — too. Other goodies include Tom Yam Kung, hot and sour soup with shrimp, or Tom Ka Kung, with coconut milk, in hot pots. Also: If you want it spicy, say “10.” Or “8.” After all, they’re catering to tourists.
– Patrick Henderson
8131 Broadway, Lemon Grove
If they know it at all, foodies know Lemon Grove for its many hole-in-the-walls. Giardino is the one place that might be considered high end. Pasta lovers will enjoy the lasagna: It’s made with two kinds of sauces, Bolognese and bechamel, and served in a cast iron pan. The meatball lollipops, made with beef, pork, veal, garlic, tomato sauce, and parmesan cheese, are a great starter. For comfort food, there is the pork belly roll, which is wrapped around spinach, mozzarella and pancetta and served with mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes.
8323 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa
This Scottish-themed pub in the heart of La Mesa’s Village not only makes its own beer, but its own bread, using the grains from the beer. The vibe is “rustic.” There’s a big table in the back, and much of the decor features reclaimed items. The menu features clever California variations on what might be considered proper pub fare. For me, the highlight is the Scotch Egg: A soft-boiled egg wrapped in sausage before being breaded and deep-fried. It’s served with mashed potatoes and brown gravy. Yum! Vegetarians who want some spice out of life will enjoy the curry roasted cauliflower with a yogurt sauce and mango ginger chutney on the side.
6185 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa
Open less than a year ago, this Thai restaurant in a nondescript strip mall on Lake Murray Boulevard has become a popular spot for curries, Pad Thai, and larb. The restaurant is cozy, unpretentious, but with knowledgeable service. The place makes good noodle dishes, but excels with curries. The yellow beef curry with potatoes, carrots, and onions is our go-to dish, but the Mammasan curry, which adds peanuts and coconut milk, is flavorful even when I have to dial down the heat to please my family. The garlic and pepper pork ribs are the preferred appetizer.
5083 Santa Monica Ave Ste 1B, Ocean Beach
Located just a few hundred yards from the ocean, Blue Water’s new Ocean Beach location serves up fresh fish as either sandwiches, salads, tacos, or plates. They offer marinades, and the salad dressings are made in-house (I’m fond of the blue cheese). The blackened swordfish is big, meaty, and spicy, a nice finish to a meal that should include a stop at the raw bar. But the halibut with bourbon butter comes highly recommended as well.
1011 Fort Stockton Drive, Mission Hills
Share and share alike is the way to go to this relatively new Mission Hills eatery. The chicken-fried quail is a slightly spicy appetizer, while the house-made coppa ham is a flavorful starter, especially with rye bread and cheese. Even the entrees are shareable, such as the branzino, which is served whole, but with pieces separated to make it easier to, well, share. This is a good place to try steak tartare if you’ve never had it before. For a little something extra, there is a six-course chef’s table offering for $100 ($40 more for wine pairings) on Wednesdays and Thursdays, featuring chef owner Brad Wise.
512 Via De La Valle, suite 102, Solana Beach
Ranch 45 is an unpretentious breakfast and lunch place that is a short drive from the Del Mar beach. But the meat is great here, as it all comes from Brandt Beef in Brawley and is butchered at the restaurant. That means great burgers, carne asada burritos, and a wonderful smoked tri-tip sandwich served with coleslaw and a mustardy BBQ sauce. Also top notch: thick steak-cut fries that are nice and crispy.
4020 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
(No longer in business.)
The Patio opened in Mission Hills earlier in the decade, but it has become a popular destination in the neighborhood. The casual setting is cool and comfortable, including the plant wall in the back. They serve a variety of dishes, but I’m sweet on the seafood. The octopus appetizer with a gigante bean ragu, pork belly, pine nut butter, arugula, and salsa verde is wonderful. The steelhead trout is a sweet and savory dish combining a poblano puree, kale farro, and butternut squash. It’s definitely a highlight.