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Best San Diego food in most hidden corners

Yep! – in a print shop, liquor store, shipyard brewery, photo studio, nursery, Home Depot parking lot

Ethiopia-born entrepreneur, Genemo Ali, recalls the impression waffles made on him as a young immigrant first arriving in San Diego.
Ethiopia-born entrepreneur, Genemo Ali, recalls the impression waffles made on him as a young immigrant first arriving in San Diego.

Most restaurants count on location, location, location to help make a name for themselves. Others make do with whatever space they’ve got. The restaurants featured here don’t necessarily operate in conventional storefronts, on restaurant rows, or within popular dining neighborhoods.

Some of the people behind these businesses chose their location out of convenience, or due to a unique vision. But most are chasing dreams on limited resources. What they all have in common is that they offer something tasty, and in most cases interesting, to San Diego’s food landscape — often with an equally interesting story to back it up.

Fried chicken in a donut shop

  • Ali’s Chicken & Waffles
  • 4350 University Avenue
  • City Heights

To find City Heights’ favorite new chicken and waffles spot, look for the Donut Star. Ali’s Chicken & Waffles leases the back counter of the donut shop, serving a halal rendition of the famous pairing alongside shrimp and grits and fried chicken sandwiches. It’s a unique setup, and owner Genemo Ali took a unique path to get here. The Ethiopia-born entrepreneur recalls the impression waffles made on him as a young immigrant first arriving in a San Diego school. By the time he earned a business degree from San Diego State, he and a friend wanted to launch the Ali’s Chicken brand, in the mode of L.A.’s famed Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles. But he would have to start with a smaller investment.

In 2018, he bought a farmers market stand established by a local Thai chef, and wound up entering the restaurant game making Thai food. Then he had to move his Coconut & Co. operation inside when Covid closed the farmers markets. Working out of the Minnehaha Food Market up the street, he found he was doing most of his business through delivery apps. So he tried reviving the Ali’s Chicken and Waffles idea as a ghost kitchen, and before long, it was outselling the Thai. His chicken is seasoned in a blend of three flours, with a spicy option heated by Thai chilis. Now available daily, to the right of the donut case.

Vegan food court

Three new vegan eateries sprang up at the Grossmont Center food court during the pandemic.
Mariscos No Mar concocts vegan ceviches and aguachiles, replacing seafood with jackfruit, mushrooms, young coconut, and vegan shrimp made from the starchy konjac root.
  • Split Bakery, Mariscos No Mar, El Veganito, and Veg’n Out
  • 5500 Grossmont Center Drive
  • La Mesa

Traditionally, mall food courts have been more closely associated with corn dogs and orange chicken than plant-based cuisine. But a funny thing happened at the Grossmont Center food court during the pandemic: three new vegan eateries sprang up. And if Vanessa Corrales has anything to say about it, they won’t be the last. The founder of Split Bakery has been a tenant at the mall for three years: her plant-based business sits just outside the food court’s doors. That put her in prime position to notice when three businesses vacated their food court counters last year. Sensing an opportunity, the vegan entrepreneur leased all three counters herself, then turned around and sublet them to vegan entrepreneurs in her network.

Now mall visitors will find a pair of farmers market fixtures operating permanent locations side by side: Veg’n Out serves vegan burgers, brats, and wings; while El Veganito offers plant-based Mexican food, including tacos, burritos, and specials ranging from pozole to mole. Directly across the court, new property Mariscos No Mar concocts vegan ceviches and aguachiles, replacing seafood with jackfruit, mushrooms, young coconut, and vegan shrimp made from the starchy konjac root. And while Split itself had been operating as a wholesale-only bakery prior to the pandemic, Corrales pivoted a few months back and began making retail pastries available from her food court-adjacent window counter. That’s four vegan food options for Grossmont, and counting — Corrales will be standing in the front in line should any of the other counters become available, and hopes to lure other plant-based businesses to what could someday become an entirely meatless food court.

There’s only one place I know where you can print bake sale flyers and also go home with fresh, homemade cookies.

Bakery in a print shop

  • Deb’s Cookie Jar
  • 668 10th Street
  • Imperial Beach

There’s only one place I know where you can print bake sale flyers and also go home with fresh, homemade cookies. Deb’s Cookie Jar shares a space with I.B. Printing, a 20-year-old design and print shop that makes stuff like car decals, graphic t-shirts, retail signage, and embroidered ballcaps. Originally, Deborah Berry opened her cookie bakery across the street from her husband’s business.

But a couple years back, the couple decided to consolidate, and the print shop made room for Deb’s. It’s easy to spot which side of the counter sells cookies: a vibrant checkerboard motif frames a glass counter filled with large, crumbly cookies ranging from snickerdoodles to almond coconut chocolate chips ($3 each, or two for $5). Deb’s got a few non-cookie winners up her sleeve as well, including buttercream cupcakes ($3), fudge brownies ($3), and on Fridays only, monkey bread ($5).

BBQ joint in a liquor store

  • Pete’s Smoked BBQ & Burgers
  • 977 Main Street
  • Ramona

Up the hill in Ramona, where highway 78 makes a hard right turn to become Main Street, passersby may notice there’s a smoker hard at work outside of Ramona Liquor. That’s because there’s a BBQ counter in the back of the liquor store, and it’s there only partly by accident. Store owner Peter Aboudi has worked primarily in liquor stores and beer distribution since coming to San Diego as a refugee from America’s first Iraq war. He hadn’t intended to open a restaurant, but after they bought the shop formerly known as Ramona Old Time Country Store, Aboudi and his wife Susan realized it offered considerably more space than a liquor store needed.

So they decided to turn it into a food counter. Initially, they hired people to establish a taco shop. Several other concepts followed, but nothing stuck until Aboudi invested in a smoker and started cooking up brisket, tri tip, pulled pork, and ribs. Six years later, the Aboudis are scouting locations to open a stand-alone Pete’s BBQ restaurant, probably in a more conventional location.

Hot dogs in a Home Depot parking lot

  • Duff’s Doggz
  • 12047 Carmel Mountain Road
  • Carmel Mountain Ranch

Forget about getting Swedish meatballs at Ikea: Duff's hot dog kiosk in a Home Depot parking lot is the place to get your snack on when you’re out shopping for the home. Chicago favorite Vienna Beef hot dogs provide the heart of the menu, and the “Chicago style dogg” — with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt and a pickle spear — shouldn’t be missed.

However, the stand’s namesake owner, Hatch Duffy, has built a deep menu, featuring a litany of toppings. You may opt for the relatively simple Coney Island style, with mustard, onions, and chili. Or you can try one of Duff’s more exotic hot dog creations, featuring the likes of pastrami, jalapeño relish, pineapple salsa, or crushed Fritos. But the small-busines s-owner-in-a box-store-parking-lot really throws a culinary curveball when his menu explores a decidedly different bun-based cuisine: Maine lobster rolls.

When Andrew Hannegan’s kids interrupted his home brew session, demanding he make them ice cream, he knew it was only a matter of time before the two interests collided.

Ice cream shop in a shipyard brewery

  • Hannegan’s House Beer Co. & Creamery
  • 1535 Tidelands Avenue, Suite C
  • National City

It might not seem like you’d want to go for ice cream at a narrow strip of industrial real estate squeezed between Navy shipyards and a freeway overpass. But what if I told you there was beer in the ice cream? When Andrew Hannegan’s kids interrupted his home brew session, demanding he make them ice cream, he knew it was only a matter of time before the two interests collided.

Fast forward a couple of years, and he’s built Hannegan’s House, brewing true-to-style Irish ales and serving them in pub-inspired taproom, along with pints of ice cream flavored by the beers themselves. Think mint chocolate stout ice cream, or chipotle and strawberries ice cream made with red ale. It’s good enough that you’ll be forced to wonder: does he add the beer to his ice cream just because it’s there? Or does he brew the beer just so he can make the ice cream?

Izola’s small operation bakes in the loft space above the photography studio Studio 710. Photographer Jeffrey Lamont Brown pivoted into baking when the pandemic struck, and it’s taken off to the extent where he reports being on the hunt for a more regular restaurant space.

Bakery in a photo studio

  • IZOLA Bakery
  • 710 13th Street, Suite 300
  • East Village

Hungry pedestrians strolling the sidewalks of Paris will find a boulangerie serving fresh bread and pastries on virtually every block. And they’re always at street level. In East Village, they do things differently. This bakery sells its sourdough loaves and croissants from three stories up. Make that three and a half stories: Izola’s small operation bakes in the loft space above the photography studio Studio 710.

Photographer Jeffrey Lamont Brown pivoted into baking when the pandemic struck, and it’s taken off to the extent where he reports being on the hunt for a more regular restaurant space, one somewhat closer to ground level. Izola first caught my attention by using a basket and pulley system to lower baked goods to customers waiting on the sidewalk below, but these days, I’d recommend going upstairs and eating a hot croissant while admiring Brown’s stunning studio space, built within “a converted turn-of-the-century sewing factory.”

Dennis Borlek was five years old when his father taught him how to fish on the Shelter Island Pier. That charming bit of history may help explain why diners will find burgers and sausages at the pier’s bait shop today.

Beer, sausage, and burgers on a fishing pier

  • Fathom Bistro, Bait, and Tackle
  • 1776 Shelter Island Drive
  • Shelter Island

Dennis Borlek was five years old when his father taught him how to fish on the Shelter Island Pier. That charming bit of history may help explain why diners will find burgers and sausages at the pier’s bait shop today. A former bartender, Borlek was looking to lease his own, traditional restaurant space nine years ago when, while walking his dog, he noticed the bait shop had closed. Then he learned the Port Authority was looking for a new tenant to keep the shop going, so he quickly put together a business plan, one built around his fondness for his beer-and-sausage-making hobbies.

He suspects his personal history fishing from the pier helped him beat out the ten other applicants to take over the shack sitting atop it. He installed a gas grill and 20 craft beer tap handles, and six months later, Fathom began serving beer, burgers, and sausages, in addition to selling bait and tackle. Borlek says bait shop customers are more likely to buy candy bars than shrimp or squid these days, but a steady stream of tourists staying at local hotels have been delighted to discover the small bar and grill, decorated with vintage scuba gear and nautical-themed movie posters. And while in-the-know locals have long since realized it’s an excellent place for a pint and bite (with an outstanding view of San Diego Bay and Coronado across the way), some are still surprised to learn the place also serves kimchi, lumpia, and Sunday brunch.

It wasn’t the first food counter installed behind San Diego Market, but considering the fact that previous tenants lasted months, not years, 55 Thai’s longevity speaks volumes.

Thai spot in a corner store

  • 55 Thai Kitchen
  • 2601 Broadway
  • Golden Hill

Since launching four years ago, prolific restaurateur and chef Vijit Pipatkhajonchai has expanded his charitably-minded 55 Thai Kitchen brand to three additional locations, including SDSU and central Pacific Beach. But it’s this original location, set up in the back of a corner convenience store, that continually proves the concept. It wasn’t the first food counter installed behind San Diego Market, but considering the fact that previous tenants lasted months, not years, 55 Thai’s longevity speaks volumes.

Crammed into a couple hundred square feet at most (including table tops), there doesn’t seem much to recommend it from the outside. But in the eyes of renters in the neighborhood, it has basically everything going for it: affordable, healthy food, served late. Everything tastes good, whether you’re craving meat, seafood, or sticking exclusively to the refreshing, par-cooked vegetables.

Vibrant blue and green Aztec-inspired murals call attention to the storefront of Rincon Azteca, and it’s a good thing; otherwise, it might blend in with the houses on its mostly residential block in a corner of town encircled by trolley tracks and freeways.

Mexican restaurant on a residential block

  • Rincon Azteca Homestyle Mexican Restaurant
  • 2172 Ocean View Boulevard
  • Logan Heights

Vibrant blue and green Aztec-inspired murals call attention to the storefront of Rincon Azteca, and it’s a good thing; otherwise, it might blend in with the houses on its mostly residential block in a corner of town encircled by trolley tracks and freeways. Inside, there’s a simple-yet-cared-for dining room. It’s worth seeking out to enjoy the homestyle Mexican cooking of Alicia Lorenzo — Doña Alicia to regulars.

Serving customers inside and out from behind a pair of window counters, the one-woman show conjures a bit of everything in her kitchen: tacos, birria, soups, tamales, enchiladas, Mariscos, antojitos, moles, even the dipped Mexico City sandwiches, pambazos. It may be served on a plastic tray, but it’ll be made as though for her own family, with recipes tried and true. It’s as though someone’s abuela made all the best dishes in the neighborhood, and invited you over to eat whatever you feel like.

Fine dining in an industrial park

  • The Cork and Craft
  • 16990 Via Tazon
  • Rancho Bernardo

You don’t expect to find a fine dining experience tucked within an industrial park — the neighbors here include HVAC contractors and a packaging equipment supplier. But there’s a reason The Cork & Craft does it: the gastropub is built around both a brewery and a winery. Abnormal Beer Co. and Abnormal Wine are both produced on-site, and the house brews provide plenty of nice drink options.

But that doesn’t stop the restaurant from stocking its 40 taps with examples of the world’s best beer, or furnishing an extensive international wine list. The whole experience is supposed to revolve around an appreciation of refined flavors and techniques: in this case, creating elevated dishes around comfort concepts such as pork chops, poutine, mac & cheese, fried chicken, and even hamburger. With this kind of focus, who cares how industrial the zoning is outside the restaurant’s walls?

Burger bar by the park

  • The Balboa
  • 1863 Fifth Avenue
  • Bankers Hill

Though only a short block from the southwest corner of Balboa Park, this hamburger and cocktails specialist became a surprise hit in a part of town dominated not by restaurants, but by medical and legal practices and places of worship. You could practically hear the collective moans of downtown burger fanatics last July, when the Balboa's founding griller, Tom Logsdon, announced he was permanently closing the location.

Fortunately, that permanent closure proved short-lived. Turns out, the property owner recognized that having burgers in the building was mutually beneficial, and reached out, asking Logsdon to return. Even better? The offer included the original Balboa’s neighboring suite. So, when the bar re-opened in April, it was double the size, now with ample seating for covid-weary fans to resume eating, with newfound elbow room.

Asian fusion next to the trolley tracks

  • Angkorian Pikestaff
  • 734 Park Boulevard
  • East Village

Since 2019, across the trolley tracks from the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, chef Socheath Sun has been turning a small commercial kitchen with a narrow sidewalk patio into a venue for the ongoing exploration of Southeast Asian and fusion cuisine. Her Angkorian Pikestaff pop-up started out serving weekday lunches, but has come out of our uncertain year serving dinner a couple nights a week — usually, but not always, Sundays and Thursdays — offering one or two dishes at a time.

Fans have long since learned to keep an eye on the @angkorian_pikestaff Instagram for the latest details, including each day’s menu and the deadline for pre-orders (usually noon the day prior). It’s an unusual place and process, but arguably the wildest part of Sun’s project is that she has yet to repeat a dish. She’ll routinely offer some kind of banh mi, noodle soup, or even breakfast burrito, but will switch up the ingredients to make it a different experience. For example, sometimes, the meal is vegan, while at other times it presents a more traditional turn, whether reflecting Sun’s Cambodian background or the national dishes of other Asian cultures, whether Malay, Indonesian, Korean, or Chinese.

More often than not, Sun conjures irresistibly creative dishes sparked by whatever meal, ingredient, or mashup inspires her: Mongolian beef Wellington, bulgogi brisket, and vegan dim sum are but a handful of recent examples. Eventually, the greatest hits may turn up on a fixed menu at a permanent Angkorian Pikestaff location, but for now, Sun is expanding her pop-up presence with collaboration meals served at partnering businesses around town.

Nestled in the canyons below City Heights, City Farmers Nursery dubs its two-acre nursery and farm “a little bit of the country in the heart of the city.” That includes Nate’s, the on-site bar and grill.

Beer and music in a nursery

  • Nate’s Garden Grill
  • 3120 Euclid Avenue
  • City Heights

Nestled in the canyons below City Heights, City Farmers Nursery dubs its two-acre nursery and farm “a little bit of the country in the heart of the city.” That includes Nate’s, the on-site bar and grill that’s one of the best spots in the city to grab a beer and a burger (or vegan alternative), especially while listening to live music. Bordering the nursery, the grill’s rustic setting feels removed from the warrens of freeways and commercial corridors surrounding the property.

And, like the nursery, the kitchen favors naturally raised products, whether local produce, free-range poultry, or grass-fed beef. It likewise champions local brews and local performers. Bill Tall founded City Farmers here nearly 50 years ago, and Nate’s owes its name to his father Nathan, who originally brought the property into the family.

Lao food behind a tire shop

  • So Saap
  • 4710 Market Street
  • Chollas view

You’ll spot a cluster of small eateries situated around the intersection of 47th and Market Streets, but So Saap probably won’t be one of them. It’s mostly hidden behind an auto repair shop, in the back corner of a run-down shopping strip, across the street from the other restaurants. But the small shop’s Thai and Lao cuisine is worth seeking out, and in just over a year, So Saap has managed to build a regular clientele with a menu of boat noodle soups, larb, and delectable Lao beef jerky. It’s proof you don’t need a splashy storefront to serve good food.

Sushi beside a 7-11

  • Sushi Ota
  • 4529 Mission Bay Drive
  • Pacific Beach

Since 1990, chef Yukito Ota has offered “choice sushi, in an unassuming setting.” Though the address is technically Pacific Beach, it’s neither close to the beach nor to the neighborhood’s clusters of bars and restaurants that bustle with beachgoers. Instead, his unassuming Sushi Ota setting is tucked behind a 7-Eleven and surrounded by car dealerships. Nevertheless, it’s long been considered one of, if not the best sushi restaurant in town, a surprising enough development to make it San Diego’s original unexpected dining destination.

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Events September 26-September 29, 2021
Ethiopia-born entrepreneur, Genemo Ali, recalls the impression waffles made on him as a young immigrant first arriving in San Diego.
Ethiopia-born entrepreneur, Genemo Ali, recalls the impression waffles made on him as a young immigrant first arriving in San Diego.

Most restaurants count on location, location, location to help make a name for themselves. Others make do with whatever space they’ve got. The restaurants featured here don’t necessarily operate in conventional storefronts, on restaurant rows, or within popular dining neighborhoods.

Some of the people behind these businesses chose their location out of convenience, or due to a unique vision. But most are chasing dreams on limited resources. What they all have in common is that they offer something tasty, and in most cases interesting, to San Diego’s food landscape — often with an equally interesting story to back it up.

Fried chicken in a donut shop

  • Ali’s Chicken & Waffles
  • 4350 University Avenue
  • City Heights

To find City Heights’ favorite new chicken and waffles spot, look for the Donut Star. Ali’s Chicken & Waffles leases the back counter of the donut shop, serving a halal rendition of the famous pairing alongside shrimp and grits and fried chicken sandwiches. It’s a unique setup, and owner Genemo Ali took a unique path to get here. The Ethiopia-born entrepreneur recalls the impression waffles made on him as a young immigrant first arriving in a San Diego school. By the time he earned a business degree from San Diego State, he and a friend wanted to launch the Ali’s Chicken brand, in the mode of L.A.’s famed Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles. But he would have to start with a smaller investment.

In 2018, he bought a farmers market stand established by a local Thai chef, and wound up entering the restaurant game making Thai food. Then he had to move his Coconut & Co. operation inside when Covid closed the farmers markets. Working out of the Minnehaha Food Market up the street, he found he was doing most of his business through delivery apps. So he tried reviving the Ali’s Chicken and Waffles idea as a ghost kitchen, and before long, it was outselling the Thai. His chicken is seasoned in a blend of three flours, with a spicy option heated by Thai chilis. Now available daily, to the right of the donut case.

Vegan food court

Three new vegan eateries sprang up at the Grossmont Center food court during the pandemic.
Mariscos No Mar concocts vegan ceviches and aguachiles, replacing seafood with jackfruit, mushrooms, young coconut, and vegan shrimp made from the starchy konjac root.
  • Split Bakery, Mariscos No Mar, El Veganito, and Veg’n Out
  • 5500 Grossmont Center Drive
  • La Mesa

Traditionally, mall food courts have been more closely associated with corn dogs and orange chicken than plant-based cuisine. But a funny thing happened at the Grossmont Center food court during the pandemic: three new vegan eateries sprang up. And if Vanessa Corrales has anything to say about it, they won’t be the last. The founder of Split Bakery has been a tenant at the mall for three years: her plant-based business sits just outside the food court’s doors. That put her in prime position to notice when three businesses vacated their food court counters last year. Sensing an opportunity, the vegan entrepreneur leased all three counters herself, then turned around and sublet them to vegan entrepreneurs in her network.

Now mall visitors will find a pair of farmers market fixtures operating permanent locations side by side: Veg’n Out serves vegan burgers, brats, and wings; while El Veganito offers plant-based Mexican food, including tacos, burritos, and specials ranging from pozole to mole. Directly across the court, new property Mariscos No Mar concocts vegan ceviches and aguachiles, replacing seafood with jackfruit, mushrooms, young coconut, and vegan shrimp made from the starchy konjac root. And while Split itself had been operating as a wholesale-only bakery prior to the pandemic, Corrales pivoted a few months back and began making retail pastries available from her food court-adjacent window counter. That’s four vegan food options for Grossmont, and counting — Corrales will be standing in the front in line should any of the other counters become available, and hopes to lure other plant-based businesses to what could someday become an entirely meatless food court.

There’s only one place I know where you can print bake sale flyers and also go home with fresh, homemade cookies.

Bakery in a print shop

  • Deb’s Cookie Jar
  • 668 10th Street
  • Imperial Beach

There’s only one place I know where you can print bake sale flyers and also go home with fresh, homemade cookies. Deb’s Cookie Jar shares a space with I.B. Printing, a 20-year-old design and print shop that makes stuff like car decals, graphic t-shirts, retail signage, and embroidered ballcaps. Originally, Deborah Berry opened her cookie bakery across the street from her husband’s business.

But a couple years back, the couple decided to consolidate, and the print shop made room for Deb’s. It’s easy to spot which side of the counter sells cookies: a vibrant checkerboard motif frames a glass counter filled with large, crumbly cookies ranging from snickerdoodles to almond coconut chocolate chips ($3 each, or two for $5). Deb’s got a few non-cookie winners up her sleeve as well, including buttercream cupcakes ($3), fudge brownies ($3), and on Fridays only, monkey bread ($5).

BBQ joint in a liquor store

  • Pete’s Smoked BBQ & Burgers
  • 977 Main Street
  • Ramona

Up the hill in Ramona, where highway 78 makes a hard right turn to become Main Street, passersby may notice there’s a smoker hard at work outside of Ramona Liquor. That’s because there’s a BBQ counter in the back of the liquor store, and it’s there only partly by accident. Store owner Peter Aboudi has worked primarily in liquor stores and beer distribution since coming to San Diego as a refugee from America’s first Iraq war. He hadn’t intended to open a restaurant, but after they bought the shop formerly known as Ramona Old Time Country Store, Aboudi and his wife Susan realized it offered considerably more space than a liquor store needed.

So they decided to turn it into a food counter. Initially, they hired people to establish a taco shop. Several other concepts followed, but nothing stuck until Aboudi invested in a smoker and started cooking up brisket, tri tip, pulled pork, and ribs. Six years later, the Aboudis are scouting locations to open a stand-alone Pete’s BBQ restaurant, probably in a more conventional location.

Hot dogs in a Home Depot parking lot

  • Duff’s Doggz
  • 12047 Carmel Mountain Road
  • Carmel Mountain Ranch

Forget about getting Swedish meatballs at Ikea: Duff's hot dog kiosk in a Home Depot parking lot is the place to get your snack on when you’re out shopping for the home. Chicago favorite Vienna Beef hot dogs provide the heart of the menu, and the “Chicago style dogg” — with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt and a pickle spear — shouldn’t be missed.

However, the stand’s namesake owner, Hatch Duffy, has built a deep menu, featuring a litany of toppings. You may opt for the relatively simple Coney Island style, with mustard, onions, and chili. Or you can try one of Duff’s more exotic hot dog creations, featuring the likes of pastrami, jalapeño relish, pineapple salsa, or crushed Fritos. But the small-busines s-owner-in-a box-store-parking-lot really throws a culinary curveball when his menu explores a decidedly different bun-based cuisine: Maine lobster rolls.

When Andrew Hannegan’s kids interrupted his home brew session, demanding he make them ice cream, he knew it was only a matter of time before the two interests collided.

Ice cream shop in a shipyard brewery

  • Hannegan’s House Beer Co. & Creamery
  • 1535 Tidelands Avenue, Suite C
  • National City

It might not seem like you’d want to go for ice cream at a narrow strip of industrial real estate squeezed between Navy shipyards and a freeway overpass. But what if I told you there was beer in the ice cream? When Andrew Hannegan’s kids interrupted his home brew session, demanding he make them ice cream, he knew it was only a matter of time before the two interests collided.

Fast forward a couple of years, and he’s built Hannegan’s House, brewing true-to-style Irish ales and serving them in pub-inspired taproom, along with pints of ice cream flavored by the beers themselves. Think mint chocolate stout ice cream, or chipotle and strawberries ice cream made with red ale. It’s good enough that you’ll be forced to wonder: does he add the beer to his ice cream just because it’s there? Or does he brew the beer just so he can make the ice cream?

Izola’s small operation bakes in the loft space above the photography studio Studio 710. Photographer Jeffrey Lamont Brown pivoted into baking when the pandemic struck, and it’s taken off to the extent where he reports being on the hunt for a more regular restaurant space.

Bakery in a photo studio

  • IZOLA Bakery
  • 710 13th Street, Suite 300
  • East Village

Hungry pedestrians strolling the sidewalks of Paris will find a boulangerie serving fresh bread and pastries on virtually every block. And they’re always at street level. In East Village, they do things differently. This bakery sells its sourdough loaves and croissants from three stories up. Make that three and a half stories: Izola’s small operation bakes in the loft space above the photography studio Studio 710.

Photographer Jeffrey Lamont Brown pivoted into baking when the pandemic struck, and it’s taken off to the extent where he reports being on the hunt for a more regular restaurant space, one somewhat closer to ground level. Izola first caught my attention by using a basket and pulley system to lower baked goods to customers waiting on the sidewalk below, but these days, I’d recommend going upstairs and eating a hot croissant while admiring Brown’s stunning studio space, built within “a converted turn-of-the-century sewing factory.”

Dennis Borlek was five years old when his father taught him how to fish on the Shelter Island Pier. That charming bit of history may help explain why diners will find burgers and sausages at the pier’s bait shop today.

Beer, sausage, and burgers on a fishing pier

  • Fathom Bistro, Bait, and Tackle
  • 1776 Shelter Island Drive
  • Shelter Island

Dennis Borlek was five years old when his father taught him how to fish on the Shelter Island Pier. That charming bit of history may help explain why diners will find burgers and sausages at the pier’s bait shop today. A former bartender, Borlek was looking to lease his own, traditional restaurant space nine years ago when, while walking his dog, he noticed the bait shop had closed. Then he learned the Port Authority was looking for a new tenant to keep the shop going, so he quickly put together a business plan, one built around his fondness for his beer-and-sausage-making hobbies.

He suspects his personal history fishing from the pier helped him beat out the ten other applicants to take over the shack sitting atop it. He installed a gas grill and 20 craft beer tap handles, and six months later, Fathom began serving beer, burgers, and sausages, in addition to selling bait and tackle. Borlek says bait shop customers are more likely to buy candy bars than shrimp or squid these days, but a steady stream of tourists staying at local hotels have been delighted to discover the small bar and grill, decorated with vintage scuba gear and nautical-themed movie posters. And while in-the-know locals have long since realized it’s an excellent place for a pint and bite (with an outstanding view of San Diego Bay and Coronado across the way), some are still surprised to learn the place also serves kimchi, lumpia, and Sunday brunch.

It wasn’t the first food counter installed behind San Diego Market, but considering the fact that previous tenants lasted months, not years, 55 Thai’s longevity speaks volumes.

Thai spot in a corner store

  • 55 Thai Kitchen
  • 2601 Broadway
  • Golden Hill

Since launching four years ago, prolific restaurateur and chef Vijit Pipatkhajonchai has expanded his charitably-minded 55 Thai Kitchen brand to three additional locations, including SDSU and central Pacific Beach. But it’s this original location, set up in the back of a corner convenience store, that continually proves the concept. It wasn’t the first food counter installed behind San Diego Market, but considering the fact that previous tenants lasted months, not years, 55 Thai’s longevity speaks volumes.

Crammed into a couple hundred square feet at most (including table tops), there doesn’t seem much to recommend it from the outside. But in the eyes of renters in the neighborhood, it has basically everything going for it: affordable, healthy food, served late. Everything tastes good, whether you’re craving meat, seafood, or sticking exclusively to the refreshing, par-cooked vegetables.

Vibrant blue and green Aztec-inspired murals call attention to the storefront of Rincon Azteca, and it’s a good thing; otherwise, it might blend in with the houses on its mostly residential block in a corner of town encircled by trolley tracks and freeways.

Mexican restaurant on a residential block

  • Rincon Azteca Homestyle Mexican Restaurant
  • 2172 Ocean View Boulevard
  • Logan Heights

Vibrant blue and green Aztec-inspired murals call attention to the storefront of Rincon Azteca, and it’s a good thing; otherwise, it might blend in with the houses on its mostly residential block in a corner of town encircled by trolley tracks and freeways. Inside, there’s a simple-yet-cared-for dining room. It’s worth seeking out to enjoy the homestyle Mexican cooking of Alicia Lorenzo — Doña Alicia to regulars.

Serving customers inside and out from behind a pair of window counters, the one-woman show conjures a bit of everything in her kitchen: tacos, birria, soups, tamales, enchiladas, Mariscos, antojitos, moles, even the dipped Mexico City sandwiches, pambazos. It may be served on a plastic tray, but it’ll be made as though for her own family, with recipes tried and true. It’s as though someone’s abuela made all the best dishes in the neighborhood, and invited you over to eat whatever you feel like.

Fine dining in an industrial park

  • The Cork and Craft
  • 16990 Via Tazon
  • Rancho Bernardo

You don’t expect to find a fine dining experience tucked within an industrial park — the neighbors here include HVAC contractors and a packaging equipment supplier. But there’s a reason The Cork & Craft does it: the gastropub is built around both a brewery and a winery. Abnormal Beer Co. and Abnormal Wine are both produced on-site, and the house brews provide plenty of nice drink options.

But that doesn’t stop the restaurant from stocking its 40 taps with examples of the world’s best beer, or furnishing an extensive international wine list. The whole experience is supposed to revolve around an appreciation of refined flavors and techniques: in this case, creating elevated dishes around comfort concepts such as pork chops, poutine, mac & cheese, fried chicken, and even hamburger. With this kind of focus, who cares how industrial the zoning is outside the restaurant’s walls?

Burger bar by the park

  • The Balboa
  • 1863 Fifth Avenue
  • Bankers Hill

Though only a short block from the southwest corner of Balboa Park, this hamburger and cocktails specialist became a surprise hit in a part of town dominated not by restaurants, but by medical and legal practices and places of worship. You could practically hear the collective moans of downtown burger fanatics last July, when the Balboa's founding griller, Tom Logsdon, announced he was permanently closing the location.

Fortunately, that permanent closure proved short-lived. Turns out, the property owner recognized that having burgers in the building was mutually beneficial, and reached out, asking Logsdon to return. Even better? The offer included the original Balboa’s neighboring suite. So, when the bar re-opened in April, it was double the size, now with ample seating for covid-weary fans to resume eating, with newfound elbow room.

Asian fusion next to the trolley tracks

  • Angkorian Pikestaff
  • 734 Park Boulevard
  • East Village

Since 2019, across the trolley tracks from the NewSchool of Architecture and Design, chef Socheath Sun has been turning a small commercial kitchen with a narrow sidewalk patio into a venue for the ongoing exploration of Southeast Asian and fusion cuisine. Her Angkorian Pikestaff pop-up started out serving weekday lunches, but has come out of our uncertain year serving dinner a couple nights a week — usually, but not always, Sundays and Thursdays — offering one or two dishes at a time.

Fans have long since learned to keep an eye on the @angkorian_pikestaff Instagram for the latest details, including each day’s menu and the deadline for pre-orders (usually noon the day prior). It’s an unusual place and process, but arguably the wildest part of Sun’s project is that she has yet to repeat a dish. She’ll routinely offer some kind of banh mi, noodle soup, or even breakfast burrito, but will switch up the ingredients to make it a different experience. For example, sometimes, the meal is vegan, while at other times it presents a more traditional turn, whether reflecting Sun’s Cambodian background or the national dishes of other Asian cultures, whether Malay, Indonesian, Korean, or Chinese.

More often than not, Sun conjures irresistibly creative dishes sparked by whatever meal, ingredient, or mashup inspires her: Mongolian beef Wellington, bulgogi brisket, and vegan dim sum are but a handful of recent examples. Eventually, the greatest hits may turn up on a fixed menu at a permanent Angkorian Pikestaff location, but for now, Sun is expanding her pop-up presence with collaboration meals served at partnering businesses around town.

Nestled in the canyons below City Heights, City Farmers Nursery dubs its two-acre nursery and farm “a little bit of the country in the heart of the city.” That includes Nate’s, the on-site bar and grill.

Beer and music in a nursery

  • Nate’s Garden Grill
  • 3120 Euclid Avenue
  • City Heights

Nestled in the canyons below City Heights, City Farmers Nursery dubs its two-acre nursery and farm “a little bit of the country in the heart of the city.” That includes Nate’s, the on-site bar and grill that’s one of the best spots in the city to grab a beer and a burger (or vegan alternative), especially while listening to live music. Bordering the nursery, the grill’s rustic setting feels removed from the warrens of freeways and commercial corridors surrounding the property.

And, like the nursery, the kitchen favors naturally raised products, whether local produce, free-range poultry, or grass-fed beef. It likewise champions local brews and local performers. Bill Tall founded City Farmers here nearly 50 years ago, and Nate’s owes its name to his father Nathan, who originally brought the property into the family.

Lao food behind a tire shop

  • So Saap
  • 4710 Market Street
  • Chollas view

You’ll spot a cluster of small eateries situated around the intersection of 47th and Market Streets, but So Saap probably won’t be one of them. It’s mostly hidden behind an auto repair shop, in the back corner of a run-down shopping strip, across the street from the other restaurants. But the small shop’s Thai and Lao cuisine is worth seeking out, and in just over a year, So Saap has managed to build a regular clientele with a menu of boat noodle soups, larb, and delectable Lao beef jerky. It’s proof you don’t need a splashy storefront to serve good food.

Sushi beside a 7-11

  • Sushi Ota
  • 4529 Mission Bay Drive
  • Pacific Beach

Since 1990, chef Yukito Ota has offered “choice sushi, in an unassuming setting.” Though the address is technically Pacific Beach, it’s neither close to the beach nor to the neighborhood’s clusters of bars and restaurants that bustle with beachgoers. Instead, his unassuming Sushi Ota setting is tucked behind a 7-Eleven and surrounded by car dealerships. Nevertheless, it’s long been considered one of, if not the best sushi restaurant in town, a surprising enough development to make it San Diego’s original unexpected dining destination.

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