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Everything in San Diego all at once

Lunch at Coasterra distills the vacationer’s experience into a single outing

Mexican bay scallop aguachile, on the patio of Coasterra
Mexican bay scallop aguachile, on the patio of Coasterra

A group of boats appear to be racing across the bay, their striped, colorful sails puffed out by steady winds and shining in the midday sun. From left to right behind them, a panorama of iconic views: the downtown skyline; vintage aircraft parked atop the deck of the USS Midway Museum; the sleek, blue curves of the Coronado bridge. This is the San Diego of travel brochures, all packed together in a single glance. We have only to look up from our plates.

Place

Coasterra

880 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego

I’ve been putting off a visit to Coasterra, the third restaurant planted here, on the southern tip of Harbor Island, by the Cohn Restaurant Group. There’s little else other than hotels on the “island”, and you have to drive by the airport to get here, so I tend to think of the area as a place for tourists. And, sitting here, admiring the view, I do almost feel like I’m on vacation, even though I was sitting on my couch less than an hour ago.

I have previously been to the Cohns' adjacent properties, C-Level and Island Prime, which share the same, magnificent view, and a similar, visitor-in-my-hometown vibe. But whereas their menus deliver California and steakhouse cuisine, respectively, Coasterra specializes in the type of foods tourists specifically seek out in San Diego: Mexican cuisine and seafood. So, with the exception of sandy beaches and surf, tourists get sample a little bit of everything they want to experience, here on one shaded dining deck.

Coasterra serves Mexican seafood, but the main attraction is the view.

The Cohn group may take exception to my calling Coasterra a touristy kind of place, so I should point out it may be a different story in the evening. Pricey, $80-plus plates for two include steaks, an entire sea bass, Mexican-styled paella, and lobster tails. Any of these would make it a righteous place for a special occasion date night. Of course, a $78 seafood tower and spate of $30-50 entrees would also make it target destination for conventioneers with corporate credit cards at their disposal.

At lunchtime, I do encounter plenty of other locals, mostly dining in groups: an extended family here, an office luncheon there, and what appeared to be members of a sorority, who took turns posing for photos in front of the bay and city backdrop.

Inside, the bar fuels frequent large party gatherings.

But I assume Coasterra has to be tourist-facing, because I don’t think locals generally want to pay $19 for tacos. That’s the price for a pair of fried fish, adobe shrimp, or carnitas tacos, served within corn or flour tortillas (or wrapped in lettuce, if you’ve lost your zest for life).

Granted, the fish tacos are made with swordfish, not bargain fish like tilapia or swai. But neither are they exceptionally tasty, or say coated in gold. They’d appease an out-of-towner, but I tend to believe swordfish is too firm to make a great fish taco. I prefer a more tender filet, something that can’t offer any resistance when you bite through the batter.

Swordfish tacos, two for $19

But, obviously, somebody has to pay for the million-dollar view. After tacos, the lunch entrees only get pricier, even the salads. But the food does get more interesting. A $24 mussels and clams dish featuring Mexican chorizo and chipotle cream may not be the most filling, but it’s beautifully made. The grilled rainbow trout ($32) may not scream San Diego, but the surf and turf quesadilla ($28) certainly fits the scene.

A more local-friendly option may be to fill up on appetizers. You can have guacamole made at your table, share a seafood tower, or stick to individual components, including assorted ceviches, masa-coated calamari, or oysters on the half shell (six for $19). The bay scallop aguachile overshadows the tacos in quantity and quality for the same price ($19) — and is so refreshing and spicy, I’ll wake up thinking about it a week later.

Mussels and clams with Mexican chorizo and chipotle crema

As a staycationer or otherwise, every San Diegan should probably experience Coasterra at least once (if not one of its sister restaurants next door). Be sure to book a reservation requesting outdoor seating to watch the boats, and a downtown that looks prettier from a distance. Then, if you want to feel like a good local, make a point to spend the same amount of cash at your neighborhood taco shop next month. Everybody wins.

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Mexican bay scallop aguachile, on the patio of Coasterra
Mexican bay scallop aguachile, on the patio of Coasterra

A group of boats appear to be racing across the bay, their striped, colorful sails puffed out by steady winds and shining in the midday sun. From left to right behind them, a panorama of iconic views: the downtown skyline; vintage aircraft parked atop the deck of the USS Midway Museum; the sleek, blue curves of the Coronado bridge. This is the San Diego of travel brochures, all packed together in a single glance. We have only to look up from our plates.

Place

Coasterra

880 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego

I’ve been putting off a visit to Coasterra, the third restaurant planted here, on the southern tip of Harbor Island, by the Cohn Restaurant Group. There’s little else other than hotels on the “island”, and you have to drive by the airport to get here, so I tend to think of the area as a place for tourists. And, sitting here, admiring the view, I do almost feel like I’m on vacation, even though I was sitting on my couch less than an hour ago.

I have previously been to the Cohns' adjacent properties, C-Level and Island Prime, which share the same, magnificent view, and a similar, visitor-in-my-hometown vibe. But whereas their menus deliver California and steakhouse cuisine, respectively, Coasterra specializes in the type of foods tourists specifically seek out in San Diego: Mexican cuisine and seafood. So, with the exception of sandy beaches and surf, tourists get sample a little bit of everything they want to experience, here on one shaded dining deck.

Coasterra serves Mexican seafood, but the main attraction is the view.

The Cohn group may take exception to my calling Coasterra a touristy kind of place, so I should point out it may be a different story in the evening. Pricey, $80-plus plates for two include steaks, an entire sea bass, Mexican-styled paella, and lobster tails. Any of these would make it a righteous place for a special occasion date night. Of course, a $78 seafood tower and spate of $30-50 entrees would also make it target destination for conventioneers with corporate credit cards at their disposal.

At lunchtime, I do encounter plenty of other locals, mostly dining in groups: an extended family here, an office luncheon there, and what appeared to be members of a sorority, who took turns posing for photos in front of the bay and city backdrop.

Inside, the bar fuels frequent large party gatherings.

But I assume Coasterra has to be tourist-facing, because I don’t think locals generally want to pay $19 for tacos. That’s the price for a pair of fried fish, adobe shrimp, or carnitas tacos, served within corn or flour tortillas (or wrapped in lettuce, if you’ve lost your zest for life).

Granted, the fish tacos are made with swordfish, not bargain fish like tilapia or swai. But neither are they exceptionally tasty, or say coated in gold. They’d appease an out-of-towner, but I tend to believe swordfish is too firm to make a great fish taco. I prefer a more tender filet, something that can’t offer any resistance when you bite through the batter.

Swordfish tacos, two for $19

But, obviously, somebody has to pay for the million-dollar view. After tacos, the lunch entrees only get pricier, even the salads. But the food does get more interesting. A $24 mussels and clams dish featuring Mexican chorizo and chipotle cream may not be the most filling, but it’s beautifully made. The grilled rainbow trout ($32) may not scream San Diego, but the surf and turf quesadilla ($28) certainly fits the scene.

A more local-friendly option may be to fill up on appetizers. You can have guacamole made at your table, share a seafood tower, or stick to individual components, including assorted ceviches, masa-coated calamari, or oysters on the half shell (six for $19). The bay scallop aguachile overshadows the tacos in quantity and quality for the same price ($19) — and is so refreshing and spicy, I’ll wake up thinking about it a week later.

Mussels and clams with Mexican chorizo and chipotle crema

As a staycationer or otherwise, every San Diegan should probably experience Coasterra at least once (if not one of its sister restaurants next door). Be sure to book a reservation requesting outdoor seating to watch the boats, and a downtown that looks prettier from a distance. Then, if you want to feel like a good local, make a point to spend the same amount of cash at your neighborhood taco shop next month. Everybody wins.

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