You Haven't Tasted San Diego Until You've Had...?
- ZenFoodist Aug 8, 2006 04:04 AM
Hi West Coast 'Hounds :)
My husband, two and a half year old son, and I will be in your gorgeous city from September 2nd through September 10th and we are anxious about sampling all the exciting offerings we've read so much about here on these boards. If truth be told, we haven't had the time to do the type of comprehensive search to which we've grown accustomed during all these years on ChowHound, but we have started the process of searching, locating, and cutting and pasting the most informative posts for our "To Do" culinary list. The ubiquitous fish taco(!!!)and carne asada burrito will be sought of course, but we are looking for all those special little unique places that you just couldn't live without- the type of places where if we left without trying you'd all wrinkle your noses and exclaim: "You visited San Diego and you didn't have-----------?"
We've been all over CA, but never to San Diego, so we are thrilled to be leaving the oppressive heat and humidity of NYC and heading out to what's been described as "heaven" by more people than we can count. If you're ever in NYC and need any great restaurant tips, particularly in the Outer Boroughs (where all the really good stuff is...) I'd be happy to help.
BTW, we'll be staying at Del Coronado but are willing to drive as out of the way as necessary for definitive chow.
Thanks in Advance,
Wow, Hotel Del Coronado is beautiful. Some scenes in the movie, "Some Like it Hot" were filmed there. Try the Navy Seal obstacle course, south of Hotel Del. Great pizza at Filippi's on India St. in Little Italy... great Italian food at this shrine at the back of grocery store. Try El Indio on India St. for great Mexican food. There is one Original Tommy's new to San Diego...great for cheeseburgers. In N Out for more great cheeseburgers. You can Google these places for more info. Have fun.
re: Steve Keller
I am a San Dieagan since 1966. El Indos use to be good in the day but don't go there, Taco Bell would be better choice and Old Town Mexican Cafe is a safe, authentic choice. Tommy's is not good, In and Out burgers is good. Jakes in Del Mar is a good choice for ocean view plus the food and service.The other suggestions are true, in my opinion.
"You visited San Diego and you didn't have-----------?"
Well, if you were to ask Jeffrey Steingarten, author of "Return of the Man Who Ate Everthing" and "It Must Have Been Something I Ate", (who's most appropriately for this conversation a NYC/San Diego bi-coastal resident), he would probably say fish tacos. Now I'm sure there's likely to be a great debate over who has the best fish tacos, and I know that many may rightly say only on the other side of the border...
Well certainly some credit goes to the town that popularized them in the States, which is San Diego, via a stand, now a chain, called Rubio's. But as for finding the best fish taco, I claim ignorance and submit to the others on this board. But here's a place you might want to try:
The Brigatine, in beautiful Del Mar... Extra points go out as you will likely be seated in front of expansive white-trimmed windows overlooking the famous Del Mar racetrack, where Bing Crosby spent many a day with his Hollywood friends. It doesn't get more California than this!
And back to Jeffrey Steingarten, in his book he talks of a very famous local produce stand and organic farm called Chino Farms. (They are known for having only two clients that they ship produce daily to: Chez Panisse, and Spago. All others must go to them in their humble roadside stand in luxe Rancho Santa Fe. And go they do - local top chefs as well as chefs from O.C. to L.A. have made the trek here...)
In any case in one of his essays where he talks of meeting the owner, Tom Chino, he talks of being taken to a nearby place for fish tacos. Well in my mind that's probably "The Brig", though I would have no way of knowing for sure. It's just close enough to "his hood" to be plausible...
Enough reason for a try?
Well, I know you've already had fish tacos on the list, so let's add some others. San Diego, of all, is a casual place, so to get a sense of San Diego, I'd reserve the fancy places for just a meal or two. For everything else, here are some places with a real San Diego feel...
Nearby the Del Mar racetrack is Solana Beach's own Eden Garden neighborhood, a historic (in a California kind of way, were talking 1920's here...) barrio where a small collection of Mexican restaurants have congregated. They've had their ups and downs over the years, but several of the original one's are still around. I'd just avoid Fidel's, which is the least interesting of them all, though it probably attracts the largest share of customers from both tourists and less demanding locals...
Instead of Grimaldi's: Sorry, but in my mind there's nothing better than Grimaldi's! (But locals here swear by Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest!)
Instead of Shake Shack: Hodad's, in Ocean Beach - the best burger in town; if you don't feel you're in a beach community there, then you're just not looking! But if you can't make it out to O.B., (there's only one Hodad's, but plueeeeze try to make it?), then I second the nomination for In-N-Out - there are several scattered around San Diego...
Instead of Sarabeth's: Cafe 222, in downtown - just a couple of blocks away from the buzz in the Gaslamp, it gets a lot quieter here than in the Quarter, where it's mostly local urbanites going here for breakfast; take a notice of their "chandeliers" while you're there! It's a much more casual feel than at Sarabeth's, but the breakfasts here are just as popular...
Instead of the Soup Nazi, who I hear is moving to the U.K.: Try out real homemade Mexican soups, each one a meal, lovingly made with handcut vegetables at La Especial Norte. (And there's no "Nazi" attitude here either!) They are famous for their soups, and they must have 10+ of them on their menu. This is an old "roadhouse" restaurant, run by the same family since opening day. It's in a community in the city of Encinitas called Leucadia, in what is called San Dieguito, or old San Diego (not to be confused with Old Town). It still retains a lot of the old "funky" feel when the coast highway WAS THE highway...
There's probably not many urban spaces with a more Cal-casual/luxe feel than the large open deck at Del Mar Plaza, where a long line of large Adirondak chairs are waiting for you to grab. Either get a bite at Il Fornaio's outdoor Enoteca, or at the grocery store on the 2nd level, and grab a chair and enjoy the ocean view while considering if you should move here... The feel is not unlike being on the deck of an ocean liner, so relaxed is the setting and so serene is the view...
Also mentioned above, which I'll second, is the Hotel Del where you'll be staying. Have a drink and a bite on their outdoor terrace deck. I took my brother from NYC there one day, and he just loved the California feel of it all, with the classic hotel in the background, the beach and waves out in front, and all of the deck chairs laid out with service right to your seat! However I haven't been there in a while, and the last time I saw it during their rennovation it was closed down. I hope they'll be reopening it...
Instead of Tavern on the Green, how about a restaurant in an urban park (@ 1200 acres) larger than NYC's own Central Park (@ 843 acres): Now I'm not much for concept restaurants, and I haven't been to this restaurant either, but there's a very successful restaurant group in town called the Cohen Group, and one of their signature restaurants has perhaps one of the most Cal-appropriate settings. The place is called The Prado, and it's right in the heart of Balboa Park. It's a beautiful park to explore night and day, so you might want to make a point of it while combining it with a meal at the restaurant.
Instead of ChikaLicious: And just a short drive from the The Prado and Balboa Park is THE PLACE in S.D. for dessert: Extraordinary Desserts, in Hillcrest. It has an exquisite feel to it, especially at night, and it's one of those rare places in San Diego that almost feels like it could be in NYC, perhaps in the Village. Maybe the perfect place to ease your way back to the other coast...
And like my brother once did by bringing back a pastrami sandwich from Stage Deli, bring back, or eat in the hotel, a Julian Apple Pie if you can, available throughout San Diego and produced locally in Julian, though I'm told the apples for the pie no longer are... (It might make for a good day trip up to the mountains if you're willing to make the drive up there...)
ZenFoodist, if you are seeking Mexican food, you should definitely not miss Super Cocina on University Ave. It never disappoints, and offers a rare glimpse into the world of Mexican home cooking.
I'm not in agreement with Mr. Keller about El Indio - I think it's just OK, and that there are much better Mexcian places in San Diego.
Similarly, I'm not a huge fan of Filippi's Italian food - it's pretty much red-sauce, red-checkered table-cloth kind of fare. I know some people love that, but I find it pretty uninteresting.
Coming from New York, I think your best bet is to avoid things like Italian that are done so well back east. Your best bets are going to be places that emphasize things that are more local in flavor.
Some places I'd suggest:
Convoy Noodle House
China Max Seafood Restaurant
Blue Water Seafood (though last postings on here seem to suggest it's in decline - can anyone confirm this?)
Hopefully stevuchan will chime in with his encycolpedic taco shop knowledge to let you know the good carne asada burrito spots.
ZF.... when it comes to Mexican food you will be very, very, very wise to follow Josh, Dining Diva & Kare Raisu's advice in particular. I don't have much to add but.....
> Super Cocina (sample & choose your guisado)... walk over to the Fruteria a few doors down the way for a Barley Agua Fresca while you are at it.
> Mariscos German (Marlin taco... different style than the Enseneda style taco, is arguably the best fish taco North of the Border)
> Beer Bars.... San Diego absolute excels at little unpretentious joints, with serious beer selection
> San Diego Taco Shops... not my style of Mexican... but it does smack of San Diego even more so than Super Cocina & German (which speak more of the recent immigration waves than long term SD specific Mexicanesque joints). I liked the Fish Flautas at [ ] KR... fill in the blank I forgot the name of that place near Cocina de Maria
- Chocolates from Chuao (Encinitas, Carlsbad and UTC)
- Fresh Uni caught in San Diego waters, world class
- Carnitas at Por Venir in National City or Carnitas Uruapan in Lemon Grove (car essential for either one of these)
- Mexican at Chilango's in Hillcrest
- A Happy Hour cocktail on the patio at Peohe's (Coronado), one of the best views in town, but the food is inconsistent
- MooTime Creamery Ice Cream. There used to be an outlet in the Hotel Del, not sure if it's there any more.
- The Corvette Diner in Hillcrest is usually a child-friendly destination
- A stroll down India St. Stop at Pete's Meats for a sandwich
- The Linkery for more than just sausage 'n' suds
- Stroll along the embarcadero, visit the maritime museum and/or the aircraft carrier midway. Not much in the way of food along that stretch. On one end is Seaport Village where the food options are dismal at best, at the other end is Anthony's Fish Grotto which has been in business for 60 years. It's not dismal, but it's not going to be cutting any new culinary ground either. The fish and chips is usually reliable and it is child friendly. For those of us who grew up here, eating at Anthony's was a fun treat. Those who migrated here from other cities and states are usually far less enamored. It is what it is.
- Not much in the vicinity of Sea World
- Visit Balboa Park which is the largest city park in the U.S. after Central Park in NYC. It is very family friendly. The International Houses usually have interesting programs and food on the weekend. The Japanese Tea House next to the Spreckles Organ Pavillion isn't bad, and neither is The Prado which sometimes gets trashed on this board. To come to San Diego and miss the Zoo (which is in Balboa Park) would be a travesty. Zoo food probably isn't what you're looking for, but just North of the zoo is Hillcrest with one of the largest concentrations of restaurants in the city.
- The best cheap fish tacos are at El Zarape at the end of Park Blvd. (north of Balboa Park & the Zoo). $.99 gets you an excellent fish taco. El Zarape also has scallop burritos, calamari burritos and other interesting combinations. Stay away from the sopes though, hockey pucks.
- Best carne asada burrito is hotly debated,just know if you add french fries to it, it becomes a California burrito.
- Half price happy hour at Roppongi and/or Fresh in La Jolla
- The panna cotta at Nine-Ten in La Jolla
- Breakfast at The Mission in North Park, or Cantina Panaderia in Pacific Beach
- Visit the Ocean Beach farmers market on Wednesday. Buy locally produced honey. Grab a burger at Hodad's and walk to the end of the pier. Buy a pie, tart or cookies from the old pie guy to nibble on in your hotel room.
- Visit the Sunday farmer's market in Hillcrest to see if the macademia nut guy is there. San Diego is the #2 producer of mac nuts in the U.S. Shelled, raw, roasted, salted or unsalted, a pound is usually around $8.
- Visit Venissimo Cheese Shop in Hillcrest for interesting cheeses and a great sandwich lunch deal,then go across the street to the Sausage King for handcrafted sausages to go with the cheese.
But whatever you do enjoy yourself and don't drink the water.
One thing OP will notice is that it seems that there is some sort of taco shop on nearly every street corner and almost as many sushi bars. Most of both kinds are pretty ordinary. For a real "San Diego" feel in a sushi bar that also serves exquisite uni and a wide variety of popular rolls, try Sammy Sushi on Engineer, about a block off of Convoy. If you want a real Japanese feel (no California rolls! No Americanized sushi at all) Sakura 1 (Izakaya Sakura) is outstanding and serves wonderful cooked Japanese dishes as well.
Also OP should go check out the real Vietnamese places along El Cajon Blvd (between 40th and 54th). At least one meal at Saigon - or one or two of the smaller places along the Blvd - would show off a cuisine that is very well done in San Diego.
Right now, I also think no visit to San Diego is complete without a lunch at Asia Cafe - the family Laotian place. And no meal there is complete without an order of nahm kow (sp?) - the crunchy rice and sour sausage dish that is the signature dish at Lotus of Siam in Vegas. But Asia Cafe does it better! Just a note, however, it is not on the menu, but they are happy and proud to prepare it for you.
re: Phoo D
Ed, thanks for jumping in here. I specifically didn't even touch on the myriad of Asian places because it's not my specialty and I was hoping you or Kirk would grab the bit and run with it.
Zen Foodist, trust PhooD's recommendations. I've had the pleasure of dining (and that is the correct word, even for the cheap, hole-in-the-wall places) with him and he's got a good nose for good food.
Great list Dining Diva. Just a couple comments:
El Por Venir is in Barrio Logan (1786 National Ave), across the tracks near downtown.
For uni, call ahead and make sure they'll have it available at your destination. Early fall's still warm waters mean lesser quality and a sushi bar might decide not to carry it at that moment.
If you do burgers at Hodad's in OB, there's also a little window a couple blocks up on Newport selling SD's own Gelato Vero. Can't go wrong with the espresso or pistachio gelati there.
Even better than Gelato Vero, down next to South Beach Bar and Grill, the Lighthouse Ice Cream parlor sells fruit and cream bars from Oasis down in IB. Oasis' stuff blows Gelato Vero away, IMO.
Everyone should be eating Oasis ice cream and fruit bars. The Lighthouse is the only place I know of where you can get them outside of the IB location.
The fruit bars are especially good - fresh watermelon is a great summertime treat.
Oasis makes essentially two products: ice cream and sorbet. However, their ice cream is reminiscent of gelato in that it's both very rich and doesn't have air whipped into it. The sorbet is made from fresh fruit that they get directly from farms. One of their flavors, guava, is made from fruit that they grow at home.
The Lighthouse, in OB, sells Oasis' bars - which are made from certain of their ice cream and sorbet flavors. My favorite cream-based bars are walnut (which really has an absurd amount of walnuts in this amazing walnut-flavored ice cream), coconut, and banana. My favorite sorbet bars (they call them "frutas") are watermelon, pineapple, and strawberry.
If you're a serious ice cream fan, I recommend paying their IB ice cream parlor a visit. They have more flavors than you'll find at Lighthouse, and you can sample. Their vanilla is really great - it tastes like it's seasoned with a small amount of cinnamon, and it's super creamy. Apparently, they contract with a dairy in Los Angeles to get some extra rich cream for their ice cream.
Other great flavors are rice pudding, butterscotch (though a little too sweet for me), and peanut butter.
It doesn't look like much from the outside, but their product can't be beat.
Josh, thanks for this tip. Ice Cream is a food group for me. I can't tell you how many times I've walked by The Lighthouse - probably thousands - after getting coffee at Java Jungle and wondering how their ice cream is. With the weather heating up over the next few days, you've given me the perfect excuse for some market research :-D
De gustibus non est disputandum. I think Gelato Vero appeals to people who prefer their gelato elegant and lean (lower % of dairy fat, eggless, more Southern Italian in nature). It's rare to find a place that doesn't leave a greasy or waxy feel in the mouth--very very "clean". The flavors are intense yet nuanced--the espresso captures the earthy depth of a good cup. Small selection of flavors (I'm weary of quality at gelaterias that serve 50 plus flavors), fresh product, held at a good temperature (it's not supposed to be super firm), lightly sweetened, etc.
The problem with Gelato Vero was that some of the flavors definitely weren't natural but artifical. Pistachio and Hazelenut/chocolate (clearly based on nutella flavor) in particular were really bad. But I went there again yesterday and had two sorbets (lemon and blackberry) which were really good.
BTW, in comparison to ice cream in Italy (especially around Emilia-Romana) the ice cream at Gelato Vero is not very elegant and lean
I LOVE YOU GUYS!!! I was reluctant to even check to see if anyone had gotten back to me b/c it's so early on the West Coast...I was thrilled to see so many comprehensive posts so soon. Thank you so much.
I hope the guy with the encyclopedic knowledge of tacos
(especially fish ones and carne asada burritos chimes in soon as I am really looking forward to these two treats) I probably won't do too much Italian, although I welcome the reccs, as this is NYC and we are Italian-American and eat the stuff
(the GOOD stuff) all the time.
BTW, What;s with the water??? That last post ended on a bit of an ominous note :)
San Diego tap water is straight out of the Colorado River. It's some of the hardest water you'll find anywhere, extermely high mineral content and unless you grew up drinking it, it can taste pretty bad. It won't kill you, but it isn't exactly going to win any taste contests either.
BTW try Fidel's. It's the most popular of all Mexican restaurants in North Coastal San Diego and particularly frequented by discerning locals like myself. I recommend the carne asada fajitas. I've spotted a number of Hollywood celebrities visiting here for the racing season in the last couple of weeks.
There is a boardwalk on Coronado Island, where there are a bunch of stores and restaurants. I once had some amazing sand dabs (fish indigenous only to the West Coast) at a small Greek fast food place. They were buttery smooth, and were as good as the version served to me in Monterrey, CA, at a nice restaurant.
I am from the Bronx and have been out here a year and a half.
I would generally have to say stay away from anything you would eat back in NYC, as it will be better there. The best pizza out here would be below average for NYC. However there are some really good treats and chowish things to do while you are out here.
First off, things like produce are always better at the source. Make sure you head up to Chino Farms and buy yourself some fruit or vegetables. I know you probably wont be able to cook anything but it will still be worth it. Everything that they grow there is "the best version" of whatever particular item it might be. the union Sq green market pales in comparison. They also have a huge variety for such a smal farm. As a poster said above, many top restaurants get their produce from here.
Sushi-You can get phenomenal sushi in NYC, but you will pay for it. I find that you can get excellent quality out here for a decent price. It still wont be cheap but it wont be Yasuda or Masa levels. Try Izakaya Sakura on convoy street. Sit at the sushi bar, and make sure you get some of that fantastic Uni. SD Uni is the best, and this also does not travel well. You also could try Sushi Ota in PB. Top notch.
Most taco shops out here are pretty gringoized much to my chagrin but there are some really good mexican places. Super COcina is down home mexican food. It is served off of steam trays, but dont let that fool you. this stuff is delicious. you can ask for samples of everything. I dont know if they make their own horchata but it is good too.
For fish tacos i would highly reccomoend el zarape. Besides the classic fried fish you can get lobster, scallop, and many more. This is cheap and truly SD, you wont find anything this good back home in the fish taco ouvre.
The Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai places arent that great. You are better off in Flushing or Manhattan's chinatown.
I will also second having a drink at Del Mar Plaza. As a NYer I cant think of anything more west coast than watching the sun set out there on the deck. Grab a glass of wine and an appetizer from Il Fornaio.
Also last but not least, if you like beer you are in the right place. since beer is almost always better at the source you will be in the area of some great breweries. Stone and pizza port are both fantastic. Make sure to sample their brews if you see them on tap or make the trip up to Solana beach to hit pizza port. Their pizza is decent but their beer is excellent. Try their Hefeweizen, it reminds me of Bavaria. O Briens on convoy is a great place to sample a wide variety of California micros brews. Go there after eating at Sakura.
Hmm... your post makes it sound as though taco shops in the East are not gringoized, or less so than in San Diego. I don't know about New York, but when I'm in Washington, it's impossible to find anything that's remotely decent as far as Tex Mex or Mexican food goes. Out here in San Diego, the food is Americanized, but no more so than anywhere else.
If you want a true San Diego experience, I would recommend eating lunch at Rubio's like someone else here has said. You can also find gourmet fish tacos, even more Americanized than those at places like Rubio's, at some of the finer seafood restaurants.
Peohe's on Coronado is one such place. It overlooks the San Diego bay and the skyline. It's a great place for a casual lunch or a beautiful, though not cheap, sunset dinner. If you go for lunch, they have excellent jerk pork sandwhiches and their chocolate desserts are decadent.
For seafood, there is a touristy, but good place in Point Loma called the Point Loma Seafood Company (I think). It's on Scott Street, which is one block west of Rosecrans (the main strip in PL), right on the water overlooking all the fishing boats and yachts. Get some fish and chips or a crab sandwhich and enjoy the view and weather.
This is true. I think it's probably most of the food from northern Mexico, which is really the immediate influence here. From my limited experiences in Mexico, it seems we have the same sort of food served in a lot of the poorer areas that you'd find in a border city like Tijuana. Mexican street food seems to have immigrated well into San Diego fare. We don't really have a lot of the "gourmet," exotic Mexican food, but rather just the basics. That said, I don't know if the food here is in particular more Americanized, or just less diverse.
Hold your horses both of you :-).
It's not that hard to find taco places using offal and it's definitely not that hard to find "gourmet" Mexican here, yes, for a border town San Diego has rather nondescript and unimaginative Mexican food, but, no, it's not especially because it's Northern or "poor" Mexican. And to briefly elaborate on each.
1) To find tacos de offal all you need to do is go South to National City, Chula Vista or San Ysidiro. Tacos El Gordo has been mentioned on this board a couple of times recently and they're the real deal with the real lengua, tripas, cabeza, etc. There is also a small place called "Azteca" in La Mesa, next to a 7/11 right off the intersection of Fletcher Parkway and Jackson Dr. that serves organ meats. Also, try Northgate grocery off I-805 @ 43rd St. They sell all the innards, plus have an extensive food court where a lot of them are offered. I know I've seen tripas there but, frankly, wasn't really looking for offal options ;-).
2) For upscale, or gourmet, Mexican dining Chilango's in Hillcrest wins hands down. Candelas and El Agave also fall into this category. I drove past a new place last night in the Gaslamp called Tesoro that's billing itself as contemporary Mexican. I'm definitely going back to try it because if it's even remotely like the contemporary riffs on Mexican food that I had in Mexico City last year, it'll be good. I don't know that I'd call Sopa de Espuma de Foie Gras exotic, but it was pretty darned tasty ;-). The venison and pheasant, OTOH, were deliciously exotic.
3) For as close to the border as San Diego is, the Mexican food can be pretty awful. It didn't use to be this bad. But I think the fact that places like Chilangos, Super Cocina, Carnitas Uruapan, Tacos El Gordo and even Mama Testa's are thriving provides a glimmer of hope that the Mexican food options here in San Diego might improve. There's W-A-Y more to Mexican food than 5 rolled tacos with guac and a carne asada burrito.
4) By mature Mexican food is an agriculturally based cuisine, as are both Italian and Chinese. All 3 of them spectacularly great cuisines. Like the U.S., Mexico is, geographically, a very large country and what grows well in the south doesn't do so well in the north and vice versa. So the pigs, corn and lush tropical fruits and veggies of the south are replaced by the cattle/goats, wheat and semi-tropical fruits and veggies of the north, black beans by pintos, and so on. Neither agricultural profile, north or south (or east and west for that matter) is inherently richer or poorer than the other, they are a reflection of what could be grown to sustain life and make it thrive.
Historically, migrants coming through San Diego were from the Mexican states of Jalisco, Colima and Nayarit. The food I grew up with here more closely resembled the food of these states back then than it does now. Tijuana is now the 3rd largest city in Mexico with it's own immigration problems and people from all over the republic. I think it's growing increasingly more difficult to piegon-hole the primary influences there as it is here.
I travel to Mexico frequently and have a Master's Degree in Latin American Studies from UCLA, and I am a native San Diegan. I really, really don't want to sound like I'm lecturing, cuz that's not my aim. Mexican food is dynamic and vibrant, and most American's have completely no clue as to it's depth and breadth. This cuisine has been my own personal nirvana for the last 20+ years since that fateful day in Cuernavaca when someone stuck a fork in my hand that had a funny looking red barrel shaped fruit on the end of it. I took a bite and ended up with a mouthful of seeds. Noticing what was probably a rather distressed look on my face, one of my dining companions told me to "just swallow, they won't hurt you". I had a choice to either spit them out and understand Mexico and it's culture from a "safe" distance, or I could choose to swallow and plunge myself into Mexico and it's culture. Clearly I went over the precipice ;-).
Now, ask me if I want a Taco de Escamoles (ants) and I'll gladly pass. Plus I'm pretty sure you can't get those in San Diego either :-D
I will be in Guadalajara in 10 days, I'm counting them down with great anticipation............
I think DiningDiva has explained things well, but I just wanted to add one point. Mexican food in San Diego is the way it is because it is a native cuisine of San Diego. As another recent thread has pointed out, a carne asada burrito is the distinctive SD dish. Add french fries to it, and it is even more uniquely SD. Think about the fact that the other dish that is considered native to SD is a fish taco. San Diegans have adopted Mexican cuisine and adapted it to their tastes. Roberto's were never intended to make food for Mexicans. To judge most SD Mexican food by standards of someplace where Mexican food is an exotic import (or the standards of Mexico) isn't fair because Mexican food in San Diego is an indigenous local cuisine. As Diningdiva points out, there are places in SD where one can get Mexican food for Mexicans - menudo and tacos de cabeza - but those are not usually the places in PB or downtown or hotel circle.
The Del...where I honeymooned 21 years ago. Such a great place with fond memories. I stumbled on this post because I'll be in San Diego visiting SDSU as a prospective student/parent pair and am looking for must eats, but for you, staying at the Del - you must have brunch in the Crown Room. Very old world and a simply spectacular setting. Have fun! I'm jealous.
Boo Cho for Korean, just off Convoy.
One other thing...Central Park and Balboa Park are big, but nowhere near as big as South Mountain in Phoenix...it's nearly twenty times the size of Central Park.
It looks like you have some good recommendations, but I have a couple more.
One - head up to the Pannikin Brockton Villa in La Jolla near the cove for breakfast (try the Coast Toast). After breakfast, walk South from the Cove to check out the seals (your son will love that).
Two - pick up a picnic at Con Pane on Rosecrans in Point Loma (closed on Wednesday), and head out to the end of the point to Cabrillo National Monument - enjoy the view and check out the lighthouse.
Three - go to Balboa Park and check out the museums. Eat at the Sculpture Garden cafe or at the Prado. After the park, head North on 5th Avenue to Extraordinary Desserts and either eat dessert there or pick out a few things to go.
Four - Drive up to Del Mar in the evening (exit at Genessee and head West - then up the coast) and have drinks at the wine bar at the top of the Plaza Del Mar. Afterwards, eat at Cafe Pacifica (very casual)or head down to the Poseidon at the bottom of the hill and to the right (better than Jakes).
For Mexican, Las Cuatros Milpas is not too far for you, being in Coronado. It's under the bridge in the Barrio Logan area. Some people on this board aren't crazy about it, but I think it's a unique San Diego experience. Might also want to try Super Cocina - I have not been but I've heard good things.
I also second the recommendation of Gelato Vero. I also like Saffron, the Thai chicken and noodles place that is near there on India Street, though some might disagree.
I'm not sure it's worthwhile for you to go to Julian for an apple pie, or to Chinos' for produce. Certainly if you lived here you'd want to do those things, but if you're only here for a short time I'm not sure that's really the best way to spend it. I would also avoid Peohe's, Il Fornaio, Brigantine and Miguel's. Try to get some fresh seafood, try Pannikin coffee if it's convenient, and some Mootime Creamery ice cream.
Have a great time!
It's been a good while since I lived in San Diego--I've lived in Mexico full-time for the last seven or eight years--so my favorite places might not be up to speed.
However, I *strongly* agree with all the posts about Super Cocina. It's as close as you'll get to real Mexican home cooking without being invited to a real Mexican home, one with a good cook in the kitchen. No matter what's on the menu (and try to go between 2 and 4 PM, the time most Mexicans eat their main meal of the day), you'll love it. It's the real deal.
I've been a bit surprised to see Rubio's mentioned so often for fish tacos. Back in the day, when Rubio's was founded, the fish tacos were out of this world. The last time I ate them, a couple of years ago and after the local chain was sold, the fish tacos were but a shadow of their former selves. I'd stick with El Zarape, in spite of the fact that I'm not too crazy about their fish tacos, either.
If you have a day and want to go across the border to Tijuana, there's some great food to be eaten. Be sure to hit Tacos El Güero on Blvd. Aguascalientes, across the street from the Chevrolet dealer. Even after all these years in the interior of Mexico, El Güero's tacos are still the benchmark.
Manhattan has its own "Little Korea" area in the Midtown area. There is a 2 story Korean BBQ in that area that uses charcoal grills and beats Boo Cho out any day, hands down. Still one of my favorite meals in NYC (that includes Le Bernardin and Babbo!).
Anyone make tlayudas in SD? A friend of mine ate this street food in Mexico City on a recent trip, and raved. Maybe too southern Mexicn for SD, hmm...