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Aug 8, 2006 04:04 AM

You Haven't Tasted San Diego Until You've Had...?

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,

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  1. 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.

    1 Reply
    1. 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.

    2. "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...)

      1. 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:

        Super Cocina
        The Linkery
        Convoy Noodle House
        China Max Seafood Restaurant
        Carnitas Uruapan
        Blue Water Seafood (though last postings on here seem to suggest it's in decline - can anyone confirm this?)
        Extraordinary Desserts

        Hopefully stevuchan will chime in with his encycolpedic taco shop knowledge to let you know the good carne asada burrito spots.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Josh

          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

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            Perhaps you didn't notice the date stamp on the original post, Eat_Nopal, but I doubt ZF is still tuned in. For whatever reason, Shandy revived this thread.

            It's a good topic title, though. :)

        2. - 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.

          15 Replies
          1. re: DiningDiva

            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.


            1. 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.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                Well, I've got a big nose :--)

                Thanks for the kind words.


            2. re: DiningDiva

              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.

              1. re: petradish

                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.

                1. re: Josh

                  Interesting, I'll have to give it a try. Does Oasis sell gelato or regular ice cream/bars?

                  1. re: petradish

                    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.

                    1. re: petradish

                      Cool. Flavorwise it sounds like the paleterias up here (L.A.). Good to know of a local SD place for that style.

                      Can't say enough good things about GV's clean-flavored, eggless gelati though. Quality. ;-)

                    2. re: Josh

                      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

                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        Diva, make sure you get the bars out of the serve-yourself case. The regular ice cream that Lighthouse sells is just OK. The Oasis bars are in their own self-serve freezer.

                    3. re: petradish

                      Tried Gelato Vero for the first time a few days ago and can't understand the hype about it. It is not really bad but also nothing to write home about. I still look for good Italian style ice cream in SD, if somebody has good recommendation.

                      1. re: honkman

                        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.

                        1. re: petradish

                          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

                      2. re: petradish

                        Ah, you're right. National Ave not National City. It was late when I posted. I had my Nationals confused, not to mention that the Padres were playing the Nationals as well.

                        1. re: petradish

                          Currently, I understand that Uni is usually harvested on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Though large in size, the 'nads(yep Uni are gonads, not roe) are on the smaller side, and not quite as sweet. Still they are better than 99% of what you'll get anywhere.

                      3. 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 :)

                        Muchas Gracias,

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: ZenFoodist

                          Tap water here tastes wrong. It isn't (except for a short e.coli scare/everyone was supposed to boil before consuming in North County this past weekend) You will see a *lot* of people carrying a bottle of water.

                          1. re: ZenFoodist

                            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.

                            1. re: ZenFoodist

                              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.