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Spicy food in San Diego?

I'm going to be spending a few days in SD next week, probably near the Hillcrest area. I'll have a car, and am willing to drive at least 20-30 miles for great food. Even 40 miles if it's really fantastic. I'm seeking recommendations for some of the best spicy food in the area. I'm not just looking for intense heat (though heat is great), but also complex, layered flavors. Favorite cuisines include Indian, Thai, and of course Mexican, but recommendations needn't be limited to that. The last couple SD Mexican restaurants I tried were mediocre and touristy. I did hit some fantastic Indian restaurants sort of northeast of the city (near a military base, I think).

So, best recommendations for spicy, intensely flavored foods? Thanks!

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  1. I would head over to Pacific Beach and check out World Curry. It's a funky little inexoensive restaurant offering lots of different curries and you can specify the heat level. I always liked the Japanese curry the best. Their naan is delicious, slightly crunchy on the outside and pillowy inside. Yum! Forget about the satay skewers- too dry. I took my mom there over five years ago, and she still mentions it from time to time.

    Here's a link to their menu:

    1. Spicy City on Convoy is a winner, with unique Chinese dishes you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the area and plenty of heat. Someone else will be able to be more specific about what type of Chinese cuisine it is. I just know it's good and something different.
      If you've never had authentic Mexican comida corrida, Super Cocina on University (?) is probably the best we've got. Plenty good if you know Mexican food; a fantastic treat if you've never gone much beyond tacos and enchiladas.

      1. You are looking for Ba Ren - superb Szechuan cuisine. It is precisely what you describe - complex, layered, and intense heat. The menu is quite large (like most Chinese places) so choose carefully.

        I rec hot pepper prawns and stir fried dried beef, two world class dished, IMO.

        I think Ba Ren has the advantage over every other place in this category due to the complexity of the heat. Spicy City is very good, but doesn't have the layering and complexity of the best of Ba Ren, IMO. Of course, I may be ordering the wrong things (always an issue with 200 item menus).

        If you search this board for Ba Ren you should find more recs. Also a very popular and informative local blog has some info:

        Ba ren is just off Convoy near Clairemont Mesa and Diane (on Diane - 4957 Diane Ave. - maybe 15 minutes from Hillcrest) - looks like nothing in the middle of nowhere. Don't be fooled.

        1. In Hillcrest there is India Princess which takes your heat requests seriously (just tell them "off the scale"). There is better indian if you feel like driving to Pujabi Tandoor.

          1. I absolutely second the recommendation for Ba Ren.

            For as close to the border as San Diego is, the Mexican food just isn't that great. What you're probably looking for is Super Cocina at University and Cherokee. They serve the best "comida casera" or homestyle Mexican food in the city. A lot of their dishes are spicy, some are not. The great thing about Super Cocina is that they will let you try a little taste of just about anything. I once sent someone there and they walked out upon seeing that the food was served from a steam table. Don't let that steam table fool you, the Mexican food here is the real deal and it's really good. The guisados are excellent, and they do a better than average version of carnitas.

            1. I would strongly 3rd Ba Ren. They really know how to do "spicy" and balance the heat with actual flavors, as opposed to just burning off your tastebuds. We prefer them over Spicy City for this reason. Expect your nose to run!

              Mama Testa's in Hillcrest is a small taco shop but they have really great salsas that have a great combo of heat plus flavors. Their sesame seed salsa is excellent, as well as a Parmesan and tomato one (go figure).

              Punjabi Tandoor off Black Mountain Road near Miramar has pretty good spicy, flavorful Indian. Extremely hole in the wall but good. They don't back off on the spice just because you aren't of Asian background.

              I went to World Curry many years ago and can't remember exactly what I ordered but it was supposed to be spicy and it came off as flat, mild and not what it purported itself to be. Maybe they're better now, but whatever I had lent myself to not going back there again.

              If you want Korean spicy, there is a Tofu House on Convoy north of Balboa and another Tofu House on Convoy south of Balboa. The first one does a great spicy kim chi tofu soup (your nose will run), although the latter has a more flavorful broth. If you get the bi bim bap dishes, the chili sauce in the squeeze bottle has a mild-moderate sweet heat.

              1. Agree with Ba Ren. Really outstanding.

                Also have a lunch at Asia Cafe.


                I would also suggest having bun bo hue (spicy noodle soup) at one of the Vietnamese places in town:



                1. You can considerf going to TACOS EL GORDO in TJ. It is a drive through type place with outside tables. It is really fun and you get to sample all different types of tacos.

                  1. For Szechuan, I prefer Dede's on Convoy to Spicy City, though I've had many more meals at Spicy City and wouldn't hesitate to go back.

                    Maybe it's just that I've chosen poorly when I've gone to Ba Ren, but it hasn't knocked my socks off. I've got Ba Ren's menu at my desk, so if anyone wants to suggest dishes, I'm all ears... The Tong-Nan Tai-An Fish Fillet is the only dish I've had there that I thought was special.

                    Big second for Punjabi Tandoor. Ambience is poor (it's basically in an industrial park and they just have a few tables inside and a few outside), but the food more than makes up for it.

                    California Thai Cafe on Black Mtn. and Activity does spicy thai better than most. If you ask for "10" out of "1 to 10", they give you a "10".

                    1. Just came back from our quick jaunt to San Diego. We were tied up with business most of the time, and did not get a chance to check out as many restaurants as we would have liked. Some friends of ours took us out to Piatti in La Jolla. Very good bread with some fantastic olive oil/balsamic/herb & spice dipping stuff on the table. We had very a very nice ravioli dish (Ravioli di Zucca -- sage ravioli filled with butternut squash). We also had a truly terrible osso bucco. Not quite sure how they managed to mess up such a simple dish. In any case, the patio setting was beautiful, and the service was terrific. We were a large party with a lot of kids, and the staff was incredibly friendly and accommodating. Every time I go to San Diego, I'm struck by how friendly and hospitable a city it is, and Piatti was no exception.

                      Of the restaurants recommended in this string of posts, the only one we made it to was Super Cocina. We had very high hopes. We have spent several months traveling around Mexico, and were hoping for something reminiscent of those trips. I'm sorry to say, we didn't get it. Nothing we got was terrible. There were some empanadas that were almost completely devoid of flavor; some chicken enchiladas verdes that were palatable, but not exactly alive with flavor either; the mole poblano tasted a little to me like mole from a jar that was fixed up. There was no texture to it whatsoever, no ground nuts or seeds or spices. A real mole should feel like a rustic dish, and this did not. The best thing was a spicy pork in red sauce. I don't eat pork, but this smelled so good I ate the potatoes from the dish off my partner's plate. It was very spicy and flavorful, and if you eat pork I would recommend it. My partner was practically licking his plate of this stuff.

                      I have to say though, eating at Super Cocina made me really appreciate the authentic Mexican eateries we have here in North Carolina. I know that sounds like a joke, but we seriously have Mexican food here that beats Super Cocina hands down. It's odd, considering the geography, but I swear it's the case. But don't take my word for it: check out Jim Leff's ChowTour writeup of Durham, NC's Mexican scene at http://www.chow.com/tour/156. Even better, come on out here and try for yourself!

                      Thanks for all the recommendations. Will try more next time I'm in SD!

                      1. You're not far off in your assessment of service in San Diego. It is hospitable. There is no question bad service happens, it just kind of goes with the territory but for the most part, the service I've encountered in the majority of restaurants in SD has been good to very good and almost always professional. While our fine dining may not always measure up to other cities, service is coming closer.

                        Actually, I'm not surprised that North Carolina has some good Mexican restaurants. If you look at the patterns of migration, North Carolina is the new favorite destination. Mexican migration to California is quite a few generations old and a reasonable amount of assimilation has occured. Migration to North Carolina is fairly new and assimilation is just starting. The degree to which the Mexican community has established itself can often be seen in the food and specifically how it's changed over the course of many generations. I suspect that in 50 years or so, what's currently available in North Carolina will look a lot different than it does today.

                        The area from which the migration takes place affects what is offered in Mexican restaurants NOB. Migration to CA came from the western Mexican states like Jalisco, Sonora, Sinola and Colima or Nayarit. The migration to North Carolina is coming from a much different part of Mexico. Regional cooking is one of the tremendous gifts of the Mexican kitchen and there are variations upon variations. There are hundreds of version of mole and it varies from family to family, town to town and region to region. It runs the gamut from the ultra refined, complex and seductive Chichilo to the more rustic Mole Verde or Amarillo. And Mole de Olla can be just about anything and most likely a traditional family recipe.

                        For a border town San Diego does has surprisingly lousy Mexican food. It didn't used to be that way. I grew up here and the Mexican food of the 50s and 60s sure didn't look much like what it does today. The changes have been a function of time, economics, the desire for businesses to cross cultural boundaries and reach a larger audience and good old assimilation. Super Cocina specializes in comida casera, or home cooking, and like most restaurants it's only as good as who is cooking in the kitchen. The charm of Super Cocina has always been that it employs home cooks to cook their traditional recipes and not "restaurant" style food. I think, however, that it is becoming a victim of it's own success. The last couple of times I've been I thought it was inconsistent and the food was too heavy. One of the biggest misconceptions American's have about Mexican food is that they think it's heavy, greasy and carb laden, it's not.

                        I have traveled extensively in Mexico and am sorry to say that I find the bulk of the Mexican food here in San Diego woefully inadequate. That doesn't mean I don't eat Mexican, I do, in fact, I make it a point to seek it out. I got over the "authentic" issue a long time ago and could care less whether or not something is "authentic". Once past that bias, I've found some great dishes at different places around town. I don't care if it tastes "just like in Mexico" or not; I'm not in Mexico, I'm in San Diego. I want to see how the kitchen works with Mexican ingredients, what kind of flavor profile it can create, and how much "soul" a kitchen can put into what it turns out. Mexican food is so much about "tierra y familia", that's what I want to get out of a Mexican restaurant in San Diego. This is, no doubt, not the majority point of view, but it is one built on years of traveling in Mexico, cooking and eating lots of Mexican food and studying the cuisine with all the major players and then some.

                        Thanks for taking the time to report back about your dining experiences in America's Finest City, I appreciate it.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: SDJake

                          mexican food isn't bad at all here. I dont see it being any better in any other city (minus probably somewhere in Texas and LA).

                          I think its rather harsh to expect the same type of food.
                          As my family always says, the reason why the food tastes better in the homeland is because of the lack of health concerns and cleanliness =)

                          1. re: clayfu

                            Depends on what kind of Mexican food you are looking for and if you have been to Chicago--check out the lthforums if you cant get a ticket.

                            Taco shop Mex - SD is hands down the best.

                            But if you have eaten Mexican in LA - Chitchen Itza,La Casita in Bell, Geleguegetza, Antequera de Oaxaca, El Parian etc. you know sd is a far cry.

                            I dont think DD is expecting the same type of food here, just wishing for a little more 'truer' representations of what Mexican cuisine really is (check out her posts)- which we all should (especially when faced now with the closing of Chilangos).

                            Have you been to Super Cocina, Mama Testas,EL Borrego, ranas.com, Uruapan or Candelas? These would seem to affirm your claim that Mexican food in SD is not all that bad - which I agree with - but it still could be better.

                        2. I vouch for Eric's cuisine at Dao Son ("Hot Chef"). He truly deserves the moniker, specially if you order your entree "all the way". Try the "Tasty Red Chicken" or the "Pan-Fried Catfish with Eggplant". Also amazingly good Vietnamese Egg Rolls ("Spring Rolls") on the menu. Used to work across the street, really miss the place.