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Unique San Diego Food?

Hello, Is there anything that I must try when in San Diego and surrounding areas? I would prefer something that is unique to the area or else some places that San Diego is known for that is a must try? Any food is fine. Thanks in advance !

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  1. San Diego is most associated with fish tacos - traditionally battered fish fillets, deep fried, served in a corn tortilla with white sauce, cabbage, & salsa. SD natives often consider the local version of a carne asada burrito (carne adada meat with guac & pico de gallo) as even more distinctive.

    And the uni from right off the San Diego coast is consider by many (Jeffrey Steingarden among others) as the best in the world. Available at the better SD sushi bars.


    1 Reply
    1. re: Ed Dibble

      Amen, Ed. San Diego's regional specialty is fish tacos but its local style carne asada burrito is also different then else where and we have a great verity of local sea food.

    2. Everything Ed said, and especially the uni. First uni I ever tried was in SD, and it spoiled me forever. So fresh and delicious, it's a must.

      13 Replies
      1. re: amyzan

        I'll also second Ed's recommendations. The fish tacos at The Brigantine or South Beach Bar and Grill are highly regarded, and the carne asada burritos at virtually any hole- in-the-wall Mexican joint that calls itself Alberto's, Roberto's or any corruption of the same is a can't miss.

        However I can't share the love for Uni. While I'm a big fan of sushi I've never understood people's love of Uni. It tastes like something I'd cough up after taking Mucinex.

        1. re: wanker

          Nice analogy, it's more an acquired 'texture' than taste.

        2. re: amyzan

          The secret of the local Uni must be the "seasoning" tube that local surfers have been protesting?

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            "Seasoning" tube?!? I'm ignorant, please explain or my imagination will run wild.

              1. re: cgfan

                Thanks cgfan, seems like my imagination was on the right track there.

                1. re: cgfan

                  Tijuanas sewage outfall is just part of it.... there are two major sewage drain pipes (partially treated I believe) around popular surfing beaches... one near Del Mar.

                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                    So, E_N, are you more inclined towards Santa Barbara uni?

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        Okay, what about other seafood, fish?

                        1. re: amyzan

                          Yes I like other seafood... True Red Snapper, Yellow Tail, Sierra, Corvina, Dogfish, Lisa, Trout, Oysters, Abulone, Crab, Crawfish etc., etc., etc, what about it?

                          1. re: Eat_Nopal

                            I just wondered whether you eat any seafood caught in the SD area, that's all. I had a bad experience with some local fish a couple years ago.

                            1. re: amyzan

                              Ah I see... unfortunately I live in Northern California so I don't have much experience eating SD area seafood... although the stuff that I have had from nearby Ensenada has been quite good... Abulone, Spiny Lobster, Corvina etc.,

          2. Rubio's and Roberto's are two locally started institutions that are responsible, IMO, for the nationwide spread of Fish Tacos and Carne Asada burritos.

            Local restaurants that have expanded and improved on their version of fish tacos include The Tin Fish (near the Omni Hotel downtown), The Brigantine (chain of restaurants that have special happy hour prices on their delicious tacos) and Wahoo's (much like Rubio's).

            Roberto's really started the whole "Drive-thru-at-3-a.m.-to-get-a-carne-asada-burrito" and has been copied all over town with one or another form of a 'berto restaurant. I think Santana's has the best carne asada burrito from a drive-through and there have been some other tempting ones mentioned on these boards that I want to try.

            I wish San Diego would come up with some other regional specialty that is native to this area. So far, I haven't found any others...

            2 Replies
            1. re: LisaSD

              Up until the 1980's another regional specialty was the abalone burger. You used to be able to buy abalones with up to half a pound of flesh for just a dollar and abalone fishing was a major industry here just like tuna fishing. Unfortunately an abalone disease from South Africa has taken root in the wild stocks and wiped out most of the commercial abalone harvest. Now I think abalone fishing is only legal in northern California.

              1. re: oerdin

                I thought Abalone's were mostly overfished, it turns out they require a certain density to procreate and it takes them a long time to mature (like ten years).

                You can still get abalone, farm-raised from either Mexico or Central Coast, but it's expensive ($60 a pound), or from local sports divers (they have to free dive and are strictly limited in their catch, something like two or three a day). I've seen abalone available from time to time at sushi bars and restaurants.

                No one's mentioned spiny lobsters either.

                I was thinking of mentioning chino farms, that's practically a mandatory pilgrimage for a foodie...

            2. Will you have a car? Where are you staying?
              Clearly fish tacos & carne burritos are getting the nod as "SD" style food--and I agree. If I had to choose my favorites of the two I would say Taco Surf in Pacific Beach (for both), Bahia Don Bravo (ocean view taco shop) in La Jolla for fish tacos, South Beach Bar & Grill for all types of seafood tacos etc...and local color. My other recommendation for carne burritos, nachos, and California burritos is Juanita's in Encinitas/Leucaida.

              Now places I wouldn't really recommend most of the 'bertos as they are too hit or miss and the Tin Fish--over priced and not that tasty.

              I also think that San Diego sort of makes a mean "California" style sandwich i.e. Turkey, Avocado and Jack (sometimes pepper jack) which can be found at the Cheese Shop in La Jolla Shores or Downtown. Not unique per se, but in my travels I have yet to find an incantation better. Pick up a sandwich and take it either to the beach or the harbor downtown and enjoy the view.
              There are also several places that while the food may not be unique they have really good food and will give you an idea of what/who San Diego is really via the food.

              Hodads, South Beach & Nati's in Ocean Beach. Burgers, Fish Tacos, and gringo Mexican food all in a very interesting community.

              Market in Del Mar. Check out our produce, creativity with local seasonal ingredients and shameless displays of wealth.

              Pescador or Pt. Loma Seafoods in La Jolla or Pt. Loma--check out our seafood and casual greatness.

              The Waterfront: One of San Diego's oldest bars that makes a mean burger and hosts the who's who of the business community--there are several pictures of the local business community members meeting Kennedy's, Supreme Court Justices from a long time ago and currently. Located on the edge of downtown in Little Italy--check out the Mona Lisa deli and Solunto's bakery as well and have a glass of vino at Buon Appetito.

              Dobson's downtown because their mussel bisque is sinful when they pop the crust and add the Sherry.

              Mr. A's & the Marine Room in Banker's Hill and La Jolla cause they are old establised restuarants that are actually not relying on their ridiculously amazing views and are putting out food that might rival the view.


              5 Replies
              1. re: jturtle

                These are all really good recommendations- I am getting ready to do a post for my blog that will basically be a guide for out of towners, and I can see putting a lot of these on there! Your comment about Market is pretty funny. :-) AR Valentien is another place that showcases local ingredients in a unique to San Diego setting (Torrey Pines). I am also a big fan of Dobson's mussel bisque.

                1. re: Alice Q

                  Thanks--I felt like I could go on forever about SD places to eat but I limited myself. I didn't even address North Park or North County. And feel free to use that description of Market if you want!

                  1. re: jturtle

                    San Diego also has a unique style of beers -- the Double (or sometimes Triple) Hopped IPA.

                    Extremely hoppy beers with high alcohol content.

                    Might be worthy of its own topic however.

                    1. re: Ewilensky

                      A glorious classic La Jolla thing is to have lunch on the top deck at George's at the cove. Spectacular view and their fish tacos may be small but they are also very good. Their black bean soup is also a classic. This place always wows our visitors.

                      1. re: Ewilensky

                        Yeah, San Diego is well known as a craft beer mecca with over a dozen craft brewers all consistently getting awards at both national and international beerfests. Our local wine is pretty decent too though not up to the standards of the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara much less Napa. Still for the price it is very good wine while the Guadaloupe Valley in near by Baja is also a fast growing wine region.

                2. Wow, thanks so much! yes, i will have a car and am traveling from northern california to southern california.

                  1. If you are a beer drinker then the SD beer scene is worth checking out. Depending on how serious you are about beer you can choose to visit a places like O'Briens, Hamilton's, Liar's Club, Pizza Port, or The Linkery. I really like the fish tacos at O'Briens, served on Sun & Mon only, serious fish taco connoisseurs may disagree. I not only enjoy them but think they are some of O'Briens better dishes.

                    If you are really serious about beer and want a to visit some breweries then you can check out Stone, Alesmith, Ballast Point, Port Brewing(Lost Abbey), and Alpine breweries. All have tasting rooms, some do brewery tours.

                    Of course you can buy beer from any of these great SD breweries at most of the local liquor stores. I frequent Keg N Bottle on El Cajon in the SDSU area because that's what's close to my house but Holiday Wine Cellar is well talked about around here. There's a liquor store near O'Briens with a good selection but the name escapes me at the moment. BevMo will do in a pinch.

                    I think every place I have mentioned has a website.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Foodnerds

                      I recently had the O'Brien's fish tacos for the first time. They were really good. I'd say they rival any of the fried fish tacos I've had in town.

                    2. I don't know that I would describe the Carne Asada Burrito as a unique, local specialty... but certainly the Carne Asada Fries... I have definitely not seen that anywhere else.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        Carne Asada fries and the California Burrito (which seems to be Carne Asada Fries wrapped as a Burrito).

                      2. We’re definitely known for the taco shops with carne asada here in SD and there are plenty. One of most insane things I’ve seen is at Lolita’s in Chula Vista near Sunbow (South Bay San Diego). If I can remember correctly, it’s a carne asada burrito that’s stuffed with French fries, sour cream, guacamole, cheese and THREE BEEF ROLLED TACOS.


                        6 Replies
                        1. re: epicureous eggplant

                          Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase "heart attack on a plate" doesn't it

                          1. re: epicureous eggplant

                            Huh, and I thought the SNL parody was over the top.

                            1. re: epicureous eggplant

                              There are three Lolita's locations- some may be familiar with the one across from 99 Ranch on Clairmont Mesa.

                              The food is great. Pretty much any item can easily can be shared.

                              1. re: Cathy

                                I had the adobada plate the last time I was there and it ended up being three meals for me. Talk about huge portions for a great price. Those tortillas are practically a bedsheet.

                              2. re: epicureous eggplant

                                Yeah but Carne Asada is very widespread... its the Parody dishes like the burrito you mentioned, the Carne Asada fries, the name Flying Saucer etc., that makes Taco Shop food unique... I have now eaten a 3 Taco Shops in the San Diego area... Del Mar Robertos, Dos Amigos in Vista, and the place down the road from Cocina de Maria... food seems to be consistently mediocre is the main thread... along with the other elements I mentioned.

                                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                  Actually... I did think Tacos el Portal was decent and certainly leaps & bounds better than Roberto's or Dos Amigos.

                              3. Chuao Chocolates are locally made in Encinitas. They have stores in the UTC mall, Del Mar Heights plaza and The Carlsbad Forum. Whole Foods Market carries their hot chocolate mixes and chocolate bars. Their bon bons are really good. Think of goat cheese and cracked black pepper w/ chocolate or a dark chocolate truffle with Pop Rocks in it-type chocolates. Getting to any of these places will require a car.

                                1. Thanks all, let me know if I let anything out, here's my list so far, anything else?

                                  1. El Zerape – Fish Taco
                                  2. Chino Farms Vegetable Stand
                                  3. North Market

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: buttacup79

                                    I think you mean Northgate Market for #3? :-)

                                    1. re: buttacup79

                                      If you're coming in from the North and heading South, then 1st you'd hit:
                                      1. Chino Farms Veg Stand
                                      2. El Zarape
                                      3. Northgate Market
                                      in geographic order, but that depends on where you're staying.
                                      -Market and Torrrey Pines Park are up near Chino.
                                      -O'Briens, Lolita's and such are around Convoy St. (also, there are places for uni) a before you hit El Zarape.
                                      -And if you head down to Northgate, you might be interested in trying Japanese tea cakes at Hogetsu.

                                    2. Expanding on my previous comments I'd like to add smoked yellow tail tuna & smoked baracuda to the list. When I was much younger and in the boy scouts we'd go on deep sea fishing trips (Seaforth Landing and H&M Landing were both popular tour opporators) after which we'd go to a local park and smoke our catch. The seasoned and smoked tuna was especially good. Of the local shellfish there is, of course, abalone & lobster though I have to say the meaty claws of the local rock crab are also a person favorite. It's not uncommon for each claw to weight 1/3 to 1/2 of a pound in the shell with about half of the weight being meat and best of all each crab has two claws; the leg meat can also be eaten.

                                      1. I almost forgot to mention the al pastor tacos served all over Tijuana. A must try if you are going south of the border for a day.

                                        1. Anything new in the last (almost) 3 years?

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: FireFlyFiftyFive

                                            There is a new Chowhound forum devoted solely to the San Diego area forum. This thread should have been moved over there. Look it up - it is very lively and you will find what you are looking for.

                                          2. Not much to add, buttacup. Good reco's here. I was away from SD for a year, and what I missed most was the fresh fish. One of my favorite places for it is El Pescador, a fish market mostly, staffed by cute surfers and watermen. They also make incredible fish sandwiches from the day's catch, on torta bread. Add avocado and Sriracha. Divine and totally of here. In La Jolla, next to Mitch's surf shop, an institution of its own.

                                            El Pescador Fish Market
                                            627 Pearl St, San Diego, CA 92037