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question for san diegans - what is the state of the food "scene" right now?

i am a native san diegan who moved to los angeles about 8 years ago. i'm getting ready to start a family and would love to move back there for multiple reasons, but since coming here, even though it is a daily struggle with the traffic, the smog, and the people, i've really come to love it as a food town. i can go to a different farmer's market every day, there are specialty stores of every manner and culture, and the variety and quality of the restaurants are unparalleled. now granted, i haven't done much serious dining on my visits home. i tend to make stops at well loved holes in the wall like carnitas urapan or canada steakburger. but my general feeling is that san diego is too laid back for a dedicated chowhound, and that there just doesn't seem to be much exciting food happening there. to top it off, one of my goals is to open a restaurant, since after i got to LA i became a chef. and it seems to me that opening a place in san diego would be difficult because at least from where i stand, there doesn't appear to be much heightened interest in food overall, amking it a challenge to get a new spot up and running. i love that the city has been generating more and more topics on this board, but can anyone make a solid argument (besides the aforementioned gripes about the nature of los angeles and the neuroses it has caused) as to why i should abandon my sea of excess and return to america's finest city?

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  1. I moved here a year ago, and have been nothing but overjoyed at the variety of foods available within 30 minutes of home. Our previous town offered fried food, seafood, and fried seafood. Your other choice was mediocre chains. I love that I can have bacon pancakes for breakfast, Japanese for lunch, and Spanish for dinner. And then gelato for dessert. Not to mention, the people on this board who are long-time residents have never steered me wrong. As a result, I've had only great food experiences.

    1. Having lived here for 49 years, I can tell you how happy I am with how far San Diego has come. There are plenty of folks who enjoy bashing our food scene. Philistine I may be, but I'm a happy one.

      1. Native as well and you couldn't pay enough money for me to live in LA..
        SD has some great food choices and we've come along way..
        We have what no other city in the world has and that is the perfect climate, great happy people and one hell of a beautiful city, with great restaurants of all types and some of the best taco shops on the planet.
        I love the soul of our great city..and I do wish you all the best.

        1. I would have to question what you mean by "dedicated chowhound". There are people here who are very interested in food, and finding good stuff to eat, but it sounds to me like you're equating being a chowhound with being a gourmet that only cares about haute cuisine. My understanding of the term has always been to mean someone who enjoys good food, regardless of whether or not it's high or low cuisine.

          San Diego isn't LA, and likely will never be LA. I don't think it has anything to do with being laid back, and is more due to the kinds of people who settled and live here. You can find good food here if you look, but if you're only concerned with haute cuisine then you'll probably be disappointed.

          1. Tastycakes, I , too, am a native San Diegan. I lived in LA for 15 years and SF for 10, and I've been in the food service business for 30 years. Moving back to SD in 2001 was an enormous shock to the culinary system. I had to go to 3 grocery stores to find flat leaf parsley in 2001, now I can go 3/4 of a mile up the street and find it.

            San Diego is not a fine dining destination and it probably won't be in my lifetime, which is okay by me. But what it is doing really well right now are mid-range, sorta bistro-ish places. They're serving interesting food, pulling interesting beers and helping redevelop older neighborhoods. Next time you're visiting, eat your way down 30th St. from North Park to South Park. You will find just about anything you're looking for (except good Mexican). There is a market for more of the type of restaurants opening along the 30th St. corridor than there is for more fine dining, or more Italian in Little Italy. There is a market for it and a consumer base that is getting more and more sophisticated each year and more interested in their food. Will they ever be as passionate as LA or SF? Doubtful, but good food get rewarded in this town.

            San Diego is, as you probably well know, a really great place to grow up and raise a family. It's probably not such a great place to open a restaurant these days. Not that you asked for it, but as a young chef, my advice to you would be move back to SD for a while, get employed by a high end resto and hone your craft, paying special attention to service. Service lacks more in SD than food. Eat your way around town, up and down the food chain. Visit all the local farmers markets and some of the other local vendors, get a feel for what is here, what isn't, and what can be readily and easily sourced. The economy has tanked and it's going to be a few years before it really gets turned around and back on it's feet. Use the economic down cycle to get your business plan in tact and work on your financing. More restaurants fail because of under capitalization than bad food.

            Good luck.

            1. I've lived in L.A., Phoenix, and now San Diego. I miss the spicy Southwestern cuisine (green chile, carne adovada) that was so plentiful in Phoenix, but I've actually been pleased with S.D. restaurants in comparison to those in L.A. L.A. has more options, but I think S.D. is quite strong at the moderate price-point. Places like Urban Solace and the Linkery would be so much more expensive in L.A., and my L.A. friends (including a professional foodie) have really enjoyed dining out with us here.

              Hope this helps!

              1. I have lived in San Diego for 12 years and it has come a LOOOOONG way, esp. in the last, what? 4 years +/-? My own foodie-ness has grown up along with the town, and so it has been a perfect pairing for me. It is not LA, but I know my list of restaurants to visit will keep me busy for about the next year, not counting all the ones I'd like to revisit. As far as I am concerned there are too many good restaurants for me to visit my favorites often enough!! Also, there is a lot of great local food here, with viable options ranging from farmers markets to CSAs and even the urban farm/community garden movement is getting a foothold. One thing I don't think we have (although I haven't looked too hard) is gourmet/speciality stores a la Dean & Deluca. If I am looking for something unique or unusual I either find it at Whole Foods or online.

                As far as the fine dining vs. bistro vs. casual restaurant spread, I certainly agree that the bistros are doing really well here lately and they are tons of fun! I think the casual scene is more long-standing and pretty solid (from fave pizza joints to hole-in-the-wall ethnic to burgers). I think we have a decent amount of fine dining options, some of which are quite good (I find gayot's ratings realiable...a 16 here is comparable to a 16 in NYC....we just have less of them and nothing any higher). For me, fine dining is a once every three months thing, and I think San Diego has fine quality and quantity of places to satisfy that (supplemented by trips to NYC, SF, etc. of course). So, I'm happy with the diversity here as well.

                1. Very simply San Diego will never come close to the food scene of Los Angeles. It is certainly improving. I guess on a 1 to 10 scale I would give it a 6.9. Service continues to be a problem here because there isn't a long term culture of great restaurants, so the training AND the expectation from the population isn't there. If I had the money I would live in LA in a NY minute. Great food, great culture, great art, and great architecture.

                  1. I've seen massive improvements in the last few years. The farmers markets are exceptional. I don't know if you'll get quite the 'scene' that you might be used to in LA, but I love it here. I think you might be surprised at what you find. I suggest you come down for a few days, check out the new stuff, particularly in North Park and downtown/midtown and check out the new farmers markets in town.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: jennywenny

                      Kudos, jenny, for adumbrating the SD food scene. Comparing this city to another will only create frustration, as it does when you compare any two things. If you venture down 30th street, starting at El Cajon all the way down into South Park, any foodie can discover plentiful options. I find that whenever I grow tired of the restaurants here, I pick a new neighborhood to explore. This leads me to inevitably find a hidden gem. Just last night I discovered El Zarape (yes--I realize this place has been long-known to many of you foodies).

                    2. I think the food scene for "high end" dining is improving. Service isn't the best, but service in LA isn't that great either even at the 2 star restaurants.

                      The problem with san diego high dining isn't creativity, it's the quality of their food. Everything is good but I haven't had something so mind numbingly amazing. There's that one little thing missing that could push one restaurant over another and SD just doesn't quite have it yet.

                      1. I think especially if you chose to live in the "burbs" of North San Diego County you'll find too many chain restaurants, and the occasional independent neighborhood place, if it's ethnic, is going to be toned down. I'm sure you will eventually find a few places that you like closeby, but you're going to miss LA's ethnic enclaves. I do think the farmer's markets are good, and they have Henry's for grocery shopping. You might be doing a lot more cooking at home and going to Mickey D's if you start a family, anyways.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: mlgb

                          Encinitas would be the exception to that North County suburban assessment, in my opinion. Encinitas is populated with a number of fabulous, independently & family owned restaurants.

                          Bety's Tacos
                          La Especial Norte

                          just to name a few

                          1. re: mlgb

                            Served a couple dinner last night. I made a marinated, butterflied leg of lamb. Served a scallop skewered appetizer. Wines were a 98 pt. Chenin Blanc, WS number 3 wine of 2006--Ch√Ęteau Leo ville Barton, 2004 Kosta Browne Syrah and with a fruit tart desert the 1997 Taylor Fladgate. The couple are from New Mexico and have lived in La Costa for about 3 years and we have lived here for 18 years--having moved here from Chicago.

                            The four of us struggled to think of great restaurants in the North County. Especially Carlsbad and Encinitas. As we can see from Enorah's list above, it's all about Mexican and sushi. Our friends said they go out for sushi about 50% of the time when they go out. And I certainly liked Bety's when I went last week. But we're talking about great restaurants--bistro, upscale etc.

                            Now I'm certainly a snob, I admit it. But our friends are not. Just regular people who have traveled, on business, around the country and we both pretty much have come to similar views.

                            1. re: The Old Man

                              The Old Man liked Bety's!


                                1. re: The Old Man

                                  I am happy to know that. Bety is a wonderful woman, and her family members are as well.

                                  She was saying the other night that she cooks for her customers the way she cooks for her children.

                                  I commented to her son Luis that everything was especially good on Friday, and he said that was because there was a really good love vibe in the kitchen that night.

                                  Bety's - where the not so secret ingredient is love

                                  What did ya eat Old man?

                                  1. re: Enorah

                                    It was just a quick lunch. I will be going back soon with my wife and ordering more things. It was just the pork sopa, but it had great flavor. Kind of reminded me of the great days of Chilangos except you get a real fork and knife. I will report back when we have a real assortment of foods.

                                    1. re: The Old Man

                                      I had that the other night. Yum!

                                      Some of our favorite are: the chicken mole, chille rellenos, any of the shrimp dishes, the quesadilla w/ epazote, the fish tacos, oh heck I could keep going until I listed everything on the menu


                          2. As with most of the responses I agree that the San Diego food scene has improved greatly and continues to do so. However the population and economy of SD is so different from LA to expect the food scene to be on point would be unreasonable. With the growth and acceptance of places like Urban Solace and The Linkery, hopefully we'll see more creativity in our options. My most recent example is my search for good pork belly options for my hubby, Urban Solace was my only find, where as in LA I found most similar style restaurants had a version of the pork belly. I love SD but wouldn't mind hitting some of the food trends a little quicker!!

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: runningforfood

                              For outstanding pork belly in SD go to Better Half. They just recently added it back on the menu as an entree.

                              1. re: runningforfood

                                There are quite a few places that have pork belly. See:
                                The Better Half
                                The Linkery
                                The Pearl Hotel
                                And I'm sure others, those are just the ones on the top of my head.

                              2. Come home to SD. Open a small bistro restaurant. Make it comfortable and artfully designed. Create a menu that is simple, tasty, yet authentically San Diegan. Give us a wine list that is thoughtful, ranging from reasonable to biblical, and has plenty of half bottles. Please don't make it a disneyfied theme place with hokey decorations (western, french, fishnets etc). Cook what you love. Cook what is indigenous but with your own restrained flair. Train your staff and front-of-house beyond the usual local standard. Recognize your regulars. Take what you've learned in LA and make it authentically SD. And we'll line up to eat at your place.

                                8 Replies
                                1. re: pickypicky

                                  yeah, even if the food is just average people will line up cause they are blinded by the ambiance and thinking they are cool eating at artfully designed and "home style" restaurants then proclaim on yelp/chowhound how great this restaurant is.

                                  Please don't make this type of restaurant, make a restaurant where you will be proud of your food.

                                  1. re: pickypicky

                                    Hmmm...I'm a native and I don't know what is authentically San Diego...

                                    1. re: DiningDiva

                                      another native and I agree but is that a necessarily bad thing?

                                      1. re: ibstatguy

                                        No, it's not a bad thing because it means we aren't codified in anything. I think it is also one of the reasons the food options and choices have evolved so quickly over the last few years. There wasn't any ingrained food culture cast in stone that had to be overcome in order to facilitate the changes we've seen.

                                    2. re: pickypicky

                                      You really should check out The Better Half, pickypicky! They've got your recipe down to a "T" ! All half bottle wine list, a chef that trained under Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud & Gary Danko. A menu that is certainly imaginative and nothing like I've seen in San Diego. A staff that employs three sommeliers (in a forty seat restaurant) and who is always on top of all service standards! And they certainly recognize and take care of their regulars! I'm sure the DiningDiva, Honkman & DougOlis will agree!

                                      1. re: nientefar

                                        I couldn't agree more on The Better Half and their imagentative style of cooking (and service). There are many restaurants in SD which write on their menues that they serve great produce from Chino Farms and meat from Brandt Beef etc but they do it often in a very boring and conventional way. (That reminds me of coffeehouses which often mention that they use beans from Caffe Calabria but their espresso is still horrible because good beans don't make automatically good espresso).The Better Half is the only restaurant in SD which constantly serves food which comes from "thinking outside the box". And as part of it it is impressive so see that they make nearly everything in-house. What I like about Chef Kennedy is that he isn't putting things together just to be innovative but in way that everything fits together. Recently we had some fantastic veal cheeks (with a panko crust), quinoa and an amazing homemade mole. If you just read something like this on a menu you wouldn't be sure if it really fits together but it was just great. I think it is also important to mention that a lot of restaurants focus too much on the protein part of the meal but ignore the vegetables and sauces whereas at Better Half all are of equal importance. But coming back to the discussion below about authentic SD restaurant I wouldn't claim that Better Half is an authentic SD restaurant. It is an unique one but I sometimes believe it would be even more successful if it would be in SF or NY where much more people are willing to eat something which isn't mainstream food. And especially with the low prices at Better Half (entrees below $25), the not perfect location and the current economy I really hope that they (and several other good restaurants in SD) will survive the next 1-2 years.

                                        1. re: honkman

                                          Wasn't a big fan when I went, I actually returned one of the soups. It was so bad no one at our table wanted to drink it. I didn't find it to be imaginative in the sense that your curiosity was perked when you saw it on the menu per se...

                                          No one at the table was impressed by the food, small portions and the whole "we'll waive your corkage if you give us a sample" thing really put me off. (words from the waitress!)

                                          1. re: clayfu

                                            How cheap do you have to be to actually complain about suggestions on how to waive a $5 corkage fee? In most restaurants, it is common courtesy to waive off the corkage if the staff gets a taste. From the restaurant standpoint, the staff is being educated on the wine and from my standpoint (customer) I don't have to pay $25 - $30 for a bottle that I brought in.
                                            Btw, when you returned your soup did the restaurant comp it? When you & your group didn't enjoy your food, did you say something to the manager or owner?
                                            In my opinion, if the restaurant takes appropriate actions to make your evening enjoyable, they deserve credits for good service.

                                    3. Of course you natives know what is authentically San Diegan. You've lived it your whole lives, but sometimes it takes an outsider to see it in comparison to what we knew back east, down south, upstate: citrus, avocadoes, cool salads, anything FRESH, Baja influence, Portuguese/Italian influence, casual casual (which is why the service issue doesn't bother me as much as some), Mexican influence of any kind, fresh fish (San Diegans secretly feel they invented sushi). Chino's vegetables. Lobster burritos and quail tacos. Being able to eat out almost anywhere in flipflops. Clean cool design (Azucar, Jordn, Starlite, Savory) struck with vibrant colors because after all, no matter how divey a place is, dining out is always theatre. Delirio's with its neo-Mex spin on classical cuisine was incredible. Chef Tim Au's odes to San Diego in his sashimi, quail, fois gras dishes and their presentations . . I could go on and on. . .but it is happening.

                                      16 Replies
                                      1. re: pickypicky

                                        Citrus is and has been endemic to Southern California, it is not a SD phenomena and though SD produces more avocados than any other area in the U.S., avocados are hardly it's claim to fame. Chino Farms was put on the map by non-locals Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, not San Diegans. Most San Diegans were quite content to purchase their produce from the local supermarket with an occasional trip to the back county every now and then for corn, apples, tomatoes are whatever the roadside stand happened to have.

                                        There is one nondescript Portuguese restaurant restaurant in town and most of the Italian is serviceable but hardly outstanding. If average or mediocre Portuguese and Italian is authentic San Diego it's news to me. Their influence has been minimal at best. Most of them were at sea fishing for tuna to keep Starkist and Chicken of the Sea in business. Little Italy wasn't much of anything to write home about when I grew up, and wasn't particularly known as any kind of a culinary destination until redevelopment happened.

                                        Dining in flipflops is a recent trend. We used to have to get dressed up to go out to eat. That was the norm, not exception, plus we had to behave and show some manners. Dining is more casual all over the U.S. than it used to be, not just in SD.

                                        There used to be far more places to purchase fresh fish but the old fish markets were torn down to make way for Seaport Village. There are fewer choices in both the variety of fish and places to buy it than there used to be. And as far a sushi, San Diego just followed the trend. San Diego didn't invent fish tacos either, though everyone seems to think they originated here. Thank you Ralph Rubio. Burritos are not a SD invention and the taco-shop-on-every-third corner is something that's happened in the last 15 or so years. The fishing traditions in San Diego historically were, related to the act of fishing not so much the art of consumption.

                                        San Diego did, however, give the world Jack-in-the-Box. It started here long, long ago and is still headquartered here. Now, *that* is authentically San Diegan. Thank god Sir George's Buffet is long gone...

                                        1. re: DiningDiva

                                          there are also taco shops on every third corner in Los Angeles as well.

                                          1. re: DiningDiva

                                            'Thank god Sir George's Buffet is long gone'.. LOL

                                            1. re: Beach Chick

                                              SIR GEORGES! Now you've really blasted me to my childhood.

                                              1. re: Fake Name

                                                Can't take any of the props..the DD went into the vault and brought back that little treasure of nostalgia that us natives remember all too well...the Salisbury Steak and the fear of those Regal character cut outs that if I remember were placed all over the restaurant...

                                                1. re: Beach Chick

                                                  HeeHee...if you remember that one, are you old enough to remember the Chuck Wagon buffet on El Cajon Blvd. around 63rd or so (between College and Montezuma)? We even had to get dressed up to go there. They mixed a mean Shirley Temple ;-D. I think that's where I first learned the difference between an end cut and a regular cut of prime rib. Ah, yes, the mid-60s when waiting in line for cafeteria service was considered the height of dining out in SD. We truly have come a long way.

                                                  1. re: DiningDiva

                                                    DD..I don't remember the Chuck Wagon..mere infant when this was all happening.. ; )
                                                    I do remember Oscars...and of course Lubach's which I miss so very much.
                                                    When you busted out Sir George's..that was funny!

                                            2. re: DiningDiva

                                              That was Sir George's Smorgasbord. It looks like one still remains in Arcadia.

                                              1. re: nileg

                                                Wow, is that a blast from the past. However, I don't think I'll be making a road trip up to Arcadia anytime soon ;-)

                                              2. re: DiningDiva

                                                Similarly, couldn't you ask what is uniquely LA too? Or is being a hodgepodge to lots of different cultures unique?

                                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                                  You have made a very good point. On a recent visit to the south of France, I stumbled into a McDonalds in order to use their internet connection.
                                                  I WAS BLOWN AWAY !
                                                  McDonalds is a completely different concept in France.

                                                  Google mcdonalds.fr, then click on Enterprise (franchisees), and then the tab for Le Design (there are 5 concepts). Within each concept are two additional concepts (Extreme and Edge).
                                                  Check it out !
                                                  This is not McDonalds U.S.A. It is not the dreary earth tone, moderately modern, safe path that McDonalds U.S.A. has chosen in this country.

                                                  It is another world completely.

                                                  A must see of any American traveling to France

                                                  They are not only uber hip, but the one that I went into would not accept paper or coins, only ATM. This was in a small town as well.

                                                  McDonalds there, is a place where a lot middle class people go to for a "treat", not all, but a significant portion of the population.

                                                  Getting back to the point , Foodmaker (Jack in the Box) is a legitimate type of cuisine. It was born out of San Diego's "on the go" car culture and has been, and continues to be refined to a high degree. It is unique to other types of fast food businesses.

                                                  My hat is off to Foodmaker.

                                                2. re: pickypicky

                                                  I think DD summarized it excellent. All of the stuff you claim as authentically San Diegan is hardly authentic or even good in SD.

                                                  1. re: honkman

                                                    Ah, you poor literalists. Do none of you ever ponder how chefs develop new cuisine, how they adapt dishes to represent a region, how a restaurant comes to be synonomous with a place? We are in the midst of this happening. That's what's making SD a more interesting food scene these days-- not that we rank another Ruth's Chris or Spago spawn. What I'm talking about-- and I'm not sure why you vocal ones are so resistant to San Diego finally deserving its own regional cuisine as any proper city does-- is that it's exciting to have restaurants and chefs who celebrate the produce, ethnic history, weather, and unique location (even SD's status as a microbrew capital) of San Diego. Give me any day a restaurant, that when I'm dining it it, I could guess by the food and the ambience where on earth I am.

                                                    Authenticity is not exclusivity. It is what's true. If you prefer, DD, to associate what's true about SD to Jack-in-The-Box and Rubio's, that's your choice. I prefer to celebrate the experiences I can have in SD that are unlike anywhere else, so by the time I leave here, I will have wonderful memories of a time and place.

                                                    1. re: pickypicky

                                                      There's is no doubt that the quality of restaurants increased over the last years but I don't see "...experiences I can have in SD that are unlike anywhere else...". And which restaurants are you talking about when you write "..it's exciting to have restaurants and chefs who celebrate the produce, ethnic history, weather, and unique location...". It would be really helpful for the discussion if you could name some of the restaurants which serve this San Diego specific cuisine.

                                                      1. re: pickypicky

                                                        "Give me any day a restaurant, that when I'm dining it it, I could guess by the food and the ambience where on earth I am."

                                                        This is basically the antithesis to the corporate dining world, and the reason Chowhound exists. I think you're taking some factual statements and implying that there is some "resistance" to the evolution of the regional cuisine.

                                                        As an occasional visitor over the past 40 years, who really does seek out the culinary efforts based on ethnicity and individuality, I have seen a great deal of improvement in SD proper as well as the north county. I have a short list of recos I can't wait to try on my next visit, but they are mostly ethnic cuisines that have arrived from elsewhere with perhaps a few minor modifications.

                                                        If you can provide examples of where to find the "sense of place" dishes you allude to I'm sure we'd all love to hear about them.

                                                        1. re: pickypicky

                                                          You missed the point, and you definitely missed that my tongue was pretty firmly planted in my cheek with my comment about JITB and Rubio's. It is true that those two fast food giants got their start in San Diego, which in many respects does make them "authentically" San Diegan. But do I think the represent dining in SD? No, and I think you know that. The point is that everything you mentioned (including the citrus and avocados) was imported from someplace else. None of it has any sense of place or permanence in relationship to the "cuisine" (what ever that is) of San Diego.

                                                          One of the biggest debacles in recent years was the award for the operation of Old Town State Park to Delaware North. It displaced Diane Power's Bazaar del Mundo. Delaware North promised the (not so great in this case) State of CA that they would provide a historically accurate portrayal of what SD was like when the park was originally developed in the early 1800s. The only problem is, SD was a hot, dry, dusty provincial little pueblo with a great natural harbor. In other words, it was a pretty boring place.

                                                          Delaware North created a space that was true to the unique identity of San Diego...and it has been resoundingly rejected by locals and tourists alike. We all want the colorful, vibrant and racousness of Bazaar del Mundo, which wasn't unique to SD at all. And so it is with the local food. There isn't much that is unique about the food here that screams SAN DIEGO!! in the way that Dungeness crab or sourdough bread have traditionally screamed San Francisco. Nor has there been a long or strong entrenchment of the assorted immigrant cuisines to bring any further unique definition to the local area cuisine as happened in a number of East Coast cities. Unless, of course, you want to count the influx of ex-patriated midwesterners who settled here after WWII and solidified the safe meat and potato menus of the 2nd half of the 20th century. In labeling something as unique to a specific location it implies that item has no like equal, is the sole one of it's genre, is highly unusual or extraordinary. Frankly, I can't think of a single food item or dish that I've ever had in SD - in this century or the last one - that falls into this category. That is not to imply that good food does not exist here - it does - or that the whole food scene isn't steadily improving and at a fairly rapid clip - it is.

                                                          San Diego is still developing and evolving it's relationship to food and that's a delightfully positive transition. Part of that evolution requires the local restaurant community to clearly identify and define what it is and what it wants to be. It's still in the process of doing that. The casual, not exactly a bistro, not exactly a trattoria, not too tragically trendy or hip, place serving good food at reasonable prices seems to be emerging as a new local restaurant trend as witnessed by the evolution of 30th St from North to South Parks. There are places there doing serious and interesting food, their way on their terms and as customers we're buying into it. I think that type of trend is exciting to follow and watch as it unfolds. I just hope the majority of them can hold on during this current down cycle of the economy.

                                                    2. NOTE TO TASTYCAKES: This thread will give you an excellent picture of the San Diego food scene, if you read between the lines.

                                                      1. The food scene in S.D. has always been disappointing compared to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and recently much of the wine region around Napa and Sonoma. It takes time, some education, and plenty of disposable income before you have the proper environment for the development of fine cuisine. We also have the challenge of limited water resources, large distances to many crop growing areas, high real estate costs, an undersupply of trained restaurant workers, and a ton of other entrepreneurial impediments.

                                                        As a S.D. native I've seen the quality of the food improve enormously. 50 years ago the quality baseline for S.D. food was pretty pathetic, so it had nowhere to go but up. San Diego has many more very good and excellent restaurants than it did just 14 years ago. But the vast majority of S.D. eateries are unexciting, middle of the road places that serve uninspired food to undemanding customers. My very presence on Chowhound is in large part due to my frustration trying to find other people who understand this reality and share my desire for better food in San Diego.

                                                        I believe that most San Diegans tend to be more focused on the social and visual aspects of dining but not very discerning about what they eat. Perhaps if more people knew what they were missing more people would start demading it. Of course it wouldn't hurt if they could actually *afford* better food, would it?

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: nileg

                                                          I have to agree. The food scene here is not LA or SF or Philly or definitely NYC however, when we moved here from Philly 14 years ago, I bought Nancy Silverton's "Bread from the La Brea Bakery" and baked from scratch as the bread here was awful. Now, I just re-started my refrigerated starter for bread as it was sitting too long thanks to the better quality bread here. Same for many restaurants--we go out to eat where I once tried to do it on my own. So we are coming along.
                                                          But I have to say, when the food scene was not so good at all, my cooking/baking skills improved exponentially.

                                                        2. I agree that "San Diego Regional Cuisine" is an ambiguous and moving target. I believe it's because San Diego didn't grow up until after planes, trains and automobiles.


                                                          Other big cities needed to use whatever ingredients were available locally and seasonally, as they could not get tomatoes in the far north in winter. Here in San Diego, we've always had good transportation systems, so non-local ingredients were available. So no "theme" emerged.

                                                          There are obvious exceptions: When the fishing industry, particularly tuna and abalone thrived. Avocados. Border-Mex. Citrus. And no doubt other will chime in here.

                                                          It's just like our people- we are a mixed bag of folks.


                                                          1. To those who ask for specifics of dishes I've had which might illustrate an emerging San Diego cuisine: I wish I'd kept notes. When I eat out-- which is much too rare on a chef's and artist's income-- I go to enjoy myself, not conduct research. But here are a few examples (some of which I cited above): brilliantly inventive Mex-inspired continental cuisine at Delirios (RIP), the crab cake with huitlacoche at Jrdn, sashimi with chili sauce and fire-roasted tomato at Molly's (again, RIP), finding fish taco variations on high end menus, watermelon and basil salad variations at Urban Solace and Farmhouse, the guava and other fruit pastries at Azucar, a menu full of salads at Tender Greens (albeit an LA chain but the SD one is run by a native SD chef, who is 6th generation Italian and has his mom alongside him in the kitchen.) I also wrote above about restaurant design, and how the sleek modern designs of Savory, Jrdn, Azucar, and others-- shot through with vibrant colors-- are very San Diegan to me. (Particularly the open-air bar at JRDN) As is the blessed luxury of dining in flip flops OR dressing up if I choose. I can't debate this issue or outline how SD cuisine differs from LA. I can only offer impressions about the things I find right and true when I dine out in SD.

                                                            3 Replies
                                                            1. re: pickypicky

                                                              "I can't debate this issue or outline how SD cuisine differs from LA. I can only offer impressions about the things I find right and true when I dine out in SD."

                                                              If that is the case, then why were you disagreeing with people that were discussing the "unique to San Diego" point? It seems to me you are arguing that creativity can be found in San Diego restaurants, and I don't think too many people would debate you on that. The point people were making is that there is not a "style" or a "theme" that is unique to San Diego - I think that FakeName probably summarized it best.

                                                              A better question might be why some of the veteran SD Hounders get so picky about the point, and I think I have an idea. Many of the restaurants that are "San Diego institutions" simply are not all that special, and when they get recommended above all else by many of the "locals in the know", it ends up being egg on everybody's face.

                                                              1. re: RB Hound

                                                                This is an interesting discussion. I have a hard time articulating San Diego's "theme" as well, though that doesn't mean I don't enjoy the food. but then I stopped and realized, I also can't articulate any "theme" in NY, SF, LA or Philadelphia region dining either. Can anyone suggest their thoughts on those and maybe that will help point out how San Diego really doesn't have one, or might have an emerging one?

                                                                I recently spent a long weekend eating my way through Philly and have done the same in SF and NY, so in addition to my reading about those places, I feel I can say that I don't see a theme there, except for possibly SF (more Bay Area), the home of Alice Waters and the local food concept. Even then, I hardly think that is an overriding theme of the top restaurants. A dominant theme in maybe a bit over 50% perhaps?

                                                                But in NY I don't see a theme so much as just a gathering of so much of the top talent experimenting in many different ways with food. And Philly, is very diverse as well. From the working class sandwiches to the Amish to the up and coming trendy places, to the BYOs. There's no one trend, there's just a lot of diverse food options of good quality (mixed with some lesser quality).

                                                                I also think that some of what has been said about San Diego's reputation not being a true reflection of the history here is the case in other places as well. For instance, in Philly, everyone thinks of the reputation as the cheesesteak, but if you spend a lot of time on their board here, which I did before I went, you may get the sense that many locals scorn the cheesesteak or have fun with it while acknowledging it is a mostly touristy food. You may hear the locals talking more about Roast Porks, and I read somewhere else that the true sandwich of Philly is a hoagie!

                                                                This totally reminds me of this board's conversations about, say, Mexican food generally or fish tacos specifically. Many locals find it trite and touristy with no authentic basis and strictly for tourists, many just have fun with it regardless, and many have their own more specific and authentic preferences at places like Mariscos German, etc. that are off the tourist track.

                                                                It seems to me something that doesn't seem authentic can yet be something a region embraces and builds their whole world on, and San Diego isn't the only place that tells little lies about its own history to try to make it seem authentic. And it also seems to me that many renowned foodie places don't have one theme that someone can articulate in a couple words that captures the bottom line feel of their food (NY included! I mean, think of all the french places...yet the island of Manhattan does not have a french history).

                                                                I just want food and service that is high quality. But, I am fascinated by this discussion of "theme"...

                                                              2. re: pickypicky

                                                                Tender greens has a menu that's the same at every chain... having a native SD chef means nothing. That's not SD cuisine, it's just they hired someone from SD. If tender greens was in Dallas and had a dallas chef would you say it's SD cuisine?

                                                              3. San Diego has access to a bounty of year-round fresh produce, freshly caught fish, a melting pot of great food traditions, as well as the best al fresco dining weather in the world. I find it exciting when our restaurants recognize and work with those influences, instead of merely copying what's done other places. I've had exciting locally-inspired and tradition-inspired cuisine in Texas, Washington, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Oregon and many other parts of the country, as well as here in San Diego. Do I also enjoy eating Mexican, French, Italian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and in local mom-pop places? Of course. But I most enjoy the creativity of chefs who think local and cook with love.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. I am 59. Ispent the first 19 years of my life in the College Area of San Diego. I have lived in the S.F Bay Area for the past 34 years, and prior to that in Holland and Japan.

                                                                  For me, what is truly regional San Diegan cuisine is the fare served up at the taco shops like Alberto's and the like serve.
                                                                  Things like greasy rolled tacos topped with guacamole and shredded cotiga cheese are truly northern Mexican and the Gringo / Mexican take on it is truly unique and a must for a visitor. I always get sick after consuming too many of them at one time on visits.

                                                                  I love those taco shops in San Diego.

                                                                  They are not the same in Los Angeles

                                                                  1. San Diego isn't in the same league as New York, San Francisco, or London, but I think it compares well to second tier food cities like Boston or Portland.

                                                                    There are a lot of nicer casual restaurants like cafe chloe, urban solace, smoking goat, wine vault. A lot of great mexican places. Good burgers & Pizza. Great craft breweries that often pair well with food trucks. And if you head over the border to Tijuana there is a whole other scene from Mision 19 on down.

                                                                    I've had some good, fun meals in LA at Animal wuersthouse..., but overall I don't think it is any better than San Diego.

                                                                    43 Replies
                                                                    1. re: bocasdeltorro

                                                                      I LOVE SD. Absolutely enamored of living here because of the temperate weather, generally laid-back folks, and relatively affordable living (compared to other coastal CA cities).

                                                                      But I wholly disagree that it is in the same league as PDX.
                                                                      You mentioned some great places, Chloe, Urban Solace, and Smoking Goat are on my monthly rotation. I go there, though, not because they knock my socks off. Rather, compared to our options, those restaurants are as good as it gets.

                                                                      Portland's dining scene has skyrocked in the past few years. I have been there several times and am blown away by the options of fantastic Thai, Italian, and Americana cuisine. Couldn't live there due to the depressing weather.

                                                                      I think the LA Chowhound board has burst into flames over your comment that it isn't any better than here!


                                                                      1. re: bocasdeltorro

                                                                        'I think it compares well to second tier food cities like Boston or Portland.' Not even close.

                                                                        1. re: cstr

                                                                          Can't speak for Boston but I'm pretty well versed in Portland, Oregon's food scene. It is quite dynamic, inventive, and impressive. SD is far, far away from anything remotely Portland-like.

                                                                          I have lived here about 15 years now. The food scene has not changed except for the growth in breweries.

                                                                          1. re: globocity

                                                                            Portland food scene is smok'n especially with all the food trucks and special areas in the city. Boston has significant ethnic neighborhood diversity and population density. I mean just the local seafood options blows SD away, not to mention Indian and Asian cuisine. I wish SD had similar offerings.

                                                                            1. re: cstr

                                                                              "I wish SD had similar offerings"

                                                                              Me too.

                                                                              1. re: cstr

                                                                                Portland's food truck scene might be a consequence of it being one of the more walkable cities in the country (or more specifically, a city that doesn't require driving). San Diego is almost exactly opposite of that.

                                                                                San Diego may have a potential dining niche, but nobody really has come up with a sustainable idea yet, and I'm pretty sure people a lot smarter than me (and perhaps almost anybody else that posts here) have put a lot of thought into that.

                                                                                Then again, I still can't figure out why this deserved a 5-year old thread bump.

                                                                                1. re: RB Hound

                                                                                  It beats reading about Trader Joe's or Barilla pasta.

                                                                                  1. re: RB Hound

                                                                                    If I recall, the former mayor of Portland was quite the foodie, and was instrumental in many of the food truck initiatives, as well as community gardens.

                                                                                  2. re: cstr

                                                                                    The offerings by the food trucks in Portland are not very good. Their mere existence does not necessarily justify eating there.

                                                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                      I'm talking places like this? Where in SD is this? I wish we had choices like this!


                                                                                      1. re: cstr

                                                                                        I'm not saying there's anything similar in SD, just that the food isn't very good.

                                                                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                          I feel your statement is way too general, of all the places trucks, carts etc, none are good? Kinda unbelievable. When was the last time you were there?

                                                                                          1. re: cstr

                                                                                            2 months ago.

                                                                                            I have yet to find consistently good food from food trucks. Be it PDX, Sea-Tac, Phoenix, Austin, NYC, LA or SD.

                                                                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                              Are you setting your expectations too high? I mean there is an element of Spartan. I enjoy the challenge of the hunt, that is, by finding a gem in the jungle!

                                                                                              1. re: cstr

                                                                                                But...the finding the "gem in the jungle" means kissing a lot of frogs to find the hot princess. To mix the metaphors.

                                                                                                One's stomach is only so big, despite my efforts, and I'd prefer to choose right the first time.

                                                                                                I agree with ipsedixit- with the notable exception of Mariscos Pescador (and it's ilk) I've yet to find food truck cuisine anything spectacular. Indeed, I don't enjoy eating my meal from a paper plate balanced on the edge of a trash can.

                                                                                                The frog-to-hot princess ration is simply too high- too many frogs, not enough hot princesses.

                                                                                                1. re: Fake Name

                                                                                                  Yah but, when you find the princess........score! Makes all the frogs a distant past memory. I do that a lot when hunting wines.

                                                                                                        1. re: foodiechick

                                                                                                          Just for that, I'm wearing my tiara to lunch next week!

                                                                                                          In regards to the state of the food scene in SD...its come a long way but we still have a ways to go..we'll get there, hopefully, in my lifetime!

                                                                                                  1. re: cstr

                                                                                                    No, in fact I think most people set their expectations too low when it comes to food trucks.

                                                                                                    The food quality tends to be over-exaggerated and romanticized simply because it's spit out from a food truck when if the same thing was plated at a brick and mortar store it wouldn't nearly have the same appeal.

                                                                                                    Paper plates, plastic-ware and park benches do not help matters for me.

                                                                                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                      Preach it!

                                                                                                      I think they're a fad, and the numbers are unsupportable. Lots of money being lost right now. Not to say there's not some good ones, but the herd needs thinning.

                                                                                                      1. re: Fake Name

                                                                                                        Definitely needs thinning. For now. But that's exactly what happened in the "microbrewery" (now "craft beer") business. I myself was considering opening a "microbrewery", in the mid 90s, when the new startup fever was peaking. Some great ones emerged from that mess, and now the new ones have learned and know. Same might happen with the trucks. I'd like to see some of them turn into B&M places that serve to patrons through a window to the sidewalk.

                                                                                                      2. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                        Actually, most of the food comes out of a cooking commissary. My pet peeve is the pricing but, that's a whole other topic. There are gems and not all are good, that's life.

                                                                                                        1. re: cstr

                                                                                                          You know, when I was much younger, people used to call food trucks "roach mobiles".

                                                                                                          Because I want to be like Fakey, I'm going to mix metaphors, and say, just because you put lipstick on a roach, doesn't make the roach all that much more tasty. Or pretty, for that matter.

                                                                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                            We used to (and I still do) call them "roach coaches". That was a dispraging expression back in the days when they served luke warm burritos that they'd made at the last stop, but it's become (for me) a bit of a nostalgic expression, now that the trucks have improved and their offerings have expanded.

                                                                                                      3. re: cstr

                                                                                                        I completely agree with ipse that the food truck "romantic" is overhyped and the expectations are way too low. If the same food would be served for the same price in a regular restaurant most people would complain that it is overpriced, mediocre food not worth the hype.

                                                                                                        1. re: honkman

                                                                                                          I think the sun might be setting in the east today.

                                                                                                          I have honkman and Fakey agreeing with me, on the same thread, and on the same topic!

                                                                                                          1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                            Well I wouldn't get too excited. This one hasn't much room for disagreement.

                                                                                                            It's a self-evident truth.

                                                                                                            Of course, the lastwagen in Berlin are far superior.

                                                                                                            1. re: Fake Name

                                                                                                              I guess our buddy cstr must have a blind spot for tautologies.

                                                                                                                1. re: Fake Name

                                                                                                                  I must say that the Mister Frostee ice cream trucks in NYC are mighty fine. Mighty fine.

                                                                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                                    I'm a softie for soft serve, brick & mortar, truck, Dairy Queen, yum! doesn't matter. However, not Burger King or Mickey D's. What's your flavor preference ipse?

                                                                                                                  2. re: Fake Name

                                                                                                                    But they don't really compare to the ones in Hamburg

                                                                                                                2. re: honkman

                                                                                                                  I agree. I live in the S.F. Bay Area. Food trucks are overpriced and over hyped. They are creating their own downfall.

                                                                                                      4. re: ipsedixit

                                                                                                        You apparently haven't visited the giant pod that covers a square city block in downtown near 9th and Alder.

                                                                                                    2. re: globocity

                                                                                                      Backing up several giant steps, I don't think that either globocity or cstr were confining their comments about the food scene in Portland to just food trucks. In fact, cstr really just mentioned it.

                                                                                                      Food trucks are a foodie delight in their own category, and shouldn't be compared to haute cuisine, atmosphere, or service in sit-down restaurants. They need to be apprciated on their own level, not compared to five-star places. They're fun, tasty, and getting better.

                                                                                                      I think the rest of the food scene in Portland, and also (especially) in Boston, is what globocity and cstr were tryijng to bring out.

                                                                                                      1. re: DoctorChow

                                                                                                        I must, as respectfully as possible, disagree.

                                                                                                        I'm not comparing the roach coaches to fine dining- just the standard FN test- do I like it?

                                                                                                        In most cases (with the notable exception aforementioned) I just think the food is ordinary and meh. I've not been exposed to new flavors, new truck-based preparation techinques, nothing unique to trucks- just ordinary food.

                                                                                                        That the ordinary food is on a truck does not, for me, make it extraordinary.

                                                                                                        I'll allow for a differing opinion (yes, I'm generous that way) and it's entorely possible I've just not been to the right truck in Portland, Seattle, San Diego, or Austin. Or Berlin. Never been to one there- last time I was there there were two. Berlins, that is.

                                                                                                        1. re: Fake Name

                                                                                                          No argument, FN -- I absolutely agree with your litmus test: "Do I like it". If something isn't to a person's liking, there's no point in going back for more, that's for sure.

                                                                                                          I've had some tasty (to me) and some less-than-tasty food at the trucks, but I do enjoy trying things. I've never had anything truly extraodinary from a food truck either. But I have had some flavorful home-grown dishes.

                                                                                                          Anyway, I respect your opinions, so thanks for the comments.

                                                                                                          And for three more sips.

                                                                                                  2. re: bocasdeltorro

                                                                                                    I just got back from Portland and after returning from there the idea that San Diego is anywhere near it in 'foodiness' is laughable. Not only are there now streetcarts open all across the city late into the night, the variety of food and the interest in food is not the same.

                                                                                                    My parents, never the most adventurous eaters while I was growing up, now eat out all the time. My friends' hobbies is eating out. This is the thing you do in Portland now: food.

                                                                                                    San Diego has that in beer, but that's it afaik

                                                                                                  3. You can definitely go to a different farmers market every day here too.