San Diego Top Restaurants Guide
San Diego is a sprawling city that can be tricky to navigate as long as you’re willing to stray from tourist zones like the Gaslamp Quarter. No longer. Here are 14 food and drink essentials.
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Numbered establishments on the map correspond to information below for easy reference:
1. Aqui Es Texcoco (1043 Broadway, Chula Vista, 619.427.4045)
Barbacoa is a weekend tradition in Mexico, but Paco Perez roasts lamb daily in a Chula Vista strip mall. His mother opened the first Aqui Es Texcoco in Tijuana in 1990, and he’s expanded on a style that honors the State of Mexico. The logo depicts a slumbering sheep, swaddled in maguey leaves, awaiting his delicious fate. Pick your favorite parts, including ribs, back, or offal-filled stomach, then form tacos with corn tortillas, papalo and salsa.
MUST ORDER: Barbacoa, Lamb Head, Grilled Quail, Huitlacoche Taco, Lamb Brain Taco, Hibiscus Sorbet
2. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters (5627 La Jolla Boulevard, San Diego, 858.551.1707)
English professor Chuck Patton found inspiration in a home coffee roaster, a gift from wife Elke. He started selling beans at the farmers market and opened Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in the bucolic La Jolla neighborhood, featuring photos of farmers on the wall, roll-up garage doors, a glass-fronted Giesen coffee roaster, a pourover bar and a deluxe La Marzocco Strada espresso machine. Patton hosts public coffee cuppings on Fridays at 10:30 a.m.
MUST ORDER: Espresso, Pourover Coffee, Cold Brew
3. Carnitas Snack Shack (2632 University Avenue, San Diego, 619.294.7675)
Carnitas, the pet piglet for chefs Hanis Cavin and Sara Stroud, became a YouTube sensation, and their North Park restaurant by the same name has also achieved breakout status. The rotating menu relies on local farmers, ranches and bakeries, and in deliciously twisted fashion, showcases pork. Juicy carnitas grace sturdy tacos, pork belly joins frisee salad, and the Shack Pork Sandwich combines pork schnitzel, pulled pork and bacon. Yes, they allow vegetables at Carnitas, and in the case of Brussels sprouts, they’re deep-fried to perfection.
MUST ORDER: Carnitas Tacos, Crispy Brussels Sprouts, Shack Pork Sandwich
4. Chino Farm (6123 Calzada Del Bosque, Rancho Santa Fe, 858.756.3184)
Pass cloistered Del Mar communities and luxe strip malls to reach Chino Farm, 50 family-run acres that Junzo and Hatsuyo Chino purchased in 1952. Their Vegetable Shop dates to 1969 and showcases unusual produce like winged beans and red okra, plus more mainstream fruits and vegetables that tend to have more flavor and flair. The venue also hosts events for culinary giants like Alice Waters, Jonathan Waxman and Michael Pollan.
MUST ORDER: Seasonal Fruits & Vegetables
5. Craft & Commerce (675 W. Beech Street, San Diego, 619.269.0368)
Mustachioed entrepreneur Arsalun Tafazoli teamed with brothers Marshall and Nate Stanley on this multi-faceted bar and restaurant on Little Italy’s doorstep. Kooky décor includes a brick wall featuring “Demand Less” in sunken black letters, a lime green banquette painted with Steinbeck quotes, and a barfront that depicts credit cards. The food menu fuses global influences to produce delectable comfort food. Christian Siglin presides over a progressive bar program that features cocktails, with some glasses that incorporate local craft beer.
MUST ORDER: Buttermilk Biscuits, Fried Chicken, Up in Smoke, Darkest Storm
6. El Gallito Tortas Ahogadas (1008 Industrial Boulevard, Chula Vista , 619.397.9650)
Guadalajara native Ray Reed and wife Karina park their truck in a Toys R Us parking lot that faces I-5 and sell the tortas ahogadas of his youth. He has two styles, the classic drowned sandwich with carnitas, bean puree and salsa blanket, and the Gemma, named for a famous Guadalajara torta shop run by longtime family friends. This includes a milder salsa and squiggles of a unique mustard, cream and mayo sauce. Reed will gladly break out a soccer ball if asked, or sell packages of Reed’s Spaghetti, an early taste of his next fast casual venture.
MUST ORDER: Gemma, Torta Ahogada
7. Hodad’s (5010 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach, San Diego, 619,224.4623)
There are no poseurs at Hodad’s, an Ocean Beach burger bar that gives a shout-out to surfers with nice boards who can’t catch a wave. Thankfully, there’s no posturing at this quintessential California hamburger spot that Mike Hardin and Teri Rhodes now helm. Out of state license plates line the wall, surfboards hang from the ceiling, and the most prized seats occupy a sawed-in-half surf fan. “Burger diapers” surround cheeseburgers, including fresh lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, mustard, ketchup and state-of-the-art bacon patties.
MUST ORDER: Double Bacon Cheeseburger, Onion Rings
8. Izakaya Masa (928 Fort Stockton Drive, Mission Hills, 619.542.1354)
A double-decker strip mall in Mission Hills houses an izakaya named for the chef-owner, complete with decorative fans, paper lanterns, SoftBank Hawks baseball and sumo memorabilia. They have a large selection of sushi, a wealth of Japanese small plates, three variations on tonkotsu ramen, and options from the earth and sea that grace an effective grill.
MUST ORDER: Homemade Shrimp Gyoza, Grilled Beef Tongue
9. Port Brewing / The Lost Abbey (155 Mata Way, San Marcos, 800.918.6816)
Sister breweries The Lost Abbey and Port Brewing share a San Marcos industrial park home, overseen by legendary brewmaster Tomme Arthur, who’s best known for barrel-aged and sour beers, but also produces a variety of sessionable ales. The original home of Stone Brewing Co. now stacked barrels to the ceiling, including an aging room emblazoned with the motto “In Illa Brettanomyces, Nos Fides,” which translates as In These Wild Yeasts We Trust. Barstools consist of kegs topped with hop sacks. The L-shaped bar faces a blackboard menu and 24 taps, which correspond either to a cross or colorful flip flop. The dual brewery also provides a Vintage Bottle List loaded with rare beers at reasonable prices, but only if you pour on-site.
MUST ORDER: Angel’s Share, Mongo IPA, High Tide IPA
10. Pizzeria Bruno (4207 Park Boulevard, San Diego, 619.260.1311)
Detroit-loving pizzaiolo Peter Lutz takes Neapolitan style pizza so seriously that he sourced the oven from Naples-based artisan Stefano Ferrara and even gave his dome a name, Bruno, which feasts on fiery oak wood. He presides behind an open kitchen and molds every dough ball, resulting in a pillowy, blistered crust. He features a number of different toppings, but a basic Margherita is a good first test, which includes San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil plucked to order from a drawer so it doesn’t wilt, and olive oil poured from a pitcher right before serving. Pizzeria Bruno also has a respectable craft beer roster.
MUST ORDER: Margherita Pizza
11. Sitar (9450 Scranton Road, Sorrento Valley, 858.535.1941)
Sitar, a Sorrento Valley restaurant from friends Balvir Gahunian and Kuldip Singh, features a large Indian menu, and on Saturday nights, a high value buffet takes center stage in an otherwise empty food court. The row of chaffing dishes might tout well-spiced chicken and vegetable preparations. Regardless, expect puffy tandoor-blistered naan; tossed-to-order papdi chaat, a salad with an array of flavors and textures; and a comforting sweet for dessert.
MUST ORDER: Saturday Buffet, Chicken Vindaloo, Chicken Tandoori, Malai Kofta, Papdi Chaat
12. Stone World Bistro & Gardens (1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, 760.471.4999)
Stone Brewing Co. may have had humble origins in San Marcos, but thanks to brash front man Greg Koch and brewing partner Steve Wagner, the venture’s becoming increasingly big and bold. The headquarters is now a 50,000 square foot facility alongside Escondido’s Citracado Parkway. The space features a glass-fronted brewhouse, an indoor-outdoor bar and bistro crafted from wood, wrought-iron and stone, complete with gargoyle imagery, market-driven food and lush gardens. Beertenders pour a wide variety of house beers, plus selections from other notable breweries. Beer flights are readily available, as are lazy afternoons.
MUST ORDER: Seasonal Stone Beers, Brewery Tour
13. Wa Dining Okan (3860 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa, 858.279.0941)
In the back corner of Kearny Mesa’s Sunrise Towne Centre, this izakaya houses a rectangular wood bar ringed with tables and shelves of sake bottles. Lunch is an especially good time to visit, featuring comprehensive lunches that come with bowls of seaweed-laced rice, vegetable-laden miso soup, and vegetable-focused side dishes both pickled and cooked. The experience is all rather comforting. After all, okan translates to English as “mother.”
MUST ORDER: Crispy Chicken, Salmon Teriyaki
14. Zumbar Coffee (10920 Roselle Street, Sorrento Valley, 858.622.0000)
Sorrento Valley scientists and Coaster train commuters benefit from Steve Rayle’s coffee company, which first started buzzing in 2003. The world traveler began with a cart outside the Intuit office and now roasts in a strip mall cafe that contains wood banquettes and metal tables. A cast iron Probat coffee roaster, La Marzocco espresso machines and French presses yield single origin coffees and signature blends like El Mundo. The Hummingbird espresso draws inspiration from Africa, Latin America and Sumatra. They’ve even got a fridge for bombers of cold brew, plus chai that features housemade concentrate.
MUST ORDER: Hummingbird Espresso, Chai