I pride myself on being a deep thinking traveler, focusing on major issues and what truly makes each place I visit unique. I wade into politics and history, religion and culture. But I still need to eat.
Food is, as any devotee of Anthony Bourdain will tell you, one of the great uniting forces in the world. Anywhere you go, anyone you meet, food will be central to the identity of a place and its people. So while my recent San Diego trip focused on seeing old friends and exploring the history of Cabrillo National Monument, food was also of the utmost importance. And, since I spent several years living in San Diego, I have a lot to say on the topic.
Let’s start with what makes the San Diego food scene unique: the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, and the most scrumptious fish tacos in the world. I realize that this is a bold statement, and one that others would debate. But I stand by it. To experience the majesty of San Diego regional Mexican cuisine, order a California burrito at any hole-in-the-wall outlet in the city; pretty much all will have one on the menu. Carne asada and cheese are rolled into a flour tortilla along with the secret ingredient: potatoes. Hash browns, French fries, even tots, all are possible in iterations of the mythical Cali burrito.
Fish tacos are the pinnacle of cuisine from Baja California, and San Diego has perfected the art. While fast food versions are available, skip them and head to a strip mall in Bonita to TJ Oyster Bar. Be prepared to wait a bit as the joint is always packed, but you’ll be rewarded with a large variety of some of the best fish-in-tortilla delicacies you can imagine!
Tell me you don’t want this right now. This is the three fish tacos order at TJ Oyster Bar and is about $8.
Fine dining isn’t the hallmark of San Diego’s food scene, but the city isn’t lacking in options. From Richard Blais’ Juniper and Ivy to George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, there are numerous options for the connoisseur to choose from. My personal recommendation for an upscale option with great seafood (as to be expected in a place like San Diego) and the best view in the city is Tom Ham’s Lighthouse. Ask for a window table and be treated to the downtown skyline across the harbor!
What about other casual options? Try the famous burgers at Hodad’s, a quirky surfer outlet. Or arrive very early to Menya Ultra for what is known as some of the best ramen in the US. You’ll enter your name on a screen outside the place, and reservations are not allowed, so give yourself plenty of time (or visit the storefront a couple hours before opening to get on the list).
A burger at Hodad’s is truly an experience!
If you have a sweet tooth, San Diego also offers some pretty wonderful dessert options. Get an ice cream flight – yes, a flight! – of as many ping-pong-ball-sizes scoops as you want at Hammond’s. (Make sure to try the salted caramel if they have it.) Or, again, wait in line at Extraordinary Desserts for, wait for it, extraordinary desserts. For some reason, I seem to always have a better experience at their location in Little Italy on Union Street. The sheer number of amazing offerings will overwhelm you, so bring a few friends and share!
Clockwise from top left: chocolate loaf with raspberry sauce, chocolate tiramisu, passionfruit ricotta cake. Extraordinary, indeed!
San Diego is an incredible destination for sun, sand, water, culture, and more! See the zoo, visit Balboa Park, play in Mission Bay, and wander the Gaslamp District, but make sure your trip includes a thorough exploration of the wonderful food scene.
Do you have other favorite San Diego food spots? Tell us in the comments!
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