Because calories don’t count while you’re on vacation.
Mexican specialties like tacos and margaritas aren’t the only standouts across San Diego’s dining scene. Culinary offerings in this international border city are reflective of the greater region’s diverse cultures and bounty of local ingredients, as well as the adoption of current industry trends. Be sure to taste these 15 nosh-worthy items for a flavor that’s distinctly San Diego.
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Dubbed the “Capital of Craft,” San Diego boasts more than 150 craft breweries, a movement that began with Karl Strauss Brewing Company in 1989. Since then, the San Diego Brewers Guild established an annual San Diego Beer Week that takes place every November, and a few neighborhoods have become craft brewery destinations in their own right—including “Beeramar” (Miramar) and North Park’s “Beer Boulevard” (30th Street). Stone Brewing is the eighth-largest craft brewery in the U.S., best known for its bourbon-barrel aged Arrogant Bastard Ale. Made popular by its Sculpin IPA, Ballast Point Brewing Company is a major player in the national craft beer industry but got its start in San Diego where it has three tasting rooms and a homebrew mart. As California’s first employee-owned brewery, Modern Times Beer produces session brews and roasts their own coffee, served in their three eccentric tasting rooms with retro decor.
There’s often a great debate among San Diegans about who makes the best fish tacos in town. Credited with popularizing fish tacos in the U.S., Ralph Rubio of Rubio’s Coastal Grill brought the Mexican staple to San Diego, opening his first restaurant in Pacific Beach where it still stands today. Their original beer-battered fish tacos have fried pollock with white sauce, salsa, and cabbage atop a corn tortilla. Nearby, Pacific Beach Fish Shop has a customizable menu that lets diners select a type of fish, marinade, and preparation style that suits their tastes. Another leading contender, Ocean Beach’s South Beach Bar & Grille has an impressive taco list that includes swordfish, shark, lobster, shrimp, and wahoo, but the mahi-mahi is always a top seller.
California burritos, carne asada fries, and fish tacos are common staples spotted on the menus of San Diego’s Mexican restaurants. If you don’t want to make the 17-mile trip to Tijuana, Mexico, the most authentic San Diego alternative is Las Cuatro Milpas, a no-frills eatery that typically draws a line of people around the corner at lunchtime. To get traditional Tijuana-style tacos this side of the border, Tacos El Gordo has you covered—act like a local by ordering the spiced pork adobada. To sample traditional Mexican lamb BBQ (or lamb barbacoa), head straight to Aqui es Texcoco, where it can be prepared with griddled cheese in lieu of a tortilla (the other taco options are amazing, too). For exceptional, elevated tacos of many varieties, head to Puesto, Galaxy Taco, or Lola 55.
San Diego’s mixologists have elevated its burgeoning cocktail scene with handcrafted spirits and thoughtful presentations. Because of its cornucopia of Mexican food, tequila and mezcal are particularly popular selections among the happy hour crowd. The award-winning passionfruit margarita at Volcano Rabbit is made with a punchy puree and liqueur that brings out the fruit’s sweet-tart flavor. The well-respected Cantina Mayahuel carries San Diego’s largest collection of agave-based Mexican spirits—with tequila flights to boot—and is regularly frequented by local service industry pros. Get your margarita skinny, spicy, or standard, with house-made sours and fresh-squeezed juices, at Blanco Tacos + Tequila, located in a prime new spot within Fashion Valley Mall.
You don’t have to go far to find a bounty of fresh seafood in San Diego, most likely sourced by Catalina Offshore Products in the waters off Southern California and Baja California. Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill has an ever-changing menu board featuring their daily fresh catch selections, which can be prepared with a choice of marinade, and served as a sandwich, salad, or plate. Hello Betty Fish House overlooks the water in Oceanside, serving oysters, clam chowder, fish tacos, and several fresh catch options, which can be enjoyed from their rooftop lounge. Fish 101 in Encinitas usually has a line out the door, which is not surprising when you consider that the menu is filled with locally sourced, sustainably caught fish at a great price. A chalkboard menu displays the day’s catch and what’s been shucked on ice, but you can’t go wrong with the fresh-shucked oysters or Baja fish tacos. For Mexican seafood specialties like smoked tuna or garlic shrimp, look no further than TJ Oyster Bar in Bonita, which offers a stellar happy hour menu.
The Convoy District in Kearny Mesa is San Diego’s Asian food mecca. Here you’ll find Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino restaurants—all within a stone’s throw of one another. Get bold Sichuan flavors with loads of chili peppers at Spicy City Chinese restaurant, where food is served family style, and “not spicy” is not an option. Taste Vietnamese specialties like pho, vermicelli noodles, and broken rice dishes at Phuong Trang down the street. It’s well worth the venture out to Thai restaurant Sab-E-Lee, a casual, cash-only spot specializing in northeastern Thai dishes including curry and larb.
Sushi should be a no-brainer when visiting San Diego. Sushi Ota has had a loyal cult following for nearly 30 years, which explains its frequent line of hopeful guests lining the front door. Sea urchin (uni) is their specialty, but you can’t go wrong with the salmon belly or soft-shell crab. For an interactive dining experience, snag a seat at j/wata Temaki Bar for made-to-order hand rolls filled with premium fish—best eaten immediately. Don’t miss the blue crab and bay scallop temaki here. At Azuki Sushi, you’ll find innovative rolls like the R U Kidding Me? that contains snow crab, diver scallops, tempura asparagus, seared tuna, white truffle oil, and mixed greens, topped with garlic ponzu and flash-fried leaks.
The proliferation of poke shops bubbling up across the city proves San Diegans have taken the bait on this hot culinary trend (originating in Hawaii) that involves chunks of raw, marinated sushi-grade fish mixed with dressing, seasonings, and other toppings, served in a bowl atop warm rice. A California-inspired poke shop, Sweetfin utilizes sustainable fish, locally grown produce, and non-traditional toppings like wasabi peas, crispy garlic, and macadamia nuts. Emulating the poke shops seen in Hawaii, Pokewan has build-your-own bowls with a variety of bases (rice, quinoa, mixed greens, or cucumber noodles) and crunchy toppings like tempura crumbs, rice popcorn, and watermelon radish. Don’t forget to visit both the Dole Whip soft-serve and miso soup machine dispensers while you’re there. San Diego Poke Co. got its start at local farmers’ markets, but now has two brick-and-mortar restaurants that serve specialty bowls, poke “burgers” and wraps, plus mochi ice cream for dessert.
Californians are generally known to be health conscious, eating lots of greens and exercising outdoors year-round. In addition to adding avocado to everything, San Diegans are accustomed to having plentiful vegetarian and vegan options. For a plant-based menu with bowls, salads, sandwiches, and pressed juices—and a dose of good vibes—head to Cafe Gratitude in Little Italy. Their menu is written in positive affirmations, reminding diners of the many things they should be grateful for. A trendy cocktail bar with an edgy, gothic vibe, Kindred has a full vegan menu featuring a much-loved jackfruit sandwich. Perched on a rooftop in La Jolla, Trilogy Sanctuary is a yoga studio, boutique, and vegan café with a mindful menu of bowls, tacos, and other creative entrées.
Mocked as an overpriced dish beloved by millennials, avocado toast continues to trend upward in popularity across San Diego. Refill café has an extensive menu of fancy toasts, but the prized avocado variety contains truffle oil and micro greens for a fragrant, umami bite. Provisional Kitchen at Pendry Hotel incorporates soft-boiled eggs and radish sprouts into their hearty avocado toast that’s served on multigrain bread with sriracha for a flavorful punch. Communal Coffee serves a classic version with sliced avocado, butter, smoked chili flakes, and salt and pepper atop rosemary sage bread for a savory, satisfying mouthful.
Calories don’t count while you’re on vacation. Indulge yourself with exquisite layered cakes from the aptly named Extraordinary Desserts—where creations like the blood orange ricotta and chocolate dulce de leche are almost too beautiful to eat. The best cookies in town come from The Cravory in crowd-pleasing flavors such as birthday cake, red velvet, and pancakes and bacon. Get your fill of classic French pastries at Le Parfait Paris, including croissants, macarons, crepes, and cakes, which are baked fresh each morning.
Take home a piece of San Diego in the form of decadent cacao from a local chocolatier. Savor artisan chocolate made with painstaking detail at Dallmann Fine Chocolates, where you’ll find truffles, flavored bars, and an array of gift boxes—just don’t skip the sea salt caramel-filled variety. Venezuelan confectionary Chuao Chocolatier sells bonbons, truffles, bars, and gift sets, but their signature flavor is the spicy maya made with dark chocolate, cinnamon, cayenne, and pasilla chile. Eclipse Chocolate, a local bistro, and chocolatier sells flavored bars, truffles, cupcakes, and many other confections, in addition to hosting build-your-own chocolate bar nights. The owner of this popular brunch spot won a special chocolate episode of Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games in 2017.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a San Diego neighborhood that lacks a proper coffee shop these days, as many of the local roasters have recently expanded their operations and added new locations. Dark Horse Coffee Roasters is a handcrafted, small-batch roaster that’s especially loved for its cold brew, which can be purchased at their four San Diego locations. James Coffee Co. brews single-origin beans and custom blends at its three local coffee shops, where you can get a latte with honey cinnamon or condensed milk with nutmeg. Sourcing direct-trade beans, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters brews ethically sourced java at its five San Diego stores, including a popular macadamia nut latte and spiced mocha.
It’s true that San Diego is a craft beer town, but that hasn’t stopped distilleries from cropping up to make a splash as well. Once owned by Ballast Point Brewing Company, Cutwater Spirits is now a household staple for those who like ready-made cocktails with no stirring required. With seven types of spirits and 14 ready-to-drink canned cocktails, Cutwater Spirits has the market cornered for classics like the gin and tonic, rum and cola, and vodka and soda—that can be taken on the go. Malahat Spirits specializes in small-batch, handcrafted rum, whiskey, and vodka, which come in unique flavors like ginger, black tea, or spiced rum. Serving up gin and vodka in a chic warehouse space, You & Yours Distilling presents a seasonal cocktail menu and offers tasting flights as well as distillery tours and cocktail classes.
Tiki culture has obvious parallels to San Diego’s tropical, laidback vacation vibe, so it’s no surprise the tiki bar concept would take root here—with rum being the star spirit. At The Grass Skirt, patrons enter through a hidden entrance to find Polynesian art and kitsch, a full Asian-inspired menu, and a list of cocktails like the Tiki Iniki made with three kinds of rum, lemon, pineapple, passionfruit, pomegranate, and mango, for a fruity, potent sipper. False Idol is a speakeasy-type tiki bar (hidden within Craft & Commerce gastropub) that’s filled with an overload of vibrant nautical decor under low lighting. Opt for the Coronado Luau Special or Hanalei Nights cocktail for a smooth, boozy rum treat here—mini umbrellas included. Enjoy tiki drinks outdoors on the rooftop at Fairweather Bar, delivering classic concoctions like mai tais, daiquiris, and piña coladas, coupled with a great view of Petco Park stadium.