“If you ever get a chance to live in San Diego, do it. It’s amazing.” My eldest brother’s words echoed in the back of my mind for nearly a decade before I finally decided to make the move. I was a teenager when he joined the Navy and found himself stationed on Coronado Island. Although we grew up in Los Angeles, we hadn’t spent much time in San Diego; and I never forgot how much the city impacted him. So when I was offered a job there, I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back.
After seven years of sunsets framing surfers’ silhouettes, countless late-night trips for carne asada fries, and numerous encounters with the laid back, worry-free attitude that prevails here, I can truly say, San Diego lives up to all the hype it’s ever been given. Surf culture abounds, stripping away shoes for flip-flops, suits for tank tops, and perfectly styled hair for salt-kissed locks. The skies are bluer, the air is clearer, and some days the sun seems to shine a little brighter over the San Diego coast—or maybe it’s just the way it sparkles across those brilliant blue waters.
Most weekends are spent exploring hidden corners of the city, hiking along newly discovered cliffs, and attempting to keep up with the rapidly growing restaurant culture. While downtown and inland areas have much to boast about, if you want the most potent experience of unmitigated San Diego food and culture, a drive along the coast is the route to take. Here are some pearls I’ve dug up along the way.
Little Italy Mercato
Little Italy’s Farmers’ Market is a place worth waking up for on a Saturday morning. Five beautiful blocks packed with patrons and purveyors selling the usual, along with specialties such as seed-to-sauce pestos, vegan tamales, sea urchins, and farm-fresh smoothies galore. While fermentations like kimchi and kombucha might be right up your alley, I find the chicken tikka samosas to be the perfect mid-morning snack.
“These chilaquiles are better than my Mom’s,” may have slipped out of my mouth on my last visit. Embracing the San Diegan penchant for all things casual, PrepKitchen’s outdoor patio paired with farm-to-table plates is the ideal place for a weekend brunch followed by a walk along the beach. If you’re feeling sweet, go for the cinnamon french toast—its coffee caramel streusel will not disappoint.
Claire’s On Cedros
A local’s favorite just a couple of blocks from the water, Claire’s bakery and café serves the freshest seasonal fare. Known for being one of the greenest restaurants in San Diego, 90% of their landscaping is edible, and—get this—the building’s insulation consists of recycled blue jeans. Try their eggs benedict or beloved pancakes, but be sure to save room for a freshly baked pastry.
Ironsmith Coffee Roasters
I must admit to my latest love interest found in Ironsmith’s deep, bold flavors. With the edge and grit of a bad boy, Ironsmith offers raw passion in every cup. Owners Matt Delarosa and Raul Macias actually built the place from the ground up, and with those same hands they select their beans for in-house roasting to perfection.
Liberty Public Market
Located in the historic Naval Training Center, Liberty Public Market is a central hub for gathering over food and drink. The organic produce stand ingeniously provides a sink onsite for rinsing and devouring those berries at once. Pasta Design makes its dishes with ground beef from the Liberty Meat Shop a few stalls down, and Mess Hall restaurant sources all of its ingredients directly from the market. Grab groceries or fresh grub and a pint of local craft beer and relax on the beautiful outdoor patio.
Ironside Fish & Oyster
Michelin-starred chef and owner Jason McLeod has turned idealism into a reality as he honors the labor of local fishermen by offering their daily catch on his ever-changing menu. With an open kitchen, in-house bakery, scratch cocktail program, and extensive raw bar, Ironside is designed to tantalize the senses. The wall of piranha skulls and glowing marquees may draw some in, but it’s the lobster roll and grilled octopus that have made a regular out of me.
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
N. Pacific Beach
Located in an unmarked building, you’ve found the right place when you see a large mural of an underwater ocean scene. Oscar’s is unequivocally the best place for Baja-style fish tacos. It doesn’t matter when you arrive, there will be a line out the door so enjoy the ocean breeze and prepare to be amazed. Some favorites include their surf-and-turf tacos—loaded with skirt steak and shrimp—and ceviche tostadas.
Rudy’s Taco Shop
Crispy fries buried under a mountain of perfectly seared carne asada, melted cheese, guacamole, sour cream, and salsa fresca—carne asada fries are the holy grail of San Diego cuisine. If your hands are too sandy and a fork is too inconvenient, wrap it all up in a flour tortilla and you’ve got a California burrito. Everyone has their favorite spot for this guilty pleasure, but I dare you to find one better than Rudy’s.
Grab a seat inside the front-end of a VW microbus-turned-table as the Beach Boys play in the background, and gawk at the Hodad’s stickers and license plates covering every surface of the interior—not to mention the surfboards and longboards hanging overhead. A surfer with long blonde hair will likely take your order, but the real shock factor won’t hit until the biggest burger you’ve ever seen arrives and tastes even better than it looks. Forget calorie counting. Carpe diem!
A place where the sangria flows freely along with never ending pan y tapas, Costa Brava fulfills owner Javier Gonzalez’s dream of offering a true taste of Spain. Feel the rhythms of the live flamenco guitarist and eat to your heart’s content. I usually start with imported jamón serrano, garlic shrimp, and patatas a la brava. I’ll let you take it from there.
Golden streams fill the open-air deck at CUCINA enoteca, giving life to the scattered herbs and flowers that eventually make their way onto plates of Italian cuisine. Any one of the rare, small-batch wines will complement my favorite starters—the burrata and roasted garlic vasi and fried squash blossoms. Their artisanal pizzas and pastas are equally desirable, depending the day’s whim.