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.
View San Diego in a larger map
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