San Diego, which many Angelenos view as L.A.’s laid back kid brother, has had a big culinary growth spurt. Neighborhoods like Little Italy, the East Village, and Kearny Mesa are coming on strong, and popular areas like North Park and University Heights continue to fill in gaps. I took four trips to San Diego County in 2015. Learn about my 10 favorite foods from those trips.
Numbered establishments on the map correspond to information below for easy reference. Selections appear in order of preference.
10. Galaxy Taco Lengua Taco
This open-air restaurant from George Hauer, chef Trey Foshee and chef de cuisine Christine Rivera debuted in 2015 in La Jolla Shores. The space features a patio with retractable roof and colorful tables, a dining room with colorful heirloom corn mural, and full bar sporting a Day of the Dead-style painting. Heirloom, GMO-free corn tortillas are the backbone of many dishes, including ambitious tacos. Lengua ($5.50) features tender hacks of tongue slathered with salsa verde with tomatillo, cilantro, and charred onion salsa on a sturdy house-made blue corn tortilla. Spoon on two other house salsas – hoja santa chipotle salsa and salsa roja – if you’re looking to add even more flavor to the mix.
9. Nomad Donuts Dirty Chai Donut
Cameron Corley and Brad Keillor are making San Diego’s most impressive donuts in this North Park shop with an olive green facade, open kitchen, and double hobo bindle logo. The business partners and friends surfed together and cooked up a donut driven business plan. They clearly have a hit on their hands, particularly when it comes to supple raised donuts with good chew, vivid colors, and bold flavors. I enjoyed Ube Taro Coconut and Blackberry Rosemary, but Dirty Chai (pictured top center) takes my top prize.
8. The Crack Shack Chicken Lollipops
This chicken and egg emporium from chefs Richard Blais and Jon Sloan and business partner Michael Rosen builds on the success of sister restaurant Juniper & Ivy. The outdoor space houses a big patio with wood and corrugated metal, a giant chicken statue, mural of Abbey Road complete with chicken heads, and a jam-packed bocce court. Executive chef Bradley Austin presides over the kitchen, which produces avian comfort food, much of it fried and on buns. Their straightforward fried chicken is too heavy on the batter for my taste, but I was really impressed with chicken lollipops ($9), a passel of drumsticks with a lighter crust and spiced gremolata. The sextet is juicy and flavorful on its own, and even better when paired with certain houses sauce. A caddy is available with curry mustard, buttermilk ranch, cracksup, Baja hot sauce, kimchi BBQ, and chimichurri. Mix and match to find your sweet spot.
7. Supernatural Sandwiches Kirin
This increasingly ambitious sandwich shop from Tony Nguyen, Chris Perzichino, Jeremy Chen and Anthony Tran took their matters to another level by adding talented chef Craig Jimenez. Now, mythical sea creatures, which inspired sandwich names like the Hydra and Kraken, are also depicted on a wall mural in their Miramar strip mall digs. Kirin ($10) is a shrimp banh mi with Chinese sausage, cilantro, cucumber and seasoned mayo on crusty Bread & Cie. bread.
6. Juniper & Ivy In-N-Haute Burger
The first Little Italy restaurant featuring the food of Richard Blais is industrial chic, with exposed rafters, an open kitchen, and lamps above booths that look like they climbed out of “War of the Worlds.” I would have been happy to stick with the menu, but am glad we veered off-menu for In-N-Haute Burger ($17). This secret burger inspired by In-N-Out features a pair of 3.5 ounce patties, caramelized onions, 1000 Island dressing, and molten cheddar on brioche bun. This messy beast of a burger comes with “animal style” thrice-fried French fries studded with relish and molten cheddar cheese and slathered with 1000 Island dressing.