103 Dishes to Eat in San Diego before You Die
Here's Made, our little black book of San Diego's best food
Coop's West Texas Barbeque
San Diego’s definition of barbecue is a bit of a cheat. Slow-smoked, Texas-style ’cue is a godly piece of meat, and Coop’s is about as good as it gets in San Diego. The brisket is good, but it’s the pork ribs that have a great crust, seasoned well, and fall-apart juicy meat alongside collard greens and red rice and beans.
2625 Lemon Grove Avenue, Lemon Grove
Mac And Cheese
The "rebirthplace" of the mule cocktail has an underrated kitchen. Their mac and cheese is one of the best carbo-loads around, a creamy mess of Petaluma Creamery white cheddar, Shelburne Farms two-year aged extra-sharp cheddar, a dash of nutmeg and cayenne, and toasted breadcrumbs.
3175 India Street, Middletown
Crispy Beef Skewers
The Land & Water Co.
Rob Ruiz is one of the most sustainable sushi chefs in America, but he and his team can cook. For these, they braise lengua (beef tongue) for five hours and serve with pickled daikon radish, caramelized soy sauce, as well as a horseradish-whipped Japanese mayo.
2978 Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad
Queenstown Public House
Grass-fed leg of lamb is ground in house, then flame-broiled with mint preserves and Point Reyes blue cheese. It’s topped with pickled beetroot, fried egg, and a light spread of garlic aioli and tomato chutney. A lovely mess.
1557 Columbia Street, Little Italy
Tortelli di Zucca
Butternut squash (wrapped tight and cooked for two hours) is pureed with Parmigiano cheese and amaretto. Then the sauce: sage-infused butter and cream with bits of caramelized bacon.
750 West Fir Street, Little Italy
A whole octopus is slow-braised in citrus court bouillon for an hour and a half, then cut, flash-fried for texture, and tossed in a house-made buffalo sauce. Underneath: black-eyed peas in a light, herbal, from-scratch buttermilk ranch dressing, plus shaved carrots and celery.
7837 Herschel Avenue, La Jolla
Simplicity is often the hardest to make remarkable. But this is the best Caesar in town. It’s the dressing that does it—made the traditional way, with umami-rich anchovies. Plus crispy garlic ciabatta and fresh-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
1044 Wall Street, La Jolla
The Pork Chop
A 12-ounce chop is seasoned with thyme, sage, and rosemary, dredged in panko breadcrumbs with freshly grated ginger and sesame seeds. Served over broccoli rabe and grilled romaine heart. Sound unremarkable? Try it and thank me later.
4622 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Blueberry Cheesecake Coffee Cake
Half a.m. sweet, half dessert for Woody Allen. Blueberries are mixed with house-made blueberry jam, then smothered with vanilla bean cheesecake, and spread between ricotta pound cake batter.
2929 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill; 1430 Union Street, Core-Columbia
Yukon Gold Gnocchi
Bertrand at Mister A’s
Oregon chanterelle mushrooms and Chino Farm corn are tossed with house-made Yukon gold potato dumplings, then placed atop a thin layer of Greek yogurt béarnaise with fresh tarragon and piquillo peppers. Delicious little pillows.
2550 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
At San Diego’s premier Russian-Georgian bistro, the lamb chakapuli—a traditional Georgian stew—is made with onions, tarragon, wine, and plum sauce. You’ll dream about that broth.
2312 El Cajon Boulevard, North Park
Ahi Poke Tacos
Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge
Fresh chunks of ahi are marinated in-house and tucked into crispy wonton shells (instead of a tortilla) along with spicy cream and a sweet chili slaw. A great riff on the fish taco.
1015 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Pepita and Sesame-Crusted Brie
A San Diego icon for a reason. Brie cheese warm and soft in the center, crispy from a coating of pepitas and sesame. Served with jalapeño jelly, honey-roasted garlic, and toasted ciabatta.
880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island
Chef’s Special Beans
Sure, they could remove the spindly stems, but who cares. These stir-fried beans, slathered in a garlic-chili sauce, are one of San Diego’s few Chinese food highlights.
4690 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
Beef Satay Egg Noodle Soup
Well-seasoned beef in a huge bowl of egg noodles and rich, deeply flavored broth, bean sprouts, onion, and fried pork skin. There may not be a better egg noodle in town.
4644 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
No list is complete without Master Ota, and here’s why: Fishermen give him first choice. Other restaurants wait until he’s picked the day’s top catch. Try his hamachi (yellowtail) belly, which is fatty, delicious, and the best off the boat.
4529 Mission Bay Drive, Mission Bay
Potato Pancake with Mozzarella
A simple, delicious side. It’s what a hash brown wishes it could be, loaded with cheese, smashed, and panfried to a golden brown.
802 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp; 2736 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
French Toast Donut
San Diego’s gourmet donut shop has some out-there concoctions. But it’s the French Toast—a glazed donut sliced in half, dipped in egg, griddled, and sprinkled with powdered sugar and dripping with syrup—that made the franchise.
631 B Street, Core-Columbia
Lukshya ko Momo
Taste of the Himalayas
Steamed dumplings are a specialty of the Nepalese standout. These slick, al dente dumplings are filled with minced lamb, onion, cilantro, and spices. The Himalayan sauce is usually a mix of tomato, garlic, ginger, and other spices. Spicy, silky, delicious.
1260 University Avenue, Hillcrest; 8008 Girard Avenue, La Jolla; 3185 Midway Drive, Point Loma
Curry here tastes so fresh and explodes with flavor because every day they handpick the ripest produce from the owner’s two local gardens.
2907 Shelter Island Drive, Point Loma
Roasted Sonoma Pekin duck is glazed with coffee, miso, and honey, then sauced with Albufera (madeira, port, cognac, shallots, garlic, cream, foie gras, butter, white truffle oil). Koshihikari rice is seasoned with rice wine vinegar, mirin, sesame oil, green garlic, shishito peppers, sliced scallion, and candied peanuts. Finally, duck confit is glazed with hoisin and duck sauce, and finished with fried garlic and white sesame seeds. Mind blower.
5200 Grand Del Mar Way, Del Mar
Pappardelle with Lamb Sugo
Because it’s lean, lamb shoulder can be braised (in rich, red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine) without getting greasy. The sugo cooks for four to five hours, is cut with a dash of tomato-fennel sauce, and topped with young pecorino and fresh mint.
1195 Island Avenue, East Village
Soft-Shell Crab Lettuce Wraps
Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant
Bankers uses vodka instead of water for their tempura batter, which makes it even lighter. The crab gets a curried vinaigrette (lemongrass, ginger, curry powder, palm sugar, lime, serrano chili, garlic), is topped with bok choy slaw (carrot, green papaya, Thai basil, mint, cilantro), and is finished with a sweet chili glaze.
2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Fried Chicken Benedict
Hash House A Go Go
Ridiculous and delicious. A buttermilk biscuit with smoked bacon, fresh spinach, tomato, griddled smoked mozzarella cheese, buttermilk-fried chicken (seasoned with sage, rosemary, and corn flakes), all topped with chipotle cream and scrambled farm eggs over griddled mashed potatoes.
3628 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Las Cuatro Milpas
Rolled tacos are a San Diego classic, and no one does them better than the no-fuss mamas at Milpas. Tortillas are fried fresh right in front of you, then rolled around beef or pork with sour cream, cilantro, onions, and grease.
1857 Logan Avenue, Barrio Logan
Wa Dining Okan
My favorite bento box lunch in town. Salted mackerel sounds risky, but theirs is so tender, so flavorful and simple, served with rice, pickles, and miso soup.
3860 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
The best piece of raw fish served by an absolute master itamae (sushi chef), Kazuo Morita. Order this as part of an omakase, where Morita just chooses his best that day and serves until you surrender.
130 North El Camino Real, Encinitas
Mambo Mambo Chicken
The presentation alone is worth it, served in an ornate, traditional Thai golden hot pot. Inside, red curry and stewed chicken with ripe mango you can smell.
3843 Richmond Street, Hillcrest
Deconstructed Lasagna Bolognese
True Food Kitchen
House-made chicken sausage, mushroom, spinach, a surprisingly good lemon ricotta, and a tangy Bolognese sauce. It’s gluten-free, and you don’t miss it at all.
7007 Friars Road, Mission Valley
Mock Turtle Soup
One of San Diego’s most iconic dishes, adapted for humanity. Instead of turtle meat, they use beef tongue to develop the deep flavor, and finish the affair with sherry.
326 Broadway, Core-Columbia
I make this recipe from chef Su-Mei Yu at home. Incredible. Traditional braised meat stew with a sweet-spicy perfume of tropical coconut milk, chilies, caraway, nutmeg, bay leaves, and lemongrass.
3731 India Street, Middletown
Burgers this massive aren’t often great. Welcome to the exception. A patty made of chuck, short rib, and sirloin, topped with applewood-smoked bacon jam, a fried egg, caramelized onion, aged cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and mustard aioli on a Bread & Cie brioche bun. Share it with seven friends.
535 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp
Fish Sauce Chicken Wings
Fish sauce is polarizing. Smell it raw and you may never eat again. But reduced in cooking, it adds a depth of flavor no other food can match. It makes Que Huong’s wings both incredibly good and a Vietnamese take on a classic.
4134 University Avenue, City Heights
Tender Belly Farms Pork Belly Buns
Tender Belly is a small-batch pork farm, one of the best. Chef Brian Redzikowski makes his own steamed bun (like an awesome, savory marshmallow), tops it with sesame, cilantro, cucumber, gochujang (Korean hot sauce), and hoisin sauce.
2001 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Caldo de Res
One of my favorite Mexican restaurants, with a rotating menu of authentic dishes. I always go back to the caldo de res, though, a long-simmered stew with tender beef, corn on the cob, and other veggies. Doctor with cilantro and spice as needed.
3627 University Avenue, City Heights
Xiao Long Bao
A delicious coin purse full of soup, essentially. A slick little dumpling (actually, many of them) with seasoned pork, chive, and a hint of peanut. Add vinegar and chili sauce to your liking.
4625 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
George’s California Modern
A combo of dry-aged 28-day New York strip and eye of round, tossed with pickled ramps, shallots, chives, lemon, and olive oil. Mustard fennel kraut is fermented for two weeks in-house. Fresh horseradish. Egg yolks cooked at 67 degrees until custard-like, then whipped with olive oil. A levain crisp lightly dusted with dehydrated young spruce. Tastes like the best Reuben you’ve ever eaten.
1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
Their sprouts are flash-fried for a perfectly crispy exterior, then piled with shaved Parmesan cheese, pancetta, and a balsamic port wine reduction.
8384 La Mesa Boulevard, La Mesa; 4996 West Point Loma Boulevard, Ocean Beach
The Spoon Burger
The Wooden Spoon
At this tiny farm-to-table joint, a former Four Seasons chef makes his own patty with house-ground, grass-fed brisket and chuck. Topped with bacon-onion jam, smoked blue cheese, tomato aioli, and arugula on a Sadie Rose pretzel roll.
805 East Valley Parkway, Escondido
Bone Marrow Sopes
Shrimp sautéed in bone marrow and veal demi-glace, tomatillo and chile de árbol salsas, lemon juice, and butter. Goes atop a black bean masa sope (like a Mexican English muffin), finished with avocado meringue, watermelon radish, and parsley. Oh, sweet Baja.
1490 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
A killer vegan twist on an Italian classic. Without butter or dairy, the grilled polenta is lighter and crispier. Sauces rotate with the season, from a red wine mushroom in winter to roasted yellow squash, cilantro, and spicy toasted pepitas in summer. Always topped with cashew ricotta and fresh basil.
1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Chicken Al Pastor
Chicken breast braised in adobo rojo (dried chilies, spices, and Yucatecan achiote), topped with tinga roja (a jam made of caramelized onion, hibiscus flower, and chipotle chilies), wrapped in crispy melted cheese and a spicy pineapple salsa.
789 West Harbor Drive, Core-Columbia; 1026 Wall Street, La Jolla
Red curry lives or dies by the paste, and Sab E’s is intensely rich with chilies, garlic, kaffir lime, garlic, lemongrass, and a dozen other ingredients. Warning: spicy as hell.
6925 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista; 13223 Black Mountain Road, Rancho Peñasquitos
Sushi Dokoro Shirahama
Another sushi master had to make the list. Maguro zuke is tuna, usually marinated in soy, mirin, sake, and wasabi. Though I’m sure chef Koji Kotani’s recipe differs, his is phenomenal.
4212 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
Buga Korean Barbecue
Good galbi is gold, and this is the best I’ve found. Tender rib meat marinated for days in onion, mirin, Asian pear, garlic, sesame, you name it.
5580 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Clairemont
Carnitas’ Snack Shack
Pig lots of ways. Pork shoulder braised for six hours in onions, tomato, and stock, served on a brioche bun with aioli. Oh, also: a breaded pork loin Milanesa, applewood-smoked bacon, and pickle-pepperoncini-roasted bell pepper relish. Bad dietary decisions rarely taste this good.
1004 North Harbor Drive, Embarcadero; 2632 University Avenue, North Park
Elysian Lamb Loin
Elysian lamb (top quality, used by Thomas Keller) is pan seared and braised with butter, garlic, and thyme. It’s served with a pain perdu (a sort of French toast/bread pudding) made with lamb fat and bone marrow, plus caramelized peaches and endive that’s prepared sous vide in olive oil and then charred. The anise jus (lamb stock, star anise) is unbelievably good.
5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe
Monchong in Tomato Water
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub
Super-sustainable sushi punk Davin Waite is a star. The menu changes with what’s fresh. But this monchong (a deep-sea pomfret, and a bycatch that’s usually thrown away) is beautiful in tomato water, tangerine koshu, candied red jalapeño, and pea shoots.
1815 South Coast Highway, Oceanside
Local carrots are prepared sous vide in carrot juice and dark chicken stock. Cucumbers are marinated in soy and lemon oil, then char-grilled. But it’s the crisps of slow-roasted chicken skin and burrata ice cream (anglaise and burrata meet liquid nitrogen) that make it delightfully weird and amazing.
640 10th Avenue, East Village
Crispy Pork Belly
Fireside by The Patio
Pork belly is brined for 24 hours, then smoked over red oak for four to five hours. Finished to order, it’s dredged in potato starch and fried to a crisp, tossed in a house-made hot sauce and plated with a blue cheese vinaigrette, pickled carrot, confit celery, and frisee.
2855 Perry Road, Liberty Station
Pineapple Upside Down Pancake
A riff on the classic dessert, these are buttermilk pancakes with caramelized chunks of pineapple, house-made vanilla crème anglaise, and cinnamon butter. Evil.
3435 Del Mar Heights Road, Carmel Valley; 3940 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
Single Bacon Cheeseburger
A double is obscenely large. They boil the bacon, then grill it under an iron press to form a bacon patty. It goes over juicy beef, mayo, mustard, tons of onions, massive slices of tomato, pickles, and two slices of cheddar. Unhinge your jaw.
945 Broadway, East Village; 5010 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Chips and Gravy Poutine
No curd in this poutine. Crime or not, that short rib gravy—the result of slow-braising in ale—makes up for it. Hand-cut Kennebec fries (twice-fried, the only way to perfection), aged Vermont cheddar, and a side of that gravy. Aka “The 30th and Adams Hangover Cure.”
4677 30th Street, Normal Heights
Bruschetta alla Mano
This isn’t bread. It’s a meal. House-baked focaccia with three awesome sides: gorgonzola mousse made with sweet gorgonzola dolce melted in milk and cream, whipped and drizzled with 15-year aged balsamic; black olive pesto (dry figs, almonds, basil, garlic, parsley, olive oil); and bell pepper conserva or Sicilian caponata (sautéed red bells, onion, olives, desalted capers, steamed celery, vinegar).
2820 Roosevelt Road, Liberty Station
So Meaty Pizza
Basic Urban Kitchen + Bar
Basic does New Haven–style pies (huge, rectangular, thin-crusted, crispy things). Their red sauce is phenomenal. The So Meaty has bacon, pepperoni, and sausage, topped with ricotta and fresh basil.
410 10th Avenue, East Village
O.B.’s little bistro gem inherited this recipe from the owners’ grandparents, who ran The Belgian Lion, one of San Diego’s top culinary spots in the ’70s. The batter ferments overnight, so the crumb is incredibly light and crispy, topped with powdered sugar, fresh whipped cream, maple syrup, and berries.
1424 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach
Arguably the best ramen in San Diego, their signature gets a deep tonkotsu (pork) broth, slices of pork belly, fried garlic, chives, bean sprouts, green onion, half ramen egg, pork and chicken chashu (marinated and braised meat), plus sesame seeds. A meal for the price of an appetizer.
901 E Street, East Village; 3739 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest; 4681 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa; 4411 Mercury Street, Kearny Mesa
Carne Crudo Asada
Juniper and Ivy
This Cali-Baja riff from chefs Richard Blais and Jon Sloan straddles the line between carne asada and tartare. Chopped eye of round is seared rare and finely ground, spiced with charred jalapeño oil, Cotija cheese, Mexican crema, and sunny-side quail eggs.
2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
A5 Wagyu Sashimi
Stake Chophouse & Bar
The highest-grade (A5) Japanese wagyu is sliced onto a plate that’s just warm enough to melt the fat and bring out the flavor without cooking the meat. Finished with ponzu sauce, togarashi spice, sesame seeds, and shaved scallion.
1309 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Sweet Corn Ravioli
Market Restaurant + Bar
This is one of those incredible, rich, decadent winners that makes you moan at first bite. Eggplant-tomato Napolean, Savoy spinach, chanterelle mushrooms, parmesan crisp and thinly sliced black truffles. Chef Carl Schroeder at his finest.
3702 Via de la Valle, Del Mar
A simple, amazing dish rarely done this well. An egg yolk (no cream) is cracked over just-hot-enough spaghetti to make the famous “sauce” along with Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, bacon, black pepper, and good virgin olive oil.
750 West Fir Street, Little Italy
Red-Eye Rubbed Brisket
Brisket outside of Texas is dicey. But this one, oh. A slab of brisket in red-eye rub (usually coffee, paprika, brown sugar, etc.) lands on sushi rice and house-made Japanese furikake (a spice mixture, often with dried fish and/or bonito, sesame seeds, seaweed, etc.), and chimichurri sauce, plus a fried egg.
2725 State Street, Carlsbad
Three types of mushrooms—oyster, hon shimeji, and maitake—are pan-roasted with thyme and garlic. A little borage (an herb with a vaguely cucumber flavor), black truffle, and Parmesan cheese. Incredible.
695 Sixth Avenue, Core-Columbia
Duo of Beef
An underrated restaurant. Grand Del Mar chef Matt Sramek is really cooking here, especially with this braised short rib filet mignon in a red wine jus, next to potato puree and corn succotash.
7611 Fay Avenue, La Jolla; 2620 Truxtun Road, Liberty Station
Trio of Lobster, Ahi Tuna, and Kampachi
The Marine Room
A three-part, with kampachi the star. Maine lobster lightly poached in vanilla-lemon broth. Center-cut sashimi-grade ahi dressed with kalbi jus and a miso-sesame brittle. Kampachi (yellowtail) with thin green papaya shavings pickled in plum vinegar. Watercress cream and a verbena-infused dashi gel really make it sing.
2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla
Lomo saltado is a classic Peruvian stir-fry dish, and Q’ero is San Diego’s place for Andean food. Marinated flank steak (usually vinegar, soy, chilies, spices) is sautéed with red onions and tomatoes, finished with an ají colorado sauce (a pepper sauce, usually ají panca peppers), fries, and rice.
564 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
Cod Fish Tacos
Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill
Fish tacos are to San Diego what pizza is to New York. And Blue Water’s are so good because the owners themselves fish, and buy local. Cod marinated in spicy chipotle, corn tortillas from El Indio, cabbage, onions, cheddar cheese, and white sauce. Add avocado.
3667 India Street, Middletown
Ironside Fish & Oyster
Over a pound of Maine lobster in every roll. Mixed with brown-butter mayo, crispy onion strings, and chives, all on a house-made brioche-esque roll (made with cream cheese instead of milk, for creaminess) that’s buttered, then pan-fried. Served with Kennebec potato fries and malt aioli (roasted garlic, thyme, malt vinegar, and mayo).
1654 India Street, Little Italy
Pain au Chocolat aux Amandes
Le Parfait Paris
Simply one of the best French bakeries in San Diego, first recommended to me by Addison chef William Bradley. The pain au chocolat aux amandes is a chocolate croissant with incredible almond cream inside, topped with crushed almonds and icing.
555 G Street, Gaslamp; 2820 Historic Decatur Road, Liberty Station
Herb & Wood
Chefs Brian Malarkey and Shane McIntyre brine oxtail for 48 hours in stock, then add it to handmade gnocchi (soft little pillows of potato pasta), garlic confit, sherry vinegar, and fines herbes. It’s the star of their menu.
2210 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
The Crack Shack
A Fried Jidori chicken breast with miso maple butter, smoked pork belly, white cheddar, and an over-medium local fried egg, all on a brioche bun from Bread & Cie. Six thousand calories to nirvana.
2266 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
There are few better carnivorous chefs than Jeff Jackson and Kelli Crosson. Their short rib is braised in red wine, along with simmered wheat berries, blackberries, blueberries, and pickled red onions. Eat it with a spoon.
11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
A fake risotto, and a good one. White pearl barley and lobster bisque (lobster broth, chopped anchovies, cherry tomatoes, tomato sauce, basil, and shallots) is reduced to a creamy “risotto.” Then it gets Maine lobster meat, pesto, butter, and Parmesan cheese, topped with fresh burrata cheese and cherry tomatoes.
425 Island Avenue, Gaslamp
Mole takes about 300 ingredients and two years to make, so they only do it twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). Go Tuesday for some red mole, traditionally made with chilies galore (ancho, mulato, pasilla, etc.), sesame seeds, raisins, almonds, cinnamon, bread, chocolate, chicken broth, and a ton of spices (anise, cloves, pepper, etc.). Add mezcal in a snifter.
2934 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights
Pork Chop With Polenta
The perfect chop dish. Creamy polenta, sherry-braised Castelvetrano olives, shallots, garlic, mustard greens, and thin slices of that moist chop.
626 South Tremont Street, Oceanside; 230 South Santa Fe, Vista
TJ Oyster Bar
A Baja specialty done street cart perfect. Tender, seasoned octopus meat with cilantro, onions, cream, and a little heat on a corn tortilla.
4410 Bonita Road, Bonita; 601 East Palomar Street, Chula Vista
65-Day Aged Ribeye
The longer a steak ages, the better it gets. Avant’s is wet-aged for 20 days, then dry-aged 45 more. It’s pan-seared with mushrooms, smashed baby heirloom potatoes, and dolce gorgonzola bleu cheese.
17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, Rancho Bernardo
Backyard Steak Salad
A feel-good steak that tastes fantastic. Grass-fed “no” steak (no hormones, no antibiotics), seasoned with garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper, and grilled medium rare. Butter lettuce and arugula, marinated beets, chives, and a horseradish dressing.
110 West Broadway, Core-Columbia; 2400 Historic Decatur Road, Liberty Station; 1640 Camino del Rio North, Mission Valley; 4545 La Jolla Village Drive, UTC
Everything has Sriracha. A Sriracha patty (half ground beef, half ground bacon), Sriracha bacon slices, Sriracha Colby Jack cheese, Sriracha caramelized onions, Sriracha slaw, Sriracha mayo, and Sriracha drizzled atop. Yet somehow it’s delicious, not obnoxious.
2750 Dewey Road, Liberty Station; 110 Knoll Road, San Marcos
Hakata has a lighter, milkier pork broth, delicately delicious—especially here, topped with fried garlic and seaweed.
928 Fort Stockton Drive, Mission Hills
Jamaican Jerk Pork Belly
Pork belly brined for 24 hours in jerk marinade (sugar, salt, thyme, habanero, jerk spices), smoked for two hours, seared, braised three more hours, then cubed, deep-fried, and glazed with the brining liquid. Plated with baby Thumbelina carrots, Swiss chard, plantains, black-eyed peas, spicy Scotch bonnet pepper jellies, and a sweet potato puree. Simple, right?
910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
The Blind Burro
Slow-cooked lengua (beef tongue) marinated in macha salsa (four chilies—árbol, morita, cascabel, corita) for 24 hours, then topped with nuts (Spanish peanuts, pecans, almonds) and a pickled serrano chili salad in a warm corn tortilla. Texture party.
639 J Street, East Village
Polenta with Ragu
Cucina uses whey from their house-made ricotta as braising liquid for the pork shoulder, along with garlic, shallots, carrots, onion, chard, and beet tops. Organic polenta is made with whey, Parmesan stock, milk, vinegar, mascarpone, and garlic. Ingredients rotate seasonally.
505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill
Lamb Barbacoa Plate
Aqui Es Texcoco
Authentic Mexican barbacoa. Lamb marinated with avocado and maguey leaves, oven-smoked for six hours. Served with a side of the delicious lamb broth, pasilla salsa, onions, cilantro, rice, and garbanzo beans with a hint of chipotle.
1043 Broadway, Chula Vista
The Atomic Burger
The Grill at The Lodge
Chef Jeff Jackson’s ode to old-school burgers. Aioli? Forget that. French’s yellow mustard is studded with chopped jalapeños on the bottom bun, then diced onions, lettuce, pickle, and sliced tomato. The bun is steamed for that classic greasy appeal.
11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla
Adobada/Al Pastor Tacos
Tacos El Gordo
Al pastor is the shawarma of Mexican food—a huge cone of spit-roasted pork marinated with guajillo and achiote chiles, vinegar, citrus, garlic, oregano, etc.—and El Gordo is San Diego’s gold standard. They shave off the crispy outer meat, then serve it with chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro crema in a grilled corn tortilla.
689 H Street, Chula Vista; 3265 Palm Avenue, Otay Mesa
1/2 Pound Cheeseburger
Rocky’s Crown Pub
Who knows why it’s so good? Butter may play a part. Or that soft white bun. It’s a lumpy thing. Totally unpretentious, with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, and mayo. Ugly, and divine.
3786 Ingraham Street, Pacific Beach
Memphis BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich
You’ll forget it’s vegan. Pulled young jackfruit and soy curls, slow-roasted in a spice rub, then seared in a house-made barbecue sauce (ketchup, vinegar, tomato, mirepoix). Served on sourdough with grilled green chili aioli, house-pickled cucumbers, onion, and Dijon.
1503 30th Street, South Park
The best Japanese yakitori in San Diego uses traditional binchotan coals, which burn hotter and cleaner. This skewer is perfectly tender, thin slices of meat, grilled with a touch of sweet and salt.
4898 Convoy Street, Kearny Mesa
Passionfruit Raspberry Scones
A ton of raspberries are folded into supersoft buttery scone dough. Passionfruit pulp is blended with powdered sugar, and the resulting icing is poured atop the scones as soon as they’re out of the oven. Tart, sweet, just a lot of yes.
4820 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Some of the best pizza in the country here. And at great joints, I like basic pies. The Sergio has Neapolitan-style dough, mozzarella di buffala, organic baby arugula, prosciutto di Parma (aged two years), Parmigiano-Reggiano (also aged two years), and some of the best olive oil Italy has to ship.
3001 Beech Street, South Park
Chefs Trey Foshee and Christine Rivera start with marinade of birria (Mexican stew) made with guajillo, ancho, and California peppers, oregano, cumin, clove, bay leaf, thyme, allspice, garlic, and onion. They blend it, add clams, green onions, cilantro, radish, and lime juice. A Mexican roadside classic from four-star chefs.
2259 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla
Octopus in Nut Butter
Octopus braised two hours in water, red wine, and herbs. Marinated in rosemary-garlic oil. Cooked to order on the grill with lemon and olive oil. Then the coup de grâce—served in gigantic beans cooked with smoked pork belly, roasted tomato, onion, and pine nut butter. On the side: arugula tossed in salsa verde.
4020 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills; 4445 Lamont Street, Pacific Beach
Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich
Sally’s Fish House & Bar
There is one must-order here: this. Lump crab mixed with a basil aioli, celery, onions, and shallots. That’s topped with a whole battered soft-shell crab (eat it all), pancetta, butter lettuce, and a sweet tomato jam on toasted brioche.
One Market Place, Marina District
Belly of the Beast
Ramen is a meal in a bowl, and this one’s gluttonous. House-made noodles, oxtail dumplings, soy- and ginger-marinated smoked brisket, and hoisin-glazed short rib, garnished with soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts, scallions, seaweed, and sesame seeds. A meat-lover’s ramen.
750 West Fir Street, Little Italy; 3000 Upas Street, North Park
Green Eggs & Ham
Pork belly is cured for 24 hours, then braised for three more. Seared to a crisp and served with a poached egg, brioche toast, brown-butter hollandaise, balsamic vinegar, and a killer serrano oil.
12995 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley; 611 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp
Duck legs are cured for three days in a special spice and salt blend, then cooked in their own fat for about three hours. Meat is pulled off bone and sautéed with roasted garlic cloves, scallions, and garlic butter. A touch of white wine, Mornay sauce, blue cheese, and fresh arugula, topped with biscuit breadcrumbs.
3823 30th Street, North Park
It’s just a side dish at this Eritrean/Ethiopian bistro, but it’s phenomenal. Spicy red split lentils are hit with berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend that usually has chilies, paprika, ginger, onion, cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, nutmeg—you name it.
4651 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria
A four-star chef (Wade Hageman) doing pizza. Every pie is good, but especially this one—house-made fennel sausage made with Berkshire pork, tomato sauce topped with heavy cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fresh basil.
897 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
Shrimp and Bone Marrow
The Red Door
Bone marrow is essentially meat butter. Chef Miguel Valdez slow-roasts his until rendered, then uses it and garlic butter to sauté shrimp and shallots, then tops it all with parsley and chimichurri. Addictive.
729 West Washington Street, Mission Hills
Wood-charred oxtail, braised five hours to make the ragu in the ravioli. The jus is reduced for a thick sauce, then finished with , pine nuts, fresh horseradish, and house-made ricotta that’s blended with cream and salt. Oxtail always wins.
3752 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
It’s been on the menu for 25 years for a reason. The pumpkin acts like a fat, so it’s healthier than you think. Basically a fluffy pumpkin pie waffle topped with candied pecans and fresh whipped cream.
222 Island Avenue, East Village
Triangle-shaped pasta filled with tangy goat cheese and mascarpone, tossed in toasted brown butter, and topped with eggplant, fig, and almond. For acidity, it’s spiked with balsamic and lemon zest. Unbelievably good.
4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington