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Ultimate Asian Food Guide

We set Troy Johnson free on Convoy St

Illustration by Jessica Pollak

I’ve had hand-pulled Xi’an noodles with fire-hot cumin lamb in New York. I’ve fumbled my way through a monster salt-and-pepper Dungeness crab in San Francisco. “There’s no good Chinese food in San Diego.”
I felt confident in that generalization for years. Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai? This city’s got those. Szechuan? Nope (RIP, Ba Ren).

The last few months have proved me wrong.

The 2010 census lists San Diego as having one of the largest Asian populations in the U.S.—13.5 percent. Filipino is most prevalent (6.15 percent), followed by Vietnamese (2.25), Chinese (1.86), Japanese (0.78), and Korean (0.58).

Foodwise, my unofficial observation would be that Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean dominate SD, for various reasons. Thai’s coconut resonates with the American sweet tooth. Viet meals are heaps of fresh veggies, fitting SoCal’s salad fetish. Korean? Well, Americans speak barbecue.

Asian food here has a sprawling mini-mall heart called Convoy Street. It doesn’t end there (Leucadia has killer udon, and our most celebrated Thai chef is near Hillcrest). But Convoy is Grand Central Station, with bamboo-stuffed strip malls, framed Sapporo posters, maneki-neko kitties, binchotan barbecue smoke, and shochu after-work programs.

I know just enough about Asian food to be dangerous. Still, I pestered friends, colleagues, and ramen junkies for finds. In some cases, I found new things. In others, I discovered the old standbys were still the best.

I ate tendons and caul and parts. Tip-to-tail isn’t a trend in Asian food; it’s a way of life. I smell like fish sauce, and my cockles are warmed by pho.

This is what happens when an all-purpose food writer hyper-focuses for a couple months.

Japanese food

Japanese (Beyond Sushi)

Noodles of all shapes and sizes. Fish salted until puckery and divine. The lightness of frying that is tempura. Miso everywhere. Japanese food is more than toro and ramen, and these restaurants prove it: See the restaurants here

Nobu

Sushi

Master Ota still runs this town from his Pacific Beach strip mall. But a few of his protégés have spun off. There’s a force out in Encinitas, and a hole-in-the-wall traditionalist on Convoy that, on any day, can match the master’s formidable talent. Omakase is the password to a truly divine, if challenging, experience: See the restaurants here

Korean food

Korean

Korean food in San Diego almost always means BBQ, as kalbi and bulgogi are wondrous catnip for carnivores. It also means an arsenal of pickled side dishes (banchan). But it goes further, with kimchi stew, bibimbap and, yes, soju. See the restaurants here

Filipino food

Filipino

All talk of Filipino food leads to National City, the lumpia aorta. It’s the largest Asian population in SD, but the food is drastically under-represented. Here’s where to find it:
See the restaurants here

Thai food

Thai

Fake Chinese may have been America’s first exposure to Asian food, but Thai has taken all the recent glory. Just ask Portland’s Andy Ricker, who won the 2001 James Beard Award with Pok Pok. Coconut, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, lemongrass, and fish sauce—Thai is where sweet meets heat. From panang curry to pad ped, Thai is a dizzying array of ingredients becoming one—and most of SD’s best aren’t on Convoy.
See the restaurants here

Chinese food

Chinese

Poor Chinese. America’s first taste of their cuisine was forgery (General Tso’s chicken, egg rolls, fortune cookies—all invented stateside). San Francisco is the West Coast heart of Chinese food, followed by L.A. It’s just not a force in SD. That said, there are a few spots with killer dan dan noodles, red-hot cumin lamb concoctions, and the legendary xiao long bao dumplings:
See the restaurants here

Vietnamese food

Vietnamese

Balance in Vietnamese food is essential—salty, sweet, sour, spicy. A plate of veggies, herbs, and sauces come with each meal, and diners are expected to tear, dump, and spice to their liking. It’s one of the healthiest cuisines, with a strong vegetarian tradition inspired by Buddhism. Which might explain why it does so well in health-conscious San Diego. There’s also a heavy French influence (France occupied the country from the late 1800s until World War II).
See the restaurants here

macaroons

Bakeries

See the bakeries here

 

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