73 Must-Try Desserts in San Diego
’Tis the season for cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, profiteroles, and other sweet treats—just don’t tell your dentist to send us the bill
Warm chocolate brownie
Warm chocolate brownie
It’s a cardinal sin to serve a cold brownie à la mode. Thankfully, this restaurant always plates a soft, warm chocolate brownie topped with their signature espresso-Bailey’s ice cream. And thanks to Chef de Cuisine Tyler Nollenberger’s love for chocolate pretzels, the most recent iteration includes pretzel crumbles with a drizzle of chocolate sauce. “This dish really takes me back to my childhood,” says Nollenberger. “When you’re 10 years old, what’s better than a brownie and ice cream? And making the ice cream with Bailey’s? Well, that appeals to my adult side.”
2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill
“I love the idea of a toasted frosting where you dig in to discover what’s inside,” says Vivian Hernandez-Jackson, owner and chef of the Ocean Beach dessert shop that combines her Cuban background with French pastry training. At the center of this white chocolate soufflé cake—served in individual portions—is a tart passion fruit cream, and on the outside are raspberries and a glossy vanilla bean cooked meringue icing. “Passion fruit tastes like a tropical vacation—it really transports people and has such a unique taste. I use it anywhere I see lemon in recipes.”
4820 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Pulling from his tenure at the two-Michelin-star Spago in Beverly Hills, Herb & Wood’s Executive Pastry Chef Adrian Mendoza has a slate of five-star desserts at this glam Little Italy restaurant. The showstopper is the soufflé, a gluten-free option with flavors that rotate seasonally (blueberry in the summer, pear currently). He uses Bartlett pears sourced from Penryn Orchard Specialties in Northern California and a touch of sugar to create the base, then folds in meringue and lavender whipped crème fraîche. On top is a drizzly caramel sauce and salted caramel gelato. It’s quick to prepare but requires the precision of a scientist with the sugar, the ramekins, and especially the egg whites. “If you underwhip, it won’t rise as high, but if you overwhip, the soufflé will rise tall then deflate within seconds,” Mendoza says. “If it’s whipped just right, the soufflé has a three-to-five-minute window before it starts descending.”
2210 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Cannoli can fall victim to stale shells and overly sweet cream. Not so at this traditional Italian deli owned by a sweet husband-and-wife team. After the arancini, pasta, and focaccia, save room for this one. They’re not reinventing the cannoli wheel, and we’re thankful for that. Expect a perfectly balanced ricotta filling and a crunchy shell for an ideal contrast. Bellissimo!
7918 Ivanhoe Avenue, La Jolla
Chocolate dulce de leche
Owner and pastry chef Karen Krasne pulled inspiration from a cake she had in Uruguay for her version, made with a dark chocolate sour cream base, chocolate mousse, and burnt caramel, plus a crunchy layer of macadamia nuts and crushed French wafers. The genius is in the housemade dulce de leche (a caramelized condensed milk). It’s been on the menu since Extraordinary Desserts opened, but it shot to stardom after chef Marcela Valladolid picked the cake on the Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate: Cake Walk. Krasne may be closing her original location near Balboa Park, but she'll open a larger, more modern one a few blocks away at Bankers Hill’s Louie Lofts soon.
2870 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill; 1430 Union Street, Little Italy
On the menu since Puesto’s first location (in La Jolla) opened in 2012, the frozen horchata was the brainchild of cofounder Eric Adler and Executive Chef Luisteen Gonzalez. The idea was to present the traditional Mexican drink in a fun new way. As for the recipe, that’s a family secret, but it does involve Straus organic cream and cinnamon. Best of all, $1 of every frozen horchata is given to a charity, which rotates monthly. To date they’ve raised $48,000 for No Kid Hungry and the Surfrider Foundation, among others. This month your buck will go to Workshops for Warriors, a veteran-focused nonprofit.
789 West Harbor Drive, Downtown; 1026 Wall Street, La Jolla
The menu and wines are Italian, so it only makes sense that the Bankers Hill restaurant would want authentic desserts, too. They pulled from the Italian tradition of restaurants frying and sugaring leftover dough to serve to kids after school in brown paper bags. Cucina Urbana (and their Kensington offshoot, Cucina Sorella) no longer uses the paper-bag presentation, but the crux of the dessert remains the same. Flavors for their dipping sauce change seasonally, like a blood orange syrup. “They are just so simple and dependable,” says Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli. “It’s fried dough, sugar, and Nutella. There’s nothing complicated, and that’s comforting.”
505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill; 4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington
In a quaint corner of South Park lies this vegan, Victorian gothic restaurant-bar with its pink wallpaper and occult decor touches. And the menu is just as delightfully irreverent—think charcuterie boards made with fig sausage. There’s lots of fun in the plant-based dessert menu, too. “There’s no lack of inspiration or innovation in a dairy-free world,” says Kindred’s head chef, Emmy Miller. She combines dark chocolate blended with oat milk and Tcho chocolate with a black pepper crème anglaise, gingered almonds, nasturtium flowers, and seasonal fruit. “Each element plays its part. Sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy—sugar, spice, and everything nice!”
1503 30th Street, South Park
Look around at this La Jolla restaurant and you’re bound to see most tables finish their meal with this budino, a grown-up take on pudding. Theirs is a butterscotch custard topped with salted caramel, whipped cream, and housemade brown butter blondies. “It’s been off and on the menu since the opening,” says Culinary Director Ryan Johnston. “Every time we attempt to replace it, it always makes its way back on.” The budino is the brainchild of Whisknladle’s first pastry chef, Tracy Wei, and is a staple of the dessert menu. “Even if you think you don’t have any room left for dessert,” Johnston says, “we definitely subscribe to the ‘treat yourself’ mentality.”
1044 Wall Street, La Jolla
Strawberry rhubarb pie
Many pies at this Encinitas bakery are seasonal—the peach and pecan are particularly great for summer and fall, respectively—but thankfully, the strawberry rhubarb is available year-round. A buttery lattice crust encapsulates chunks of juicy berries and tart rhubarb. You can add fixings like butterscotch, whipped cream, or ice cream. And if you want to add a traditional touch to the holiday spread, try their Thanksgiving pie, a buttermilk biscuit crust filled with roasted turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, and stuffing baked golden in a sage buttermilk biscuit crust that’s served with chipotle cranberry sauce (available through December).
155 Quail Garden Drive, Encinitas
Royal Kahana Macadamia crème brûlée
On the menu since Executive Chef Bernard Guillas joined the team 24 years ago, the Marine Room’s crème brûlée is almost as famous as its high-tide spectacle. This version, on the menu since May, has a macadamia-liqueur-spiked custard that gives off nutty scents of roasted almonds, plus notes of dried citrus and pepper. It also includes macerated blueberries soaked in passion fruit syrup, preserved orange peels, cardamom-flavored shortbread cookies, and a raw turbinado sugar on top to give it a crunch. That stoneware dish? It’s made by Guillas’s friend Mike Totah at Leucadia pottery shop The Wheel.
2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla
Akbar Mashti ice cream
Some believe Akbar Mashti was the owner of the first ice cream parlor in Tehran, Iran, but there are other origin stories too. “An Indian man suggested it was named after Akbar the Great, the 16th century Mughal king of India who promoted Persian art, fine cuisine, and poetry,” says Soltan Banoo co-owner Sanam Govari. “He loved the ice cream so much that his cooks learned to make it for him." Folklore aside, the traditional saffron-flavored ice cream, with hints of rose water and pistachio, comes sandwiched between two thin wafers. “The wafer for Iranians is like the cone for Americans.” The final touch is a drizzle of tart sour cherry syrup on to top balance the sweetness.
4645 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Neapolitan pizza may be its calling card, but it’d be a sweet sin to miss out on Buona Forchetta’s desserts, curated by owner Matteo Cattaneo’s mother, Augusta. Every October, she comes to San Diego from Italy for a few months to make the desserts herself. She has a new lineup this fall, including an Italian riff on cotton candy, but we love the classics, like her tiramisu, just as much. “I grew up eating this,” Matteo says. “It’s a traditional summertime dessert for us because it’s so hot in Umbria!”
3001 Beech Street, South Park;
Officine Buona Forchetta: 2865 Sims Road, Liberty Station
Luxurious and delicious? We’d expect no less from the Hotel del Coronado restaurant, run by Master French Chef Patrick Ponsaty. Like many of his fellow European-trained chefs who began putting a playful touch on more serious cuisines, Ponsaty created a lemon dessert that looks like, well, a lemon. He starts with a special silicon mold in the distinctive shape. The center of the dessert has a poached Meyer lemon core with chocolate mint from The Del’s on-site garden and a yuzu-spiked white chocolate mousse. He then coats the frozen dessert with white chocolate and natural yellow colorant. The finishing touch is a dust of gold spray. Luxury all the way.
1500 Ocean Avenue, Coronado
It’s the most popular dessert on the menu at Richard Blais’s Little Italy restaurant. For proof, just look at all the tables around you ogling at the theatrical way they serve it. Pastry chef Bradley Chance whips up a cylinder of tempered dark chocolate filled with hazelnut brittle, coffee “soil,” chocolate pudding, chocolate pearls, freeze-dried and fresh strawberries, chocolate cake, and white chocolate chiboust cream. Make sure to get your camera out when the server begins pouring the milk chocolate ganache on top. As Chance says, “It’s all in the presentation.”
2228 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Cheese as dessert? “Leave it to the French to propose such a thing!” says Gina Freize, co-owner of Venissimo Cheese. “But cheese is like crème brûée for those who prefer savory to sweet, since cheese is essentially creamy milk with salt. And creamy things are a wonderful digestive.” She suggests a blue cheese to cleanse and a Brie to soothe the palette, and an aged gouda, which is naturally sweet and texturally crunchy. Her picks? Bayley Hazen Blue cheese served with fresh figs, chocolate, and balsamic; the hard cow’s milk Appenzeller from Switzerland paired with apple slices and caramel sauce; and ginger snaps and sour cherries with Ewephoria, a sweet sheep’s milk gouda out of the Netherlands.
Locations in Del Mar, Liberty Station, Mission Hills, and North Park
You don’t have to cross the border to get piping-hot, sugar-dusted churros. Just visit this small kiosk inside Las Americas Premium Outlets in San Ysidro. The churro masters make sundae and ice cream sandwich spins on the namesake, but we prefer them clásico. Served in six- and nine-piece batches or a fun 20-piece mini option, you can dip the churros in chocolate or cajeta (caramel) sauce. For an extra $1.50, add Bavarian cream, strawberry preserves, or lechera, a sweetened condensed milk.
211 Camino de la Plaza, San Ysidro
Seasonal cream bun
Owner Crystal White honed her skills at San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery before opening Proof Bakery in LA, then launching a series of pop-ups. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, she now has her own brick-and-mortar—which recently got a write-up in the New York Times—where she slings loaves, tarts, morning buns, and more. The cream bun is our favorite, a croissant bun filled with pastry cream and a seasonal component. “It’s a way to showcase San Diego’s incredible produce in a morning pastry,” she says. “The outside of the croissant can expand as it bakes, which makes the outer texture flaky, crispy, and crunchy. But the inner and bottom of the bun are confined in a muffin tin, so they remain soft, chewy and buttery.” Future flavors for fall include apple butter with honey, pear vanilla, and maple date.
5525 La Jolla Boulevard, Bird Rock
Half baked chocolate cake
The La Jolla restaurant has served more than 50,000 of these cakes since its opening—that’s 2,375 pounds of dark chocolate, 20,000 eggs, another 20,000 egg yolks, 1,250 pounds of sugar, and 172 pounds of flour. Crafted by Nine-Ten’s first pastry chef, Jack Fisher, who wanted to create his own version of the famous molten chocolate cake made by acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the cake comes with a housemade vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce. The secret to its success is ensuring the sides are fully baked, so it holds its form while the middle remains melted.
910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
Coconut cream pie
They may have just opened an ice cream shop next door (Stella Jean’s), but we’re still suckers for the original concept, an ode to sweet and savory pies of all shapes and sizes. For dinner, the five-inch steak and ale pie and roasted veggies with curry pie are popular, but we don’t leave without the 3.5-inch coconut cream pie. The best-seller combines tender young coconut from Thailand with a coconut-milk-based pastry cream that’s topped with fresh whipped cream and toasted coconut flakes.
4404 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Fresh fruit strudel
The eponymous pastry chefs learned how to make European-style cakes in their native Holland before opening this low-key Bonita bakery in 1991. Their menu spans cheese Danishes, caramel walnut tortes, lemon bars, and elaborate cakes like Colombian mocha buttercream, but the fan favorite—especially during the holidays—is the fresh fruit strudel, a thick puff pastry base layered with fluffy Bavarian cream and topped with berries, kiwis, apricots, and more. The dessert stretches two feet long, but you can also find individual-size strudels in the dessert case if you’re not one for sharing.
5080 Bonita Road, Bonita
Pastry chef Jeremy Harville takes flour, milk, butter, eggs, and salt and transforms them into pillow-soft dough balls topped with a brown sugar crumble and seasonal cream fillings. “I wanted a play on a croquembouche,” he says. This month, he’ll serve horchata cream profiteroles with cajeta (a goat milk caramel sauce) and pumpkin seed brittle. “I put them on the second dessert menu after opening and haven’t been able to take them off since—due to possible protests and rioting.”
3752 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
Chocolate chip bread pudding
The menu at Cowboy Star reads a little like its decor—Old West tradition (cowboy gear and wooden beams) mixed with some industrial touches (exposed brick, steel accents). The same goes for this dessert, a staple since the East Village steakhouse opened in May 2008. Chef-partner Victor Jimenez wanted a “wow factor” dessert, so he took inspiration from a memorable bread pudding he had tasted in New York City. Now a signature dish, the pudding is made with housemade brioche, chocolate chips, and custard—the perfect post-steak palate cleanser.
640 10th Avenue, East Village
Coconut cream pie
The stylish, plant-based restaurant—basically vegan except for its use of honey in some dishes—is known for lentil bowls, raw pesto kelp noodles, and mole tempeh, but don’t overlook their menu of sweets, made sans egg or dairy. There’s the vegan riff on Almond Joy chocolate bars and gluten-free chocolate chip walnut cookies, but we always head straight to the cakes and pies. The highlight is the coconut cream pie, which has a photogenic swirl of dark chocolate and a crust made out of dates. Look for it on the menu under the eatery’s signature affirmation-style name, the Irresistible. We couldn’t agree more.
1980 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Nutella chocolate lovers
Formerly known as Wow Wow Waffle, the charming eatery behind a laundromat may have changed its name, but the thick, fluffy, Liège-style waffles are all the same. The menu, which offers “Sweet,” “Not So Sweet,” and “Savory” waffles also serves seasonal spins, like a pumpkin butter with bananas. We go for the Nutella, with its generous layer of hazelnut spread, sliced strawberries, whipped cream, and powdered sugar (also offered in a smaller size for kids). Take it to the fire pit, preferably with a cup of Coffee & Tea Collective coffee by your side.
3519 30th Street, North Park
When the Coronado eatery retired its first Hostess-inspired dessert, the Naughty Ding Dong, Executive Pastry Chef Lori Sauer decided to continue the trend. Her gourmet Ho-Ho is made of a chocolate sponge cake with marshmallow whip, fudge, cacao, and a large scoop of MooTime Creamery coffee ice cream. “It’s a twist on a nostalgic American sweet treat,” Sauer says. “The name and description alone just sucker you into trying it.”
1015 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Tracing the origins of this dessert involves a little history. The egg custard tart in a puff pastry shell, or pastel de nata, was created in Portugal but also found a fan base in the Portuguese colony of Macau and in its neighbor, Hong Kong. Bakers in the megalopolis put their own spin on the dessert by adding more egg yolk and cutting down on the sugar. The resulting dan tat has proliferated in Taiwanese bakeries, like the 85°C chain, where the palm-sized tart (and all their other pastries) are made hourly. It’s soft like panna cotta with a flaky crust like pie.
Locations in Kearny Mesa, Mira Mesa, National City, Point Loma, and UTC.
Keeping with the tradition of creative desserts born in Asia, this Kearny Mesa spot has brought over one of Taiwan’s most popular street foods. The sundae starts with a soft, bulbous waffle—the puffle—and gets a hefty dose of custard. Then comes the fun part: the variety of themed toppings. You can get the Perfect Matcha with a green-tea-tinged puffle, green tea custard, mochi, and a condensed milk drizzle; the Black Out, an Oreo puffle paired with vanilla custard, Oreo cookies, and a chocolate drizzle and others.
4619 Convoy Street and 7655 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa
In a sea of out-there flavors, this legendary bakery near USD remains true to classics, like glazed and cinnamon sugar donuts and maple bars. The cash-only shop is lined with cases of the fried goodies that are just as fresh in the afternoon as they are at 5 a.m. We wake up early for the apple fritters, the huge pastry that’s glazed and crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and dotted with juicy apple chunks throughout. Word to the wise: The fritters are often the first item to sell out.
5201 Linda Vista Road, Morena
Pastry chef Eli Peralta wanted to put something on the menu at The Patio on Lamont that paid tribute to his favorite sweet, banana bread. But this is no subtle dessert. The housemade bread comes with peanut butter mousse, a rich topping balanced by vanilla ice cream, brûléed banana, and foster sauce. Since hitting the menu in 2012, it’s now become available at The Patio on Goldfinch in Mission Hills and The Patio on 101 in Encinitas.
4445 Lamont Street, Pacific Beach
The Patio on Goldfinch: 4020 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
The Patio on 101: 345 South Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
This traditional Mexican sweet bread, named for its shell-like appearance, is a breakfast staple and coffee snack whose origin is said to trace back to brioche, brought over by the French during European settlement in Mexico. The base is a yeasted, sweetened wheat dough covered in a crumbly sugar topping. Beyond the classic version, it also comes in chocolate.
Locations in Barrio Logan, City Heights, Golden Hill, and North Park
At the fast-casual component of Herb & Wood, Executive Pastry Chef Adrian Mendoza crafts some of the city’s best croissants. While his butter version is the number-one seller, we prefer the almond. The process begins with an 18-hour dough starter that then proofs, or rises, for one hour before it’s chilled and folded with (a lot of) butter. After it’s divided and shaped, it’s left to rise for another two hours before it bakes for 22 minutes at 385°F to get the deep brown, flaky exterior.
2210 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy