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The Best of North County 2015

Our annual homage to the newest restaurants, shops, and activities keeping the region above I-56 the cool place it is—haute strip malls, million-dollar tract homes, and all! The list is compiled by staffers and contributors, including a few NoCo natives who know the area is not just about juice, cycling, and surfing... but who are also just fine with that.


Food & Drink | The Arts | Health & Wellness | Shop & Spa | Kids & Pets

Downtown Oceanside

Food & Drink

Best Smoothie

PB&J Smoothie at Choice Superfood Bar & Juicery

Carlsbad | 430 Carlsbad Village Drive
A blend of sprouted vanilla almond milk, date, protein, peanut butter powder, banana, ice, and raspberry chia jam, this smoothie is more like a milkshake. Hands down, it’s the most delicious $8 drink ever served out of a friendly-looking trailer. We like it with the coconut butter boost for an extra 75 cents. It’s the jam!


Best Kyoto Coffee

The Kettle

Escondido | 119 East Grand Street
Go for the Kyoto (a slow-drip process that produces a supreme cup of iced coffee), but stay and have a breakfast sandwich—on a croissant. Do it.


Best Car Shop Turned Eatery

Master’s Kitchen and Cocktail

Oceanside | 208 South Coast Highway
This former car shop built in 1938 retains its industrial cool, warmed up by greenery and chef Chris Gallo’s comfort cuisine like coq au vin, duck confit mac ’n’ cheese, and mushroom strudel. The team of bartenders stirs up seriously good sippers with creative twists, like their Malahat Old Fashioned with local spiced rum.


Best Asian Fusion

BLVD Chinese Kitchen & Sake House

Oceanside | 514 South Coast Highway
At this tiny O-side joint, chef Alfred Sheik is crushing it with big-time creativity and a fresh Asian-fusion chalkboard menu. His pulled-pork cream cheese roll melts in the mouth; his divinely tender yellowtail with cabbage slaw and bacon bits makes for an excellent fish taco. There are also crispy tempura ’shrooms, curried potato short rib croquettes, and craft beer spilling from the taps, enjoyed by everyone from mom and pop to younger-gen surfers and skaters.


Best Flavor Den

Savory Spice Shop

Encinitas | Lumberyard, 937 South Coast Highway
Whether you are seeking real-deal Ceylon cinnamon or organic turmeric, looking to spice up your Bloody Mary, or experiment with pure wasabi powder, this redolent shop has exotic spices, extracts, and herbal treasures in every corner. Peruse the curry section, expand your salt collection, take a chocolate class, or organize a private cooking group session.


Best Savory Breakfast Snack

VG Donut & Bakery

Cardiff | 106 Aberdeen Drive
Yes, you’ve heard VG has amazing donuts, and amazing cakes, and delicious cookies, which is all true. But sometimes you want your scones to be savory. If that’s the case, then you’ve landed on a gold mine. Order a Jalapeño and cheddar—plus one.


Best Cafe-Cooking Class Mash-up

Curious Fork

Solana Beach | 512 Via de La Valle
This organic, gluten-free cafe, known for its tasty baguette sandwiches and Blue Bottle coffee, also offers top-notch cooking classes. Being a CSA drop spot for Garden of Eden Organics, they’ve dedicated Thursday evenings as the Farmers Market Basket class, where you learn how to prep, peel, clean, chop, and cook the farm-fresh produce.


Best Tacos North of the 78

Los Tacos

Oceanside | 2183 Vista Way
It’s no secret that the further north you go, the Mexican food goes south, but Los Tacos is the exception. Think Lucha Libre if they dropped the décor, and the wait. The ChoriQueso tacos will change your life.


Best Beer Garden with Entertainment

Scottish Highland Games

Vista | June 27–28; Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive
Ever wanted to drink alcohol and watch guys in skirts throw tree trunks around? The Highland Games are a throwback to an old Scottish tradition, where various clans would compete to show off athletic ability. Bagpipes and kilts aside, the two-day event has the best beer garden around, and if you miss the whiskey tastings, you have no one to blame but yourself.


Best Culinary Offshoot

Casa del Q’ero

Cardiff | 815 Birmingham Drive
Encinitas’ favorite yet tough-to-book Peruvian joint has a new spacious outpost in Cardiff. Fear not the location tucked behind the Chevron station—the empanadas are fresh from the wood-fired oven, the ceviche mixto delish, and the setting charming with its hand-painted ceiling, colorful textiles, fire pits, and alfresco dining. Bonus points for the free parking and Peruvian street-fare brunch on Sundays.


Best Spicy Marg

Tony’s Jacal Spicy Margarita

Solana Beach | 621 Valley Avenue
If you want a seat at this family-owned go-to Mexican restaurant in Solana Beach, get there when it opens at 5 p.m. If you end up waiting for a table, order a Spicy Margarita—or two. This jalapeño-laced marg has just the right amount of kick to wash down several of their renowned turkey tacos, and it’s always perfectly balanced. Olé!


Best Coffeeshop Refresh

Café Cantata

Del Mar | 2670 Via De La Valle
Reimagined by the inimitable Betsy Vonn Ginn of Smid (our designer obsession du jour), this new coffeeshop in Flower Hill Promenade offers an array of drinks and snacks. We love the Mexican hot chocolate and fresh veggie-fruit smoothies. Ginn definitely upped the décor’s hip factor in the former Pannikin. Now a retro bike hangs on the wall, and ferns drape from the inside of desk drawers. After one visit, you’ll forget how much you miss those Pannikin blueberry scones.


Best Gluten-Free Pizza

Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria

Encinitas | 897 South Coast Highway
For five years, devoted fans have packed chef Wade Hageman’s outstanding eatery for organic, ingredient-driven, wood-fired pies, and now that he’s perfected his gluten-free crust, he’s got even more loyals lining up. Thin, crisp, cooked-just-right crust cradles smoked bacon tomato sauce, house-made mozz, spinach, and thick bacon for the house special. Late-night dining specials include $7 pizzas and $5 craft brews (Wednesday–Saturday
9:30 p.m.–11 p.m.).


Best Farm Stand With Celebrichef Book Signings

Chino Farms

A Rancho Santa Fe | 6123 Calzada Del Bosque; facebook.com/TheVegetableShop
Chefs know Chino Farms is the epitome of produce heaven in North County, and more and more home cooks are taking note of this farm paradise tucked into Rancho Santa Fe. We’re excited to see this tiny farm stand expand its offerings beyond just the best organic produce. Check out their social media pages for new events and book signings—hello, Sean Brock and Alice Waters.


Best Coffee with Attitude

Lofty Coffee Co.

A Encinitas and Solana Beach | 90 North Coast Highway 101, Encinitas; 132 South Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach
Fair trade organic coffee; limited-release, second-harvest teas; Aztec Mochas with cinnamon and cayenne; scratch caramel and fleur de sel lattes; baristas in beanies performing free-pour latte art; and a lesson in patience (grasshopper) from their 12-hour, slow-drip Kyoto cold brew. What’s not to love, minus the cooler-than-thou attitude?


Best DIY Pizza


A Scripps Ranch and Carmel Valley | 10393 Spring Canyon Road, Scripps Ranch; 7835 Highlands Village Place, Carmel Valley
If you’ve ever wielded a heavy rolling pin against unruly dough in the name of custom homemade pizza, you’ll be thrilled about PizzaRev, a Subway sandwich-style concept that opened just last month in two locations. Oven-fired in three minutes, each pie is $8.25 with unlimited toppings.


Oceanside's Craft Beer Explosion

Bagby Beer

Oceanside is having a moment. Craft beer outposts have popped up all over town—everything from tap and tasting rooms to beer gardens and full-blown breweries. The Stone Company Store (310 North Tremont Street) kicked off the movement with its cozy beer garden, bedecked with a fire pit, succulent wall, wine barrel furniture, and market lights. Brewmaster Mark Mericle took over the Transworld Media building off the 76 and started Legacy Brewing Co. (363 Airport Road) where craft connoisseurs can take a brewery tour, taste 12-plus beers like the famed Nut Brown Ale or Hellfire IPA, and catch an occasional band. Bagby Beer (601 South Coast Highway) is the town’s latest craft beer vortex, with multi-level dining, a barrel-side tasting room, four bars, giant outdoor patio, and decks with ocean views. Jeff Bagby’s talent flows from the many taps (with more than 18 Bagby beers alone), while Brad Davis (formerly of Pacifica) focuses on the food. Try the Yvanke, a lovely Belgian-style blonde, or License to Kilt, a plucky Scottish Ale. At Local Tap House (308 South Coast Highway) there’s gastropub fare, 32 rotating taps, and chicken-and-waffles late-night grub on weekends. Locals gravitate to the Surfside Tap Room for its 111 hard-to-find bottle selection, food truck nights, giant Jenga games, and Thursday Tap Takeovers by local breweries. While Mission Avenue Bar is known for its bison burgers and craft brews, don’t miss the Adult Root Beer Float with Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Stout, vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce, and cayenne candied nuts. Other joints, such as The Privateer, Pour House, and Masters Kitchen and Cocktails, serve up plenty of crafty pints as well.

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The Arts

Best Limited Engagements

California Center for the Arts

Escondido | 340 North Escondido Boulevard
This worth-the-drive venue books some serious talent, from Garrison Keillor to the Harlem Gospel Choir to Alberta Ballet’s recent production set to the music of
Sarah McLachlan. And if you happen to live in the area, consider yourself lucky. Upcoming shows include: Hello Gorgeous! A Live Tribute to Barbra Streisand (April 12), Ticket to Ride: A Live Tribute to the Beatles (May 2), cellist Han Bin Yoon (May 3), and so many more.


Best Dinner-and-a-Show Deal

Poway Center for Performing Arts

Poway | 15498 Espola Road
Proof that live theater and date nights don’t have to be expensive: PCPA Foundation regularly hosts Dinner on the Plaza, served by Café Merlot. Pre-show, enjoy a buffet spread that also includes one (alcoholic! or non) beverage for $25. Bonus: Parking is free. On April 12, see the Romeros, “The Royal Family of the Guitar” (from Del Mar!). Note: Show’s at
2 p.m.; lunch on the Plaza is at noon.

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Health & Wellness

Best Wellness Package

VeraVia at Park Hyatt Aviara

Carlsbad | 7100 Aviara Resort Drive
Customized wellness and fitness programs at luxury resorts are the latest trend. VeraVia’s four-day kickstarters and multiweek retreats offer nutrition and fitness coaches, behavioral care, farm-to-table organic food, spa treatments, and sessions with naturopathic docs. Or skip the medical component and try the less pricey Restorative Stay, which will help redirect your life onto a healthy path.


Best Haute Health Center

Sonima Wellness Center

Encinitas | 525 South Coast Highway
Drop into this stylish sanctuary for meditation, mocha maca chia pudding, vinyasas, vegan cuisine, coaching, cleanses, and more. Head to the giant studio in back which hosts hip hop, boot camps, yoga, and alignment classes, and then recharge with a restorative smoothie or cold-pressed juice. This place makes being healthy easy.


Best Vitamin Shots

SHINE Naturopathic Medicine

Solana Beach | 437 South Highway 101
Naturopathic doctor and radio show host Lauren Noel offers wellness consultations and holistic treatments in an airy bright perch. Health-conscious folks gather for her SHINE Happy Hour on Wednesdays, swapping out vino for vitamin shots and customized IV therapy in a setting that feels like your girlfriend’s living room.


Best Gym Novelty

Indoor sand studio at Baja Body Athletic Club

Oceanside | 1220 South Coast Highway
A workout on sand will burn additional calories and reduce risk of injuries, so you’ll get more out of Baja Body’s BeachX Fit and antigravity classes in the country’s only indoor sand training studio.


Best Outdoorsy Programming

The San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy  

Del Mar
With a new director as of last fall, the Conservancy is hitting its stride. Visit the new birdwing open-air classroom or lagoon boardwalk; join the “Exploring Our Sense of Place” eight-session seminar series (signups start next month). We like the yoga and a hike every third Sunday of the month. Meet at 8:30 a.m. at the trailhead on San Andres Drive south of Via de la Valle. Hike to Del Mar’s North Beach for a yoga sesh. Nature is cool again.


Best Weight-Loss Motivator

Orangetheory Fitness

Encinitas, Poway, and Carmel Valley (coming soon) | 12207 Poway Road, Poway; 215 South El Camino Real, Encinitas; 11155 East Ocean Air Drive, Carmel Valley
This hour-long workout combines treadmill training, rowing, and weights, torching anywhere between 500 and 1,000 calories. The genius part? Using heart rate monitors, you can see your progress on a big screen—alongside your classmates’—guaranteeing you’ll push yourself to do better than the guy next to you. Orangetheory also emails you your results.

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Shop & Spa

Best Designer Duds

Tucci Boutique

Solana Beach and Carmel Valley | 130 South Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach; 12857 El Camino Real; Carmel Valley
This women’s boutique specializes in designer spendy threads and unique finds like Nili Lotan leather jackets; GGDB (Golden Goose Deluxe Brand) high-tops from Italy; suede Majestic tees from Paris; and Isabel Marant embroidered shorts, stylish booties, and sweaters. 


Best Hole-in-the-Wall Record Store

Spin Records

Carlsbad | 370 Grand Avenue
Yep. It’s there, and it’s full of great records, CDs, and—VHS tapes? Yeah, a lot of VHS tapes. The biggest collection you’ll find in this Blu-ray world. The staff is great, and will help you locate anything you need, like a used tape cassette of Bowie’s Hunky Dory. ’Cause they have that.


Best Mani/Pedi Experience

20 Lounge

Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Carmel Valley | 2025 San Elijo Avenue, Cardiff-by-the-Sea; 12925 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley
This spot is a welcome alternative to the overly crowded, smelly, quickie nail salon. A pristine environment, loads of nail choices, and super-comfy seats mean the actual process of having your nails done is just as good as the reward. Two locations in North County make getting an appointment that much easier. Plus, they offer Champagne while you get your treatment!


Best Place to Find a Unique Baby Gift

The Printed Palette

Del Mar | 2690 Via de la Valle
We love this new shop in Flower Hill Promenade’s sweet and simple designs. The fact that they are crafted by local Carlsbad artist Alissa Samperio is just a bonus. A quick pop inside this colorful, Instagram-worthy store will leave you with a bevy of choices for the next baby shower you attend. And while you’re at it, pick up a colorful print or coffee mug for yourself.


Best Leather Goods


Del Mar | 2690 Via de la Valle
Just as its French name implies, this new NoCo store has style all buttoned up. Owner Erin Pechtel’s artfully handcrafted totes and leather goods are simple enough for him, fashionable enough for her, and designed to stand the test of time—patina only adds character. Check them out in the former Rais Case and Mr. B’s Luminaries space at Flower Hill Promenade. And not to worry, Julie Ellis and her chic Navajo bags moved across the way, to a newly expanded space.


Best Vinyl Outpost

M-Theory Music

Del Mar | 2720 Via de La Valle
You don’t have to be a hipster or record junkie to fall in love with M-Theory. The second location of this music hub, located in the hip Row Collective at Flower Hill Promenade, impresses with a wide selection of old and new music, plus resident music man Rick is a wiz with suggestions for every type of listener. Ask about their world music collection and happenings, including live shows in the courtyard near the ping-pong table.


Still the best

Rancho Valencia Resort and Spa and the Grand Del Mar still reign supreme with the best spas in North County, as these Forbes Five-Star paradises define luxury. Rancho Valencia (recently named the #1 best hotel by U.S. News and World Report) has just launched a new spa menu with freshly crafted, exclusive treatments employing the refined Natura Bisse line from Barcelona. Indulge in the Citrus Supreme, a luscious face and body ritual featuring a mandarin exfoliation, citrus soufflé body mask, and antioxidant facial. At The Spa at the Grand Del Mar, gentlemen and gentlewomen can experience an Athletic Encounter sports massage to realign and de-stress muscles, or sink into a blissful Decompression session that includes an organic rosemary scrub and hydrating goat butter body wrap while lying on a warm, free-floating bed, followed by a customized body massage.
5921 Valencia Circle, Rancho Santa Fe; 5300 Grand Del Mar Boulevard, Carmel Valley

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Kids & Pets

Best Place to Belt One Out

Norwood Studios

Solana Beach | 742 Genevieve Street
Is your child an aspiring Adele or Sam Smith in the making? Voice coach Virginia Norwood unleashes and trains young voices in Speech Level Singing, the results-driven technique favored by the likes of Josh Groban, Stevie Wonder, and the late Michael Jackson.


Best Family Staycay

Lakehouse Hotel and Resort

San Marcos | 1025 La Bonita Drive
San Marcos, you say? Yep, and it’s co-owned by the hip folks who brought you Tower23 Hotel in Pacific Beach. On Lake San Marcos, the 142-room property opened less than two years ago and has since seen the completion of St. Mark Golf—a club with two courses and a driving range—and programming such as weekly pasta nights, Easter brunch this month, and Family Fun Spring Break (March 28–April 5), offering boat rental specials, s’mores at the pool, and more.


Best New Park for Kids and Dogs

Encinitas Community Park

Encinitas | 425 Santa Fe Drive
This new park stretches across 44 acres, sporting a 13,000-square-foot skate park with rail slides, ramps, a bowl, and volcano to practice frontside airs; soccer, softball, and baseball fields; a modern playground; and 2 acres of enclosed green grass where four-leggers can run with the pack.


Best Place to Swing It

The Academy at Del Mar Golf Center

Del Mar | 15555 Jimmy Durante Boulevard
The golf world needs more up-and-comers, so get your small fry out on the greens. This progressive golf school devotes equal time to athletic prowess and technique. During the 90-minute lessons, coach Milo Bryant, a D1 athlete and youth fitness expert, turns muscle building and motor coordination into game play while former college coach Don Rasmussen fine-tunes the swing. Kids dig being awarded colored b-ball caps—à la karate belts—for mastering skills.

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Additional photography by: Lauren Radack, Eric Lieb, John Trice, Kathleen Geiberger, and John Anderson

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