With its farm-to-table focus and obsession with organics, “America’s Finest City” is well on its way to becoming “America’s Foodiest City.”
San Diego is so obsessed with local, organic, healthful foods that you almost expect your carton of hormone-free milk to display photos of MSG, preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup, asking “Have you seen us?” Not around here. Restaurants source their ingredients from the generous Pacific Ocean and the proliferation of lush farms sprawled throughout San Diego County. Many eateries have private micro-farms and even make their own sodas and condiments. While the spotlight has been shining on San Diego’s tourist attractions, this beach city has quietly grown into one of the country’s most underrated culinary capitals.
Move over, Colorado; San Diego is home to more than 60 breweries crafting some of the country’s most boundary-pushing – and biting – beer. The craft scene here redefined “West Coast IPA” to mean “more hops than a bunny farm,” so expect bold beers that make you sit up and pay attention. A good way to get a grip on the craft beer scene is with a guided tour. Founded in 2007, Brew Hop (858-361-8457, brewhop.com) tours take visitors on customized craft beer safaris in luxury transportation. Stops could include such notable local breweries as Green Flash, Karl Strauss, and Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens (1999 Citracado Pkwy., Escondido, 760-294-7866, stoneworldbistro.com). Though Stone is famous for brashly-named beers such as Arrogant Bastard Ale, it’s also serious about serving good food. Not only is the setting striking – colorful gardens blooming around a large koi pond and stone fountain – but the inventive, locavore eats make traditional greasy “bar fare” look like stale pale ale. Instead of fatty hamburgers, diners sink their teeth into lean buffalo patties or wild boar baby back ribs braised in Stone Smoked Porter and five-chile honey glaze. You won’t find hot wings on their seasonally-changing menu, but you might luck out with quail knots – tender hunks of bird marinated and fried in tongue-searing hot sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Tables for Tourists
Perhaps the only thing San Diego’s better known for than its craft beer is its tourist attractions. But since theme parks aren’t praised for their fast-food cuisine ($9 frozen pizza, anyone?), save your palate for the superior dining options outside the attractions.
If you’re heading to the San Diego Zoo, fill up at The Prado at Balboa Park (1549 El Prado, 619-557-9441, cohnrestaurants.com/menu-restaurants/the-prado), a fine dining establishment with elegant decor and verdant garden views to rival its legendary New American food: deconstructed fish tacos, Kobe beef rolls, prime rib in a pear reduction, and spicy calamari, among other specialty dishes – all of which beat the hell out of overpriced theme park nachos.
One of the best ways to see SeaWorld is to stay at Paradise Point resort, which offers water taxi service to the park. Paradise Point is also home to Baleen (1404 Vacation Rd., San Diego, 858-490-6363, paradisepoint.com/baleen-san-diego-restaurant), a waterfront seafood restaurant with the mantra “serious food, whimsical mood” and a monkey motif swinging throughout the property. Executive Chef Amy DiBiase is known for putting California spins on European cuisine, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything unimpressive here. The Baleen Bisque bobs with huge chunks of roasted lobster meat in a burnt-orange-colored sherry chive cream; wood-roasted prawns glisten with garlic butter; flaky, juicy sea bass is enveloped in a salty crust; and everything is perfectly flavor-balanced with fitting accoutrements, from roasted asparagus to blistered tomatoes.
Bistro West (4960 Avenida Encinas, Carlsbad, 760-930-8008, bistrowest.com) is a great breakfast and lunch spot near Legoland that serves farm-to-table dishes on a menu divided into sections like “classics” (beef stroganoff, meatloaf, chicken pot pie), “fresh fish & seafood” (pan-seared peppered ahi, catch of the day), and “pizzas” (from a stone hearth oven). The brunch menu stars a cast of omelets, including the “California” with avocado, tomato and bacon, and a fragrant seafood omelet with shrimp and scallops.
Once you’re full of San Diego’s suds and sights, new epicurean explorations await in the city’s diverse nosh-centric neighborhoods.
La Jolla: Dining D’Art
Home to multi-million-dollar homes, miles of sandy beaches, and some of the most well-coiffed shrubbery in the world – which no doubt inspired the drawings of late resident Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) – La Jolla is an affluent ocean bluff burg where the word “trashy” can’t be used to describe anything, not even the trash. Case in point: What appeared to be a large, white plastic trash bag bulging with refuse in the middle of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego was actually a 500-pound marble sculpture, part of an art exhibit based on everyday objects. That quarter-ton metaphor extends to every aspect of the neighborhood. Nothing is as simple as it seems, including the food.
Lunch at the European bistro-inspired Museum Cafe (700 Prospect St., 858-456-6427, mcasdcafe.com) looks basic at first – a menu of mostly sandwiches and salads, served on a patio under trellises crawling with fragrant, purple wisteria. But when the applewood-smoked bacon BLT arrives, it throws a surprise party on your palate. The whole grain bread is so spongy that not even the luscious avocado tries to slip out of its embrace, staying cradled with juicy fresh tomatoes and crispy, lean bacon until properly delivered into the mouth. The BLT’s light on lettuce, which isn’t missed thanks to the accompanying light salad with a subtle vinegar dressing.
For less subtlety, experience Executive Chef Jason Knibb’s seafood-skewed California cuisine at Nine-Ten at the Grande Colonial (910 Prospect St., 858-964-5400, nine-ten.com). The menu changes seasonally, but appetizers usually include some form of sashimi. On this visit, it was hamachi – succulent, melt-in-your-mouth slices of yellowtail swimming in marinated baby shiitakes and scallion vinaigrette. Among the entrées, red wine-braised beef short ribs were tender and toothsome, yielding meaty shreds of nirvana across the plate at the lightest touch of the fork. Delectable desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Esteban Acosta, include dense, high octane espresso bon-bons.
At George’s at the Cove (1250 Prospect St., 858-454-4244, georgesatthecove.com), culinary veteran Trey Foshee has been putting his own twist on California Modern cuisine since 1999, sourcing seasonal vegetables to accompany surf standards from snapper and scallops to halibut and cod. The fish tacos, featured on an episode of the Food Network show The Best Thing I Ever Ate, are actually diced tuna tartare with fried avocado chunks wrapped in a “tortilla” made from buttery pieces of raw yellowfin covered in crushed corn nuts – hardly the typical “fish taco,” but this is the mini-Mediterranean village of La Jolla, after all, where “trash bags” are hunks of marble, and a simple sandwich sings.
North Park: Hipster Haven
Forbes magazine, well-known christener of hipsters, called North Park one of America’s biggest “hipster” ’hoods. It certainly is one of the liveliest and most diverse sections of San Diego, both in terms of nightlife (everything from karaoke to communal bicycle bar-hops) and noshing (everything from vegan eats to craft beer-infused comfort food).
The “hipster” tag owes much to Urban Solace (3823 30th St., 619-295-6464, urbansolace.net) – which sets a stylish scene with tall ceilings, mellow yellow walls adorned with local art, a bar running the length of the back brick wall, and “Bluegrass Brunch” on Sundays – and nails healthful food with hormone-free meat, cage-free eggs, and organic produce. This popular spot’s always packed with people forking the heck out of plates overflowing with things like braised grass-fed beef cheeks, chunky “duckaroni” mac and cheese, and sweet potato fries.
At Ritual Tavern (4095 30th St., 619-283-1720, ritualtavern.com), everything’s prepared from scratch, including the condiments (their incendiary orange habanero sauce is well worth the two-minute spanking you have to give the bottle before it’ll cough up a thick dollop). The pet-friendly patio at this slow-food-style resto is framed by wooden planters and vertical gardens, providing an airy, laid-back foil to the boisterous bar, where craft beer-loving patrons play board games well into the night. The fare features both elevated pub grub (juicy, fat, beer-battered onion rings) and farm-fresh courses (baked chicken breast). An “eggplant and chips” dish shines, substituting shredded white eggplant for fish, which emerges even meatier, greasier, and tastier than its traditional aquatic counterpart (also available here).
Gaslamp Quarter: Party Time!
Filled with local flavor of every sort, this historic district is San Diego’s old school party animal. Wyatt Earp once owned three gambling halls here, and the streets are lined with everything from bordellos-turned-restaurants to classic hotels like the U.S. Grant. Weekends bring wailing sirens and screams of revelry drifting up from the streets and into the mix of modern high-rises and restored Victorian-style giants.
Built in 1910 and host to 14 U.S. presidents, the U.S. Grant houses Grant Grill (326 Broadway, 619-744-2077, grantgrill.com), site of a policy-changing 1969 sit-in by local women protesting the restaurant’s “No women before 3 p.m.” post. Ever since, hungry humans of any gender can enjoy the elegant 1920s lounge decor and the Grill’s Sunday Brunch, a buffet-style spread featuring everything from fried chicken and from-scratch waffles to fluffy custom omelets and fresh fruit.
Catty-corner to the U.S. Grant, Spike Africa’s (411 Broadway, 619-795-3800, spikeafricas.com) serves a variety of wild-caught, seasonal fish such as salmon and swordfish, prepared à la carte and with six sauce choices including red pepper remoulade. Jazz things up a bit at Croce’s Restaurant & Bar (802 Fifth Ave., 619-233-4355, croces.com), Ingrid Croce’s tribute to her late husband, ’70s folksinger Jim Croce. The menu comprises wine-paired meals like golden ahi poke and Jamaican jerk baby back ribs. The music menu offers nightly grooves in the Jazz Bar.
Little Italy: Market-Fresh
Once a neighborhood of predominantly Italian fishermen known as “Tunatown,” Little Italy’s now a happy hub of diversity with better-than-ever food and an epic farmers’ market called the Little Italy Mercato (littleitalymercato.com), which fills five blocks every Saturday and vends a cornucopia of sea creatures and farm-fresh delights (spiky red urchins, bales of kale) along with items like artisanal European breads, gluten-free sauces, and estate-grown San Diego wines.
The atmosphere at PrepKitchen (1660 India St., 619-398-8383, prepkitchen.com) is organic and eco-friendly, right down to the vertical garden alongside the staircase and the reclaimed wood pillars dividing the dining areas. The Saturday brunch menu brims with dishes from classic eggs and bacon (featuring sustainable eggs from Eben-Haezer Poultry Ranch in nearby Ramona) to inventive entrées like eggs Benedict served on crispy-thin, slightly buttery farmers’ market flatbread.
If you’re in the mood for meat, Burger Lounge (1608 India St., 619-237-7878, burgerlounge.com) grills up grass-fed and free-range burgers of every ilk, including beef, bison, elk, and salmon, and offers a quinoa burger for vegetarians, all on hearty brioche buns.
Ultimately, whatever your tastes, you’ll find it in San Diego – unless, of course, you’re looking to dump a bunch of salt on an artificially-flavored entrée. Such staples of sub-par gastronomics went missing from San Diego a long time ago, and will likely never be seen again.
BE THEIR GUEST
Nothing follows a fine meal better than a siesta. Here are some primo places to rest up before your next resto visit.
Grande Colonial Hotel: The oldest original hotel in La Jolla remains one of the best, with stately Colonial trim and relaxing pastel colors throughout, plush chaise loungers, prime ocean views, and the Zagat-rated “extraordinary to perfection” Nine-Ten restaurant. 910 Prospect St., La Jolla, 888-828-5498, thegrandecolonial.com
U.S. Grant: Built in 1910 by the son of Ulysses S. Grant, this opulent, 270-room hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter features damask walls, giant glittery chandeliers, marble staircases, and the swanky Grant Grill. 326 Broadway, San Diego, 619-232-3121, usgrant.net
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