Must-try in San Diego - visiting from LA

What are the must-try restaurants if you’re visiting from LA. We are staying for 4 nights, half the time in Mission Bay area and half the time in Carlsband/San Marcos. Willing to drive but not too out of the way south to Chula Vista/etc. Prefer cheap eats ($10-20 max) and we’re big fans of authentic ethnic foods like mariscos tacos, etc. So far, Hawaiian Fresh Market and Wayfarer Bread are on the list! Thanks!

Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill for super fresh fish tacos (or grilled fish platter).

Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria for deep dish slices/pies and Italian Beef (yeah, silly to have chicago stuff while visiting somewhere else, but…)

Taka for sushi. it’s in the gaslamp district, so it’s a bit touristy, but I’ve always been VERY happy with the fish there, and ESPECIALLY pleased with the sea urchin I get there (when it’s in, of course). I’ve had urchin up and down the west coast, from San Diego to Vancouver and many points between. I always find the stuff in San Diego to be just outstanding. They also have a decent Japanese Whisky selection, including Habiki Harmony, which my partner very much appreciates.

Berkeley Pizza is also in the gaslamp, right on the edge, and is essentially a copy of Zachary’s pizza from Berkeley, which in turn is a copy of Lou Malnati’s from Chicago, but Berkeley Pizza has, alas, closed for the pandemic. The website says it’s temporary, but I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Stone Brewing @ Liberty Station for beer. the food there is decent, and it’s also next to the public market, which has some quite good food and really nice outdoor seating

Pomegrante. Sister restaurant Kafe Sobaka has closed but same difference. Nothing like it in LA.

The only other place I’d go out of my way to return to is Wet Stone Wine Bar.

https://www.wetstonewinebar.com/

Zachary’s makes the worst Chicago-style pizza I’ve had. It’s not even a must-try in Berkeley.

I suspect it may be dependent on which shop (when I’m in the area, I usually hit the one on Solano, which is technically Albany, not Berkeley). I like their crust but am ‘eh’ on the sauce, which I find a bit bland and salty and a little too chunky for my liking. For a long time, they were more or less the only game in town. Now there are a number of choices, from chains (Paxti’s, which is decent for the price) to Little Star just down the street on Solano, who has excellent sauce and uses cornmeal in their crust (which is NOT traditional, but that’s ok).

Where I am in Sac, we have Chicago Fire and Zelda’s for deep dish, both reasonable neighborhood offerings. But over the last couple years I’ve taken to making my own, which is actually EASIER than making thin crust, NY style, or Neapolitan style. No need for a peel, just a good solid pizza pan, and your oven need only go to the 450-500F range, which is fine for most home setups.

But this is now wildly off topic so…

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Cornmeal is traditional in Chicago-style deep-dish, in the sense that it was in the original dough recipe at Uno’s, where it was invented.

Zachary’s was both the best and the worst Chicago-style pizza in the Bay Area until Little Chicago (takeout-only predecessor of Little Star) opened 20 years ago. Since then, Zachary’s has been the worst.

Chicago’s not necessarily the best place to get Chicago-style deep-dish pizza any more.

For moderately priced places near Mission Bay

  • Wayfarer is a must but there will be lines on the weekend. Go early or order online the day before for pickup. Bird Rock coffee a few blocks away is excellent.
  • Mr Frostie for great old school no frills soft serve. They have marshmallow topping on the menu. This is not one of the nice new Salt n Straw fancy pants joints. Maybe 4 flavors of soft serve. I love them all.
  • Pure Project Balboa Park. Best brewery in the area and usually a diverse line up for all types of beee drinkers. URBN pizza truck is usually there and they make great thin pies.
  • OB Noodle House. Great pho. My wife loves it. Good wings and galbi plate. Is it the most authentic place? No but it’s delicious. One of the locations has a very extensive whiskey, sake, liquor menu if you’re into that type of thing.
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Chino Farm’s stand in Rancho Santa Fe is a must.

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Vamos a Texcoco (vista): lamb barbacoa
Mi Rancho (vista and Escondido): tacos
Pepper tree frosty(vista): ice cream
URBN(vista): new haven style pizza
Mariscos German(San Marcos(truck near Fry’s) and brick and mortar in Escondido): seafood
TJ tacos(Escondido): meat tacos
Phatties(Escondido): not typical taco shop Mexican food
Pizza port(Solana beach, Carlsbad): beer not pizza
The shop: pizza and cocktails (Rancho bernardo): deep dish pizza (owners are transplants from Bay Area’s little star)
Stone brewery in Escondido (beer not food)

Wayfarer and the market at HFS are both solid choices

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Great place to stop on the way home. Or on the way down, if you’re going to be cooking.

Hah!I love the pizza at Pizza Port for what it is. Not everything has to be NY or neo neopolitan. It’s a great surfer family spot and the pizza is throw everything but the kitchen sink style lol but the result is tasty! The beer is great though and they’ve been making it since before Stone came out with Arrogant Bastard. Ps… Don’t forget the ice cream made in house as well!

Love the fish tacos at the brig (brigantine) bar area, not restaurant which is over priced and very mediocre, as well. Plus one of the best views around.

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https://thisiscampfire.com/

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Thank you for all the suggestions!

For mariscos, which do you like the best - Oscar’s, Kiko’s, TJ Oyster bar?

I also noticed there are a lot of banh mi shops and Italian restaurants in San Diego. Are those particular strengths in addition to Mexican? For Italian, is there anything you would recommend that’s authentic like what you would find in Rome/Bologna today for pasta? Someone recommended the Caffe Calabria for pizza - is that the best?

How is Bobboi gelato?

Supercocina seems unique and flavorful. Do they really run out of stuff if we show up around 7?

Chino’s Farm Stand sounds wonderful because we really like Mara des Bois strawberries!

LA is way bigger, way more diverse, had the benefit of Jonathan Gold for 30 years, and (largely thanks to Gold) has hordes of well-informed, discerning diners who force restaurants to work harder to stand out from the crowd. You can eat well in SD, but few if any of the places on Eater’s San Diego 38 would make the cut in LA.

This is likely out of date as regards particular restaurants, but I think the general situation is unchanged, and applies to all cuisines.

We went to bobboi when we were down a few weeks ago and liked it, and it’s right by the La Jolla bluffs with the sea lions etc.

I’d also add El Pescador’s fish sandwich for lunch at some point if you’re in La Jolla.

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El Pescador is a great call.

Was it? In ALL my research on deep dish pizza (and I’ve done a LOT. I grew up spitting distance from Pequod’s and Burt’s Place in Morton Grove, which is not far from Malnatti’s original Lincolnwood Location, and just a quick trip to Gino’s East on Dempster in Skokie) I’ve NEVER heard of anyone using actual cornmeal IN the crust. I know Burt Katz (Gulliver’s, Pequod’s Burt’s Place) never did.

A number of places use cornmeal to dust their peels for thin crust pizzas, and some may use it on the bottom of deep dish pan for sticking prevention and texture. But in most cases, what people take for crunchy cornmeal is usually semolina flour. When deep dish dough has that particular corn-y taste, it’s usually the product of corn oil, which tends to be the primary fat for the dough in a lot of places. Gino’s East, in particular, uses mostly corn oil with just a touch of olive oil in their dough, plus a bit of cream of tartar and yellow food coloring (also why people think it’s cornmeal). They use semolina as a peel duster on their thin pizzas and sometimes on the bottom of the deep dish pans.

As far as I know, none of the ‘traditional’ big four (Malnatti’s, Pequod’s, Gino’s East, Giovanni’s) uses cornmeal in their dough currently.

If you have a more definitive history, I’d love to read it!

Definitely cornmeal in the original Uno’s recipe. I got that from Evelyne Slomon’s The Pizza Book as well as from her personally. When she was researching the book Uno’s was still independent and using the original recipe, which also called for olive oil and two ovens at different temperatures.

https://www.pizzamaking.com/deepdish.php

Unfortunately, have to agree.

But, in some ways like LA, the best places are the hole-in-the-wall mom and pop places not along the coast that Eater and others often overlook.

The Mexican in San Diego is really quite mediocre unless you’re looking for tacos or burritos.

Blue Water Grill and Oscars are very good for fish tacos. Puesto (go to the one in Mission Valley) is generally pretty good for tacos.

The Italian in SD has been steadily improving. Cesarina in Ocean Beach is quite good as is Buon Forchetta (Liberty Station or South Park)

Caffe Calabria actually does quite a nice pizza. They are in a bar and restaurant heavy area with crappy parking.They imported their wood fired pizza oven from Italy and fought the city for a couple years getting proper permits to install it (venting and smoke issues)

Super Cocina is really a breakfast/lunch kinda place. They start running out of stuff midafternoon. The other thing you need to know about Super Cocina is that everything is served from a steam table. That is not necessarily a bad thing because close to 90% of what they’re serving is some form of soupy/stewy guisado-like food that really does benefit from the moist heat. But as the day wears on and the customers thin out, some of the items sit in the steam table a little too long and lose their luster. The servers will give you a taste of almost anything you want before you order. This is about as close as you’re going to get in San Diego for comida casera (homestyle cooking) and it really is home cooking.

Depending upon what part of Mission Bay you’re going to be in, from Pacific Beach down to Mission Beach you’ll find a lot of dive bars, and cheap eats as both of those areas cater to SDSU and UCSD students as well as young locals and sufers. Rocky’s for burgers in PB, also World Famous by Crystal Pier for breakfast. Iron Pig Alehouse in PB is good for both food and beer.

Middletown and Mission Hills are not terribly far from Mission Bay. On India Street Starlight makes great, imaginative cocktails, and their food is pretty good too. Not horribly pricey but given your preferred budget, this may be a drinks and app type of place. The aforementioned Blue Water Grill is also on India. Tacos, sandwiches, salads and plates…extremely fresh fish, moderate pricing, line out the door for days. Next door to Blue Water is El Indio, one of the oldest taco shops in San Diego. They claim to have invented rolled tacos. They didn’t, but theirs are pretty good and 3 or 5 rolled tacos with guac is the ubiquitous San Diego lunch. Across the street from El Indio is the Shakespeare Pub. Having been in ages, but it’s fun, or at least it used to be. And next door to them is Karina mariscos, which are good to very good. Karinas bought Saffron which was a Thai chicken place. I believe they are still selling the chicken there. Rubicon Deli is tucked in there too and their deli sandwiches are excellent. Walk past Karina’s and you will find Vero Gelato on the corner, and it is excellent. Cross Washington Street and you’ll find Lucha Libre taco shop. A little gimmicky but they, too, usually have a line out the door.

Go up Washington Street and there are yet more options. Goldfinch crosses Washington and there are at least 4 restaurants on it that might be of interest. Harley Gray, Lefty’s Pizza, Cardellino and The Huddle which is a popular breakfast/lunch dive beloved by the neighborhood. Farmer’s Table and the Red Door on Washington are probably out of your preferred budget, but Jo’s Diner is not and the food is very good there. Further up Washington in Hillcrest is Bronx Pizza, El Cuervo and La Posta #8. The carne asada burrito at La Posta is really good. I like it because it is not the size of my arm.

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It seems we might skip Italian then if it’s just average unless kids want pizza. We are traveling with twin 3 year olds and a 9 month old so we are probably going to avoid anything too fancy, crowded, or dive bars.

How about Hawaiian? Any good in San Diego? I know the OC does Hawaiian really well, at least compared to LA County.

We are also spoiled in terms of Asian food with the San Gabriel Valley.