My first full trip post-lockdown was a great week in San Diego back in July. Now, San Diego may be my favorite place in the U.S., (or at least in the continental US as my heart definitely lives on Maui), and I have been lucky to have visited the city a number of times in the last few years. It was actually my last full “vacation” before we went into lockdown, as we spent Thanksgiving week there in 2019.
In this post, I want to share my favorite places to eat in and around San Diego, as there is a great food scene in my mind and I am always finding new places with each visit. These are in no particular order, as let’s face it, it all depends on what you are craving on any particular day. Definitely click on the links to get a better feel for the places, and try your best not to drool on your keyboard or screen as you do so. Strap in, this will probably be the longest blog post I have written yet.
Best Places to Go When You Don’t Know What You Want, or When You are Part of a Group Where Everyone Wants Something Different
This is a sentimental favorite of mine, as it was one of the first real food halls that I visited here in the U.S. I now go out of my way to find food halls wherever I may be visiting, but this was one of the first. The best part of the experience is just walking around, inhaling all of the amazing aromas and trying to keep your brain from exploding with all of the choices. Without a doubt my go-to here is Wicked Maine Lobstah, (hey, a picture of their sign hangs above my desk in the food wall of fame) and that was the move this time on the first visit. Right from the airport, as we had to wait for our rental to be ready, what better way to kill an hour or two. Their lobster roll stands up to anything I have had on the East Coast, and that fact that you are eating it while sitting outside in the Southern California sunshine among some palm trees puts it over the top. Aside from that, you can choose from BBQ, Ramen, Pizza, Hawaiian, Hot Chicken, Crepes, Burgers, Thai, basically anything your little stomach desires. I would also definitely recommend Slurp as their wonton soup was out of this world, and my wife went back for their noodle dishes on a couple of occasions. Oh yeah, this is a place you will visit more than once on any trip to San Diego.
A smaller food hall setting, but the ambience is amazing as you are in the middle of historic Little Italy in San Diego, sitting out under an umbrella people watching in the square. While it doesn’t have the breadth of selection that Liberty offers, it has some great food and was a great place to grab lunch. My wife and I shared some Mongolian Beef from Mein St. Asian Kitchen and another lobster roll from a second location for Wicked Maine Lobster. Hard to beat that version of surf & turf in the sunshine with a nice breeze and watching the world go by. Great, now I”m drooling on my keyboard.
Pizza & Burgers
The one place you have to go and experience. Come on, when a place wins best burger on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, you need to check the place out. I have to say that it certainly did not disappoint. If you are looking for funky, than hit the original location in Ocean Beach (which I did twice) or if you really want that special feeling, grab a burger from the Hodad’s inside Petco Park and cheer on the Padres while enjoying a truly spectacular burger. The fries are immense and everything is just on point. It definitely lives up to the hype.
I discovered this “chain” a few years ago on a trip to San Diego and I do my best to hit up a location whenever I am there. This was one of the first burger places I can remember visiting that played up the use of grass-fed beef, and was definitely the first place I imbibed a bottle of Coke from Mexico, which was life changing in it’s own way. This burger brought back memories of the taste of burgers from my childhood, as I’m a sucker for a great flat top burger. If burgers aren’t your thing, the salads are amazing, and whatever you do get the onion rings as they are the best. Favorite location may be out on Coronado Island, as it provides the perfect excuse to jump on the ferry and explore Coronado.
This was a new discovery this trip, as this was the first time I had spent any time out in Ocean Beach. It’s always a good start, when the business concept is to combine a brewery with some truly great pizza. Step to the counter to order your pizza and then head over to the bar to pick up your beverage while you wait. A great throwback place, and who else has a “Grog & Tap” Cam on their website for your voyeuristic pleasure. I went with the meat lovers pizza, and it delivered on the protein – I almost had to go vegetarian the next day to even out. You won’t be disappointed.
Places That I Would Build My Vacation Around (not hyperbole)
I am fortunate enough to live in the South so I have access to some pretty great fried chicken on a regular basis. Plus I have had trips to Nashville, where each day sampled a different place for Nashville Hot Chicken. (Hattie B’s is still at the top of my list). So when you come across a fried chicken place in Southern California you may not be expecting much. The Crack Shack deserves to display it’s overly large chicken statue in the middle of their patio in LIttle Italy. This is some of the best fried chicken I have ever had and will be on the lookout for their other locations in Denver and Las Vegas. With a great sauce bar to complement the chicken you just can’t wait to dive in. Just make sure you accompany your chicken with the Schmaltz Fries, and perhaps a 5 mile jog. The only disappointment was for my wife on this trip, as they have trimmed their menu a little bit due to Covid and they weren’t offering their Matzah Ball Pozole, the perfect mash up of Jewish and Mexican comfort foods. Dang, I’m drooling again.
Located on the Embarcadero in San Diego, this is a fantastic spot to stop in the middle of the afternoon for a cold drink and some great snacks. It all starts with the great pig-shaped sign, and then the ability to sit among some strategically placed palm trees with a great view of the water seals the deal. The food is just the icing on the cake. My go to has become a couple of cold drinks while sharing chips & salsa, tater tots (dunk them in the salsa), and some chicharrones. Makes for a great afternoon. Yet another place on the Food Wall of Fame above my desk.
This great seafood place, located across the street from the convention center has been a go to spot since my very first trip to San Diego for a trade show way too many years ago. Again, a great outdoor seating area, and how can you beat the ability to choose your type of fish or seafood (so fresh) and then have it fried, grilled, blackened, almost any way you want it with a side of waffle fries. There was a period where I was in San Diego every second year for that trade show, and I would average eating at Tin Fish about three times in the four days I was in San Diego. It was a great escape from the convention center, and I am always a sucker for well prepared fresh seafood.
Best Ways to Start the Day
Most days I prefer to start the day with something “light”for breakfast, usually involving fruit as I find a big meal first thing in the morning can leave me a little slow for the rest of the morning. Walking from the rental property to the beach most mornings I came across Tiki Port in Ocean Beach, which offers a great mixture of smoothies and acai bowls. Now, I have developed a fairly severe acai bowl addiction after a couple of trips to Maui, so I generally feel compelled to try out any place that has them on the menu. Usually, they are pretty good, but few hold up compared to those that I have had on Maui. The bowls at Tiki Port however, are right up there with some of the best I have had. My personal favorite was the drifter with granola, strawberries, banana and chocolate chips, with added coconut flakes and honey. (I also took to substituting pineapple for the banana as I like that combo a little better). Over the course of the week, I had three to four of these, as it quickly became part of the morning routine. I did make the mistake of ordering the large on the first visit, and basically the bowl was the size of a hubcap from a compact car. Still delicious, but a whole lot of eating for breakfast.
Another great spot in Ocean Beach and within easy walking distance of the beach. This is an amazing Cuban bakery that offers great treats like Donut Muffins and Senor Peanut, but where it’s possible to miss what may be the greatest breakfast of all times. If you were to ask my wife, she would say it’s the Espana half sandwich – Spanish style potato and onion omelet on cuban toast, but she is very, very wrong. The greatest breakfast is the simple offering of Cuban toast with chocolate hazelnut spread. I cannot describe how good this sandwich is – the bread stays hot forever, and is that perfect mixture of crusty and chewy with an amazing flavor, and when you add a generous smear of the hazelnut spread it’s like eating heaven itself. I went there enough times that they not only recognized me but started preparing the order before I got to the counter. That might not be a good thing in only a week, but the toast is that good.
With locations spread out around Southern California this is a fantastic breakfast place, for when you do want that bigger breakfast. We availed ourselves of the Ocean Beach location, which boasts a couple of floors and some truly funky ambiance. If breakfast is your thing then this is your place. The avocado toast looked amazing, and I don’t even really like avocado toast. You can go for an immense breakfast burrito, tasty scrambles or so many great variations on pancakes and french toast. I went for a scramble with Portuguese sausage and it was delicious. The house potatoes were heavenly, and this may seem a weird thing to focus on, but the house made jam they brought to the table with the toast was so good, that it’s flavor may be the thing I remember most.
Forget the Diet, I Need Something Sweet
See the description in the section above. If you are a peanut butter fan get the Senor Peanut. That’s all I have to say about that.
I am an admitted latecomer to the phenomenon that is the paleta, but I am doing my best to make up for lost time. Located in Little Italy, Holy Paleta is the mecca of the paleta (wow, say that five times fast) and yet another place that was visited multiple times during that vacation week. First visit was on a very hot afternoon and I went for a very refreshing raspberry lemonade with some dark chocolate swirl added to push it over the top. It helped cool me down, refreshed my thirst and tackled my sweet tooth – a perfect outcome. The second trip I went for the peanut butter cup and had it dipped in the dark chocolate. One of the best desserts ever, as just as you get close to finishing the paleta, you encounter a full peanut butter cup embedded in the popsicle. Thank you sir, may I have some more.
The unique combination of a chocolate, candy and dog bakery shop in Ocean Beach. A great selection of sweets and some great chocolate creations. Who can say no to dark chocolate coconut clusters, and they elevated the chocolate covered nutter butters, by adding a very decorative seahorse to the top of them. Made me feel just so classy as I inhaled them the next day. I don’t know how the dog treats taste, but they looked pretty good and they were very imaginative. Definitely a great stop when you have a sweet tooth to satisfy.
You had me at donut. So many delicious offerings, plus a cool little “donut lounge” upstairs if you want to sit and enjoy your treat there. Plus, they offer the Homer Simpson, pink sprinkled donut. If you are a donut person this place is a must visit. Grab a t-shirt while you are there, just to rub it in to your friends when you get back home.
Great Places Without a Specific Category
Hard to beat a place located directly across from the beach. Grab a seat outside and enjoy people watching or catch a sunset. The menu has a wide range of offerings, and everything we had was really good. I had the Nashville Hot Chicken Biscuit and it was absolutely great. Come for the view, but definitely enjoy the food.
If rice and noodles are your go to then this is the place for you. The Saigon fried rice was delicious as were the bun vermicelli noodles. Make sure you try the spicy garlic wings though, as they are out of this world. Great ambience and amazing food. Yet another good reason to spend some time in Ocean Beach.
So, that is my list of favorite places to eat in San Diego. I can’t wait to make another trip and hit up some favorites again and look for some more places to add to the list.
Next week I will post about my favorite things to do in San Diego, as there are some great options for ways to spend time in and around the city. It will probably be a shorter list than the places to eat, as you have to have your priorities.
The Free Range Viking