Local Wally's Top San Diego Restaurants
Good Eats! The San Diego Dining Cheat Sheet
You've just showed up in town, you're hungry, but you don't know where to eat. You can pull out the glossy dining guide at the hotel but come on, they pay for those endorsements. So you grab a tour book and dammit if they don't list every single restaurant in town. Yelp!? Good luck with that!
And it doesn’t make it any easier that San Diego has a ton of good food options, from fish tacos to Mexican food, dim sum to fine dining. So trust the locals - Local Wally to be exact. I’ll show you where the locals eat, where we go when our out of town visitors arrive, the tourist spots that are worth it and the local hidden gems that you’ll find us at on weekends. I love eating when I’m on vacation and hate wasting a meal on bad food. That won’t happen if you follow my San Diego Best Restaurant Cheat Sheet. Every bite here is Local Wally approved! (Updated 2019)
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Who Makes San Diego's BEST Fish Tacos?
Where to Find the Best Fish Tacos in San Diego
San Diego didn't invent the fish taco but we put it on the map and there is no way you are going to visit San Diego without falling in love with our best known contribution to the culinary world.
First place: THE BRIGANTINE BAR
For the classic fried fish taco head to The Brig and go straight to the bar. $4 gets you a plump, piping hot piece of cod that's so big you barely can wrap the tortilla around it. Avoid the grilled fish here and stick with the deep fryer - trust me. The fish is plump and the batter as crispy as a potato chip. Tuesday nights are taco nights with big discounts and equally big crowds. Various locations but the Del Mar location is tops and worth the drive - plus you can walk across the street to the beach afterwards. LOCATION: Various. DRESS: Casual, beachwear OK PRICE: Cheap Eats.
Runner up: SOUTH BEACH BAR & GRILLE
For fresh grilled tacos you won't beat South Beach Bar and Grille in Ocean Beach. Their fish tacos are filled with fresh wahoo, mahi albacore, even shark or lobster, all around $4 to $5. It's a dive joint in a beachy sort of way, bouncer in front (just in case fish taco fans get out of hand), and ocean views. Many believe these are the best in town, but you be the judge. Classic fried also available, but not nearly as good as the Brigantine. LOCATION: Ocean Beach DRESS: Dive Bar PRICE: Cheap Eats.
WORTHY CONTENDER: PACIFIC BEACH & ENCINITAS FISH SHOP
I was skeptical at first as the PB Fish Shop (and second location in Encinitas - map) almost looked too healthy to be a good fish taco but the long lines out the door convinced me to give them a try and I'm glad I did. The menu changes depending on what fish was caught but when there's sea bass I'm all over it. You pick the fish, pick the seasonings, and pick the style and then wait while your stomach growls until a most delicious fish taco shows up. They sadly got rid of their most awesome fresh cut fries and replaced them with factory frozen fries and no matter how much I bug them they resist going back. Get the onion rings instead. LOCATION: Pacific Beach, Encinitas. DRESS: Sandy shorts OK PRICE: Moderate
MORE FISH TACOS!
RUBIOS COASTAL GRILL
Of course I could not forget Rubio's, the Godfather of the Fish Taco. It was Ralph Rubio who while visiting Ensenada ate his first fish taco and from that came a vision of fish tacos everywhere. And while today everyone seems to have a fish taco on their menu it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of fish - in a taco - would elicit “ewwwwws” and “no way, dude”. Today they have branched out beyond their fried fish tacos and if truth be known (tell me now) their original Baja fried taco ain’t the best, but their other fresh fish options are quite good. You come to San Diego, you have to eat at Rubio’s at least once to taste the original deal.
Various locations, my favorite is the original Mission Bay (map) location which still feels like a taco shop. LOCATION: Various. DRESS: Fast food fashion PRICE: Cheap Eats
BLUE WATER SEAFOOD MARKET AND GRILL
Fresh fish is what Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill is all about. Located on India Street near another San Diego favorite, El Indio Mexican Restaurant, this tiny eatery garners a lot of praise from locals and visitors alike. You pick from their list of fresh fish, you tell them what sort of marinade or spices you want on it, and you say TACO. You can also say sandwich or plate or (gasp) salad, but say TACO because at roughly $5 per taco this is the deal. Lots of other seafood choices as well. BTW, if you are in Carlsbad there’s a restaurant called Blue Water Grill which has nothing to do with this place and just goes to show that picking a unique name, you know, like Local Wally, is probably the way to go. LOCATION: Near airport DRESS: Ultra casual PRICE: Moderate
OSCARS MEXICAN SEAFOOD
The original Oscars Mexican Seafood is the one I go to. It’s one step away from being a dive bar sort of restaurant in Mexico. It feels authentic, it’s funky, it’s slightly not as clean as you would like (which is bonus points when talking authentic Mexican taco shop), and the tacos are awesomely great. The basic fish taco is under $2.50 and for five bucks you can get smoked fish, shrimp and scallops - all in the same taco. That mash up is the bomb, I love it. Hot sauce in squirt bottles, marginal service, this is where you come after you are done with the beach and han-gry for local food. Forget the cleaned up spin off locations in Hillcrest, East Village (downtown) and the now closed Encinitas location, go to the original Turquise St location if you care about an authentic ambiance to go with your local beer and fish tacos. LOCATION: Various but North Pacific Beach is best. DRESS: Swimsuit Optional PRICE: Cheap Eats
I am proud of you if you seek out El Zarape. It’s everything a San Diego taco shop should be. It’s neighborhood focused, the service is can be uneven, it’s tiny with only a handful of tables, and it’s cheap. How cheap? How about $.99 fish taco cheap? The lobster tacos at $3.99 can be a bit chinzy so splurge on the burrito for $6.50 and die happy. This is the place to go if you are in the mid-city area east of Balboa Park and it’s not quite midnight and you really, really want tacos. Locals only sort of joint, you go there as a visitor and you are legit. LOCATION: Funky Normal Heights, sort of close to Balboa Park DRESS: Flip Flops and shorts PRICE: Cheap Eats
TUNA DOCKSIDE MARKET
Tuna Dockside Market is a hidden gem - a pop up fish market on the pier between Seaport Village and the USS Midway, more or less, is a fishing pier where the local fishermen bring in their catch every Saturday morning from 8AM to 1PM. Everything here is fresh, there’s no fake prop fish or fresh frozen fish here. If you are on vacation it’s fun to see what the local waters have provided (and if you’re a local you would be wise to bring a cooler) and there’s always a stand there serving up ultra fresh fish tacos, typically two for $13. This is 100% local territory so it should be at the top of your list if you want to really experience San Diego like the locals do. LOCATION: Downtown near Seaport Village DRESS: Who cares? PRICE: Cheap Eats
What San Diego Restaurants Have BEST Ocean or Bay View?
San Diego's Best Ocean View Restaurants
San Diego has plenty of Ocean View dining options but you need to be careful or you might find yourself in a tourist trap where the view is the only good thing on the menu. Here are the best, from top notch dining to taco casual.
FIRST PLACE: GEORGE'S AT THE COVE - OCEAN TERRACE
When people ask me for one restaurant to dine at I always recommend George's Ocean Terrace. Not to be confused with their much more expensive downstairs restaurant, the Ocean Terrace is a more casual eatery on the rooftop overlooking one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world. The food isn't the star here but comes close, simple and well executed. Tip: It can get really hot on the roof during summer so opt for a table in the shade and bring sunglasses. LOCATION: La Jolla. DRESS: Don’t be a slob but don’t over dress either PRICE: Moderately Expensive
RUNNER UP: THE MARINE ROOM
What's not to love about a restaurant that is so close to the ocean that the waves sometimes splash on the windows? Located in La Jolla, The Marine Room is the ultimate special occasion restaurant, meaning top notch food at top notch prices. Opened in 1941, The Marine Room has consistently been one of San Diego's favorite restaurants, pleasing locals, celebrities and visitors alike. It's expensive but the bar makes a great sunset stop for those on a tighter budget. Pay special attention when they do their High Tide dinners and brunches during the time of year when the waves knock the windows at full force. LOCATION: La Jolla. DRESS: Skip the Kirkland and get dressed up PRICE: Expensive
MORE OCEAN VIEW DINING!
POSEIDON DEL MAR
Literally right on the beach, the Poseidon Del Mar serves classic American standards with a ridiculously great view. How good is the view? Well, you step over the little cement wall on the patio and you are on the beach. I mean, literally on the beach so that view doesn’t get much better unless you grab a towel and sit in front of the wall. It's a great breakfast or lunch spot, casual enough for shorts and flip flops, with plenty of locals enjoying the scene. At night it gets a bit more romantic - plan to be here to watch the sunset and experience the simple joy of watching the sun sink into the ocean as you sip your glass of wine. Pure vacation bliss! LOCATION: Del Mar. DRESS: You can come casual - it’s on the beach - but can also dress it up if you want PRICE: Moderately expensive
DUKE’S LA JOLLA
Let me first say that I love Duke’s. And Jake’s. And Kimo’s. And Hula Grill. But while the food is actually quite good it’s still a bit of a chain restaurant in my book. But if you are on vacation and want a bit of that Hawaiian tropical vibe, if you really like the song Kokomo, if you have poke on the mind, and if you want a full on ocean view and don’t care that the restaurant looks a bit like they ran out of money when decorating and ran out to Ikea to finish it up, you can do do a lot worse on a warm summer night out on the patio with Hawaiian music drifting in the breeze. LOCATION: La Jolla. DRESS: Dress like a tourist going out to dinner in Hawaii PRICE: Moderately Expensive
At first Bali Hai might seem a bit kitschy, a tiki bar theme with Hawaiian overtones near the airport in one of the most touristy areas of town, Shelter Island. But the full on view of San Diego Bay (not ocean but still beautiful blue water) from the bar and restaurant is stunningly perfect and the mai tai’s, oh damn those mai tai’s! These are the strongest mai tai’s known to man, said to be the “original” recipe before someone figured out that a drink made of 99% alcohol is much more expensive to make than a drink filled with tropical juices. Oh sure, it tastes like a mai tai but there’s a reason why they limit you to two… or is it three? It won’t matter because no one gets past two without falling flat on their face and missing the gorgeous view. Often with live and legit Hawaiian music at Happy Hour, get a Mr. Bali Hai tiki mug for your next garage sale (but check out the incredible high prices they get on Ebay first). LOCATION: Shelter Island, near the airport. DRESS: Casual, though a Hawaiian shirt won’t kill you PRICE: Cheap Eats during happy hour, moderate for dinner
San Diego's Freshest Seafood Restaurants
San Diego's Best Seafood Restaurants
Of course you want seafood when you come to San Diego. Many of our best restaurants use local catch and those that don’t source from the best places, and that doesn’t mean the freezer.
FIRST PLACE: THE FISH MARKET
Yes, it's a chain but the location on the San Diego Bay next to Seaport Village and next to the giant Midway Aircraft Carrier is so classic San Diego that even the locals go here - well, not during tourist season, we’re not crazy! Fresh fresh fish simply prepared, stick with the basics and avoid the fried and you will be happy. Watch the sailboats and feel the cool breeze from the patio, one of the best spots to kick back with a seafood snack and a cocktail. OK, yes, the chef here isn’t going to win any Michelin stars but sometimes expertly and simply prepared seafood is the best. Go upstairs to The Top of the Market for fancier (and pricier) presentation. LOCATION: Seaport Village area. DRESS: Tourist wear PRICE: Moderately expensive to expensive upstairs
runner up: POINT LOMA SEAFOODS
Ultra casual and super popular with locals, Point Loma Seafoods is the type of place where you stand in line to order and then you'd better know what you want because there are a billion people behind you wishing you would hurry up so they can get their order in and start eating. The standouts here are the sandwiches and the crab sandwich doesn't get much simpler, or much better, basically crab on sourdough bread and oh so delicious. Dine on a picnic table or take it "to go" and walk 50 steps to the marina and you might have found your favorite seafood dining experience. LOCATION: Pt. Loma, Shelter Island area near airport DRESS: Ultra casual PRICE: Moderately cheap
RUNNER UP, HIP CATEGORY: IRONSIDE FISH AND OYSTERBAR
Located in Little Italy, Ironside Fish and Oysterbar doesn’t serve Italian food but rather some of San Diego’s best seafood. The entire front of the restaurant is open to the street and the seafood, from the oysters to the whole roasted fish, is fresh and delicious. It's also got a very cool vibe going on, young and trendy in a mid-century sort of way. Killer lobster rolls and an order of Chowder Fries for the table is the way to go. Tiny little tables, you’ll be sitting closer to the person next to you than your date but it’s all part of the experience. LOCATION: Little Italy. DRESS: Casual PRICE: Moderate to expensive
MORE FRESH SAN DIEGO SEAFOOD
LIONFISH MODERN COASTAL CUISINE
This place is fancy, young, trendy with the plates nearly as beautiful as the people. Lionfish Modern Coastal Cuisine is located in the Gaslamp area inside an ultra cool upscale hotel. Lionfish does everything from sashimi to small plates to share to full on instagram worthy entrees. Awesome happy hour with dollar oysters and drink specials, but if you stay for dinner it’s best not to fight for the check if someone else wants to get it (“Sure fine, I’ll get next time!”). If you’re here for a convention and roaming downtown looking for really great seafood then this is it. LOCATION: Gaslamp. DRESS: To Kill PRICE: Expensive
I like fancy joints, sure, but seafood shouldn’t always have to be stupid expensive to be good. And don’t worry, Beerfish isn’t some frozen delight sort of place, the seafood here is legit and fresh and ultra tasty. Seating is casual, very casual. Order at the counter, grab a beer, find a picnic table seat on the patio, wait, drool, wait, then when that lobster roll shows up or those chowder fries topped with clam chowder and bacon, well this is living, baby. Local craft beer, Mexican corn with cheese smothered all around, kimchi side, this is eclectic for sure but all of it is tasty tasty tasty. LOCATION: North Park, which is North of Balboa Park, of course. DRESS: Ultra casual PRICE: Pretty cheap for seafood
This is the place that’s off the charts, not found in tour books, loved by locals. Mitch’s Seafood is a hole in the wall near the airport going towards Shelter Island serving seafood caught in the waters of San Diego. On a perfect day you’ll want to grab your food and go outside on the dock to get the full San Diego experience. They have everything from the best clam chowder to fish tacos made with whatever they caught that day to fried seafood baskets - and everything else you would expect other than frozen fish. LOCATION: Near the airport on the bay. DRESS: Ultra casual PRICE: Moderately cheap
Two locations but the La Jolla one has the view - I mean THE VIEW!! If you want a fancy ocean view dining experience with killer fresh seafood and steaks then head over to Eddie V’s. OK, yeah, it’s a chain sort of like how Ruth’s Chris’ is a chain but this location is pure San Diego and the seafood is hard to beat. This is big bucks expensive but the food is so good you won’t even notice. LOCATION: La Jolla DRESS: Fancy Pants PRICE: Expensive
Holy Guacamole! San Diego's Best Mexican Food
San Diego's Best "Authentic" Mexican Food
Forget those chain Mexican restaurants like El Torito, Chevy's, or (gasp) Taco Bell. San Diego has great Mexican food if you know where to look for it. You would think that being so close to Mexico that all of our Mexican food would be great but something happens once you cross the border. But locals know where to find the good stuff, from authentic Mexican to our own Southern California style.
FIRST PLACE: LAS QUATRO MILPAS
Let's start with a San Diego favorite, Las Quatro Milpas. If mariachi bands and colorful umbrellas is what you are looking for you've come to the wrong place because this dive joint is all about the food. People line up early at this breakfast and lunch only restaurant. The menu looks confusing but is surprisingly simple - rice and beans (yes), fresh tortillas (yes), and your entree of either rolled tacos, regular tacos, tamales, or burritos (yes, yes, yes). It's a bit like Soup Nazi when you get to the front so be ready to order and have cash! A true "locals only" favorite, the sketchy neighborhood and rundown appearance might scare you at first but get in line and you'll be glad you did. LOCATION: Scary sketchy neighborhood south of downtown. DRESS: Definitely dress down PRICE: So cheap you won’t believe it
RUNNER UP: EL INDIO TACO SHOP
A bit less intimidating is El Indio Taco Shop, a "stand in line and order" place that's been a San Diego institution since 1940. Every local remembers coming here with Mom and Dad as a kid and sitting on the "patio" that's strangely in the middle of an intersection. These guys claim to have invented the taquito, also known as the rolled taco, and their tamale topped with chili beans is classic Mex-Diego. Located near the airport, it's often the first stop locals make after coming home from a long trip. LOCATION: India Street near the airport, north of the freeway DRESS: Come as you are PRICE: Cheap Cheap Cheap
TOP PICK RESTAURANT CATEGORY: OLD TOWN MEXICAN CAFE
Wait, you want a real sit down restaurant, not a taco shop? Locals, don’t shoot me! I know that Old Town Mexican Cafe is touristy, and I know there's a long wait but I'm a sucker for the fresh tortillas that they make in the front window and the tender chunks of pork carnitas. It's a tourist restaurant for sure but one that locals don't mind being seen at, unlike many of the pure tourist trap restaurants in Old Town. Upgrade that margarita (on the rocks, never frozen, with salt on the rim) and ask for their hotter salsa (it’s hot!) and look, here come the mariachi's! Seriously, get the carnitas and leave happy and full. LOCATION: Old Town DRESS: Not dressy PRICE: Moderately cheap
MORE OF SAN DIEGO’S BEST MEXICAN FOOD
ROBERTO'S TACO SHOP
Some of San Diego’s Mexican food is found at taco shops, unassuming storefronts in strip malls or in now defunct fast food locations painted up to thinly disguise its past life. And while taco shops have been cleaning up their act and getting as fancy as a Carl’s Jr (which is plenty fancy for a taco shop) don’t avoid stopping at any number of questionable eateries when visiting San Diego. Roberto’s Taco Shop was the first - or one of the first, who knows for sure? They opened a ton of them in the 80’s and then just as quickly these Roberto’s mutated into separate taco shops with names oddly similar - Rolberto’s. Jilliberto’s. Aliberto’s. Wallybertos??? And while the best is still an original Roberto’s Taco Shop (not to be confused with their more cleaned up step brother Roberto’s Mexican Food) you really can’t go too wrong with ANY taco shop picked at random in San Diego. Not sure what to order? Just get a California Burrito, a giant flour tortilla stuffed with carne asada (aka steak) and french fries, sour cream or guacamole, and plenty of salsa on the side. It’s authentic San Diego Mexican food. LOCATION: Everywhere you turn DRESS: Makes no difference PRICE: Cheaper than McDonalds
SAN DIEGO OLD TOWN
San Diego locals, look away. I say that because no San Diego local ever goes to Old Town for Mexican food unless 1) they have out of town visitors, or 2) they are also new to town. That’s because Old Town San Diego’s Mexican food on the whole is one step away from El Torito that is miles away from the real thing you can get just across the border in Tijuana. But let’s face it - there is something to be said about going out to dinner without fear of being stopped by the drug cartel so if you want the Mexico vibe without crossing the border then this is it.
So where to go? I already told you about Old Town Mexican Cafe, a good introduction to homemade tortillas and carnitas, succulent pork slow cooked to perfection. Other good ones in Old Town are Cafe Coyote (excellent patio if you can get on the street side), El Agave (a bit upscale with lots and lots of tequila choices - you can even get a flight), and inside the festive Bazaar Del Mundo (the main area with the shops and mariachi bands) you’ll find Barra Barra Saloon and Casa Guadalajara, two very festive and colorful eateries that will give you exactly what you are looking for - if you can only choose one go with Casa Guadalajara. This is vacation dining, make no mistake about it., but fun and worthwhile even if the food is watered down for the masses. Pro Tip: Upgrade that margarita as Old Town is famous for giant, icy, frozen margaritas that lack any sort of punch. Rocks, salt, lime, make it a Perfect. LOCATION: Old Town San Diego DRESS: Casual PRICE: Inexpensive
FIDEL'S LITTLE MEXICO
You might not want to drive to San Diego's North County just for Mexican food but maybe you should. Fidel's Little Mexico is in Solana Beach, just north of Del Mar, in what was once a mainly Hispanic neighborhood. You have to love a restaurant that started in 1960 as a barber shop, using tacos as bait to get more customers. The restaurant expanded into more rooms and even hallways to ultimately encompass three levels - on a nice day ask to sit on the patio. There are two patios, the small side one (not that great) and the one near the front with booths (very great). Terrific margaritas and the chile relleno (a chili stuffed with cheese with a fluffy deep fried exterior) is possibly the best you will ever have. Watch out for terrible traffic on the weekdays - plan ahead and come early or wait until the weekend when the commuters are gone. LOCATION: North San Diego in Solana Beach DRESS: Casual PRICE: Cheap eats, though the margaritas can add up!
Tony’s is one is my favorite. It’s authentic, albeit in a San Diego way, owned by the same family forever and serving the classics. Their carne asada street tacos are the way to go, served with rice, beans, cabbage salad, and endless chips, like all of their plates it’s pretty hard to spend more than $15. Excellent house margaritas require no upgrade. Pro Tip: At the end of your meal they do not bring a check. Rather you go to the counter and somehow they know exactly what table you sat at and you pay there. LOCATION: North San Diego in Solana Beach DRESS: Casual PRICE: Like Fidels, cheap food but margaritas can double your tab.
Puesto at the Headquarters
I was set out not to like Puesto. They are part of the upscale taco trend that goes for unusual ingredients and oh-so-pretty plating while upping the bill to gourmet prices. And Puesto isn’t really a Mexican restaurant, per se. There are no tamales, no enchiladas, none of the standard fare. No, they just have tacos, and tiny street tacos at that. So why do they make the list? Because while I balk at paying $5 for a street (aka mini) taco that’s more or less two bites I do have to admit that they do it well here. The location near Seaport Village is right in the tourist zone and you could do a lot worse at the restaurant options in the area. Excellent margaritas, if you can only go to one Mexican restaurant don;t come here. Think of Puesto as more of a specialty place, the place to try unique and beautiful tacos in a perfectly trendy setting. LOCATION: Near Seaport Village DRESS: Casual Nice PRICE: Expensive for tacos, but Moderate for others
San Diego’s Best Italian Restaurants
Mama Mia! San Diego’s Best Italian Food
San Diego is blessed with a vibrant Little Italy, a vibrant neighborhood that still retains a lot of the old school charm. You’ll still find plastic red checked tablecloths to repel any spilled sauce from a giant plate of Spaghetti and Meatballs. But you’ll also find more authentic and artisan Italian restaurants who have stepped up the game. And Little Italy doesn’t have the lock on Italian food - you’ll find great pasta and pizza all over the town. Here are my top picks.
FIRST PLACE: Bouna Forchetta
Casual, unassuming but oh so authentic. I was recently in Italy intent on eating my way through Rome, Florence, and Venice. Along the way I found incredible food unlike anything I have ever tasted in San Diego. That is, until I discovered Bouna Forchetta. With long lines at two locations, one in South Park near Balboa Park and the other in Encinitas, it would be an understatement to say that San Diego has fallen in love with this place. Pizzas are authentic Nopolantana style, meaning if you want Pizza Hut you might be disappointed. Awesome pastas, home baked bread, everything here is incredible. If you love Italian food this has to be on your list. Long lines, no reservations for groups under 6, but well worth the wait. LOCATION: South Park and Encinitas DRESS: Casual Nice PRICE: Cheap to moderate
RUNNER UP: CIVICO 1845
Don’t you hate it when you go to a really great restaurant and the person you are with drops the G bomb - Gluten Free. What??? Are you kidding me? Oh yeah, and not only that but Vegan. It’s enough to make you want to cry but if you are at Civico 1845you don’t have to worry because they have both gluten free and vegan foods here. They call themselves a modern twist on Italian classics and it’s a classy setting, a bit cool and urban but still warm and inviting. Great food for anti-vegans and gluten-tolerant folks as well will keep everyone happy. LOCATION: Little Italy DRESS: Casual Nice PRICE: Moderate
WORTHY CONTENDER: Bencotto
Bencotto is all about pasta. You decide on a sauce, you decide on a pasta style, and you’ll soon be in pasta heaven. Start with some small plates to share like the thinly slice prosciutto or fried risotto balls, and don’t worry about trying to influence your date to get something you want to try because trust me, whatever they order you will want to try it. Industrial setting is a bit cold but don’t let that turn you off. If you like authentic and well crafted Italian food then Bencotto is your place. LOCATION: Little Italy DRESS: Casual PRICE: Moderate
Old School Italian American: Filippi’s Pizza Grotto
First, let’s put this out there. Filippi’s has one thing that the others do not and that’s a freaking parking lot! That should bring a huge smile to your face knowing you can just pull in and park versus circling the blocks like a vulture hoping someone might leave. Second, they check every box for what you think an old school Italian restaurant should be. Red plastic tablecloths? Check. Bottles hanging from the ceiling? Check. Spaghetti and meatballs? Check. Big fat pizza with tons and tons of stringy, gooey mozzarella cheese? Check. The chain Buca di Beppo must have been here and copied them because it’s all here, but in a non-ironic way. And that’s good because it’s also dirt cheap and darn tasty. Their anti-pasta salad is amazing, their pepperoni pizza will remind you what a pizza is supposed to be like. And sure, it might not be totally authentic - or is it? Walk past the dried fish and the Italian market to the back to find this long time local favorite. LOCATION: Little Italy DRESS: Really casual is fine PRICE: Cheap
Best Asian Food in San Diego
San Diego’s Best Asian Food
“Asian food” covers a lot of ground. There’s Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean. You can have dim sum, sushi, pho and Koren BBQ - so many options, all different. So perhaps it’s a bit insane to try to create a cheat sheet of the top Asian eats. Let’s just say that these are my top picks when I want Asian food and if you go to any of these you will not be disappointed.
San Diego doesn’t have a “Chinatown” but Convoy Street area certainly has the largest concentration of authentic Asian eateries.
best dim sum: jasmine seafood restaurant
Don’t be swayed by the <5 star reviews on Yelp! Remember, most people on Yelp! are looking for the hot and trendy places. Jasmine is not hot. Not trendy. But if you want push carts and dim sum there is no better in San Diego. Wait, I mean, no other in San Diego. Get there early as parking is insane, try to get a table as close to the kitchen as possible, and come hungry. Authentic Cantonese food as well, terrible service, dated interior, not hip, not trendy. But great dim sum. LOCATION: Convoy area DRESS: Casual PRICE: Cheap to Moderate
best soup dumplings: Din Tai Fung
OK, so the best place to get Chinese dumplings is in a mall? Wait, wait, this is no ordinary mall. While other malls across the country (and in San Diego) are dying University Town Center, or UTC, is expanding and upscaling into a worthy destination. This mall is huge, it’s fancy, and it’s here you will find the famous Din Ta Fung. It’s hip and modern and the thing to get here are the soup dumplings, the Xiao Long Bau - pronounced Zie Long Bow. These are the little bite sized dumplings filled with scorching hot soup. One strategy is to bite a small hole in it first to let the steam escape - recommended unless you want to be fanning your tongue and saying “hot, hot hot!”. Plenty of other instagram worthy dishes, get some dumplings and then check out the mall. LOCATION: Technically La Jolla but more inland off the 805 freeway DRESS: Casual PRICE: Moderate
RUNNER UP: DUMPLING INN and SHANGHAI SALOON
It’s tucked away in a strip mall but inside it’s surprisingly hip. Dumpling Inn was the soup dumpling king until Din Tai Fung came to town and some still think it’s better. They’re solid and the menu is broader than Din Tai Fung, offering other more traditional Chinese dishes as well. The Shanghai Saloon section of the restaurant has a great happy hour with plenty of discounted food options for dining on a budget.
BEST SUSHI: SUSHI OTA
Located next to a 7/11, it’s easy to be scared off thinking this is going to be like every other average sushi joint in a strip mall. But Sushi Ota continues to be a local favorite, a chef driven restaurant with ultra fresh seafood. Inside is also not fancy, but the quality of the sushi and the sushi chefs is all that matters. Order Omakase and let the chef decide that’s best and just sit back and enjoy what might be the best sushi in San Diego. Terrible parking, plan ahead and make reservations. LOCATION: South Pacific Beach DRESS: Casual PRICE: Moderate to expensive
runner up BEST SUSHI: Hidden Fish Sushi
This is not your typical sushi spot. Hidden Fish Sushi serves Omakase-only style which basically means you sit down and let the chef bring you out food. This tiny eatery has but 13 seats. Eight of these are for the $50, 12 piece tasting menu that takes 50 minutes. The other five seats are for the $90, 90 minute experience with 18 pieces. At the end you have a few minutes to order anything else but figure once you are done you are done as there are people behind you waiting. A great sushi experience, excellent sushi and experienced chefs, this is elevated sushi in a location you might least expect, tucked away behind another business in a fairly nondescript strip mall. But seek it out if you love sushi. LOCATION: Convoy Area DRESS: Casual PRICE: Expensive, though perhaps not for top notch sushi
Best Korean Fried Chicken: Cross Street Chicken and Beer
Korean Fried Chicken, in case you have never had it, is unlike any fried chicken you have ever had. The exterior is crispy, crunchy, but not in a Kentucky way. It’s somehow fresher, lighter, crispier, and vastly superior to the traditional US version. OK, call off the Trump brigade, I’m not slamming the US. I’m just in love with KFC and Cross Street Chicken and Beer is everything I want in a fried chicken restaurant. First, the chicken. Wings. Drumsticks. Boneless. Did I say how crispy they are? Add seasonings or spices. Hot Thai Chili can blow your head off if you like it that way (get a new head), or go with equally tasty spices like Salt and Pepper or Soy Garlic. It won’t matter, it’s all incredible. The hip setting and craft beers on tap make the vibe modern and vibrant while keeping it casual. LOCATION: Convoy Area DRESS: Casual PRICE: Cheap
Best Ramen: Ajisen Ramen San Diego
I absolutely know I am in dangerous territory claiming I know who has the best ramen in San Diego and truth be known, I have not visited every single ramen shop in town. But I have been to many of the Yelp! favorites and every time I wish I would have just saved the money and went to Ajisen. This is a chain from Japan and offers a solid bowl of noodles and exceptional broths for around ten bucks. Some of their sides are average but you knew that. Stick with the ramen (or the beef bowl that takes Yoshinoya to legit levels) and you can’t go wrong. LOCATION: Convoy Area DRESS: Casual PRICE: Cheap
RUNNER UP BEST RAMEN: MENYA ULTRA RAMEN MIRA MESA
Freshly made in-house noodles. Isn’t that enough? It’s all about Mr. Endo, aka The Ramen Master. Starting in Japan, Menya Ultra starting winning best ramen awards, opening 9 locations in Japan, a couple in Taiwan, and now 2 more in San Diego. Expect long lines, a strip mall location, and insanely great ramen. No groups larger than 6. LOCATION: Convoy Area and nearby Mira Mesa location DRESS: Casual PRICE: Cheap
More Top San Diego Food Picks
The San Diego Food Scene is growing
Everyone knows that San Diego is BIG but to be honest until the past 10 years the food scene was pretty predictable with mainly big tourist restaurants and unknown and unmemorable neighborhood eateries. However this has changed with celebrity chefs opening up shop and local chefs feeding their neighborhoods. There are plenty to choose from but here are my top picks for the Best of the Rest in San Diego dining.
CARNITAS SNACK SHACK
I loved Carnitas Snack Shack when it was a hole in the wall in a not-so-glamorous section of town. It was so good that word soon got out and Carnitas Snack Shack expanded, then contracted, and now has the ideal location right on the Embarcadero on the bay. Pork-centric and Farm-to-Table, Carnitas Snack Shack is foodie paradise. Try the Triple Threat Pork Sandwich featuring a fried pork schnitzel topped with pulled pork and bacon, a delicious bite that hits on all cylinders. Local craft beer, great fries, and a favorite hangout for locals. LOCATION: Embarcadero, near USS Midway DRESS: Casual PRICE: Inexpensive, especially for super high quality food
JUNIPER + IVY
Hey, isn't that the guy from Top Chef? That's right, Juniper + Ivy is owned by the winner of Bravo TV's Top Chef, none other than Richard Blais. If you've seen him on TV you know that Richard is the molecular gastronomical guy - you know, the guy who likes to deconstruct and transform ingredients into new forms. Just saying because if you see things like Corn Dog or Mac N Cheese on the menu you should know upfront that the food they bring out might not exactly match your experience from the past. Great bar, lively atmosphere, and can get expensive with the small plates though the off-menu “In N Out style Double Double” burger and fries is reasonably priced. Modern, woodsy, industrial setting, one of San Diego's most popular eateries, often ranked as best restaurant in San Diego. LOCATION: Sort of Little Italy Area DRESS: Nice PRICE: Can be expensive
The Crack Shack
Owned by Top Chef Richard Blaise, think of The Crack Shack as a modern, hipster, casual eatery that takes the humble Chick-Fil-A and kicks it out of the barn and into the stratosphere. This is not fast food, this is foodie worthy chicken sandwiches and cocktails served in a fun and lively vibe. Great for families, and though not inexpensive you always get your moneys worth due to their excellent ingredients and incredible execution on their menu. Fried chicken is a must - add an order whenever you dine here. And check out their excellent happy hour where you can get chicken sliders for $3. Now with a location in Encinitas if you are beach bound. LOCATION: Sort of Little Italy Area DRESS: Casual PRICE: Inexpensive to Moderate
THE SMOKING GOAT
Smoking Goat is a true neighborhood restaurant that's attracting quite a crowd for its upscale mash-up of California and French cuisine with a local organic and sustainable sensibility. With an elegantly rustic interior featuring exposed brick in a farmhouse setting, the Smoking Goat feels authentic and welcoming. One bite of the duck fat truffle fries and you know you've come to the right place. Elegant food in a relaxed setting at reasonable prices, the Smoking Goat in North Park is worth the short drive to taste for yourself what all the locals are raving about. LOCATION: North Park DRESS: Casual PRICE: Moderate
Modern, trendy, small plates, PrepKitchen is the sort of place where you’ll foodies posting instagrams throughout their meal. This is a food focused place where the chefs are serious about using the best ingredients served in a casual setting. Everything is seasonal and every plate is well thought out and served with a unique spin. Think modern California Cuisine and you get the idea. Multiple locations, PrekKitchen has been a popular dining destination for locals for over 10 years and continues to keep up its quality and reputation. LOCATION: Litte Italy, Del Mar, La Jolla, San Marcos DRESS: Casual PRICE: Moderate
Grand Ole BBQ Y Asado
Ask anyone in San Diego where the best BBQ is and they will invariably tell you Phil’s BBQ. Ask Local Wally and I’ll tell you where I go - Grand Ole BBQ Y Asado. I’m not a hater of Phil’s, but when I want BBQ I want smoke, smokers, and a setting that doesn’t care if you have sauce dripped on the front of your shirt. Grand Ole BBQ Y Asado is casual indeed with rows of smokers set to one side of the parking lot and picnic tables for dining. Want a beer? Go across the street to the little grocery store and bring it over. They don’t seem to mind. In fact, it was their idea. This is a Wonder Bread sort of place with sauce on the side and plenty of tasty smoke whether it’s brisket, turkey, sausages, or ribs. Truly authentic and worthy BBQ, let the tourists line up for the hour long wait for over sauced and grilled, not smoked ribs at Phi’s while you’re dining on the real deal. LOCATION: North Park DRESS: Wear old clothes if you spill a lot PRICE: Fair for BBQ