San Diego dining: off the beaten path culinary adventures

Some people eat to live and some live to eat. We definitely fall into the second category. We LOVE food, but not any food- it has to be good. This mutual delight in eating well is part of the glue of our marriage.

On a trip to San Diego, we tried an experiment and it worked. Instead of using a guide book, a concierge or the Internet to get up to speed on the San Diego dining scene, we asked people who live there to suggest places they eat in and love. It’s not that these places we found aren’t in guidebooks; some are and two finds came from concierges, but they are places where locals dine, not tourist traps. The question we posed: “Where do you eat?” Our requirements: locally owned, interesting menus and reasonable prices. We weren’t looking for high-end places; we wanted places where just plain folks eat. We hit pay dirt. Here are some of our San Diego dining finds:

A plethora of San Diego dining options

 South of the Border

Mural at El Camino, Indio Street, San Digo, CA, Photo Steve Collins

Mural at El Camino, Indio Street, San Digo, CA, Photo/Steve Collins

El Camino, at the edge of Little Italy, was another concierge recommendation. The neon arrow sign alone is worth the trip. Décor is funky; Day of the Dead art, Virgin Marys, Mexican Lotteria cards and candles. We ate in the bar, a fairly dark room. We thought it had greater charm than the back dining area. The menu notes that the Mexican-inspired food is organic and locally grown. A great start! We eat locally grown, organic food at home whenever we can. Home-made chips accompanied by three salsas (green, red and orange) and some fried hot peppers were delivered to the table to munch on as we read the menu. The salsas were some of the best we’ve tasted and we’ve eaten a lot of them. Steve ordered Sopes de Tinga, masa topped with black beans, chicken marinated with chipotle, tomato, onions and melted queso fresco. I had the Cripsy Tacos with beef. They were good but not memorable. His was the better choice. I should just order what he gets, the man has a knack. Overall, we enjoyed our meal and prices were reasonable. The down-side: El Camino’s directly in the flight path to the San Diego International Airport. The planes are flying low, just over the roofs of the low buildings and right overhead. Out on the sidewalk I actually cringed and ducked when they flew over. You don’t notice this in the loud bar. In the back room where one side is open to the street and the sky is the ceiling it’s definitely a presence. El Camino does not take reservations. You may have to wait for a table, especially on weekends.. El Camino has a second location in the South Park neighborhood. Both are open for dinner daily and Sunday brunch. Recommended: Sopes de Tinga.

Go coastal; eat seafood

Point Loma Seafoods, a long-time dining fixture in San Diego photo Steve Collins

Point Loma Seafoods, a long-time dining fixture in San Diego photo/Steve Collins

You can’t go to San Diego without eating seafood; at least we can’t. Fresh seafood is one of the things we miss living in Santa Fe. When we get near the ocean, we indulge. Our first try was a dud. Point Loma Seafoods, featured on HGTV’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives looked like a sure bet. It’s iconic; open since 1963 and the place was jammed. You order at a busy counter and take your food to the table or call ahead, place your order and you’ll avoid a wait. The counter service was brisk and perfunctory. We ordered fried scallops and fish and chips. The portions were small, the batter uninspired; prices were high for the portion sizes. We left disappointed. Beware: they only take cash. There’s an ATM machine on premises if you need it.

On our next foray into seafood we scored. Bay Park Fish Company is an out of the way gem. The lobster taco was to live for. The crisp shell was filled with chunks of succulent, sautéed lobster, rice and beans came on the side. It was orgasmic, but I have that kind of relationship with well-prepared lobster. The Sashimi Salad brought perfect slices of seared yellow fin tuna with greens and a tangy sesame dressing. Our guess is that everything on the menu is fresh and delicious.

Bay Park Fish Company' fresh Catch Salad with Yellowtail.  photo/courtesy Bay Park Fish Company

Bay Park Fish Company’ fresh Catch Salad with Yellowtail. photo/courtesy Bay Park Fish Company

We discovered the other seafood joint we tried on Google. Sometimes you just get lucky. El Pescadore Fish Market and Restaurant, a storefront in La Jolla, makes fresh-tasting fish and seafood sandwiches, salads and plates; mostly to go. There was a line to order at the counter and the tables were full. Luckily, a spot opened up at a table for us when our food was ready. Counter-service was friendly and helpful. The food was fresh, delicious and affordable. We ordered sandwiches; both the Dungeness crab and the shrimp were fresh. All sandwiches are served on sourdough bread and topped with lettuce, tomato and green onion. We liked it so much we went back another day for clam chowder and cooked cocktail shrimp to go.

As American as apple pie

Prep Kitchen in La Jolla photo/corutesy of Prep Kitchen

Prep Kitchen in La Jolla photo/corutesy of Prep Kitchen

Prepkitchen in La Jolla was another find. It’s the offspring of Whisknladle, an upscale La Jolla restaurant. The idea was to make affordable food for just plain folks. Affordable is in this case is not inexpensive. Both the chef and owners are committed to fresh and local and that comes at a price- but not as much as you’d expect. Prepkitchen specializes in take-out, but offers an eat-in option; a few tables on a tented patio. The night we were there, it was raining hard and the roof was leaking. Fortunately, it wasn’t crowded and we could move as needed to dodge the leaks. The regular menu is short and there’s a daily blue-plate special. Steve had the special, a flat-iron steak cooked to perfection and I had duck confit; I can’t resist this traditional French-country dish. It was all wonderful. We chatted with the woman sitting next to us. She eats there at least once a week and swore by the Fusili Bolognese. On Steve’s recommendation, she went for the special and loved it. We shared a decadent chocolate brownie for dessert and reluctantly, went back out into the cold rain. Serving lunch and dinner.

Prepkitchen update: We just discovered that the restaurant underwent an expansion and face lift this year. They also added a patio thus expanding the limited seating. Outside seating is a great way to enjoy a beautiful as as well as to do a bit of people-watching. They even have heaters for those chilly SoCal days.

San Diego dining Urban Solace San Diego

The dining room and bar at Urban Solace photo/courtesy of Urban Solace

Comfort food is, well, comforting and sometimes we just need it. When we heard about Urban Solace, we knew we had to try it. This trendy dining spot in the North Park’s Arts and Entertainment District attracts a young hip crowd. The menu offers contemporary comfort food with some innovative twists at reasonable prices. The Natural Jidori Chicken was succulent. We encountered these plump, juicy Japanese free-range birds all over San Diego. They first started appearing on LA menus about fifteen years ago and they caught on. They are the best chickens we ever tasted. We hope they move east. The Pan Seared Sustainable Idaho Trout served with Bacon-Corn Spoon Bread was great- we suspect there’s not a dud on the menu. Tip: order the Warm Cheese Biscuits with Orange-Honey Butter, we didn’t but everyone else seemed to. They looked great. We’ll try them next time. Serving Lunch and dinner daily. There are two other eateries in this small restaurant group, Sea and Smoke in upscale Del Mar and Solace in the Moonlight in Encinitas

A taste of Japan

Yu Me Ya Sake House It’s worth the ride to dine at Yu Me Sake House (1246 North Coast Highway 101 (760) 633-4288) in Encinitas   a seaside town north of San Diego, This great find was recommended by a former San Diego foodie who said we HAD to go. She was right. We went twice, sort of. The first time, on a Saturday night, the wait was so long we decided to come back another evening. It was worth the effort. They only accept reservations on weekday nights;d we were glad we made one. The small room was packed. Without a reservation, we would have waited quite a while. There are a handful of tables and a long, L-shaped sake bar. We sat at the bar. It was that or wait a long time. It turned out to be the perfect place to sit. This family-owned and run joint specializes in small-plates at affordable prices and has a huge selection of sakes. The delightful Yuka, daughter of the owner, presides at the bar. Quick, efficient and outgoing, she knows her sakes. Sit here for an hour and you’ll feel like an old friend. Her sister serves the tables and their mom runs the kitchen. We hadn’t a clue what to order so we asked Yuka for recommendations. We also checked out what our neighbors were eating. If something looked good, we asked what it was and ordered it. We’d go back again in a heartbeat. We’d love to eat our way through the entire menu. If we lived in the area, we’d be regulars. Heck, we’d be family. They’re open for dinner every night except Monday. Favorites: the Ahi Tuna Carpaccio in a fried wonton basket, black cod miso-yaki and Japanese eggplant with bitter cabbage, fish flakes and green onion.

Retro breakfast

Hide Away Cafe, Solana Beach, CA, Photo Steve Collins

Hide Away Cafe, Solana Beach, CA, Photo/Steve Collins

If you’re up the coast a bit and want a great breakfast place, we nominate the Hideaway Café in Solana Beach. This tiny place has a handful of tables inside; the small front patio seats a few more. We lucked out and got a table outside. The place is a dive, but a wonderful one. Try a homemade cinnamon rolls or piece of pumpkin bread to start. Recommended: potato pancakes, hash browns and the sausage patties. We hear the chocolate chip pancakes and the French toast are also pretty good. They also serve lunch daily.

While you may not be going to San Diego, this approach works anywhere. Ask local folks where they eat and tell them exactly what you are looking for. People love to help and you’ll get some memorable dining experiences and perhaps discover places you would have missed on your own.

If you have any great San Diego dining recommendations, we’d love to hear them.

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5 Responses to “San Diego dining: off the beaten path culinary adventures”

  1. sara
    March 3, 2019 at 8:16 am #

    Thanks for this wonderful dining list. We are planning a trip to San Diego in April and will put a few of these on our dining list. Breakfast at the Hideaway sounds like fun and the sake house looks awesome.

  2. here be dragons
    March 4, 2019 at 3:48 pm #

    I live in San Diego and some of these are new to me!

    • Billie Frank
      March 4, 2019 at 4:16 pm #

      I love it- that’s what us tourists are for! Which ones did you discover here? If you have any that we missed, let us know about them. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Sue Canfield
    March 16, 2019 at 2:40 pm #

    I grew up in San Diego and lived in Imperial Beach most of my youth. If you love Mexican food, there used to be a little place called Jalisco’s on Palm Avenue. I haven’t been back to I.B. in years so I don’t know if it’s still there or not. It was definitely top of my list when I did live there.

    • Billie Frank
      March 16, 2019 at 2:51 pm #

      What a great tip, Sue. I looked on Google and they are still there. Going on our list for next time. Thanks for sharing this.

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