Anthony Bourdain, an eater and traveler of the highest order, firmly believed that “food, culture, people, and landscape are all absolutely inseparable” because “food is everything we are." We’d agree that the quickest route to understanding a place and its people is through the stomach. To that end, seek out and indulge in the following 10 ingredients and dishes that sum up San Diego’s California-cool cuisine.
Easily the king of border cuisine, fish tacos—as in lightly battered deep-fried white fish cod-coctions in corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, crema, pico de gallo, and a spritz of lime—make up a food group all their own. The tasty Baja export was first brought north on a large scale by Ralph Rubio, who opened the first chapter of his Rubio’s empire in Mission Bay in 1983. Now synonymous with San Diego dining, they’re served all over the place, made with different kinds of fish and a variety of toppings. Sometimes they’re even grilled. Residents gleefully debate where to get the best and contenders include Puesto, Galaxy Taco, Pacific Beach Fish Shop, Oscars (which delivers the sand in Pacific Beach during summer), and newcomer Lola 55.
With 160 breweries, 55 tasting rooms, and an East Village Museum of Beer (opening in 2020), it’s safe to say that the sudsy spirit, especially West Coast IPAs, is locally considered part of a well-balanced meal. Visit behemoths like Stone and Ballast Point and up-and-comers like 3 Punk Ales, Pure Project, and Belching Beaver to taste sours made with local fruit, stouts with coffee roasted in town, or limited-edition collaborations while listening to local bands or playing trivia.
Local agriculture contributes $2.88 billion annually to the economy, and there are more small farms (less than 10 acres) in San Diego County than in any other county in the U.S., so it’s understandable why fresh fruits and veggies play a large part in the daily diet. Topping most shopping lists is the state fruit, avocadoes, of which S.D.C. is the nation’s number-one producer. It’s most commonly consumed as guacamole and avocado toast. (Parakeet Café tops their version with beet spirals, pumpkin seeds, and crunchy mung beans.) Other eateries get more creative like Snoice, which uses it to flavor Taiwanese shaved snow, or Thai Village, which whips up a creamy avocado curry.
This Carlsbad confectionary is so much more than a hometown Hershey’s thanks to unique flavors like Pool Party Pretzel, Pumpkin Spice S’mores, and mango with lime and chili (surely inspired by the prevalent salted street vendor fruit). Find their gourmet chocolate bars and barks online and in convenience stores, high-end markets, hotel boutiques, and their North County headquarters, where you can also take tours and classes.
The sushi craze hit California like a tsunami in the 1970s and ‘80s and with it the demand for uni soared to a point where 75 percent of the state’s sea urchin population was fished out, bringing the coveted red species to the brink of collapse. (It didn’t help that the Department of Fish and Game considered them kelp forest-devouring pests that needed to be exterminated.) Fortunately, through education, law changes, fishery governance, and co-management, the San Diego waters, especially those around Point Loma, are once again loaded with the spiny delicacies and diners can gobble up the sea salty sweetness all over town. On Saturdays, purchase the morning’s catch direct from local fishermen at the open-air Tuna Harbor Dockside Market.
After tacos, the easiest way to get a sense of place from a fish dish is by diving into a plate of ceviche. While ceviche is mostly a culinary manifestation of the Latin American immigrant influence, it sometimes has an Asian vibe, as a similar dish is popular in the Philippines. (San Diego County has the second-largest Filipino-American population in the country.) Spiced with peppers or ginger, the raw chunks of fresh fish cured in citrus juices make use of ample local seafood and fruit bounties and reflect the native demand for high heat. Carlsbad’s Campfire combines fish with cilantro, avocado, onion, cucumber, and tiger’s milk to make their crisp, creamy, and tangy take.
While you can get great homemade ice cream (Stella Jean’s), shaved snow (Iceskimo), cupcakes (Frost Me), and pie (Twiggs Bakery), San Diegans most often rush for doughnuts when they need a sugar fix. Thus there’s a freakish plenitude of fried dough purveyors making everything from classic rainbow sprinkled circles and oversized apple fritters to bars glazed in bacon fat and maple. With many shops open late or 24-hours, enjoyment is not contained to the mornings. Where to try: VG Donut in Cardiff, Nomad Donuts, downtown’s Donut Bar, Carlsbad’s The Goods, Devil’s Dozen in Little Italy, or the two-decades-old Peterson’s Donut Corner.
This ultra munch-able play on the McDonald’s classic was part of Chef Brian Redzikowski’s winning meal at the pork-centric Cochon 555 competition in 2018. Order the steamed bao with two patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a handmade sesame seed bun at Kettner Exchange to see what everyone was squealing about.
These baked staples make the list simply because the story of the two restaurants that make them best compete with each other from merely a mile apart. The Chicken Pie Shop is old-school, a place people have been going since they were kids to get a whole meal with dessert for under $10. The Pop Pie Co. repackages the classic recipe with a catchy slogan (“In Pie We Crust”) and a mural-decorated fast-casual setting. They also widen the audience by serving pies with other types of meat or none at all, like a roasted vegetable yellow curry pie.