Sights and bites: what to eat while touring San Diego, California

With a cultural map in one hand and a culinary compass in the other, savor the sights and bites of San Diego.

Photograph by Kris Davidson
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The fruits of San Diego’s bountiful land-and-sea harvest are on display at Little Italy’s Saturday and Wednesday farmer’s markets.
Photograph by Kris Davidson

San Diego sits where the land meets the sea and where California meets Baja Mexico. The combination fuels the creativity of innovative chefs who are igniting the region’s blazing hot food scene. Wherever your adventures lead in San Diego, dishes made with fresh-caught seafood, locally grown produce, and classic Cali-Baja ingredients can be found nearby. Explore, dig in, and enjoy.

Balboa Park and Beyond

San Diego’s world-famous Balboa Park is packed with more museums (17), architectural influences (the iconic California Tower alone incorporates five: Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, Rococo, and Gothic), and trails (65 miles) than you could possible see in a week or two. And, that’s not even counting the park’s 100-acre San Diego Zoo and acclaimed regional theatre, The Old Globe. Bottom line: Plan to return to the park multiple times to make new cultural and culinary discoveries inside the park and in nearby neighborhoods.

Classic: For a relaxing lunch break inside the park stroll over to The Prado terrace, regularly named among the city’s top outdoor dining spots. The local-centric menu features such fare as spicy calamari fries, grilled mahi mahi tacos, and Green Flash, Ballast Point, and Mission Brewery draft beers. From its 12th-floor perch in Banker’s Hill (just west of the park) casually elegant Mr. A’s offers sweeping park, bay, zoo, and city skyline views. North of the park in Hillcrest, Trust’s Instagrammable “Farm,” “Ocean,” and “Ranch” dishes, such as Braised Oxtail Raviolini, taste as delectable as they look.

Trendy: Outside the park’s western border in Bankers Hill, Cucina Urbana kitchen and wine shop artfully crafts house-made pastas (gluten-free available) and other seasonally fresh Italian dishes in a comfy, contemporary farmhouse setting. Wednesday to Saturday nights return to the park after dark for live music, San Diego-only draft brews, and spicy Thai grilled chicken sandwiches and other farm-to-table-fresh lighter bites at Panama 66, located in the park’s San Diego Museum of Art Sculpture Court and Garden.

Unexpected: Kindred in South Park, outside the southeastern border of Balboa Park, brings an edgy heavy metal vibe to Vegan brunch fare. Saturday and Sunday mornings, fuel up on Hashes for the Masses (fried potatoes, smoked coconut, black beans, soy curls, maitake mushrooms, charred kale, jicama salsa, and Creole aioli) and other plant-based favorites before a day in the park. More of a carnivore? Go whole hog in North Park with the Triple Threat Pork Sandwich (pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, and bacon) at Carnitas’ Snack Shack or the Hogs and Heffers burger (organic grass-fed beef, bacon, avocado, and Edam cheese) at Dunedin New Zealand Eats.

Little Italy

Tucked near the downtown waterfront, Little Italy is rooted in San Diego’s rich tuna fishing history. Once home to more than 6,000 Italian-American families, the neighborhood is more culturally diverse today, yet retains a strong Italian identity and passion for flavorful food. Locals chefs, such as Mike Reidy of Ironside Fish & Oyster, regularly shop the Little Italy Wednesday Market to pick up fresh ingredients for daily dishes and weekend specials.

Classic Bites: Splurge-worthy Born and Raised elevates the steakhouse game with its swanky interior—think marbled table tops and leather booths—and tableside service. The rooftop level boasts a panoramic view; however, nothing beats the melt-in-your-mouth cuts: 8-ounce filet to 28-ounce Porterhouse. For a modern twist on traditional Italian fare, try Civico 145, where the specialties of the house include scratch-made pastas, varied vegan and gluten-free options, and a commitment to sustainability—from locally grown ingredients to reclaimed building materials.

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Trendy Bites: Share wood-fired pizzas and show your best shuffleboard stuff at Nolita Hall. The industrial-chic space lets the outdoors in via a 10-by-60-foot skylight and floor-to-ceiling windows. Communal tables, 24 beers on tap, and big screens for Xbox, movie nights, and sports complete the friendly tailgate party vibe. At Cloak + Petal, come for the twin flowering cherry trees and the Tupac mural. Stay to share killer small plates, like mugi fuji pork belly kakuni, and a dozen signature cocktails.

Unexpected Bites: Elevate your ramen expectations at Underbelly, an authentic Japanese ramen-ya (shop) serving affordable noodle bowls, small plates, and local and international beers. For fast—and totally fun—food, fly over to The Crack Shack, the homegrown San Diego brand famous for its savory “crack spice” fried chicken. Treat your palate to inventive modern Sicilian dishes, such as Granachio (house-made spaghetti, crab, shallots, serrano chili, and Rosa sauce) at Barbusa.

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On alternating Wednesday evenings from late April to early August, gleaming lowriders slow-roll through Barrio Logan in the community La Vuelta Car Cruise.

Barrio Logan

Settled in 1910 by Baja California refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, Barrio Logan is a culturally vibrant neighborhood south of downtown. Shipyard cranes and the Coronado Bridge dominate the skyline. On the streets and walls below, murals, festivals, and the small, locally owned shops and restaurants celebrate Chicano culture. Look for the tricked-out lowrider cars and bikes. See works by local artists and catch free poetry nights and music jams at the industrial-cool La Bodega Gallery. See the colossal mural collection in Chicano Park, a National Historic Landmark.

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Arguably the best deal in the house at Barrio Logan’s ¡Salud! Tacos is the Wednesday Daily Special: three shrimp tacos for only $9.

Classic Bites: A neighborhood institution since 1933, no-frills Las Cuatro Milpas hits the Mexican street food trifecta: fresh, authentic, and affordable. Bring cash (most items are under $5) and prepare to wait—worth it for the crispy rolled tacos, handmade corn and flour tortillas, and chorizo con huevos: a comfort food concoction made with scrambled eggs, crumbled sausage, and rice and beans. Arrive early (opens 8:30 a.m. weekdays and 6 a.m. Saturday), if only to return later (closes at 3 p.m.) for another round.

Trendy Bites: ¡SALUD! is an all-sensory celebration of Chicano culture. The Chicana Comida (Mexican-American) menu features a host of irresistible street foods, like Barrio tacos (braised beef topped with beans, diced prickly pear pads, and sour cream) and churros with ice cream. Order at the counter, and then, take in the eye-popping wall décor—a color explosion mix of street art murals, gleaming lowrider fenders and hoods, and other Barrio Logan artifacts.

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Fresh and ingredients and scratch-made tortillas are the hallmarks of Taco Tuesday, a San Diego food truck favorite regularly spotted at local markets, festivals, and other locations.

Unexpected Bites: Por Vida is an inspired Chicano take on the traditional artisanal coffee house. Canela y Brown Sugar Latte, Mexican Mocha, and other specialty drinks are served in cups emblazoned with pen and ink-style images of Frida Kahlo, praying hands, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the edgy Por Vida logo. Pair a hand-crafted coffee drink or spicy house-made limonada with Mexican Hot Chocolate oatmeal or a fresh Mexican pastry.

Markets

With a year-round growing season and more small farms than any other county in the United States, San Diego is a farm-to-table dream destination. The bounty of fresh, local produce, seafood, and farm-raised products supports a thriving farmers’ market scene. Add to the mix a commitment to revitalize and reuse former military and industrial spaces, and you get a varied assortment of open-air and brick-and-mortar markets where you can sample local flavors. Many markets (and craft breweries) also host food trucks, such as Taco Tuesday where you can try made-from-scratch fish tacos.

Classic Bites: More than 175 vendors set up shop every Sunday (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) for the Hillcrest Farmers Market. Perennially ranked among San Diego’s best, the open-air market features a flavorful mix of prepared foods; artisan cheeses, meats, and baked goods; and local farm- and ocean-fresh products. Feast on hot Belgian fries, Vietnamese coffee, Brazilian-style stuffed hash browns, and other taste-tempting international foods while shopping for ingredients to prepare a San Diego-sourced supper at your Airbnb.

Trendy Bites: Mom-and-Pop shops and original Spanish Colonial Revival architecture add old-school charm to the hip and humming Liberty Public Market in Point Loma. Housed in the 1920’s-era Naval Training Center complex, the 25,000-square-foot emporium is a one-stop-shop for uniquely local bars and restaurants. At El Jardin, former Top Chef star Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins’ infuses family recipes and the global influences into regional Mexican dishes such as classic Sinaloa Cazuela De Chilorio: slow-cooked pork shoulder, red chile paste, rice, and olla beans.

Unexpected Bites: Watch the sport-fishing boats while chowing down a cup of white clam chowder and piled-high combo plate (cod, shrimp, crab cake, and fries) at Point Loma Seafoods. A local favorite for fresh-caught seafood—including delicacies like Pacific swordfish and wild saltwater shrimp—the market/restaurant also boasts in-house sushi chefs, as well as marina, bay, and city views from the open-air, upper deck.

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