The San Diego food scene hides in the shadow of California’s big cities to the north: LA and San Francisco. But the influences that buffet the city by the bay and the city of angels impact the San Diego food scene in similar ways. For San Diego is filled with great produce, amazing seafood plucked from nearby waters, an unshakeable beach culture, and waves of immigration from Asia and Latin America. Too, the city practically sits on the Mexican border and shares many flavors and culinary influences with neighboring Tijuana.
The Caesar salad hails from Tijuana and the region’s biggest culinary export, the Baja fish taco, has crossed the border so many times, everyone has lost count. Top Chef alumnae Richard Blais (Juniper and Ivy and Crack Shack) and Brian Malarkey (Searsucker) add flair to the once sedate San Diego food scene. And San Diego’s history as the launch pad for West Coast IPA beer ensures its status on the national craft beer scene. Read on to discover what’s hot in San Diego catering and the San Diego food scene.
An immigrant hub since the 1920s, Little Italy remains an important destination to explore the San Diego food scene. Top Chef Richard Blais’s all-American Juniper and Ivy (playful takes on buttermilk biscuits and deviled eggs) and wildly popular all-things chicken Crack Shack (a San Diego catering go-to) are here. Chef Brian Malarkey set tongues wagging with a bone-marrow pizza at Herb and Wood. And Cloak & Petal serves up innovative takes on Japanese flavors, all under a canopy of flowering cherry trees. Should all that modern wear out your palate, check out Ironside Fish & Oyster, an homage to Little Italy’s beginnings as a center of the local fish industry. And, of course, wash it all down with the pride of San Diego, Ballast Point IPA, at their local brew house.
Jackie Bryant, a food and travel journalist based in San Diego, calls out the flip-flops and T-shirt vibe in Ocean Beach. “But it’s getting nice restaurants and confusing everyone,” Bryant joked. BO-beau kitchen + barexudes cozy French charm and Little Lion Cafe reimagines Belgian fare for the beach. Jake & Eggs, an established breakfast pop-up inside of Sundara Indian Cuisine, earns raves for its fried egg sandwich and kimchi fried rice. Named for the Pulp Fiction burger, Royale! dishes up farm-to table burgers and cocktails with ingredients sourced from their nearby family farm.
Just south of downtown, this up-and-coming neighborhood has a burgeoning food scene. Cafe Virtuoso is quietly making a name for homegrown coffee. Por Vida brews up morning espressos then switches to spicy lemonade and Mexican mochas for happy hour. Wolf down northern Mexico-style tacos at Salud! while checking out the tattoo-inspired murals. Mexican craft beer is on tap at Border X Brewing. And the good people at Oi boldly serve Asian inspired rice bowls and dishes like pork belly jicama tacos.
Chef Brad Wise, renowned for his refined, wood-fired cookery at Trust (Hillcrest) and shareable bar bites like crispy, Korean-style chicken wings at Hundred Proof (University Heights), heads to Convoy Street when he has a hankering for Asian food. “Ramen is still happening here,” Wise says. There are so many styles of ramen, it is hard to pick just one. Do try the California Ramen Burger for its ramen noodle bun and five-spice soy sauce at Raki Raki Ramen or the so-fresh-it-hurts house-made ramen at Nishiki Ramen. An extensive menu of tofu and Korean barbecue at Convoy Tofu House pairs nicely with a bubble tea from Boba Time across the street. Or savor Panang curry at Koon Thai Kitchen or SoCal fare via Asia at Common Theory Public House where the menu pulls together the craft brew trend with brewpub fare. (The double duck fries are a must.)
As the fast-casual movement expands, so, too, the burger in every style under the sun, and everywhere in San Diego catering. Mishmash (Barrio Logan) has classic beef or a Parmesan-mushroom number that packs a double umami wallop. The bacon and blue burger at Ty’s Burger House is worth a trip to Oceanside. Gluten-free buns and grass-fed beef adds socially conscious flavor at the Burger Lounge (Little Italy). Or eat a pastrami burger like an Angeleno at Stacked (Mission Valley).
Seafood pulled fresh from the Pacific is a major driver on the San Diego catering scene. “Seafood is always a trend here,” says Wise. And the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is a great place to source fish glistening with the water of the Pacific still clinging to its sides. The latest seafood trend in town is poke. “Poke’s home on the mainland is San Diego,” says Bryant and countless iterations of island style poke (served by the pound with a scoop of rice) or mainland style (in a bowl with avocado and other toppings) are ready for consumption. Head to It’s Raw Poke Shop (Ocean Beach) for a taste of the islands. Build your own bowl at Poki One N Half(Kearny Mesa) or feel the ocean-supporting vibes at Good Time Poke (Pacific Beach) where responsibly sourced seafood tops your bowl.
Craft cocktails are booming but this city’s enduring love for tiki means island-style cocktails are always a thing in San Diego catering. “It makes sense in San Diego,” says Bryant. Specialty cocktails (and beer) are the name of the game at Polite Provisions (North Park). False Idol (Little Italy) updates tiki to something more like tongue-in-cheek faux Polynesian. And the OG, pulling it off for more than 50 years, Bali Hai (La Playa) shows everyone how tiki is done.
Even if you did not come to San Diego to eat, these are the must-try dishes in town, dishes no self-respecting visitor can leave the city without sampling. (Okay, you can leave, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.)
Born in Ensenada, Mexico, but an important part of the San Diego food scene, the Baja taco is the ultimate San Diego dish. Usually made with battered white fish, this taco must be on a corn tortilla and topped with cabbage, green crema and chipotle crema salsas, salsa crudo, and a squeeze of lime. “They call it ‘el Tri,’” says Bryant, as this comfort food contains the three colors of the Mexican flag. Locals head to Oscars Mexican Seafood (Pacific Beach) or Mitch’s Seafood (Point Loma) for the real deal.
Californians love their burritos and take pains to point out what makes each regional version unique. On the San Diego food scene, the burrito comes stuffed with carne asada and french fries. Add some salsa and guacamole, maybe sour cream and cheese but definitely not beans or rice. Roberto’s Taco Shop (Morena) is hella awesome for late night Cali’s but Mike’s Taco Club (Ocean Beach) and Lolita’s (Kearny Mesa) light up the San Diego catering scene with beautiful renditions.
Everyone on planet earth has eaten a Caesar salad, right? An emulsified sauce of egg yolk, Parmesan, anchovies, and olive oil glorifies a bed of humble romaine lettuces, lifting the dish to the heights of culinary stardom. Not every San Diego catering operation will prepare it tableside, whisking the dressing as you wait, but a fresh dressing takes the dish to an even better place. Try it at Romesco Mexiterranean Bistro (Bonita). Crunch some fresh leaves at Prep Kitchen (Little Italy) to honor Caesar Cardini’s roots. Or take the trolley to the border to try it in its ancestral home, Caesar’s in Tijuana.
Hopheads listen up: the San Diego food scene’s West Coast IPA is calling your name. Huge hop aromas with citrus and tropical fruit notes are classic characteristics of this San Diego darling. Wise concurs. “The West Coast IPA beer scene is huge here,” he says, “and the best breweries are in a warehouse across from an auto mechanic.” Drinking beer, you see, sets you apart on the San Diego food scene.
Options are legion and as unique as each beer’s style. Toronado (North Park) huge bar taps 56 beers at once. Hamilton’s takes a global focus with beers from around the world. Insanely on trend Modern Times (Point Loma) brews beer and roasts coffee. And don’t forget AleSmith (Miramar, or as it is called locally, “Beer-a-mar”) and Societe (Kearny Mesa).
Feeling gnarly after an awesome day shredding waves? Freak out your friends and chow down on some of the best eats in town at Bivouac Cider Works. “DJ Tangalin is one of the best chefs in the city right now,” Bryant says. His take on tuna poke will have you rethinking your seafood—and beer—allegiances.
Learn more about the San Diego food scene. Check out these