Some time ago, "San Diego cuisine" meant tacos, burgers, and whatever else could be scarfed at the beach without utensils and washed down with a can of beer. But the city's culinary scene has come a long way in recent years, and modern San Diego boasts fine restaurants and sophisticated food.
Increasing numbers of young, ambitious chefs have set up shop here, attracted by the plentiful, high-quality local produce and fresh seafood. Some find the more laid-back, less cutthroat culinary landscape a great place to experiment with anything from molecular gastronomy to nouvelle French. Throughout the city you'll also find traditional Italian trattorias, old-school steakhouses, lavish Indian buffets, incredible sushi bars, and Spanish tapas restaurants, not to mention spots offering authentic Afghan, Ethiopian, Russian, and, of course, Mexican food. As for homegrown cuisine, here's a look at what you'll find on the menu in San Diego.
Fruits of the Sea
Though much restaurant seafood comes from other places, this town still manages to turn out some of the freshest, whether it be from Alaska or Australia. Local waters produce a variety of fish and shellfish, including halibut, yellowtail tuna, swordfish, prawns, and uni (sea urchin). In fall, spiny lobster pops up on menus up and down the coast; local lobster differs from its East Coast cousins in that it's smaller and doesn't have claws. The fish taco, rumored to have been imported from Mexico by local surfers, is the city's unofficial signature dish; it's practically criminal to leave town without sampling at least one. The fish can be any variety, often mahimahi, which is grilled or deep-fried, topped with shredded cabbage and a creamy sauce, and tucked inside a corn tortilla with a lime wedge. Perfection.
From the Farm to the Table
Don't be surprised to see many restaurant menus crediting farms by name for everything from the pork loin to the baby lettuce. The provenance of produce, meat, and other edibles is taken seriously in this town, especially given the growing "locavore" movement. Eating locally is a pleasure in agriculturally blessed San Diego, whose soil has historically produced excellent strawberries, grapes, walnuts, corn, tomatoes, and other crops. Today, we're one of the nation's leading producers of avocados. Chefs in the burgeoning farm-to-table movement have taken note, and even California cuisine icons such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck are known to source some ingredients from San Diego. In addition to fruits and veggies, many chefs are also using pork, beef, and dairy products from local ranches.
Comida De Mexico, Old & New
Without a doubt, what's missed most by those who've left San Diego is the Mexican food. It's hardly an exaggeration to say there's a taco shop on every corner, serving traditional dishes such as tacos, burritos, tortas (Mexican sandwiches), tostadas, and quesadillas. Among the regional favorites are carnitas, delectable chunks of slow-cooked pork, and the unusual California burrito, a giant flour tortilla stuffed with carne asada (beef), cheese, guacamole, and french fries. South of the border, chefs are offering an elevated fusion cuisine known as "Baja Med." Bearing little resemblance to the familiar food of mainland Mexico, Baja Med, as its name implies, combines Baja ingredients such as tomatoes, olives, and tuna with Mediterranean techniques and flavor profiles.
What to Wash it all Down With
Beer! San Diego is one of the craft brewing capitals of the world. The birthplace of "double IPA" (a strong, hoppy India Pale Ale), the region is home to more than 30 boutique breweries that churn out a variety of beers, from no-nonsense, hops-filled brews to delicate fruit-flavored ones. Some San Diego breweries have tasting rooms and offer tours of their facilities; others merely distribute their suds to the many beer bars around town. Just across the border, the Tecate brewery in the town of the same name brews a lighter quaff and also offers tours and tastings, while Cervecería Tijuana is a brewery, restaurant, and nightspot.
There are also two wine regions within an hour's drive of downtown. The Temecula Valley northeast of San Diego grows more than 40 different varietals and is home to more than 30 wineries. South of the border, northern Baja's wine country is tucked into the Guadalupe Valley east of Ensenada. Baja produces 90% of Mexico's wine, notably at large-scale producers such as L.A. Cetto, but there are more than 20 smaller wineries that produce anywhere from 500 to 40,000 cases per year. Top varietals in the valley include Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Chenin Blanc, and more.
Back in central San Diego, a new wine bar seems to crop up weekly, each offering convenient and often affordable ways to sample local and international wines by the glass.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.