Attack of the Killer Burgers
Burgers, it seems, are the new black. Upscale hamburger spots are popping up all around town, putting fast-food joints to shame with their chic surroundings; grass-fed, organic beef; and snazzy beer and wine menus.
Sleekly industrial Burger Lounge (www.burgerlounge.com) has five locations: La Jolla, 1101 Wall St. (tel. 858/456-0196); Coronado, 922 Orange Ave. (tel. 619/435-6835); Little Italy, 1608 India St. (tel. 619/237-7878); Hillcrest, 406 University Ave. (tel. 619/487-1183); and Kensington, 4116 Adams Ave. (tel. 619/584-2929). The 10-item menu cuts right to the chase, featuring natural beef (as well as turkey and veggie) burgers, salads, milkshakes, and wine and beer. The amazing skyline mosaic on the back wall is reason enough to pay a visit to Neighborhood, 777 G St., downtown (tel. 619/446-0002; www.neighborhoodsd.com). The 28 beers on tap (including plenty of local brews), sophisticated wine list, gourmet takes on burgers and classic bar food (kosher hot dogs with chipotle purée), and creative salads will give you all the incentive you need to stay. In Horton Plaza, you can fuel your shopping spree with organic burgers -- as well as organic beer, wine, tea, and sodas -- at O'Brothers (tel. 619/615-0909; www.obrothersburgers.com).
The don't-miss spot for burger aficionados is Tioli's Crazee Burger, 4201 30th St., North Park (tel. 619/282-6044; www.tioliscrazeeburger.com). This eatery isn't hip or modern, but it takes a truly fine-dining approach toward its more than 30 burger offerings. Go crazy and order an ostrich, buffalo, or alligator burger; the German owners also take justifiable pride in the bratwurst. Hodad's, 5010 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach (tel. 619/224-4623; www.hodadies.com), isn't new or urbane, either, but many locals insist it has the city's best burgers. If you want a big, messy burger in a classic beach environment, here's your place.
Dive bar connoisseurs can get their burger on at Rocky's Crown Pub, 3786 Ingraham St., Pacific Beach (tel. 858/273-9140; www.rockyscrownpub.com), and Danny's Palm Bar & Grill, 965 Orange Ave., Coronado (tel. 619/435-3171). Rocky's is another longtime contender for the best-burger-in-town title; Danny's, which dates to 1908, also has a legion of fans. Kids are welcome at Danny's while the grill is open.
Baja Fish Tacos
One of San Diego's culinary ironies is that despite its rich Hispanic heritage and proximity to the Mexican border, it's hard to find anything other than gringo-ized combo plates in many local Mexican restaurants. But one item you'll see on plenty of menus here is the fish taco -- a native of Baja California. Consisting of batter-dipped, deep-fried filets wrapped in a corn tortilla with shredded cabbage, salsa, and a tangy sauce, fish tacos were popularized in San Diego by Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill in the early 1980s. Rubio's has since grown into a sizable chain, and it's a good option if you're on the go -- the original stand is still operating at the east end of Pacific Beach, 4504 E. Mission Bay Dr., at Bunker Hill Street (tel. 858/272-2801; www.rubios.com).
Fish tacos are a casual food, served in casual settings. Here are some of the best places to taste one: Bay Park Fish Co., 4121 Ashton St., Bay Park (tel. 619/276-3474; www.bayparkfishco.com); Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill, 3667 India St., Mission Hills (tel. 619/497-0914; www.bluewater.sandiegan.com); Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop, 1810 W. Washington St., Mission Hills (tel. 619/296-8226; www.tacosmackdown.com); The Brigantine; The Fishery; Mamá Testa; Point Loma Seafoods, 2805 Emerson St., Point Loma (tel. 619/223-1109; www.pointlomaseafoods.com); South Beach Bar & Grill, 5059 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach (tel. 619/226-4577; www.southbeachob.com); and El Zarape, 4642 Park Blvd., University Heights (tel. 619/692-1652). Another worthy chain is Wahoo's Fish Taco (www.wahoos.com), with locations including La Jolla (639 Pearl St.; tel. 858/459-0027), Encinitas (1006 N. El Camino Real; tel. 760/753-5060), Mission Valley (2195 Station Village Way; tel. 619/299-4550), and the Sports Arena area (3944 W. Point Loma Blvd.; tel. 619/222-0020).
Bites Off the (Tourist) Beaten Path
Don't limit your dining experience in San Diego to the main tourist zones outlined above. Five minutes north of Mission Valley is the mostly business neighborhood of Kearny Mesa, home to San Diego's best Asian venues. Jasmine Seafood Restaurant, 4609 Convoy St. (tel. 858/268-0888; www.jasminerestaurants.com), is the city's premier dim sum lunch spot; dinner is highlighted by the Cantonese-style roast duck (service here can range from gruff to incomprehensible, though). Other notable Chinese restaurants include China Max, 4698 Convoy St. (tel. 858/650-3333; www.chinamaxsandiego.com); Spicy City, 4690 Convoy St. (tel. 858/278-1818; www.spicycity.menutoeat.com); and Dumpling Inn, 4619 Convoy St. (tel. 858/268-9638; http://dumplinginn.menutoeat.com).
For a dining experience that will transport you straight to Japan, seek out tiny Wa Dining Okan, 3860 Convoy St. (tel. 858/279-0941; www.okanus.com). This friendly, hard-to-find spot has become a sensation (you'll need reservations); it serves traditional, home-style delicacies just like your mother would make, if she were Japanese ("okan" translates as "mom"). It's tucked into a shopping mall next to a Japanese market and has little signage.
East of Hillcrest in Kensington you'll find the Kensington Grill, 4055 Adams Ave. (tel. 619/281-4014; www.sdurbankitchen.com), next to the Ken Cinema. It's owned by the same crew in charge of the dining hot spot Cucina Urbana and features contemporary American cuisine in a chic setting that draws lots of neighborhood types. Across the street is the lively, authentically rustic Bleu Bohème, 4090 Adams Ave. (tel. 619/255-4167; www.bleuboheme.com). This boisterous bistro is known for its mussels, meat and cheese platters, and French onion soup. In nearby Normal Heights, Jyoti Bihanga, 3351 Adams Ave. (tel. 619/282-4116; www.jyotibihanga.com), delivers a vegetarian menu of Indian-influenced salads, wraps, and curries; the "neatloaf," made with grains and tofu, is a winner. Entrees are priced under $12.
South of Adams Avenue, University Avenue runs through North Park. This working-class neighborhood has been infused with new life and new development, most notably the resurrected North Park Theatre. Next door to the theater is Spread, 2879 University Ave. (tel. 619/543-0406; www.spreadtherestaurant.com), where the "nouveau comfort food" menu is vegetarian/vegan, relying on a daily influx of seasonal, organic products. Excellent health-conscious Mexican food (yes, it does exist) is found at Ranchos Cocina, 3910 30th St. (tel. 619/574-1288; www.ranchoscocinanorthpark.com), just off University Avenue. This popular eatery will even prepare you something vegan -- try asking for that in Old Town. There is also an outlet in Ocean Beach at 1830 Sunset Cliffs Blvd. (tel. 619/226-7619; www.ranchosnaturalfoods.com). Jayne's Gastropub, 4677 30th St. (tel. 619/563-1011; www.jaynesgastropub.com), reflects the neighborhood's casual cool, featuring a sophisticated beer and wine list, and a menu that runs from mussels with chorizo to a stupendous burger.
Out in the far-flung 'burb of Rancho Bernardo awaits one of San Diego's most memorable dining experiences. El Bizcocho is the fine-dining restaurant at the golf and tennis resort Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Dr. (tel. 858/675-8550; www.ranchobernardoinn.com). It's one of the last of San Diego's formal, gourmet experiences, serving contemporary American fare, as well as Sunday brunch. No tennis shoes or denim are allowed; jackets and ties are suggested (but not required) for men.