California’s second-largest city might seem like second fiddle when it comes to its culinary scene compared to LA and even San Francisco. But San Diego restaurants are every bit as enticing and exciting as its Cali brethren. In fact, in 2016 LA Weekly wrote about how San Diego “evolved into an unassuming foodie town.” A lot of the credit there goes to chef Richard Blais, whose flagship restaurant Juniper and Ivy is a top draw. But the city’s proximity to Mexico means it’s always been a place for flavors from across the border to mix and mingle with California cuisine. Ultimately, just trust us that you won’t have to look to hard before you start discovering what makes the city’s cuisine so special.
San Diego is known for two things: super fresh seafood and crazy good tacos. Oscars Mexican Seafood combines the best of both worlds. The menu is full of every tasty thing under the sea from shrimp and scallops to grilled octopus. But if you’ve never been, the classic battered fish taco is the place to begin. The restaurant uses either fresh mahi-mahi or yellowtail, fries it to golden perfection, and places it in a corn tortilla before topping it with shredded cabbage and pico de gallo. In fact, both Zagat and Thrillist recognize it as one of the best fish tacos in the whole city.
Pair it with: Jarritos, a Mexican soda that comes in a wide variety of flavors most American sodas ignore, from strawberry and guava to tamarind.
Pro tip: Bring cash and expect a long wait!
Growing up in a Latino household, Isabel Cruz was introduced to the flavorful dishes of Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba at an early age. Yet, when those influences merged with her Los Angeles neighborhood—where Asian cuisine reigned supreme—the future chef and cookbook author developed a passion, and a palate, for a whole world of cuisines. Today, that world comprises five west coast restaurants dedicated to Latin- and Asian-inspired food crafted from fresh, clean ingredients.
Isabel's Cantina is one of those five. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant features everything from decadent coconut French toast crowned with bananas and pineapple to homemade chiles rellenos stuffed with either pork carnitas or soy chorizo. No matter the time of day, the chef is a crusader for healthy and clean food sources, openly expressing her support for GMO-free produce.
The San Diego Union-Tribune called Whiskey Girl’s signature whiskey burger nothing short of “succulent” and it’s pretty easy to see why. Half-pound black angus beef patties are basted in whiskey before being topped with a combo of mozzarella and cheddar, bacon, sautéed onions, and the pièce de résistance? Steak! Plus the whole thing comes with a shot of Jack Daniels on the side. Now that’s one serious burger.
Pair it with: deep-fried ice cream for dessert—the crispy exterior and cool, creamy interior go just as well together as whiskey and burgers.
Pro tip: The space is great for special occasions, bachelorette parties in particular, so call ahead if you’ve got something big coming up.
“Excellent service. Amazing experience. Will come again definitely.” – Phil N.
“Great food, big portions for reasonable prices. Great happy hour deals. The staff was friendly and checked on us many times to make sure everything was ok or if we needed anything else.” – Ashley H.
“Amazing food!!! Excellent service!!!! Bbq burger and California club both are excellent!!!” – Cynthia F.
San Diego’s Little Italy isn’t just an obvious hotbed of great Italian fare. It’s a true restaurant destination for some of the best cuisine in the city. Sure, there are are old-school pasta joints, but the fun is in how those places butt up against haute cuisine and new faves. That means grabbing a plate of hearty lasagna that reminds you of your nonna’s before hopping next door for a bite of wondrous molecular gastronomy that’d make your nonna’s head spin! To get your start, here are a few of the best restaurants in Little Italy, San Diego:
Lauded by critics across the board, this restaurant was dreamed up by Top Chef winner Richard Blais. His inventive menus take traditional dishes like corn dogs (you heard me) and hand rolls to the next level.
Established in 1956, this is the classic Italian eatery you’ve been dreaming of. Part deli, part Italian grocery store, Mona Lisa’s has it all. It’s also got a caprese sandwich fans of the joint can’t stop raving about.
Thought rotisserie chicken was just something boring you picked up at the store? Not here. It’s mouth-watering and a must-try menu item, though we’d also recommend the porchetta sandwich.
A cafe and gelateria, Pappalecco boasts a fantastic family-friendly atmosphere. The gelato is the main draw, coming in all the classic flavors, but don’t skimp out at lunchtime: the Pappalecco pizza, with its mix of burrata, prosciutto, and arugula is a must.
When Salvatore Nicolosi left Sicily to move to America in 1906, he didn't create a new home for just himself. He and his wife opened Nicolosi's in 1952, an Italian restaurant that has become like a second home for many members of the community. Guests regularly celebrate birthdays and special events there, and wax nostalgic about decades worth of meals shared with family and friends. It's not just the customers that have adopted the cozy eatery, either—many of the employees have worked at Nicolosi's for 25, 35, or more than 40 years.
Today, Salvatore's grandchildren continue the welcoming Nicolosi's tradition, serving up many of the same recipes their grandfather brought from Sicily. The menu includes classic dishes such as lasagna layered with homemade meatballs and sausage, and sicilian mac 'n' cheese baked with alfredo sauce and mozzarella. Other favorites include noncombustible torpedo sandwiches on from-scratch bread, antipasto spreads of imported meats, and specialty pizzas topped with fresh basil, gorgonzola, and sauteed shrimp.