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Food & Drink in San Diego

In November, I had a chance to visit San Diego for the first time. As befits a man of my tastes, the trip was built entirely around fancy places to eat and drink. San Diego offers a surprising number of options, both in the trendy, touristy downtown “Gaslamp” quarter, as well as in the surrounding suburbs and towns. With only a few days, I was hardly able to map any sort of definitive guide, and there were many stones left unturned. However, your pals at Teleport City — with an assist from accomplice Monster Island Resort — managed to hit enough bars and restaurants to make it worth jotting down on the off chance that you, too, one day find yourself in San Diego and long to follow in our footsteps. I was sans vehicle for most of the time and staying downtown, so most of my choices were driven by proximity as much as they were by recommendation. But either way, it worked out pretty well. As always, Greenie McGee of Greenie Travels fame was our regular partner in crime and is responsible for most of the pictures in this write-up.

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Hash House a Go Go

3628 5th Ave San Diego, CA 92103 | hashhouseagogo.com
It was a long morning stroll from downtown to pancake-fueled outpost Hash House a Go Go, but it was a lovely day, and I wanted to take advantage of the fact that the difference in time zones actually had me up early enough to experience this thing you daywalkers call “breakfast.” Attempting to take a photo of the food at this Food Network-popularized breakfast eatery is similar in futility to trying to capture the epic scale of the Grand Canyon. Expect a substantial wait before you’re seated — it comes with the territory of being featured on television. Once in, you’ll get a gander at what makes the place famous — twelve-inch pancakes and mountains of hash, all served on plates big enough to double as stages for a moderate sized orchestra.

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Quantity doesn’t equate to quality, of course, so once the initial dazzle of the sheer size of my apple cinnamon pancake wore off, it was time to dig in and see what I thought of the thing. My reaction: ehh. Not that great. Not terrible or anything, but I’ve had better pancakes at less famous places. There was an odd texture to the pancake (you need only order one). The apple was just sort of thrown on top instead of integrated into the pancake proper, and the apple cinnamon aspect added almost nothing flavorwise. Also tried the roasted chicken hash and crispy baked potatoes. Hash was dry and not as flavorful as you’d expect, and the potatoes weren’t crispy so much as they were hard. The plate also came with a blob of a biscuit that had in it a sprig of rosemary the size of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, and slices of asparagus that were thick as a young boy’s arm and too stringy to enjoy.

In general, I try not to pass judgment on a place based on a single visit, but since it’s unlikely I’ll be back in San Diego any time soon, I have to work with what I was given. What I was given wasn’t that great — certainly not worth the wait. Hash House a Go Go is basically a mediocre breakfast joint that lucked into being on TV and now seems to exist largely on the strength of the hype. It’s novel enough to justify going once, but I can’t see much of a need to go again.

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Stout Public House

1125 6th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 | stoutsd.com
I admit that Stout is a bit of a cheat. There’s one in New York, and we went here mostly because we wanted a place with some tenuous tie to New York City where we could sit and watch the Jets-Patriots game while having a bit of fine Irish fare and drinking a beer or two. Or three. Or four. It was a pretty terrible game for The Jets. Stout San Diego is a bit more geared toward the promotion and celebration of ice hockey games, a sport that I have tried, really tried, to like but still find incredibly boring. Well, you can’t please everyone, right? And the novelty of watching football in an ice hockey bar in southern California that is a Texas football bar back in New York is…well…disorienting.

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Whatever the case may be, Stout turned in a solid, enjoyable performance, which is more than we could say for our Jets that night. I had a simple but sizable Irish Stew that was pretty fantastic, and topped it off with a couple Racer 5 India Pale Ales. Greenie Travels enjoyed the Reuben. Staff and patrons were friendly, though the drunken hockey debate in the corner was driving a couple of my friends insane. Not because it was a drunken hockey debate, but because it was a drunken hockey debate with claims they vehemently disagreed with. Hockey fans themselves, they had no choice but to step in. As for me, I was just happy that even though the rest of the pub lost interest in the football game, they let us keep it on until the bitter end. If you are looking for a classic, no-nonsense pub with surprisingly good food, Stout’s going to deliver.

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery

401 G Street, San Diego CA 92101 | rockbottom.com
We were wandering around the Gaslamp District in between sessions at a conference, looking to stumble upon a place to eat when we decided on Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery. It’s a chain brewpub with locations all over the United States, but I’m not going to hold that against them, especially when they have their own beers on tap. We were actually looking for something outside of the burger-n-fries mold, and while Rock Bottom certainly boasts burger and fries, we were at least able to step beyond that and into, well, other very typical brewpub fare. Secretly though — or maybe not so secretly — when I say I’m not in the mood for pub grub, what that means is I’m really in the mood for pub grub. I did my best to be good(ish) though, and skipped the burger in favor of a more sensible grilled chicken sandwich. Granted, that grilled chicken was covered in cheddar, BBQ sauce, and bacon, but hey! What can a man do?

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The real star of the meal, however, was the titanic plate of nachos. Of course, Hash House A Go Go reminded us not to judge the value of a plate of food on quantity alone, but in the case of the nachos. Rock Bottom delivered a massive quantity and high quality. You’d think a place can’t screw up nachos until you’ve had bad ones, and you’d think that nachos can’t be divine until you’ve had really good ones. Despite the quantity, Rock Bottom nachos managed to avoid the most common nacho pitfalls — soggy chips, clumped toppings that leave some spots drenched and others dry as a bone, congealed cheese. None of that here. Possibly one of the most perfect plates of nachos with which I’ve ever been confronted. Paired with a Rock Bottom Sunset Stout, it was a near perfect lunch. They may be a chain, and thus not exactly “San Diego dining,” but you can’t argue with a good meal and a good beer.

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The Marble Room

535 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 | themarbleroom.com
The night we ended up at The Marble Room, we’d intended to eat at a place called Searsucker, which came highly recommended to us by a number of our closest, drunkest friends and professional drinking associates. Unfortunately, Searsucker was closed for a private event during dinner that night, so a quick search for alternates sent us to The Marble Room knowing very little about it. Stepping in left me both happy and apprehensive. Happy because the restaurant and bar is done up like an 1890s bordello — complete with waitresses in corsets and stockings — but apprehensive because these sorts of places tend toward all facade with low quality, and scantily clad waitresses always cause chilling flashbacks to too many novelty resturants.

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The Marble Room, though, adds a dash of class to their sass, sticking to the time period in which The Gaslamp was San Diego’s most notorious district, full of speakeasies, gambling halls, and cathouses. This is less Tilted Kilt and more Strip House in New York City, only instead of old men who know a lot about steak, your servers are pretty women in saucy saloon wear. I’m happy with either type of server, to be honest, just as I’d have been happy with an equally scantily clad lad. I’m equal opportunity in many ways, after all.

So anyway, the restaurant. If you are nervous that the theme atmosphere equates to bad food, you can breathe a sigh of relief as you settle into your overstuffed red velvet booth. The Marble Room delivers both a fun atmosphere and pretty good food and cocktails. I kicked things off with a Kentucky Tramp — bourbon, mint, lemon, and a splash of peach schnapps. Basically, a twist on the whiskey smash. Exceptionally tasty. Followed that up with bass in a cranberry Cabernet reduction, which was also very good. Greenie enjoyed a shrimp scampi that was flavorful, fresh, and not drowning in sauce. They even gave us free crispy calamari to thank us for being nerds that check in via Yelp. Nothing on the menu is overly creative or flashy — but sometimes you just want to eat your food, not marvel at it, and The Marble Room made us happy and then delivered that happy in fishnets and a bustier.

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Searsucker

611 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 | searsucker.com
Foiled by a private event the evening before, we decided to double back and slip into Searsucker for lunch the next day. It’s a fantastic space that exists somewhere between open-air farmers’ market and exquisitely designed modernist den. I like a dimly lit cave as much as the next homely lush, but there’s something to be said for a place that can do bright and open and still have it be cozy and pleasing. Searsucker certainly pulls that off, with an atmosphere that is both dressy and still agreeably casual. But enough about the decor. They run brunch a little different than one might be used to: order at the counter, then take your seat. That said, it’s not an excuse for the staff to be inattentive or unfriendly.

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How was the food? Definitely up to the hype surrounding this place. I had a pulled pork sandwich with apple BBQ sauce that struck the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. They make it “Primanti Brothers” style, topped with crispy rings and Italian cole slaw (meaning, no mayo). And just because the sandwich was topped with fried crispies didn’t mean we couldn’t order a side of the brown butter fries and polish those off in short order as well. I hear it’s a fine place for drinks as well, but I was playing it sober for the morning. The whole affair was a friendly, welcoming experience punctuated by a delicious meal. I’d go back to Sand Diego just to drop in to Searsucker for dinner one night.

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Prohibition

548 5th Ave, San Diego CA 92101 | prohibitionsd.com
There were three places that kept coming up when we asked for recommendations. Searsucker was one. Noble Experiment was another — one that, sadly, we just didn’t have time to get to. And the third was Prohibition, a basement speakeasy hidden behind a door for a fake law firm. It’s open Wednesday-Saturday, and Thursday-Saturday entry is by guest list only, and a strict code of dress and conduct is enforced. Lest you think this one of those cheesy bars where a bouncer behind a velvet rope sneers at you while deciding whether or not you can come in, let me point out that the guest list is simply because the place is tiny, and all you have to do to get on the guest list is go to their website ahead of time and RSVP. The dress code itself is, frankly, reasonable, and it’s a shame people need guidelines on how not to dress like slobs for a nice evening out.

Wednesday, however, is their casual night. No list, relaxed dress code. Although I’d prefer to go on a fancy night, one has to take what one’s schedule permits, so Wednesday it was. We didn’t let that dampen our enthusiasm though, and Greenie Travels, Monster Island Resort, and I all dressed in our finest despite the fact that we could have gotten away with jeans. This was my first time meeting Miguel from Monster Island Resort in person, and he’s a top notch gent with an epic mustache. He’s a San Diego local who spends a lot of time organizing cult film fests around town, so anyone interested in such things should pay attention to his efforts. Anyway, Prohibition itself is a great space, small and cozy. Too small, actually, for the live DJs they had spinning records for their “wax and whiskey Wednesday.” The volume made it difficult to carry on a conversation and seemed out of place in a bar so committed otherwise to a refined experience, even on their casual night.

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Drinks, however, were quite good. I went with my baseline for any new whiskey and cocktail bar — an Old Fashioned. You can do it terrible, you can do it great, you can do it nondescript. My taste in cocktails tends toward the simple, and if you can’t mix up a quality basic, then there’s no reason to continue patronizing such an establishment. Prohibition’s Old Fashioned was quite good. Not the best, but well within the realm of worth drinking again. The whiskey selection is decent but not spectacular. A few unusual items, but otherwise covering the standards that should populate any decent upscale bar.

I’m going to reserve judgment on Prohibition. I liked it all right, but I was also a bit disappointed. That was partially my fault, though, for going on casual night. But then, why have a casual night? And the loud music was a faux pas no matter how you’re dressed. The bartender made a good drink, but the whole experience felt a little…I don’t know. Remote? I’d like to hit it again when they’re fully in the swing of things.

Albert’s Fresh Mexican Food

1177 C St, Suite I, San Diego, CA 92101 | albertsmexicanfood.com
It seemed criminal that we’d been in San Diego for nearly a week with nary a fish taco under our belt, so we decided to rectify that during a stroll to check out the zoo. Looking to get away from Gaslamp dining, I did a search and came up with Albert’s Fresh Mexican Food, a nondescript restaurant in one of those…whatever you call that thing like a strip mall, but is really just a block of stores on the ground floor of an office building. Anyway, traditionally, it’s not the sort of location that screams quality dining. You’re more likely to just find a Quiznos or something there. But the number of plain looking places serving great food is vast, just as the number of exquisitely designed spaces with terrible food is large. So there was no pre-judging of Albert’s, nor any temptation to cross the street and hit Del Taco instead.

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Obviously, I ordered a fish taco, complimenting it with my usual chicken chimichanga and a carne asada taco. That was too much food, but you gotta do what you gotta do. The place was crowded but food came out fast. And my first experience witha fish taco went amazingly well. I wish I’d had others so I could declare Albert’s the best fish taco I’d ever had, but while that statement is indeed true, it’s not that impressive when it’s also the only fish taco I’ve ever had. Anyway, it’s really, really good. I can speak with considerably more authority on chimichangas, and Albert’s served me one that was top tier. The carne asada taco was also great — tender, juicy, and full of flavor. On top of the amazing food, the overworked lunchtime staff still managed to be attentive and very friendly. Thank God we had a walk to and through the San Diego Zoo planned for that day, because I was stuffed and badly in need of walking off a few calories.

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Saltbox Dining and Drinking

1047 5th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 | saltboxrestaurant.com
Our final dinner in San Diego had to be a big to-do. We even roped in the rest of the New York contingent in town for the conference we were attending, as well as a couple Canadians, gor a big group feast at a place called Saltbox Dining and Drinking. It seemed an appropriate place for a large group dinner, as the focus is on platters that are shared amongst everyone at the table. Some diners apparently find this complicated, but I thought it a pretty fun experience that makes you actually interact with the people with whom you’re having dinner. They seated us at a giant King Henry VIII round table, which already made for an awesome experience. But then the food came out and made everything that much better.

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We feasted on ham and cheese bites, brisket sliders, short rib grilled cheese, lobster corn dogs, oxtail, devil’s chicken…I think there were some mini tacos in there somewhere. Oh yes. Beef cheek tacos. And butternut squash ravioli. And, umm, papradelle with duck ragu. One of us got a giant bucket of mussels. I think that was everything. It was all a bit overwhelming to keep track of after a while, but everything was fantastic. The waitress took good care of us, joked around, and then we discovered that we had a common friend with the bartender downstairs, who then paid us a visit as well (thanks for the connection, Abby). I kept my drinking simple, going for a Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing. Very nice beer, though I wanted my first experience with it to be alongside a Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale. Oh well, they are elusive creatures. All in all, and maybe partly because of the spirit fo the evening, Saltbox provided me, hands down, my favorite night out in San Diego, and I had a lot of fun at just about all of the places we went.

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Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop

643 5th Ave, San Diego, CA 9210 | ghirardelli.com
It seemed a shame not to get dessert at Saltbox, but it would have been a greater shame not to get dessert at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop a couple blocks away. As far as chocolate other than some obscure something a German insists is the best chocolate ever, Ghirardelli does a pretty good job, so the notion of a sundae covered in Ghirardelli hot fudge was…appealing. The hot fudge sundae…it’s like the Old Fashioned of the ice cream dessert world. And not a let-down. Delicious.

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Cafe 222

222 Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101 | cafe222.com
If you’re looking for a quality breakfast that is more about great food than Hash House A Go Go’s giant portions, I suggest giving the tourist spot a pass and instead hitting up modest little Cafe 222 downtown, which I loved even though their website fills me with rage (auto play music at a loud volume, with no mute button). Still, that rage is easily assuaged by delicious waffles. Decor is 50s kitchen, but without going overboard on the kitsch. Tasty waffles and generous, yummy pork tamales (the breakfast of champions). Sometimes, the things I have to say the least about are the ones I enjoyed the most, and Cafe 222 is best served by a short review: damn good breakfast.

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Chin’s Szechwan Restaurant

625 Encinitas Blvd, Encinitas, CA 92024 | govisitchins.com
For our final non-theme park meal in SoCal, we decided we should indulge in that most American of cuisines: Chinese food. Seriously. When I’m overseas and start craving home, it’s not hamburgers or hot dogs I want; it’s Chinese food. And no, not authentic Chinese food, but the American Chinese variant that has become, I think, a food category unto itself. I was seeing places around San Diego advertising “New York style Chinese food.” I assume there probably is some difference between east and west coast American Chinese food, but I’m not sophisticated enough to know. West coast Chinese food maybe has fewer mojais yelling at you maybe? I don’t know. Anyway, we opted not to hit a New York style Chinese restaurant, as we have plenty fo those in New York, and instead sought out Chin’s Szechwan Restaurant in the outlying town of Encinitas.

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If you have in your mind an image of the absolute perfect Chinese-American restaurant, Chin’s will probably outdo it. The place is picture perfect. Red velvet, cherry wood furniture, outdated music playing lightly in the background. When I was a kid growing up in Kentucky, during the 70s, there used to be this place called…ehh…Golden Dragon, maybe? It was this lone building near the train tracks between Buckner and LaGrange on Highway 146. My town wasn’t exactly diverse — the local grocery store stocked Chef Boyardee in the “Foreign Foods” section — so that we even had a Chinese restaurant was out of the ordinary. Anyway, if I was good, my parents would take me there. Walking into that ramshackle wood building was like being transported to another world. Men in bowties and black jackets would greet you. The place was lined with red and gold embroidered cushions, dark wood paneling, statue sof exotic (to me) dragons and heavenly maidens, with Chinese pop tunes form the 40s and 50s playing on the tinny sound system. Man, I loved that place.

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Chin’s was like stepping into Golden Dragon all over again. Yes, it’s a particularly American experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool. The staff was good-natured and polite. The owner even came out, introduced himself, and on the sly — because we looked like good people — slipped us a VIP card that entitled us to free appetizers and such. Sure, he probably does that for every customer, but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid win. The food was exceptional American Chinese — crispy tangerine chicken, plum tree beef, curry meat samosas, and fried chicken potstickers. As is usually the case with these restaurants, it was way too much food for a reasonable person to finish, but all of it was very good. I was pleased with chin’s in every way one can be pleased with a dining experience.

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So that was our eating in San Diego. There were a number of places I had ont he list but just didn’t have time to get to: Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce, Mission Brewery, El Dorado Cocktail Lounge, Gaslamp Speakeasy, and Quality Social were all recommended to us. But I reckon you always need an excuse for another visit, so there you go. Thanks to Miguel from Monster Island Resort for dressing up and hanging out, Erin at Saltbox, and to RyeGirl and The Booze Muse (get yourself a website, already) for rustling up such wonderful suggestions. And thanks to Greenie Travels for keeping me company and letting me steal your photos. You were great, San Diego, and we’ll be back.

3 thoughts on “Food & Drink in San Diego”

  1. If you’re ever in town again, you have to head up to North County again and go on a brewery crawl. Stone, Iron Fist, Mother Earth, Lost Abbey, Green Flash (though they’ve moved down to Mira Mesa now), Pizza Port. The list can go on and on. Stone in particular has a knockout location in Escondido with a great garden, pretty good upscale bar food, and a massive beer list.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I was fairly well overwhelmed by the options present in SD, but with only a few days and no car until the last bit of the trip, range was limited. I am always up for a brewery crawl though, especially if I can enlist someone else to drive.

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