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New-school sake with a craft beer twist
It can be hard to break free from the craft beer shackles so many San Diegans find themselves in, but for those who want to take a walk on the sake side, Setting Sun is the place to do it. Headed up by a brewer-turned-sake-smith, the semi-traditional sake-making process here more closely resembles beer brewing than winemaking or distilling, making it a welcome addition to the “Beeramar” region. “My California-style sake follows a traditional style of sake brewing with San Diego craft beer flair," explains Josh Hembree, president of Setting Sun, "using California-grown rice polished to Ginjo grade and brewed to be drank cold."
Setting Sun's offerings include dry-hopped creations (it’s still in IPA country, after all) as well as fruit-forward iterations like pomegranate, blueberry, and strawberry -- the portfolio here will appeal more to beer nerds than sake aficionados, but manages to strike a balance that will suit both pretty damn well.
Beachside dive with an unexpected sake selection
Ocean Beach is an unlikely neighborhood to find quality spirits (think more light beer, less top shelf), but OB Noodle House & Sake Bar defies the odds with one of the best drink lists in San Diego. The sake selection is surprisingly diverse -- think sake-infused cocktails alongside the standard hot and cold selections -- and accommodates a range of price levels and tastes, but there's also a formidable non-sake drinks menu here, with enough making this an easy choice if you're going out with friends who are less inclined to explore rice alcohol than you are. Buy them each a peanut butter Jameson shot, and they'll follow you anywhere.
Now for the bad news: The service here can be pretty slow at times, and the food is hit-or-miss (except for the salt & pepper chicken wings, which are a surprise revelation). Still, happy hour gets you 50% off hot sake, beer, and whiskey from 3 to 6pm on weekdays, so sake seekers shouldn't feel shy about skipping dinner and going straight for the bottle list.
Fusion booze with growler refills
Thanks to separate licenses (one for beer and one for wine), San Diego’s first dual-purpose sake brewery actually serves sake from one bar and craft beer from another -- it’s not nearly as onerous as you might think, though. Kuracali opened in 2015 amidst the beer boom and has capitalized on its unique twist on both ever since. Visitors can expect sake flavors like peach, traditional dry, and kiwi, and even funky versions like mint chocolate peanut butter and habanero -- all 17% ABV, which is a fairly standard percentage for the spirit. You'll also find beers including pale ales, a Belgian wit, and a sake-infused brown ale, and if you like what you taste, to-go growlers of both sake and beer are available.
High-end sake flights and food pairings
Saiko wants you to know it's “serious about sake. Very serious.” -- so serious, in fact, that those words are emblazoned on the menu. Originally located on the posh island of Coronado in San Diego Bay, Saiko opened a second location in the heart of North Park (aka the dining and drinking capital of San Diego) in 2015, and has helped facilitate the Great Sake Takeover ever since.
Prices range from $5 tasters to $100+ for premium bottles, and sake enthusiasts and novices alike can browse through categories like “Sea” (to pair with light flavors), “Air” (best with new school sashimi), nigori (unfiltered), and yamahai/kimoto (ideally served with fried food and earthy flavors). Sake flights are also available -- and affordable -- if you can’t manage to make a decision from the impressive list.
Upscale Japanese spot with a sake sommelier
It can be hard to differentiate between all the ramen joints downtown; one shabby-looking dining room might serve some of the best Japanese food in the city, while the modernist wonder next door has overpriced, gluey noodles nearly impossible to choke down. That said, BeShock somehow manages to provide the best of both. Its glass-wrapped facade punctuated with warm wooden beams is the perfect balance of modern industrial, and a fitting ambiance in which to enjoy its mixed menu of authentic takoyaki (fried octopus bites) alongside more curious options like gorgonzola ramen.
BeShock is the brainchild of Ayaka Ito, one of San Diego’s only sake sommeliers, and as such the sake menu here goes beyond merely "hot and cold." Instead, there's a full range of temperatures on offer, ranging from "sunbathing temperature" (86 F) to "exceptionally hot" (131-140 F) -- and if you're unsure what any of that means, Ayaka's more than happy to walk you through the menu. Kanpai!