Food & Drink

50 Things You Need to Eat in San Diego Before You Die

Published On 10/07/2015 Published On 10/07/2015
Fried chicken at Kettner Exchange | Sara Norris/Thrillist

Not to get all morbid and serious on you, but life is short. Too short, in fact, to spend time eating things that don’t taste amazing. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you, we painstakingly compiled these 50 things you absolutely have to eat before your time on this planet (or worse, your time in San Diego) comes to an end.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

1. Double bacon cheeseburger

Hodad's (address and info)
Downtown and Ocean Beach
Even though the single (or mini) sizes are more manageable, there’s something deeply satisfying about tackling a double bacon cheeseburger from this iconic burger shop. You’ll feel like you had a busy, accomplishment-filled day, even if you go home and immediately fall asleep for several hours. (This is the recommended course of action, especially if you also have fries and a shake.)
 

2. Carne asada fries

Lolita's (address and info)
East Village and Kearny Mesa
This local culinary creation featuring thinly sliced strips of seasoned steak, shredded cheddar cheese, cotija, crema, guacamole, and thin-cut fries is served at just about every taco shop, but Lolita’s does it best. Top it with some green and red salsa and you’re good to go.

Natalie Holtz

3. California burrito

Nico's Mexican Food (address and info)
Multiple locations
Local surfers say Nico’s serves the best California burrito (essentially carne asada fries in burrito form) in San Diego. We agree. For the ultimate slacker/stoner/surfer experience, head to the original location in Ocean Beach. Bring cash; it doesn’t take cards.

Cece Canton

4. Yodel

Juniper & Ivy (address and info)
Little Italy
This chocolate cake cylinder gets doused with warm chocolate sauce at the table, but the excitement doesn’t end there. Inside, it’s filled with all manner of deliciousness, including nitrogen-frozen balls of white and milk chocolate, hazelnut brittle, and white chocolate foam.
 

5. Acai bowl

OB Smoothie Bar and Sub Express (address and info)
Ocean Beach
It’s part smoothie, part fruit salad, and all delicious. Add some shredded coconut or mango (when it’s in season) if you like. Tip: they’ll split it into two smaller Styrofoam containers if you’re sharing.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

6. Tiramisu pancakes

Cafe 21 (address and info)
Gaslamp
There’s no doubt these show-stopping cocoa-infused tiramisu pancakes plated with espresso syrup, homemade chocolate drizzle, and mounds of mascarpone and cocoa whipped cream are some of the best pancakes in San Diego. Tip: there’s no need to wait until weekend brunch when you can get a full (or half-size) portion any day of the week from 8am-3pm.

Puesto

7. Guacamole Nogada

Puesto (address and info)
La Jolla and Marina District
Going more than a few weeks without eating guacamole in San Diego is crazy, especially when you can get kicked-up versions like this one from Puesto, made with pomegranate, green mango, chile de árbol, tomato, and candied walnuts.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

8. Fried pizza knots

Soda & Swine (address and info)
Liberty Station and North Park
Be warned: these cheese-stuffed fried dough balls served with tangy marinara sauce are hazardously addictive.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

9. Panang curry

Sab-E-Lee (address and info)
Linda Vista
No other curry comes close to being as creamy and satisfying as the panang from Sab-E-Lee. Get it with your choice of protein and a side of rice. The spice level is up to you; No. 3 is a happy medium between too tame and so hot it will blow your face off.
 

10. Garlic naan

Sundara (address and info)
Ocean Beach
This underappreciated Indian restaurant serves delicious curries and Tandoori chicken, but what will really stay with you is the soft and fluffy garlic naan.

AZUCAR

11. Guava cheese pastry

Azucar (address and info)
Ocean Beach
This flaky, buttery pastry filled with tangy cream cheese and guava paste is delicious any time of the day, but it makes an especially delicious breakfast, ideally paired with a cafe con leche. For the best experience, ask for yours to be warmed up. It’s always worth waiting an extra couple of minutes.
 

12. Number Seven

Wow Wow Waffle (address and info)
North Park
This sweet, savory, salty, and tangy Liege waffle with bacon baked in brown sugar, sliced avocado, and goat cheese is everything you could ever want from a single food unit.

RUBICON DELI

13. Build your own sandwich

Rubicon Deli (address and info)
Mission Beach and Mission Hills
Giant loaves of fresh-baked bread set Rubicon Deli apart from the pack. Its pre-designed sandwiches are delicious, but we like how you can control every element when you build one exactly to your liking. For best results, start with the jalapeño jack bread.

BO-beau

14. Famous Brussels sprouts

BO-beau (address and info)
Ocean Beach and La Mesa
Kat Humphus is no longer in the kitchen at BO-beau, but luckily her most famous creation, fried Brussels sprouts with pancetta, Parmesan, and a balsamic port reduction, isn’t going anywhere. If you’re among the small group of locals who have yet to try this dish, put it on your to-do list, ASAP. Pro tip: they are also available at 100 Wines (or use this recipe to make them at home!).

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

15. Bacon-wrapped dates

Prepkitchen (address and info)
Little Italy, La Jolla, and Del Mar
Biting into these sweet dates stuffed with savory blue cheese and wrapped in salty bacon blankets is a bit like pulling the pin on a flavor grenade. Great news: while most of the menu shifts seasonally, these beauties are almost always available.
 

16. Focaccia di Recco

Davanti Enoteca (address and info)
Little Italy and Del Mar
The flaky, baked creation stuffed with fresh cheese and served with a cube of honeycomb does double duty as a delicious shared appetizer or a just-sweet-enough dessert.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

17. Mission French toast

The Mission (address and info)
Mission Beach, North Park, and East Village
Swirls of cinnamon speed these thick slices of sweet and tender French toast directly to Tasty Town. Swirls of berry coulis mean syrup isn’t totally necessary (but it’s still a good idea).
 

18. S&C mac and cheese

Salt and Cleaver (address and info)
Hillcrest
Pretty much all mac and cheese is tasty, but the mac here is on another level, thanks to the crunchy gremolata topping and a rich and silky white cheddar sauce.

Slater's 50/50

19. Cococarma

Slater's 50/50 (address and info)
Liberty Station
The Cococarma is Slater’s take on the GS staple Samoa (or the Caramel deLite, depending on where you grew up eating cookies). Elements like a warmed shortbread cookie crust, mounds of toasted coconut, gooey caramel, ice cream, and a chocolate drizzle make it one of the city’s most indulgent desserts.
 

20. Truffled French fries

Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant (address and info)
Bankers Hill
Bankers Hill has perfected the French fry. The spud sticks are crispy on the outside, fluffy in the inside, and finished with just the right amount of Parmesan cheese. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, they’re served in a big bowl with a side of truffle aioli.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

21. Beet Tower

Stella Public House (address and info)
East Village
The beet-to-goat cheese ratio skews towards the dairy component in this stunning and delicious two-tone beet dish that also ranks as one of the top 10 bites in the East Village. Even so, feel free to count it as eating your vegetables.
 

22. Blueberry fritter

Rose Donuts (address and info)
Linda Vista and Clairemont
For those times you want a classic, non-hipster donut, this shop is here for you. The enormous glazed fritters bursting with blueberries are one of the shop’s most amazing creations. If they're out of blueberry on your visit, the apple version is excellent as well.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

23. Apricot-glazed crispy cauliflower

Cusp (address and info)
La Jolla
Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, you’ve got to appreciate this creative dish featuring crispy cauliflower segments tossed in a tangy apricot sauce with charred vegetable couscous and creamy chimichurri yogurt. The Asian flavor profile is a delicious departure from the coastal Mediterranean-inspired fare that dominates most of the menu (and nothing this exciting has happened to cauliflower in decades).
 

24. Whitestone pizza

Bronx Pizza (address and info)
Hillcrest
If you love white pies, chances are good you’re already all over this version that's topped with mozzarella, garlic, and creamy blobs of herbed ricotta cheese. Add some pepperoni or mushrooms to the mix and you’ve got a must-try pizza. Whether you go for a quick slice or wait for a whole pie fresh from the oven is your call.

J&T Thai Street Food

25. Steamed chicken rice

J&T Thai Street Food (address and info)
Linda Vista
Thai-style chicken and rice (khao man gai) is tough to find in San Diego, but luckily, the one place we’re aware of that’s tackling the dish does a bang-up job. The plate features tender poached chicken, flavorful rice cooked in chicken broth, ginger-soy dipping sauce, sliced cucumber, and a cup of broth to sip between bites.

Josh Kopelman

26. Cinnamon roll

Urban Solace (address and info) and Sea & Smoke (address and info)
North Park/Del Mar
There is nothing better than the giant, freshly baked, homemade cinnamon roll topped with a massive scoop of cream cheese frosting at Urban Solace. That is unless you order one at Chef Matt Gordon’s other restaurant Sea & Smoke in Del Mar. During weekend brunch you can totally customize its cinnamon rolls with toppings like whipped cream, toasted coconut, or brown sugar and black pepper bacon from its “top your own cinnamon roll bar.”

Courtesy of SanDiego.org

27. Gelato

Pappalecco (address and info)
Little Italy, Hillcrest, Point Loma
In true Italian fashion, Pappalecco makes all of its gelato on-site many times a day using only fresh, natural ingredients. Using the “hot process” it pasteurizes the milk, sugar, and milk proteins before adding all of its delicious flavors to the mix and sending it to the freezer. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy yours in a cup, on a cone, or stuffed inside one of its croissants, it's still the best gelato that will ever meet your lips.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

28. Triple Threat Pork Sandwich

Carnitas' Snack Shack (address and info)
North Park/Del Mar
With its combination of pulled pork, bacon, and pork loin schnitzel stacked high on a bun, Carnitas' Snack Shack dares to ask the question: why put only one kind of pork on a sandwich when you can put three? Exactly.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

29. Drugstore Style Hamburger

The Lodge at Torrey Pines (address and info)
La Jolla
There are no fancy gimmicks here, just a classic burger topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and mayonnaise on a sesame seed bun. As simple as the burger looks, it is hands down the best burger you’ll eat while overlooking a world-class golf course in San Diego.

Erin Jackson/Thrillist

30. Red velvet waffle

Kitchen 4140 (address and info)
Clairemont
These waffles are like your favorite breakfast food and your favorite cupcake got together and had a sinfully delicious love child topped with cherry syrup, candied walnuts, cream cheese frosting, fruit, and applewood-smoked bacon.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

31. The Bobbie

Capriotti’s (address and info)
Mission Valley
You no longer have to wait all year long, take an entire day to cook a turkey, deal with your crazy family, watch some football, and pass out on the couch only to creep back into the kitchen late at night and dig through the fridge to have one of those amazing Thanksgiving dinner leftover sandwiches. Just head to Capriotti’s and ask for The Bobbie all year-round.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

32. Chimera

Supernatural Sandwiches (address and info)
Mira Mesa
The Chimera from Supernatural Sandwiches is like a surf & turf dinner covered with melted cheese and put on a grilled sandwich. It's made with thinly sliced Korean steak, grilled shrimp, kimchi, and gooey cheese in between two buttery pieces of brioche bread.

Sandbar

33. TKO Style fish tacos

Sandbar (address and info)
Mission Beach
There is a reason why Sandbar’s TKO Style fish tacos win every fish taco challenge in San Diego, and as far as we know, it has nothing to do with anybody actually getting punched in the face. It all starts with a piece of grilled local fish on a cotija-crusted flour tortilla. Top that with chipotle aioli, beer-brined escabeche slaw, lime crema, spicy guacamole, tobacco onions, and fried cilantro and you’ve got yourself the best fish taco in town.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

34. Grandma Lucy’s Chicken Pie

Betty’s Pie Whole Saloon (address and info)
Encinitas
Someone needs to give Grandma Lucy a big ol' hug for coming up with this recipe. Aside from using only the highest quality ingredients to make these chicken pot pies, it is all about the crust. The free-range chicken, baby carrots, and peas are tucked under a perfect Parmesan herb pastry crust that is baked to a golden brown.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

35. Lobster roll

Ironside Oyster (address and info)
Little Italy
Ironside is known for serving some of the freshest oysters and seafood in town, but its lobster roll is terrific. If you didn’t already know that it makes all its own bread, it does, and it is incredible. Stuff that with a pound of lobster lightly covered in brown butter mayo, throw some crispy shallots on top, and you’ve got the best lobster roll you can find outside of New England right here in Little Italy.
 

36. Korean BBQ

Yakyudori Yakitori & Ramen (address and info)
Clairemont
If you have not ventured down Convoy St and sampled the various Asian restaurants, then you are surely missing out on a cultural experience right here in San Diego. One of the best on this strip is Yakyudori Yakitori & Ramen. Sit at the bar and watch them grill up everything from chicken hearts to beef tongue on wooden skewers. Don’t worry if the unusual bits aren’t really your thing; everything here is excellent and there are more familiar items to choose from like chicken thighs and bacon-wrapped asparagus.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

37. Almost Lasagna

Sicilian Thing (address and info)
North Park
Sicilian Thing had a stroke of genius when it merged these two Italian favorites: thick, square-cut pizza made with ricotta and meatballs that is almost (but not quite) lasagna on a crust. Italian mothers around the world are probably rolling over in their graves while we’re enjoying the ingenuity.
 

38. Polipo

Monello (address and info)
Little Italy
The chefs at Monello aren't giving up their secret octopus recipe, but it takes five hours to prepare and it is so worth the wait. Whatever they’re doing, the octopus is tender and perfectly cooked no matter which of their polipo dishes you decide to order.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

39. Big Bowl

Queenstown Public House (address and info)
Little Italy
Most people go here for the burgers, but if you’re looking for something light and fresh for lunch, then sitting down on Queenstown’s patio with the Big Bowl is exactly what you need in your life. The name says it all. It is a big bowl filled to the brim with grilled shrimp, seasonal fruit, arugula, avocado, mango, pineapple, fennel, and orange mint dressing.
 

40. Fried chicken 

Kettner Exchange (address and info)
Little Italy
This is not your grandma’s southern fried chicken. Chef Brian Redzikowski’s Asian-inspired dish is made from pieces of lightly breaded chicken that are slightly crunchy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, and served with jasmine rice, Vietnamese herbs, hoisin sauce, and a spicy aioli that adds an unexpected flavor to a classic dish.

Sarah Norris/Thrillist

41. Pecan pie

Great Maple (address and info)
University Heights
True story: the first time I had Great Maple’s pecan pie, it was so incredible that I had a dream about it that night. Now keep in mind that its pies change all the time, so pecan pie isn’t always on the menu, but if you get the chance to try it you should order two pieces.
 

42. Pho

OB Noodle House (address and info)
Ocean Beach
Some think of pho as comfort food. Some think of it as hangover food. Some think of it as that irresistible bowl of noodles that they have no idea how to pronounce (it’s pronounced “fuh” btw), but most people in San Diego will agree that OB Noodle house serves it the best.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

43. Foggs Flaming Hot Sauce wings

Phileas Foggs (address and info)
Scripps Ranch
There are those who say they like their wings with some heat, and then there are those who aren’t satisfied until they’ve scorched their taste buds off. Be warned; these wings are for the latter crowd.
 

44. Tacos

Las Cuatro Milpas (address and info)
Barrio Logan
Mexican food doesn’t get more authentic on this side of the border than at Las Cuatro Milpas. Don’t be deterred by the line. You just have to accept the fact that there is always a line, so stand in it like everyone else has been doing for the last 82 years. We promise, the tacos you’ll get on the other end of that line are certainly worth the wait.

Courtesy of Draft

45. Lemon meringue pie milkshake

Draft (address and info)
Mission Beach
This place is known for its beer, but it is serving something else in a glass that pie lovers everywhere need to know about. This milkshake is like slurping a slice of cool lemon meringue pie through a straw complete with a swirl of toasted meringue on top.
 

46. Uni

Sushi Ota (address and info)
Pacific Beach
Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall between a 7-Eleven and a Planned Parenthood is the most authentic Japanese sushi you can get outside of Japan. Chef Ota fell in love with the fresh local sea urchin in San Diego while visiting from Japan and serving it has been his specialty since opening his restaurant in 1990. Even if uni is not your favorite, all of the sushi here is especially fresh and well-prepared. Just make sure you get a reservation before stopping by.

Prepkitchen

47. Chilaquiles

Prepkitchen (address and info)
Multiple locations
Prepkitchen isn’t exactly a Mexican food joint, but that doesn’t mean its chilaquiles aren’t muy bueno. You get a pile of chipotle-braised shredded chicken over corn tortillas with two fried eggs on top, avocado, queso fresco, red onions, cilantro, and a sauce that will give your brunch a kick in the pants.
 

48. Prime rib

Albie's Beef Inn (address and info)
Mission Valley
We’re not all exactly driving around in time-hopping DeLoreans just yet, but if you want a blast from the past, a trip to Albie’s Beef Inn is like walking right into 1962… and it's serving the best prime rib in town with a sugar-sweet carrot and a stuffed baked potato on the side.

Sara Norris/Thrillist

49. Maple bacon bar 

Donut Bar (address and info)
Downtown
Since its inception in 2013, Donut Bar has come up with countless styles and flavors of this sweet treat that keep people coming back for more. It’s no wonder that over two years later there is still a line out the door every day. No matter how many varieties it creates, there is no better flavor combination of savory and sweet than this mix of a classic maple donut and strips of salty bacon.
 

50. Borrego tostada

ComĂşn Kitchen & Tavern (address and info)
East Village
Común, Chef Chad White’s Baja-inspired East Village eatery, has all kinds of delicious build-your-own options, but if you don’t want to think, just go with the borrego tostada. The crispy tostada shell is piled with roasted lamb leg, frijoles charros, cilantro, lime, and red onion.

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Erin Jackson is a San Diego-based writer and photographer who lives to eat (see above). If you like food tips and cat photos, definitely follow her on Twitter at @erinjax.

San Diego writer and photographer Sara Norris does not regret any of the years that Great Maple's pecan pie may have taken off her life. Follow her while she's still around @SaraKNorris.

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