Where to Eat and Drink in San Diego’s Convoy District
Toast to the Lunar New Year.
The roughly eight square blocks that make up San Diego’s historic Chinatown bear little resemblance to the Chinatowns of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The district hosts two Chinese Historical Museums, as well as a huge, two-day celebration for Lunar New Year (that’s obviously gone virtual this year), but is otherwise not a destination for Chinese or other Asian fare.
If you’re looking for the city’s best Asian cuisine, most locals will direct you to the Convoy District—home to over 100 restaurants serving Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese cuisines and more, plus a variety of Asian-owned businesses. If you’re looking for tidy walkways and cute tourist shops, you’ll be disappointed. Running along Convoy Street from Aero Drive to Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, the Convoy District is a sprawling business area consisting largely of strip malls, auto dealerships, and office parks that just happens to be where the best Asian restaurants are. It’s not at all walkable, or even easy to drive around, and parking is impossible. And yet, it works.
Over the years the Convoy District has made significant advances towards becoming a vibrant, cohesive Pan-Asian destination neighborhood. On October 20, 2020, the San Diego City Council designated the Convoy District as the Convoy Pan Asian Cultural and Business Innovation District. This, along with the newly approved Kearny Mesa Community Plan, will bring additional housing and improvements to the area, with the goal of eventually creating a neighborhood like Little Italy, with better walkability, parks, recreational areas, bike lanes, and hopefully, one of those cool neon neighborhood archways over Convoy Street.
This Friday, February 12, marks the Lunar New Year, which falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, with celebrations that manifest as the Spring Festival (China), Tết (Vietnam), Tsagaan Sar (Mongolia), Tsagaan Sar (Tibet), Seollal (Korea), and more. While Lunar New Year celebrations vary greatly depending on the culture, the encompassing themes are health, happiness, and good fortune. Houses are cleaned, ancestral altars are refreshed, traditional foods are prepared, and customs are observed to attract good luck in the coming year. And like most joyous holidays, food, and lots of it, dominate the festivities.
With most Lunar New Year festivities happening online this year, there’s no better time to head down to the Convoy District and devour big bowls of long noodles, plump dumplings cooked in little bamboo steamers, and crispy broken rice from blazing hot stone pots. With so many places to choose from, it’s a good thing that Lunar New Year celebrations can last up to 23 days. And don’t worry, we’ve done the (delicious) work for you. Here’s our list of the best places to eat and drink in San Diego’s Convoy District:
Phuong Trang has been a destination for Vietnamese comfort food since 1992. The extensive menu contains over 200 items, with all the staples you know and love, including pho, rice porridge, hot pots and vermicelli soups, and a variety of stir-fried plates. Signature dishes like Dungeness crab or Maine lobster in their special house sauce, catfish steaks simmered in caramelized fish sauce and Manila clams sauteed in garlic, Thai basil, and onion round out the menu.
How to order: In-person or call 858-565-6750 for takeout.
There are plenty of Thai restaurants in San Diego, and Mekong Cuisine Lao and Thai does a fine job with the cuisine, but it’s their Laotian food that especially shines. House made Sai Ou (sausage) is stuffed with porky goodness, lemongrass, makrut, and ginger, well-browned and crispy-skinned. There’s plenty of thick rice noodles and chicken in a rib-sticking bowl of Khao Piak Sen, and Mok Pa wraps fish and aromatic herbs in banana leaves before they are steamed. There’s a Lao sampler platter if you’re undecided, and dessert lovers will adore their charming heart-shaped version of classic mango and sticky rice.
How to order: In person or call 858-279-1879 for takeout, or delivery via Grubhub.
You’ll want to try all nine varieties of steamed, boiled, pan-sauteed and deep-fried dumplings, but whatever you do, make sure you get the Xiao Long Bao—there’s nothing quite like popping one whole into your mouth and biting gently to release a pool of warm, savory soup. The rest of the menu, overseen by legendary chef Phat Vuong, includes handmade noodles, a number of cold plates, and a host of Cantonese comfort foods. Don’t overlook the bar menu either—whiskey aficionados will especially enjoy the Founder’s Old Fashioned made with their own hand-selected Maker's Mark cask bourbon or a Japanese, Scottish or Founder’s flight.
How to order: Stop in or call 858-268-9638 for patio dining and takeout.
Boiled tofu, you say? While it may not sound exciting, your tastebuds will pop when you spoon up Tofu House’s soondubu jjigae: silky, unpressed tofu in a spicy broth studded with pork, seafood, beef, and vegetables, served bubbling in a hot stone bowl. Crack open one or two of the raw eggs that come on the side and drop it in to cook gently in the hot soup. Not a soup fan? Check out the hot stone crispy rice, a big portion of steamed rice is plopped into a scalding hot stone bowl and smothered in your choice of bulgogi, seafood, galbi, chicken, or pork. The heat of the bowl crisps the rice golden brown, ready to receive one of those fresh eggs before you stir it into a crunchy, glorious mess.
How to order: In person or call 858-576-6433 for takeout, or delivery via Grubhub.
Seasonal, often organic foods are a mainstay at Wa Dining Okan, and both the menu and the atmosphere are homey and comforting. Chicken karaage is a must-have—bite-sized, boneless pieces of chicken are marinated in ginger, garlic, and soy, then coated in potato flour and fried until they’re golden brown and shatteringly crisp. Dishes like braised pork belly with a boiled egg or stewed mild peppers in ground beef sauce have that long-simmered, savory, umami goodness that makes you sit back and smile.
How to order: In person or call (858) 279-0941 for takeout, or delivery via Grubhub.
San Diego is the only Southern California location for this wildly popular Chinese hot pot chain that has more than 1,000 franchises worldwide. Sichuan peppercorns, chiles, and premium beef oil or tallow season the house spicy soup base, which comes in multiple heat levels, but several other broths are available, including wild mixed mushrooms with Chinese herbs, a house special with pork bone, and fish filet with pickled vegetables. Use the seasoned broth to dip and cook a nearly endless array of meat, seafood, and vegetables, offal of various types, seven varieties of mushrooms, and handmade balls made from beef, pork, and cuttlefish.
How to order: Walk-ins accepted for patio dining and takeout, call 858-598-5300 for takeout, or delivery via Grubhub or Doordash.
The name says it all at this spot, where mala, the addictive tingling, numbing sensation achieved by the combination of chilis and Sichuan peppercorns, permeates the menu. You’ll find a dizzying array of dishes—ma po tofu, a traditional Sichuan dish, is wonderful, and preserved chili dishes will more than satisfy the most blasé chiliheads, and even simple vegetables like stir-fried long beans will have your palate popping. There’s usually a handwritten list of specials near the door that you’ll want to check out as well.
How to order: Order online, in person or call 858-278-1818 for takeout, or delivery via Chowbus.
All you can eat Korean BBQ shops can be a great bargain and it’s a lot of fun to pile all sorts of delicious meats and veggies on your plate, but when you want top-notch ingredients, DJK (formerly Dai Jang Kuem) is where you want to be. It’s definitely pricier, but the high-quality ingredients are well worth the splurge. It’s also one of the only places in San Diego that uses real charcoal grills. Don’t overlook the rest of the menu, they have a fine selection of dolsot, soondubu, and jeongol.
How to order: Reserve a patio table online (you can also order your food to be ready when you arrive), order in person, online or call 858-573-2585 for takeout, or delivery via Doordash or Grubhub.
This tiny omakase sushi spot has just a dozen or so seats and a menu of impeccable sushi and sashimi, sourced from both local fisheries and the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan and expertly served under the guidance of Chef John Hong. This is the place to slow down and notice every detail—like a fine wine tasting, the items are presented in a specific order designed to complement and enhance each flavor. In non-COVID times, the menu is divided into 50-minute ($50) and 90-minute ($100) experiences, but due to current seating limitations, they’re only serving the 90-minute bill of fare. If you’re not lucky enough to score a reservation, they have a great takeout menu that includes a 12-piece nigiri sushi box and an 8-piece chirashi box.
How to order: In person or call 858-210-5056 for takeout.
Chewy, springy noodles are the star of master ramen chef and owner Takashi Endo’s luscious tonkotsu, miso, and tantanmen bowls. While a central factory in Japan provides over 100,000 servings of noodles each month to his Japanese locations, here in San Diego the noodles are handmade in-house daily by head noodle maker Ryosuske Goto, using flour imported from Hokkaido, Japan, alkaline water, and salt with no artificial colors or preservatives. Their wheaty aroma and flavor perfectly pair with your choice of broths and toppings from the short menu.
How to order: Stop by for patio dining, order online via Clover (you can order online up to three days in advance), in person or call 858-571-2010 for takeout, or delivery via UberEats, DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Yelp.
Just north of the better known Sichuan Province sits Shaanxi Province (not to be confused with the neighboring Shanxi Province), known for the Terracotta Army, the Hukou Waterfall and biang biang noodles, which is famously the most complex Chinese character, having 57 strokes. Long, broad, and chewy, the hand-ripped noodles are smothered in a ground chili and soy-based sauce. Other menu standouts include the Yang Rou Pao Mo, a savory lamb soup studded with cubes of dense bread that take on a dumpling-like consistency after they’ve soaked up the broth, and tofu pidan, a simple, inexpensive dish of silken tofu, a thousand-year-old egg, minced garlic, spring onion drizzled with soy sauce, and Chinese vinegar.
How to order: Order online via BeyondMenu, in person or call (858) 565-2688 for takeout, or delivery via Grubhub, UberEats or Yelp.
They dispensed with the dim sum carts in favor of a regular menu, and while we’re nostalgic for the anticipation we’d feel as the server plucked the covers off various small steamers and bowls, the result is fresh, made-to-order lotus leaf sticky rice, shumai, pot stickers, and steamed chicken feet. But don’t ignore the rest of the menu: there’s juicy BBQ, hearty soups, succulent seafood, hot pot, stone pot, and enough rice and noodle dishes to please everyone.
How to order: Stop in for patio dining, order in person or call 858-565-6888 for takeout, or delivery via Grubhub, Postmates or Yelp.
Let’s hope you saved room for dessert, because the Convoy District has some of the best ice cream shops in the city. All the inventive flavors and adorable cones or waffles to hold your scoops might even tempt you to skip dinner and go on an ice cream crawl instead. Why not? SomiSomi’s Instagram-popular ah-boong is a cute fish-shaped waffle cone you can order filled with nutella, custard, red bean, or taro, topped with soft-serve in flavors like ube, black sesame, matcha, or milk tea, and showered in crumbles or sprinkles. Bing Haus specializes in Thai-style rolled ice cream and a spectacular seasonal bingsu—shaved ice and red beans under a mountain of watermelon or honeydew balls, all doused in condensed milk. For the lightest, fluffiest Taiwanese shaved snow ever, stop by Iceskimo, where owner Robert Yang still hand makes each ice block for the freshest quality. Their Hong Kong bubble waffles, filled with creamy soft serve, are also popular.
How to order: Check individual websites for details.
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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.