13 Essential Filipino Restaurants You Need to Know in San Diego
The cuisine is so much more than lumpia and pancit.
October is Filipino Heritage Month and while the month is closing fast, there’s still time to celebrate. In San Diego County, the Filipino community makes up roughly 6% of the population, the second largest in the U.S. following LA County, according to a 2018 report by the Migration Policy Institute. This migration isn’t recent. Following the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines became a U.S. territory, igniting the first significant wave of Filipinos to Southern California. After the passing of the Immigration Act of 1965, Filipino men enlisted in the military (usually the Navy), bringing their families with them. Today, Filipinos occupy almost every facet in San Diego, and not just in Mira Mesa or National City, two epicenters for the community. They’re politicians, journalists, scientists, farmers, and everything in between.
To know this community is to also know their food. Modern Filipino cuisine reflects the country’s complex history, including early agricultural trading with China and India and colonial influences from the U.S. and Spain. You can taste this mix of cultures in dishes like pancit, lumpia, and lechon—staples at every Filipino party and popular potluck go-tos. But you don't need to be a party guest to get a taste of Filipino food; there are plenty of restaurants around the county to indulge in the cuisine year round. Here’s a sampling of where to go for homespun meals, modern takes on Filipino cuisine, dessert as well as coffee. Kain tayo, or let’s eat!
The big draw to this National City establishment is their kamayan, a Filipino tradition where food is spread on banana leaves and eaten with one’s hands minus utensils. Get handsy with steamed shrimp, grilled milkfish, eggplant, and pickled cabbage with plenty of white rice. Reservations are recommended for kamayan but the menu also features regional cuisine from around the Philippines like kare-kare (peanut stew with bok choy, eggplant, oxtail, tripe and beef shank) from Luzon.
How to book: Walk-in or make a reservation by calling 619-477-8512.
Lechon is kind of a big thing in the Philippines. A whole roast pig is usually ordered to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and other celebrations and Porky’s is one of the premier go-to places in National City. Place an order for small, medium, or large lechon, a roasted pork belly roll, or a boodle party package, ideal for having a Kamayan-style feast at home. Porky’s also sells lechon as small as one pound for smaller fiestas, and plate lunches for individual servings.
How to book: Place orders online for pickup.
CARiN de RiA
Find this restaurant in the heart of Downtown Encinitas where they serve up Filipino favorites like lumpia, garlic fried rice, two kind of pancit, and a variety of braises and stews like caldereta (a beef stew with onions, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes) and chicken adobo, the national dish of the Philippines: a savory garlic-infused dish seasoned with soy sauce and vinegar. The weekday lunchtime specials offer a little bit of everything (rice, lumpia, pancit) with your choice of entree.
How to book: Walk-in or make a reservation by calling 760-557-4873.
Phillip Esteban made a name for himself as one of the prominent Filipino-American chefs in San Diego and you can taste his food at Liberty Station’s White Rice. Go early for rice bowls packed with Pinoy BBQ in the form of grilled manok (chicken) or lechon kawali (crisp pork belly)—two items known to sell out early. There are also vegetarian options like tortang talong, an eggplant omelette. In addition, for every meal purchased, one meal is donated to local groups in underprivileged communities in the county via Esteban’s non-profit organization Open Gym.
How to book: Walk-in or order takeout via Toast.
Fredcel Lumpias & Catering
Say you have a big hankering for lumpia and/or need to bring something to a party. Place an order for lumpia and pancit by calling Fredcel. Big orders require at least three days advance notice. Smaller appetites or those looking for a quick Filipino fix can also head in for combo plates packed with noodles, rice, adobo, and, of course, as much lumpia as you can eat.
How to book: Walk-in or call ahead at 619-282-2305 for big orders.
Fried chicken is prepared a little differently at this international Filipino chain found in Mira Mesa. The chicken forgoes all coating and instead is deep fried, resulting in crispy skin hiding succulent meat underneath, ideal for dunking into the accompanying banana ketchup. Aside from fried chicken, the restaurant also serves crab fried rice, laing (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk), and sinigang, a tamarind soup.
How to book: Walk-in or order online for takeout and delivery.
Sure, Jollibee is a fast food chain but hear us out. Just like Mickey D’s and In-N-Out, it’s an institution and its red and yellow bee mascot is an icon throughout the islands. With two locations in San Diego County, you’re never too far from sweet spaghetti with hot dog slices, a two-piece Chickenjoy, an addictive fried chicken combo, and peach-mango hand pie with real Filipino mangoes in each hot, flaky bite.
How to order: Walk-in or order online for takeout, delivery, and drive-thru orders.
If you don’t know about Tita’s Kitchenette, get yourself down to National City for a taste. As one of the most prominent Filipino spots in the county, it has been featured in countless shows and write ups, including Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods America. The food hasn’t changed much and crowds still come for a variety of BBQ items, two kinds of sinigang, pancit, and adobo, all for about $10 for a two-item combo.
How to order: Walk in.
Ching's Famous Hopia Bakeshop
Find sweet things at this popular National City bakery where they specialize in hopia, the Filipino version of the Chinese mooncake. The flaky exteriors of each pastry encase either ube (a Filipino purple sweet potato), buko pandan (coconut), langka (jackfruit), pineapple, mongo (mung bean), or baboy (winter melon).
How to order: Walk in.
Animae may be widely known as a steakhouse with Asian fusion, but under the direction of Filipino-American executive chef Tara Monsod, the restaurant delivers a few select dishes from Monsod’s culture with delicious results. Her scallop crudo incorporating calamansi, a lemon-lime-like citrus used throughout the Philippines, is a standout. Also worth ordering are the kare-kare short ribs with bagoong, a fermented shrimp paste, which delivers a hit of umami in the dish.
How to book: Make reservations online.
Halo Halo Cafe
It’s no surprise that the tropical climate of the Philippines brought on the creation of halo halo. This sweet concoction incorporating sweet red beans, jackfruit, coconut strings, banana, and leche flan, mixed together with crushed ice and evaporated milk, is a popular Filipino dessert and you can eat your way through this cafe’s signature variation at two locations. The cafe also sells Filipino lunch plates and ice cream with popular Filipino flavors like mais queso (corn and cheese) and avocado.
How to order: Walk in or select a location and call for takeout.
Valerio's City Bakery
Do an internet search for Valerio’s Bakery in San Diego and you’ll find at least half a dozen in the county sharing the same name, and each is a must-visit for their baked goods. Head in early on the weekend for fresh baked pan de sal, a breakfast bread staple in the Philippines. There’s no shortage of sweet pastries either like ensaymada, a brioche-like roll sometimes stuffed with either ube or cream cheese and topped with butter and sugar, or puto, a steamed rice cake.
How to order: Walk in.
A lot of people don't immediately think about the Philippines when they think about coffee beans. The founders of Mostra Coffee, Beverly Magtanong, Sam Magtanong, Jelynn Malone, and Mike Arquines, sought to change that while also giving back to the local community as well as making a difference abroad. Head to one of three locations to pick up beans grown in the Philippines to brew at home, and also order one of their signature coffees with a sippable take on traditional Filipino desserts: a hot bibingka creme brulee, turon cappuccino with ripened banana milk, or cold brew using Philippine coconuts.
How to order: Walk in or select a location and order online for takeout.