San Diego’s proximity to the ocean and general excellence in all things translates into a higher cost of living when it comes to things like rent and gas, but if you know where to look, you don’t have to shell out much for great food. Need proof? Here it is, in the form of San Diego’s best cheap eats under $5.
What you're getting: Empanada de choclo ($3.95)
All of the empanadas here are under $5 a pop, but we have a special place in our heart for the choclo (sweet corn, cotija cheese, and fire-roasted pepper). Hit it hard and often with chimichurri.
What you’re getting: Coconut waffle ($4)
You’ll know your waffle is just about ready when the sweet, vanilla-scented air wafts through the window to the kitchen at this casual grab-and-go spot. The combination of light and crispy waffle, creamy peanut butter, condensed milk, and shredded coconut is insanely good.
Little Italy/4S Ranch/Hillcrest
What you're getting: Pollo e pesto ($4.75)
Some people have very strong opinions about chicken on pizza. This slice, topped with juicy strips of organic chicken, cherry tomatoes, tangy goat cheese, and homemade basil pesto, might just be what converts them forever.
What you're getting: Whitestone pepperoni slice ($2.50)
If you haven’t tried this pepperoni and herbed ricotta white pie, may we ask what you have against unbridled joy?
What you're getting: Frozen custard sundae
If you have a soft spot for McDonald’s sundaes, this treat from Bruxie with frozen Wisconsin custard topped with roasted peanuts, Belgian chocolate (or caramel) sauce, fresh whipped cream, and chocolate shavings might temporarily make regular speech impossible. They have cones too, but the crunchy texture and salty flavor of the nuts is what edges this treat over the top.
What you're getting: Fish tacos ($4.25 and up)
The vast majority of fish/seafood taco options at this always-busy shop ring in under $5, and unlike most places, you also get to choose your preparation (lemon butter, lemon-garlic butter, bourbon butter, teriyaki, chipotle, blackened, or bronzed). Multiple visits may be required to find your favorite, but that’s not really a bad thing.
What you're getting: Bacon plate ($4.50)
If you’re visiting this UTC-area pizza restaurant, it’s likely you’re planning on ordering a pie, but consider this plate of thick-cut bacon rubbed with a house-made blend of spices, served with blistered shishito peppers. The salty/smoky/spicy flavors pair great with a beer, just watch out: some peppers are much hotter than others.
What you're getting: Rolled tacos (three for $3.25 or five for $4.25)
A threesome (or fivesome) of beef or potato rolled tacos smothered with a pile of lettuce, guac, pico, and shredded cheese (plus whatever salsa you like) makes a tasty lunch, and, unlike the enormous burritos sold here, after you polish them off, you might actually be able to contemplate eating dinner.
Various farmers' markets
What you're getting: Walk & Guac ($5)
A grab-and-go container of tortilla chips and chunky guac is just what you need when you’re cruising through the farmers' market. Luckily, it exists!
What you're getting: Sweet corn tamale ($3.50)
It’s listed as a side dish, but there’s definitely enough butter in the creamy, corn pudding-like filling for this dish to squarely qualify as a dessert. You should probably get one with your entree and another one to end the meal (just scooch the onions to the side).
What you're getting: Mini cheeseburger ($4.50)
Most people gravitate towards the big-as-your-head burgers at Hodad’s, but for a mere $4.50, you can score a mini cheeseburger. The smaller stature delivers what some might call a better meat-to-bread (and toppings) ratio, anyway.
What you're getting: Fresh spring rolls ($4.95)
Pleasantly chewy rice paper wrappers can barely contain the generous portion of fresh veggies, tofu, and rice noodles inside these seriously healthy yet totally delicious rolls. Two house-made sauces (peanut dip and pineapple sauce) sweeten the deal.
What you're getting: MTL Toasty ($3.50)
The toasted, buttery bun goes a long way towards making this hot dog topped with mustard, relish, onions, and Royale slaw truly delicious.
Pacific Beach/Carlsbad/Petco Park
What you're getting: Custom ice cream sandwich ($3.25-$4.25)
Whether you build your own ice cream sandwich with cookies, brownies, or a donut, it’ll still ring in well under $5. Our pick is the cookie and brownie combo ($3.70), a delicious treat big enough to satisfy the sweet tooth of a bear under the influence of appetite-increasing herbs.
What you're getting: White clam chowder ($3.50 for a cup)
Rich and creamy chowder with sweet Manila clams, salty bacon, and oyster crackers makes a great lunch on a gloomy afternoon... but it’s equally delicious on one of San Diego’s many ridiculously beautiful days.
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1. Food Shop455 5th Ave, San Diego
2. Bronx Pizza111 Washington St, San Diego
3. Bruxie5157 College Ave, San Diego
4. Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill3667 India St, San Diego
5. Regents Pizzeria4150 Regents Park Row, La Jolla
6. Lucha Libre1810 W Washington St, San Diego
7. Venga Venga2015 Birch Rd, San Diego
8. Plumeria4661 Park Blvd, San Diego
9. Mess Royale142 University Ave Ste C, San Diego
10. Fish 1011468 N Coast Highway 101, Encinitas
Food Shop is the grab-and-go component of Michelin-starred chef Michael Bao Huynh's Sovereign Kitchen. The menu is casual and straight forward Vietnamese, offering bahn mi, pho and vegetable bowls. And don't forget to save room for the light and crisp coconut waffle, with creamy peanut butter, condensed milk, and shredded coconut it's insanely good.
This Hillcrest slice shop is known (and loved) for classic NYC-style pies and calzones with so much variety that it may take several visits to find your favorite. The no-frills seating area is fine for a quick bite, but if you want a full pie, it’s better to call ahead for a fresh one to-go. There’s no delivery, and the parking situation is a permanent pain in the butt, but pies this good are worth the trouble.
Get yourself some waffles the non-traditional way at Bruxie with creations involving buttermilk fried chicken, angus beef patties, and hot pastrami.
Famous for their fish tacos, Blue Water Seafood in San Diego offers in-house dining, as well as a large selection of fresh fish and shellfish available for cooking at home. The vast majority of fish/seafood taco options at this always-busy shop ring in under $5, and unlike most places, you also get to choose your preparation (lemon butter, lemon-garlic butter, bourbon butter, teriyaki, chipotle, blackened, or bronzed).
Regents in La Jolla slings both New York and Chicago-style pies made with a stone deck oven imported from Italy. You can get a whole pie if you’re willing to wait, or head directly to the slice case for instant gratification. Appetizers, salads and sandwiches round out the menu in addition to a selection of good craft beers and a solid wine list. The space, located in a strip mall, is bright, simply decorated and often busy.
Lucha Libre Taco Shop in Mission Hills embodies the zany energy of the Mexican brand of masked pro wrestling. In a high-energy space with hot pink walls, framed pop art, and lucha masks all around, tacos and burritos are the true champions. One such knockout is the Surfin' California burrito, a 14in tortilla packed tight with steak, shrimp, avocado, French fries, cheese, pico de gallo, and chipotle sauce. Discounts on various menu items are rewarded to those crazy enough to show up in an actual lucha mask.
Pair Mexican comfort food with 100 tequilas & mezcals behind the bar (all of which are also comforting), add in guac prepared tableside and a large patio outfitted with firepits, and you've got Venga Venga. They host a bottomless brunch on the weekends with unlimited breakfast tacos and shareable small plates, plus unlimited access to the brunch bar stocked with micheladas, Bloody Marias, margaritas, and mimosas.
Located in the center of University Heights, Plumeria offers vegan and vegetarian Thai food made with only organic and MSG free products. Be sure to try the fresh spring rolls, wrapped in pleasantly chewy rice paper and stuffed with a generous portion of fresh veggies, tofu, and rice noodles.
Get a dozen different spins on poutine at San Diego’s first poutinerie, plus other Montreal comfort food, like “toasties” (hot dogs) and sandwiches made with imported sesame seed bagels.
California coastal seafood house Fish 101 has a menu that changes not only with the seasons, but with whatever fish bites the line that morning. The Encinitas seafood shack is local and sustainable in both fishing practices and ingredient sourcing, as the produce and herbs come from from various SoCal farms. Order at the counter, grab a seat at the communal table, and enjoy a glass of wine or a craft beer while you wait for your California-caught, simply grilled (or fried) catch-of-the-day to join you at the table.