Zarlito's Family Restaurant
Zarlito's Family Restaurant | Bradford Tennyson/Thrillist
Zarlito's Family Restaurant | Bradford Tennyson/Thrillist
DestiNATION San Diego

11 Foods and Drinks You Absolutely Have to Try When Visiting San Diego

If you're even thinking of being in San Diego, check out the rest of our DestiNATION: San Diego guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do.

Until recently, San Diego's most sought-after culinary offerings were, simply, whatever you could eat on a patio overlooking the Pacific. Nothing against an oceanside table for two, but the city has quietly grown into a food destination befitting its location: a huge metropolis that mashes up the best of Mexican flavors, Californian experimentation, Pacific Rim seafood culture, beer mad-science, stuck-in-the-'60s post-war Americana, and the surfer's inclination for simple pleasures.

The result is a city whose food and drink, imitated elsewhere, have become a reason to visit San Diego in their own right. We've rounded up San Diego's signature cuisines and libations for you to explore for yourself.

The Grass Skirt
The Grass Skirt | Alen Lin

You're at the beach! Or at least close to it. Nothing screams being near the ocean quite like Tiki does, and thankfully San Diego has that in spades. San Diego's unpretentious style embraces Tiki, the laid-back yang to the yin of a naval base from which generations of American sailors have imported bits of Pacific island culture. Consider Tiki an ethos, if a kitschy one: Relax, imagine yourself in an undefined island locale, and listen to your whims.

San Diego's Tiki revival comes at the perfect time: Rum is the new hot liquor, following in the footsteps of mezcal and bourbon. More flexible than those other spirits, rum need only be distilled from sugar cane -- an ideal complement to tropical flavors of all sorts. It's game on.

Bali Hai

SHELTER ISLAND

For the old-school classic, head to Bali Hai on Shelter Island, which has an original Mai Tai that is 100% booze. This iconic spot has the best views of Downtown San Diego, bar none.

Fairweather

EAST VILLAGE

This festive outdoor terrace overlooking Petco Park has an extensive, inventive menu of classic and original Tiki-style drinks. Try its take on the Oaxacan Dead -- a must-drink for mezcal lovers.

The Grass Skirt

PACIFIC BEACH

This Pacific Beach speakeasy-style Tiki wonderland requires you to slip in through Good Time Poke. You'll head in through what looks like a refrigerator and be deposited in a volcano, which leads to the main dining room. It's decorated to the nines with volcano murals, fire, bamboo adornments, and giant Tiki figures. Importantly, it's also stocked with incredible drinks and Asian-fusion shared plates. Expect a soaring menu of rare rums.

False Idol

LITTLE ITALY

A lush, speakeasy-style lounge in the happening downtown neighborhood of Little Italy requires you enter through an actual refrigerator at the back of popular restaurant Craft & Commerce. It's a tight space so reservations are a must. The place is also geeking out on rum, with a split menu of classic Tiki drinks alongside its modern interpretation of each one. Expect a dark, lush atmosphere -- a more secretive island vibe.

Fish Taco
Mitch's Seafood | NATALIE HOLTZ/Thrillist

Simply put, this is the quintessential San Diego meal. It's understood that the fish taco originated about 90 minutes south, in the Mexican port city of Ensenada, where you may find it made with shark meat. In the United States, the protein is usually some kind of mild whitefish -- snapper, cod, halibut, flounder, or mahi-mahi -- battered and fried, then married to a tangy slaw, a creamy salsa, and a squeezed lime on, typically, a flour tortilla. Many fish taco joints also offer a grilled option, to give some variety. Knowing San Diego's relationship with the border, it's no surprise that the city is the fish taco's hometown outside of Mexico.

Fish 101

ENCINITAS

Fish 101 in Encinitas is serving what many locals say is the superlative fish taco with all the classic fixings. There really isn’t much more to say except that it’s likely the perfect fish taco in the perfect surf town.

Mitch's Seafood

POINT LOMA

Mitch's is a casual seafood joint right on the marina in Point Loma, well-known for other types of fresh seafood and just damn good at whipping up a fish taco. Its delicious swordfish taco isn't to be missed.

Oscar's

PACIFIC BEACH

Oscars, with several locations around town, is the OG fish taco king. It’s hard to beat it, but for the best experience check out the Pacific Beach original, right next to the ocean.

Puesto
El HĂ©roe Taco at Puesto | Puesto

On the other end of the taco spectrum are Tijuana-style street tacos, generally consisting of a doubled-up palm-sized corn tortilla and freshly grilled red or white meat. San Diego and Tijuana are siblings separated by some fences and a giant traffic jam. It was only a matter of time before street tacos made the leap over the border and were adopted as a proper hometown cuisine by San Diegans.

Puesto

SEAPORT VILLAGE

With beautifully outfitted locations in La Jolla and Seaport Village, Puesto pays homage to all kinds of street food. Its classic and original street tacos ride in style alongside other menu options amid its refreshed, modern decor.

Tacos El Gordo

CHULA VISTA

This offshoot of a Tijuana chain now has several San Diego locations. It's hard to go wrong there, but if you've got just one wish, spend it on the adobada.

The Taco Stand

LA JOLLA

The name says it all: an emulation of a typical Tijuana taco stand, from decor to execution. You'll find paletas -- Mexican ice pops, in every flavor under the sun -- and Jarritos, that classic Mexican soda. There are rotating spits of meat and tortillas being griddled. It looks like it might be a ramshackle spot, bathed in fluorescent light -- except it’s in the middle of tiny La Jolla. The tacos are legit enough that you might feel stoked for a real live border run.

Galaxy Taco

LA JOLLA

Galaxy Taco, also in La Jolla but down in the cove, takes a more modern approach and mixes things up with original recipes. You'll find Mexican wines on the menu and perhaps arugula in your taco, but all for good reason. These guys know what they’re doing.

Green Flash Brewing | Courtesy of Green Flash Brewing

San Diego County is home to more craft breweries -- north of 130 and counting -- than the entire United States had in the mid-'80s. Some, like Ballast Point and Stone, have found national and international fame and recognition. Others, you really have to discover while you're there.

Green Flash Brewing Co.

MIRAMAR

Its original West Coast IPA (literally, that's what the beer is called) put San Diego's super-hoppy brews on the map.

Alpine Beer Company

ALPINE

Just down the road on the 8 freeway is the small town of Alpine, where they just opened up a new Alpine brewery restaurant. The food is indulgent and heavy; the beers, delightfully hoppy.

Modern Times

NORTH PARK

San Diego's premier vegan brewery, Modern Times, has two main tasting rooms in the city in Point Loma and North Park. Fans love its Black House stout with coconut and cacao nibs.

Tidal Seafood
Bradford Tennyson/Thrillist

The Pacific is half (or all) of the reason people visit San Diego. But until recently, the pickings for real dining were admittedly slim -- you had a lot of phoned-in effort because beachside restaurateurs knew the sunsets would draw the crowds. Thankfully, San Diegans have begun to demand better, and the quality and creativity of waterfront dining has caught up with the rest of the city.

The Hake

LA JOLLA

Freshly open after a several-month renovation, this La Jolla favorite is back with a new chef and bar manager. Oh, and that gorgeous view of the ocean and coastline? Yeah, that used to be the back wall of a mortgage office. Talk about an upgrade.

Tidal

MISSION BAY

This bayfront restaurant at Paradise Point is earning rave reviews since chef DJ Tangalin took over in late 2016. Befitting its name and spot on the waterfront, seafood is the move here. Expect finer dining and a view that belies the fact that you're still in a city.

George's at the Cove

LA JOLLA

Another La Jolla stalwart. For the best experience, head to the roof, where the only restaurant is 100% outdoors. While you take in the unparalleled ocean views, make sure you sample from the great cocktail list and order away -- just don't skip the mussels.

Kaito Sushi
Kaito Sushi | Bradford Tennyson/Thrillist

Any coastal city worth its salt should offer some damn good sushi options. San Diego, while perhaps a rung below San Francisco or Los Angeles, can stack its sushi against pretty much any other city in North America. Further, San Diego chefs have built a culture of creativity and commitment to the environment. Several work with only sustainably caught fish, which means you may not get that bluefin tuna you were hoping for, but you can expect something just as (if not more) delicious and 100% better for enjoying the future bounty of our oceans. If you're looking for creativity in your raw fish, you've come to the right place.

Kaito Sushi

ENCINITAS

You're not coming to Kaito Sushi in Encinitas for a California roll. You're coming for the omakase, and you'll like it, dammit. Submit to its will and enjoy the best sushi San Diego has to offer.

Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub

OCEANSIDE

Chef Davin Waite’s sustainable fish temple up in the beach town of Oceanside is best experienced via omakase. Give the chef a rough budget and leave the rest to fate: You’ll be crying tears of joy after eating his divine creations, as well as crying tears of pain from how full you are.

Land & Water Co.

CARLSBAD

Another destination for sustainable sushi in Carlsbad Village, chef Rob Ruiz is serving up creative and delicious riffs on traditional sushi combinations. Don't skip the famous Water Roll: a spicy tuna, Haas avocado, and stone crab roll with tsume, ryu, and layers of assorted sashimi, all topped with ginger, ponzu, and citrus slices.

Sirena Cocina Latina
Sirena Cocina Latina | Sirena Cocina Latina

San Diego comes right up to the ocean, and world cultures likewise funnel into San Diego. You can get the seasoned tuna that Hawaiians call poke (pronounced PO-kay), ceviche, tiraditos, and aguachile. Most likely, most of what you're eating is from just off the coast or a little further south from Baja California.

Zarlitos Family Restaurant

NATIONAL CITY

Zarlitos Family Restaurant is a National City staple for Filipino food but is also famous for its traditional Hawaiian poke. The spicy garlic is the move.

Ceviche House

NORTH PARK

One of the newer options in town, this super-casual spot in Normal Heights is serving some of the freshest and most creative ceviches, aguachiles, and tiraditos north or south of the border.

Sirena Cocina Latina

LITTLE ITALY

Set in the shadow of better-known restaurants in Little Italy, Sirena nonetheless brings some of the best Latin American raw fish options anywhere, period.

TJ Oyster Bar

CHULA VISTA

TJ Oyster Bar in Chula Vista will have you convinced you crossed the border. Tostadas and aguachiles reign supreme here.

Bull Taco
Cali Burrito from Bull Taco | ELLEN WRIGHT/THRILLIST

You don’t need to surf to enjoy this delicious monstrosity, but it’ll certainly help if you want to burn off its calories. The true version has grilled carne asada, salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole, and French fries. That’s right. Unsurprisingly, it's also a late-night post-drinking fave, but every San Diegan knows the craving strikes at random. One more tip: Don't ever tell a San Diegan that beans or rice belong in a burrito, or they’ll give you what's coming to you.

Rudy's

SOLANA BEACH

Nestled in a taco shop-cum-convenience store in the upscale beach community of Solana Beach, Rudy's is an unassuming spot that serves greasy, delicious, afternoon-ending burritos.

Lolita's

CHULA VISTA

Lolita's in Chula Vista is probably San Diego's most storied and famous Cali burrito. Unlike the restaurant's waifish literary namesake, they're also humongous.

Trujillo's

SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY

Next to San Diego State University, Trujillo's is a late-night -- and surprisingly high-quality -- go-to for many coeds.

Bull Taco

CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA

Among several locations in North County, the San Elijo State Park location reigns supreme, if only because it's on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Oh yeah, this version has tater tots instead of fries.

VG's Donuts
VG's DONUTS AND BAKERY | COURTESY OF VG'S DONUTS AND BAKERY

San Diego has a lot of, generously speaking, throwback architecture that hasn't been updated in a few decades. Driving around the city, you'll notice a lot of old-school donut joints that might even appear to be a bit janky. That's just time, telling you what's good. San Diego is known for having incredible donuts, with classic options and updated versions for every type of pastry hound. You may even spot a donut egg sandwich floating around town.

VG Donut & Bakery

CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA

Considered one of the best original donut spots, VG's is famous for the old fashioned. Don’t sleep on the other bakery treats though -- everything is delicious.

Devil's Dozen

LITTLE ITALY

Adjacent to (and part of the same restaurant group as) finer-dining spot Kettner Exchange is Devil's Dozen, which sells out mid-morning every day and is particularly famous for its sublime tres leches donut.

Stardust Donut Shop

IMPERIAL BEACH

South Bay’s neighborhood standard has been open for several decades. This is your classic of classics.

Nomad Donuts

NORTH PARK

Another spot for unique and globally inspired donuts is Nomad Donuts in North Park. Prickly pear, Jamaican jerk, Thai tea, ube? It's got those and more. It's also well-known for having the best vegan donuts in town.

Captain Kirk's Coffee
Acai Bowl from Captain Kirk's Coffee | Captain Kirk's Coffee

Besides the Cali burrito, there's one other iconic San Diego surf snack: the acai bowl. There isn't a beachfront in this town that isn't littered with them -- but some are better than others. It's basically a smoothie bowl, with blended acai as the base, and a range of toppings that can include any kind of berry, bananas, honey, peanut butter, granola, or anything else you can think of. Think tropical drinks without all the booze.

The Nest

OCEAN BEACH

The best, hands down, are at the duo of The Nest and its sister location, Lazy Hummingbird, in Ocean Beach. They use raw acai and have inventive toppings like matcha powder and mint.

Captain Kirk's

SOUTH PARK

Another favorite is Captain Kirk’s in South Park, where the 420 Bowl using hemp granola reigns supreme. It also has an OB counterpart, called Tiki Port, which has the same menu.

Rum Jungle Cafe

PACIFIC BEACH

A long-standing Pacific Beach favorite, it also has a great selection of smoothies and healthy wraps. Being just steps from the beach means you can take it to go and enjoy your bowl oceanside.

Muzita Abyssinian Bistro
Muzita Abyssinian Bistro | Muzita Abyssinian Bistro

The huge Somali, Eritrean, and Ethiopian communities in San Diego cook up a mean dinner, favored by vegetarian gourmands and anyone who dislikes utensils. A large round of injera -- a tangy, spongy, thin bread that soaks up all it touches -- comes heaped with various spiced, stewed meats and vegetables. You rip off a section of bread, use it to pinch-scoop a proper bite, and tuck it all into your mouth. It gets messy, which is half the fun.

Muzita Abyssinian Bistro

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS

For a higher-end, more bougie option, Muzita is a good bet. The food is excellent and the restaurant is in a cute craftsman house in University Heights.

Harar Ethiopian Restaurant

CITY HEIGHTS

The aptly named Harar Special gets you a sampling of almost everything the resto makes. Good luck choosing which is your favorite.

Awash Ethiopian Restaurant and Market

NORTH PARK

This restaurant in North Park not only serves good down-home Ethiopian treats, it also has a market with imported goods from Africa that are hard to find anywhere else.

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Jackie Bryant is a food and travel writer based in San Diego who is best described as a human Roomba: eating and drinking everything she bumps into. Originally from New York, her favorite things about life in her adopted city are border-hopping, practicing yoga in exceptionally beautiful locations, becoming a beer snob, and pretending to be a real hiker. Find her on Twitter and on Instagram.