San Diego’s regional Cali-Baja cuisine combines the flavours of bordering Baja—think grilled seafood and handmade tortillas—with Southern California’s local, seasonal produce. Many chefs like Top Chef: All-Stars winner Richard Blais have descended upon the coastal city, especially drawn to Little Italy (a former tuna fishing community) for its access to fresh fish and seafood from the Pacific and Sea of Cortez and seasonal produce from the county’s more than 6,500 small farms. Filipino cuisine is also having a major moment in San Diego with many of the city’s chefs pushing Filipino fare such as deep-fried pork belly, milkfish, purple yam and more to the forefront of their menus.
Must-taste dish: Stir-fried vegetable Rice Noodles at Jsix
Chef Anthony Sinsay remembers waking up early on Saturday mornings to go to the local Filipino bakery with his mother to pick up hot pandesal (bread rolls). Today he interjects his heritage and food memories into the menu at modern American restaurant Jsix with dishes like the Pancit Bihon, a stir-fry with rice noodles and a medley of seasonal, farmers’ market vegetables topped with a crispy fried egg.
With its sidewalk cafés and craft-beer outposts this downtown district is San Diego’s culinary core. On Saturdays, visit the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market for crepes, smoothies and live music.
North Park and South Park
These adjacent districts feature boutiques, art galleries and wine bars. Also find West Coast Tavern where seasonal ingredients like charred Brussels sprouts with bacon are incorporated into the menu.
Chicano Park’s colourful murals reflect the cultural heritage of the Hispanic community in this arts-focused, up-and-coming neighbourhood. Head here for Mexican street food and lines-out-the-door taco joints.
Mad Men meets Palm Springs kitsch at this comfort-food dinette. Menu standouts include a trio of maple bacon donuts, fresh English popovers, lobster poutine and salted caramel pork ribs.
Top chef Richard Blais helms two eateries. Juniper & Ivy serves up meatballs and foie gras cookies. Next door, on the patio of Crack Shack, chicken and eggs prevail.
This bustling European-style restaurant, bar and marketplace charms with a raw bar for oysters and crab legs, a charcuterie hub and a gourmet market for to-go goodies.
Step through a walk-in cooler in Little Italy’s Craft & Commerce gastropub and emerge from the other side into a tiny tiki bar. Its faux-tropical interior is replete with Polynesian wooden masks, an indoor waterfall, flaming volcano and mai tais heavy on the rum.
This restaurant has a stylin’ rooftop lounge. With an olive tree and cabanas, it’s a great place to kick back and enjoy the cityscape view and shared plates that have included bigeye tuna tacos or duck meatballs with grits. Try crafty cocktails like the Georgia Sunshine with bourbon, lemon, honey and peach bitters.
For expertly crafted concoctions and game-driven eats (antelope sliders and bison tartare), head to this downtown watering hole—a favourite haunt of local bartenders. Creative cocktails include Monks Gone Wild, a strawberry-infused Pimms with Green Chartreuse, lemon and ginger beer. lionssharesd.com
This innovative spot in Little Italy embraces touch-screen technology to create Instagram-worthy sweet treats. At an iPad station, choose between a flavoured meringue or chocolate shell base and then select from a range of toppings such as gelato or sorbet, sauces, fruit, candy and more.
Located in South Park, this chocolatier and café entices with handcrafted truffles infused with pomegranate sage, basil absinthe or lavender sea salt, along with decadent chocolate drinks.
Don’t leave this café and market without trying the espresso chocolate chunk scones and decadent desserts such as lime sugar cookies sandwiching blueberry cheesecake gelato.
Signature experience: George’s at the Cove
With San Diego’s more than 100 kilometres of coastline, ocean-view dining is a major draw. George’s at the Cove is a three-storey seaside gem that offers casual dining at rooftop Ocean Terrace, craft cocktails at Level 2 bar and fine dining at California Modern. Start with a Sea3 cocktail at Level 2—dehydrated mango, lime zest, lime and chili-infused tequila with agave and fresh lime juice. Afterwards, grab a window seat downstairs at California Modern and enjoy the seasonal eight-course chef’s tasting menu as you look out at the big blue. Perfectly demonstrating the wonders of Cali-Baja cuisine, dishes have included chef’s sweet potatoes (from Chino Farms) with lobster-mushroom chorizo, purslane-salsa verde and cilantro. georgesatthecove.com
Getting there: WestJet flies to San Diego seven times a week from Calgary and Vancouver.
San Diego Spotlight: You & Yours Distilling Co.
You & Yours Distilling Co. officially opened in early 2017 in Makers Quarter, an up-and-coming neighbourhood in San Diego’s East Village. It offers tours as well as a creative cocktail menu. Here, head distiller and co-founder Laura Johnson shares the inspiration for the distillery and her favourite spots for cocktails.
Where to Sip Sake Cocktails, and the Recipe for Masa Shiroki’s Osake Sunrise
In North America, sake (a Japanese rice wine) is popping up on menus as a wine option, or in cocktails as an ingredient that adds an exotic flair. Sip it in creative cocktails at Foreign Concept in Calgary, at UnderBelly in San Diego or at Sunda New Asian in Chicago.