The rich cultural fabric of California’s southernmost state is infused in everything from the cozy lodgings to the spiced lattes. Are you overdue for a visit?
Words by LAILA SAID
Previously known for its peeling waves, largely family-friendly destinations, and a culinary scene that didn’t go much further than fish tacos, San Diego is a very different place these days. With a host of locally owned establishments celebrating craftsmanship and sustainability and catering to an increasingly discerning and curious consumer, there’s never been a better time to visit California’s southern-most city.
It is San Diego’s cultural fabric that makes this city so distinct; with Mexico just over the border, the bounty of the Pacific coast on its doorstep and ethically run farms such as Chino Farm providing peerless produce, San Diego’s scene has evolved into an inclusive and mindful community which celebrates its diverse demographic of Chicanx, Latinx and Asian populations.
Each of the itineraries below could easily fill up a couple of days, so choose one and follow to the letter, or feel free to mix and match.
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A TASTE OF MEXICO
Food and culture in the historic barrios
Shareables and seating at TJ OYSTER BAR.
Tj Oyster Bar
What started as a family-run, hole-in-the-wall taco shop meant to recreate Baja’s street food culture back in 2002 has become a local institution in the Bonita neighborhood, with Tj Oyster Bar still known by relatively few. Think seafood-based dishes hailing from Ensenada, including tacos, ceviches and aguachiles paired with Mexican craft beers and micheladas. Standout dishes include the Smoked Tuna Pescadilla and the Fish Ceviche Tostada, topped with a homemade cucumber-serrano salsa. Original location: 4246 Bonita Road, San Diego. Other locations: 4410 Bonita Road, San Diego, and 601 E. Palomar, San Diego.
Fresh tortillas at LAS CUATRO MILPAS. Photo by Erik Dungan/Unsplash.
Las Cuatro Milpas
The line spilling out the door will give this Barrio Logan institution away — if the aroma of freshly made flour tortillas wafting onto the street doesn’t. With three generations and over 80 years of history, the bare-walled establishment Las Cuatro Milpas originally started out as a tortilla factory in the early 1930s and reflects San Diego’s deeply-embedded Chicano culture. On any given day, you’ll find the three sisters (Margarita, Sofia and Doria), who are descendants of the original owners, Petra and “Nati” Estudillo, making home-style beans and carnitas, deep-frying tacos in lard and grounding corn for tortillas. Don’t leave without trying their rolled tacos and chorizo con frijoles (just make sure to bring cash!). 1857 Logan Ave., San Diego, 619-234-4460.
A flight at BORDER X BREWING.
Border X Brewing
Southern California meets the Mexico heartland at this family-run craft brewery whose offerings draw inspiration from traditional Mexican beverages. Ingenious concoctions include Horchata Golden Stout (a full bodied beer made with notes of vanilla and cinnamon) and Blood Saison (infused with tart hibiscus, agave and crystal malts), both which pay homage to Mexican horchata and jamaica “aguas frescas.” Border X Brewery tends to provide a platform for a rotating roster of local musicians and artists and acts as a lively hub for the city’s large Latinx community. Grab a brew and head straight to the beer garden where you can sit on benches, eat from the taco truck and linger on until late. 2181 Logan Ave., San Diego, 619-501-0503.
Mexican spirits are best enjoyed at rustic saloons, and Cantina Mayahuel’s ever-rotating collection offers patrons the opportunity to sip on everything from artisanal tequila and mezcal to the more obscure agave-derived spirits like raicilla and bacanora. Come for the spirits and stay for the homemade dishes to pair, like their homemade Oaxacan mole and the pumpkin seed-based pipián. 2934 Adams Ave., San Diego.
Owner and founder of ARTELEXIA, Elexia de la Parra. Photo by GoDaddy Brand Creative.
From Oaxacan textiles and hand-embroidered pillows to cookbooks, glassware and handcrafted salsas from different regions in Mexico, owner Elexia de la Parra’s retail shop Artelexia provides an educational platform for Mexican craftsmanship. The engagement with local communities in Mexico is reciprocal, as a percentage of sales is invested back into the communities where she sources her products from. 3803 Ray St., San Diego, 619-501-6381
POR VIDA CAFE in Barrio Logan.
Barrio Logan Neighborhood
San Diego’s oldest Mexican American neighborhood boasts colorful street art, galleries, food trucks, coffee shops (check out Por Vida Cafe) and independent female-run shops like Simón Limón, Dulcería La Paleta and Hola Swim — all which provide an authentic window into the city’s vibrant Chicanx and Latinx culture. As the epicenter of the 1970s demonstrations where the immigrant and Mexican-American community came together seeking social justice, the area carries deep historical and social significance. Take a stroll around Chicano Park, which houses the highest concentration of Chicanx murals in the world and vividly depicts the history of the ongoing plight of Mexican-Americans.
ONE BUNK in Barrio Logan.
Binational art, midcentury design and handmade crafts from both sides of the border adorn modern-age lodging One Bunk in the heart of Barrio Logan. Thoughtful touches like Mexican textiles, a bottle of Meteoro mezcal and a fridge packed with cans of Insurgente (craft beer made in Tijuana) remind you of the inextricable bicultural essence that abounds in the neighborhood. The studio is meant for two people and boasts a semi-private backyard and a small living room area. 2626 National Ave., San Diego.
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What to do in Little Italy, Downtown and Park Neighborhoods
Wood-grilled octopus at TRUST. Photo by Kim Marcelo.
Chef Brad Wise’s deep respect for seasonality and neighboring farms coupled with the team’s holistic approach to dining have fostered a space for community and casual gathering in Hillcrest, San Diego’s LGBTQ+ neighborhood since the 1960s. Trust’s expansive open-kitchen set up for smoking and wood-firing lends to dishes such as wood-grilled octopus with castelvetrano olives and salsa verde and wood-grilled Scallops with coal roasted corn, mango salsa, fermented mushroom butter and puffed rice. 3752 Park Blvd., San Diego, 619-795-6901.
The dining room at JUNIPER & IVY. Photo by JTrans Photo.
Juniper & Ivy
Set in a converted 1920s sawtooth warehouse, Juniper & Ivy presents a sophisticated dining experience that is as refined as it is playful, with a West Coast edge. Opt for the small plates, which are fueled by the culinary team’s creative energy and the region’s bounty of fresh ingredients delivered daily by local fishmongers and farmers. Standout dishes include the tuna tostada (achiote oil, avocado, chipotle mayo, lime) and the carne cruda asada (beef tartare, quail egg, jalapeño sourdough). End the night on a sweet note by ordering the signature yodel for dessert. 2228 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, 619-269-9036.
VINO CARTA wine shop in Little Italy.
This wine shop and bar in Little Italy highlights natural wines produced using organic and sustainable farming practices. Peruse Vino Carta for dynamic bottles made by small, family-run producers to take home or snag one of the sidewalk tables and sip on a glass of their featured orange wines. If you get hungry, there is a small selection of tinned seafood, like smoked mussels or scallops for purchase. 2161 India St., San Diego, 619-564-6589.
James Coffee Co.
From meticulous sourcing to sustainable roasting, the team implements modest production methods to preserve the integrity of the beans in order to elevate the quality and flavor of every cup. The independently owned and locally operated shop was co-founded by Angels and Airwaves’ lead guitarist David Kennedy, whose passion for coffee led him to produce small-batch handcrafted beans and blends which are all available for purchase. Make sure to stop by James Coffee Co.’s original location, housed within a warehouse that shares the space with other locally owned businesses like Home Ec, and pair your coffee with a flaky almond croissant from Le Parfait Paris. Original location: 2355 India St., San Diego. Other locations: 2870 Fourth Ave., San Diego, and 4379 30th St., San Diego.
Little Italy Mercato
On Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m, Little Italy’s West Date Street is bustling with locals flocking to purchase fresh produce from California certified ranchers and small-family farmers at the Little Italy Mercato. Stroll through the myriad stands featuring fishmongers, bakers, florists and olive oil producers before you pick up some local farmstead goat cheese from Nicolau Farms. Don’t leave without a freshly baked loaf from craft bakery Prager Brothers (and a pack of their shortbread cookies!).
Blueberry waffles at STREETCAR MERCHANTS.
North Park / South Park Neighborhood
At first instinct, people tend to visit San Diego’s Downtown area thinking the neighborhood will provide a genuine lens into the essence of the city. Aside from a handful of worthwhile establishments (Genteel Coffee Co., LOLA 55 and El Dorado Cocktail Lounge) steer away from the area and venture out to the quaint neighborhoods of North Park and South Park instead. From intimate natural wine bars like The Rose, handcrafted donut shops (Streetcar Merchants, Nomad Donuts) and local craft beer stores like Bottlecraft to female-owned shops like Goldleaf and Shop/Good, the laid-back neighborhood truly provides a local feel and acts as an authentic reflection of what’s happening in the city.
Living area at THE DUTRA INN. Photo by Egor Korovin.
The Dutra Inn
Salvaged doors and found industrial materials set the stage for the quirky five-room Dutra Inn. While each loft boasts its own personality, all guests can expect warm hospitality and creature-comfort amenities, including locally roasted Dark Horse coffee, Malin + Goetz toiletries, and Parachute linens. The Little Italy gem is the ideal base for exploring some of the city’s best culinary destinations. 680 W. Beech St., San Diego.
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Where to stop along the Pacific shoreline
Feast on crab legs and bread at JEUNE ET JOLIE. Photo by Jim Sullivan.
Jeune et Jolie
Take the scenic coastal Highway 101 north to enjoy one of the city’s most intimate dining experiences, Jeune et Jolie. Translated as young and beautiful, the Bells + Whistles-designed modern French restaurant brings Parisian flair to the relaxed beach town of Carlsbad. Begin by partaking in one of the bar’s libations inspired by former French colonies, including Algeria, Vietnam and Martinique, or opt to indulge in the extensive absinthe program, arguably the best in the city. Don’t overlook the in-house bread service (baguette and brioche) served with Normandy butter, or the seafood platter, brimming with rotating raw offerings. 2659 State St., San Diego, 760-637-5266.
Sandwich with Hobb’s bacon, baby iceberg lettuce, avocado, heirloom tomato and garlic aioli at WAYFARER.
Wayfarer Bread & Pastry
Tartine alum Crystal White bakes naturally fermented breads, pastries (the ham and cheese croissant and blackberry scone are a must!) and a rotating selection of sandwiches at her small seaside neighborhood bakery Wayfarer Bread & Pastry nestled in Bird Rock. From Thursday through Saturday, you can text to preorder seasonal pizzas baked using fresh produce from neighboring farms, including Stehly and Chino Farms. Take your pizza to go and head over to the nearby Calumet Park, where you can enjoy your pie while overlooking the Pacific. 5525 La Jolla Blvd., San Diego, 858-454-1924.
The Walk the Plank cocktail at CAMPFIRE.
As the restaurant name evokes, you can expect a multisensorial experience through Campfire’s innovative stream of beverages, which on occasion implement live fire techniques. The beverage program, designed by Leigh Lacap, acts as a tribute to the people and places that have inspired the team and highlights classic cocktail techniques using quality spirits and liqueurs along with locally grown produce, creating a palatable synergy with the kitchen. Pro tip: Order the smoked fish board while you sip on your cocktails, then walk over to Campfire’s sister restaurant, Jeune et Jolie, for dinner. 2725 State St., San Diego, 760-637-5121.
The masterminds behind Paraná Empanadas have brought the South American social ritual of drinking yerba mate to San Diego. Not only can you opt for the classic (yerba mate with hot water), but the Argentinian family has concocted an array of yerba mate-based drinks at Yerba, such as the Salted Dulce de Leche latte, which perfectly complement their handcrafted empanadas and traditional alfajores. 956 Garnet Ave., San Diego, 858-900-3309.
Sunset Cliffs Neighborhood
Enjoy sprawling views and vast natural landscapes by taking a stroll through one of the city’s most picturesque destinations. Pack a picnic brimming with locally sourced artisanal goods from nearby Liberty Public Market (about a 10-minute drive), including beloved cheesemongers Venissimo, and park yourself on one of the towering bluffs while letting the hours drift by. Plan accordingly and walk over to Little Lion Café, helmed by the Coulon sisters, for an intimate aperitivo after sunset.
Lux Art Institute
Located on a ruggedly landscaped hillside just miles from the Encinitas coastline sits the serene Lux Art Institute, a hub for nationally and internationally recognized creatives. Perhaps best known for its monthlong residency program, the institute invites artists to live and work on premise while they develop new projects. Recent residencies featured the works of artists from Buenos Aires and Tijuana, with styles ranging from Haitian folklore to psychedelic pop culture. 1550 S. El Camino Real, San Diego, 760-436-6611.
Mini Pearl accommodations at THE PEARL HOTEL. Photo by Josh Cho.
The Pearl Hotel
Nearly 60 years after its arrival onto the San Diego boutique hotel landscape, Point Loma’s iconic midcentury modern The Pearl Hotel is fresh off a renovation by designers Electric Bowery and Pow Wow Design Studio that enhanced the property’s 1960s architectural features. The hotel also boasts an onsite cocktail bar and restaurant Charles + Dinorah, bearing the names of the property’s original owners. Beverages are best enjoyed around the art moderne oyster-shaped pool that serves as the focal point surrounding the hotel’s 23 guest rooms. 1410 Rosecrans St., San Diego, 619-226-6100.
Feature image: ONE BUNK at Ocean Beach.
July 3, 2020
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