Stuffed In San Diego
All photos by Keith Allison.
San Diego offers a surprising number of options, both in the trendy, touristy downtown “Gaslamp” quarter, as well as in the surrounding suburbs and towns. With only a few days, I was hardly able to map any sort of definitive guide, and there were many stones left unturned. However, I still managed to hit enough bars and restaurants to make it worth jotting down on the off chance that you too one day find yourself in San Diego and long to follow in my footsteps. I was sans vehicle for most of the time and staying downtown, so most of my choices were driven by proximity as much as they were by recommendation. But either way, it worked out pretty well.
611 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101
Searsucker is a fantastic space that exists somewhere between open-air farmers’ market and exquisitely designed modernist den. I like a dimly lit cave as much as the next homely lush, but there’s something to be said for a place that can do bright and open and still have it be cozy and pleasing. The food is exceptional – pulled pork sandwich with apple BBQ sauce that struck the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. They make it “Primanti Brothers” style, topped with crispy rings and Italian cole slaw (meaning, no mayo). And just because the sandwich was topped with fried crispies didn’t mean we couldn’t order a side of the brown butter fries and polish those off in short order as well.
The cocktails match the bright decor of the place. No dark, brooding concoctions seem as appropriate as the Hearts on Fuego – El Jimador Reposado tequila, blood orange, pomegranate, Firewater bitters, and lime – or the Drunken Luchador – Casamigos Blanco tequila, Carpano Bianco vermouth, and peach bitters. It's San Diego, so tequila and mezcal cocktails make the most sense, but if you are hankering for something with whiskey, the Buffalo Soldier will ride to your rescue – Buffalo Trace bourbon, Giffard Pamplemousse rose liqueur, grapefruit, pressed lemon, and soda.
548 5th Ave, San Diego CA 92101
There were three places that kept coming up when we asked for recommendations. Searsucker was one. Noble Experiment was another — one that, sadly, we just didn’t have time to get to. And the third was Prohibition, a basement speakeasy hidden behind a door for a fake law firm. They used to have a guest list (because the place is tiny) and dress code, but they've since lightened up on that – which means it pays to get there early. Drinks, however, were quite good. I went with my baseline for any new whiskey and cocktail bar — an Old Fashioned. You can do it terrible, you can do it great, you can do it nondescript. Prohibition’s Old Fashioned was solid. We stuck to the classics – a Negroni, a Sidecar – and straight whiskey from a selection that offers plenty of options without including much in the way of the more esoteric brands and experiments.
Chin’s Szechwan Restaurant
625 Encinitas Blvd, Encinitas, CA 92024
I was seeing places around San Diego advertising “New York style Chinese food.” I assume there probably is some difference between east and west coast American Chinese food, but I’m not sophisticated enough to know. Anyway, we opted not to hit a New York style Chinese restaurant, as we have plenty of those in New York, and instead sought out Chin’s Szechwan Restaurant in the outlying town of Encinitas. If you have in your mind an image of the perfect Chinese-American restaurant, Chin’s will probably outdo it. Red velvet, cherry wood furniture, outdated music playing lightly in the background. Yes, it’s a particularly American experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool. The staff was good-natured and polite. The owner even came out, introduced himself, and on the sly — because we looked like good people — slipped us a VIP card that entitled us to free appetizers and such. The food was exceptional American Chinese — crispy tangerine chicken, plum tree beef, curry meat samosas, and fried chicken potstickers. As is usually the case with these restaurants, it was way too much food for a reasonable person to finish, but all of it was very good. Washing it all down with a Tsingtao is the perfect cap to the evening.
Albert’s Fresh Mexican Food
1177 C St, Suite I, San Diego, CA 92101
Albert’s Fresh Mexican Food is a nondescript restaurant in one of those…whatever you call that thing like a strip mall, but is really just a block of stores on the ground floor of an office building. Anyway, traditionally, it’s not the sort of location that screams quality dining. But the number of plain looking places serving great food is vast, just as the number of exquisitely designed spaces with terrible food is large. So there was no pre-judging of Albert’s, nor any temptation to cross the street and hit Del Taco instead. Obviously, I ordered a fish taco, complimenting it with my usual chicken chimichanga and a carne asada taco. That was too much food, but you gotta do what you gotta do. The place was crowded but food came out fast. Albert’s serves one of the best fish taco I’ve ever had. I can also speak with considerable authority on chimichangas, and Albert’s served me one that was top tier. The carne asada taco was also great — tender, juicy, and full of flavor.
Saltbox Dining and Drinking
1047 5th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
Saltbox Dining and Drinking is a good place to eat if you have a large group, as the focus is on platters that are shared amongst everyone at the table. The bar can comfortably accommodate the lone drinker as well. Our group was seating at what is historically known as "a big-ass King Henry VIII round table." So a win already, and the food was substantially higher than the quality than Renaissance Faire turkey legs. We feasted on ham and cheese bites, brisket sliders, short rib grilled cheese, lobster corn dogs, oxtail, devil’s chicken…there were some beef cheek tacos in there as well. And butternut squash ravioli. And pappardelle with duck ragu. A giant bucket of mussels.
Their bar is exceptional, and libations like the Into the Wild – cinnamon-chili infused Wild Turkey bourbon, lemon, strawberry-coriander syrup, and mint – kept us in good spirits. As did the In Cold Blood – Del Maguey Vida mezcal, apricot liqueur, Aperol, blood orange juice, agave syrup, and orange blossom.
222 Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
A quality night out deserves, and perhaps demands (depending on the cocktails) a restorative meal the next day. If you’re looking for a quality breakfast that is more about great food than TV darling Hash House A Go Go’s giant portions, I suggest giving the tourist spot a pass and instead hitting up modest Cafe 222 downtown, where they sling some truly delicious waffles. Decor is 50s kitchen, but without going overboard on the kitsch. Tasty waffles and generous, yummy pork tamales (the breakfast of champions). Sometimes, the things I have to say the least about are the ones I enjoyed the most, and Cafe 222 is best served by a short review: damn good breakfast.