Okay, I’ve already talked breakfast in San Diego; here are a couple of taco joints, and a couple places for dinner. Most of them were too dark to take photos in, so I’m stuck with images from Google Streetview. The gorgeous sunset above is not, unfortunately, the view from any of these restaurants. Just a lovely moment from our trip.
South Beach Bar & Grill
Eric found this spot on Urbanspoon; we would have never happened on it otherwise. It’s a nondescript bar in the Ocean Beach area. (How’s that for a redundant name? I mean, what other kind of beach is there?) And with a 95% rating on Urbanspoon, expectations were high. We love fish tacos, this seems like the town for it, and reviewers raved about ’em here.
They offer a Mini Taco Platter appetizer that includes one four-bite taco for each of: mahi-mahi, wahoo, shrimp, calamari, and baha (pollack) tacos. We ordered that, and Eric followed it up with an additional lobster taco.
I thought the amount of food was a good deal for the price, and yeah, they tasted good, but they were all smothered — I mean completely covered and piled high — with your basic pico de gallo, and finished with a drizzle of… Ranch dressing? Okay, so it’s a bar, it’s not a five-star restaurant, but when people describe it as “the best fish tacos on the planet,” I would expect: A) a sauce or salsa suited for each type of fish, and B) to be able to see the fish, as well as taste it. We could do neither.
It’s tasty, it’s cheap, but it’s also loud. I said, IT’S ALSO LOUD! If I’m going to a bar for cheap tacos, this one would do fine. But if I’m looking for the best fish tacos on the planet, I’ll keep on looking.
Located at: 5059 Newport, just off Ocean Beach
Open for: Lunch and Dinner
South Beach Bar & Grill website
Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop
This one was recommended by a local. And we had been forewarned, “It’s a dive.” So we were a little more prepared.
If you like funky and offbeat, this is your place! The not-so-subtle theme is lucha libre, which is Mexican freestyle wrestling. (Think Jack Black in “Nacho Libre.”) Hot pink walls, disco balls on the ceiling, and lucha libre-inspired art in garish gold frames announce that this is not your typical sombrero-sporting joint. (Here’s another reviewer who has lots of pictures.)
The taco was good, but honestly, I can’t give you too many details, because I wolfed my half down so fast I forgot to take even mental notes about the ingredients or taste! I do remember that I liked it, and that it was in a corn tortilla. (I prefer wheat, but I know that corn is more traditional/authentic.)
And the small guacamole? Emphasis on the word “small.” Here it is, next to a normal-sized chip. And nothing remarkable about the taste. But that’s not what you come here for.
There was also a salsa bar, featuring seven or eight different fruit- and/or tomato-based salsas. I didn’t try any of them, because as I’ve already mentioned, I ate in a bit of a hurry!
And being a Vampire Weekend fan (no, it has nothing to do with Twilight), I jumped at the chance to try horchata, which the taco shop had on tap, alongside common American sodas. What is horchata? It’s carbonated, it looks like you mixed milk and soda water, and tastes like cinnamon-sugar. A weird experience. But hey, now I can sing, “I remember drinking horchata,” and mean it!
Located at: 1810 W Washington St. in the Mission Hills area
Open for: Lunch and dinner
Lucha Libre website
This was my first visit to San Diego, but my husband has been there before on business. One of the places he was eager to introduce me to was El Callejon. Much of the restaurant is completely open to the outdoors. Now, if you live on the west coast, this may be very “so what?” to you, but for those of us from the land of 20-degree winters and 100 degree summers, this is a very novel thing!
“El callejon” is Spanish for “the alley,” and the restaurant feels very much like a bar that spilled out into a wide alley with extra seating for diners. The open-air dining and the year-round party lights give the place the feel of a casual backyard summer party.
We started with the ubiquitous chips and salsa, but this was not the typical fare. The chips were thick and crunchy — in a good way — as well as fresh and hot. The salsa cruda was clearly made from fresh ingredients: not the perfect red you get from canned tomatoes, but a pale color that disguised surprising flavor. Perfect hit of onion and jalapeno, too.
Since we were on the coast, I decided to go with seafood. The menu includes a section for choosing which kind of fish you want and which kind of sauce. Being a spice wimp, I steered clear of anything on the menu that sounded spicy. I love lemon, so I ordered salmon cooked in butter, lemon, white wine and spices, topped with capers. The salmon was perfectly cooked — not too dry, as if often the case. But, as much as I love lemon — and I do! — the sauce really overwhelmed the flavor of the dish.
Eric ordered Medallones al Cilantro o Chipotle — beef medallions topped with melted cheese, served in a cilantro or chipotle sauce. I sneaked a taste, of course. We both loved the delicious, spice-laden flavor of the dish, but the meat was a tad — just a tad — overcooked. Still quite enjoyable.
For desert, we ordered the flan. My experience with ordering both flan and creme brulee is that you never know if you’re going to get creamy, smooth deliciousness, or overdone eggy stuff. This was neither. It was more of a cheesecake texture. The flavor was great, but the texture was just unexpected. Had I expected it, I think it would have been perfect.
Located at: 345 S. Coast Hwy 101, in Encinitas
Open for: Lunch and dinner
El Callejon website
Our last night in the fair city… what to eat? I was a little tired of Mexican, and thinking of a memorable dinner I had more than 20 years ago at an Italian cucina in Los Angelos, I had a craving for pasta with seafood and vodka sauce. (If you’ve never had vodka sauce, it might sound horrible, but it’s really a tomato and cream sauce, and although there is vodka involved in the making, you don’t taste it: it’s just a beautiful marriage of flavors that sing!) So doing a search for that dish in San Diego, I found Pomodoro.
I loved the atmosphere! There is nothing remotely pretentious or design-y about it. Sort of almost-kitchy but in a very authentic way. On the inside it looks like it was a small bungalow home that’s been converted into a restaurant. The floors are old hardwood; there is a bay window facing the street, partially covered by homemade curtains with a red tomato motif. The walls are adorned with dishes sporting tomatoes and other Italian themes. The very busy kitchen is only separated from the dining by a counter, and whether or not they are, the staff feels like an Italian family, serving you in their own home.
We started with caprese. The mozarella, I suspect, was housemade; perfect texture. The basil leaves were monstrous — well, by Kansas-in-February standards, anyway! They were a good 4 to 5″ long. (I must confess, I swooned a bit when I saw them.)
For the entree, I had Farfalle Salmone e Vodka; Eric ordered sea scallops in a light wine garlic sauce, served over spinach. Both dishes were fine — really, they were — but just not remarkable. There was very little salmon but lots of pasta, and the sauce was okay, but it just didn’t sing for me. Eric said the scallops were nicely cooked, but not seasoned at all. I think perhaps we just didn’t order the best possible options, because it has a 93% rating on Urbanspoon, and was jam-packed. Or perhaps it’s more just authenticity than I’m used to. I’d definitely give it at least one more try.