The Best Food in San Diego: A Non-Exhaustive List

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I moved to San Diego a little more than three years ago. Originally from the southeastern US, fried chicken and veggies stewed in bacon fat are my roots. I miss these things dearly, but food in the southwest has plenty to offer that keeps me happy.

This is a non-exhaustive list. I've only lived here for three years, give me some time! I'll try to keep it fresh as I try new spots that tickle my fancy.

Also note that the initial publication of this post will be expanded over time. I wanted to get my list out first, but each establishment deserves a decent write-up and accompanying photos. So check back regularly if you're interested in reading more.

Favorite Burger: The Friendly Tavern

  • Neighborhood: North Park
  • Cost: Cheap as shit

I love a good burger. So much that this was the first category I thought of for this list. And there are lots of very different burgers that stand out in their own right. Much like the best beer is the one in your hand, the best burger is the one that tickles your senses at the right time and with the right people.

That being said, the first time I stopped by the Friendly I was alone. I just moved to a new city and stumbled into this low-key patio tucked away behind a questionable seafoam green stucco lunch counter with water stains and windows covered in punk band stickers. A woman slides open the window, I place my order, and I take a seat in the back.

When the smashburger known as the OG Dirty Flattop arrives, it is presented with absolutely no pretension whatsoever. It looks about like what you'd get from In-N-Out but like … somehow less dressed up. But was lies between the two smashed, toasted buns (presumably purchased by the ton from Cosco) is a greasy masterpiece one can only achieve after years of strategically neglecting to properly clean a griddle. I can tell that this burger is oozing with flavor. So I take my first bite.

A delicious, no-nonsense burger served on a plastic tray with an overflowing basket of fries
Admittedly, this does not look like a burger that belongs on your imagined "best of" list, but I think she's just beautiful.

The burger is very simple, and modifications are politely declined. Onions softly caramelized in butter, a dollop of garlic aioli and perfectly melted American cheese top two thin patties cooked with just the right amount of crispiness along the edges. This was the right burger at the right time.

Favorite Barbeque: Bowloegged BBQ

  • Neighborhood: Mount Hope
  • Cost: Extremely fair

I'll start by saying, as great as this city is, she is not generally celebrated by those who appreciate the art of barbequed meats. I'll also admit my bias as a man born and raised in the southeast for a good vinegar-enriched, smokey pulled pork over the average Texan's preferred methodologies. These things are both true, and yet I still find myself daydreaming about Bowlegged's tri-tip more often than I'd care to admit.

If you finished my burger review, you may have guessed that I'm not much for window dressing when it comes to food. Trivial things like proper plating or functional soap dispensers in the bathrooms are not guaranteed at Bowlegged. What you will get is a paper-lined clamshell packed full of liberally-coated smoked meat and sides of your choosing (I generally go for the baked beans and potato salad, and maybe a healthy slice of cornbread). A solid order for a first-timer is a sampler platter which will allow you to try three entrees. The standouts for me are tri-tip, brisket and the hot link, but the ribs and smoked chicken thighs put up a solid fight.

I recommend Bowlegged for lunch, as they don't have a set closing time and will close the doors whenever the food is gone for the day.

Favorite Burrito: Lucha Libre Taco Shop

  • Neighborhood: Mission Hills / North Park
  • Cost: Exactly what a big ass burrito should cost

This may be a controversial choice, as there are no doubt enough burritos in this town to break away and declare independence from the state of California. But doing so would require renaming the region's most popular variety, so I don't expect an independent republic to emerge any time soon.

Oh well, I'll take whatever the purists have to throw at me for saying this, but Lucha Libre has the best Cali burrito I've had so far. If you aren't privy to the dish, it's a large tortilla stuffed with seasoned carne asada, pico de gallo and french fries. Many shops will include guacamole, sour cream, cheese, or some combination of the three. They are all gluttonous and delicious.

What's somewhat unique about Lucha Libre is that they serve various varieties of the standard California (which basically just means that they all include fries). I'm a huge fan of the birria which, as the name implies, substitutes the standard steak with a spicy stewed beef.

Favorite Hawaiian: Island Life

  • Neighborhood: Ocean Beach / Hillcrest Farmers Market
  • Cost: Median food truck prices

Full disclosure: I've never been to Hawaii, so take my review with a grain of salt. Island food is relatively common on the west coast, and I've been able to try a small handful of highly regarded Hawaiian spots around town. The Island Life Food Truck hits the spot the hardest.

The stuffed sea urchin was unlike anything I had tried before, and if this is a standard dish on the islands then I'll be making plans to try many more before long. But my favorite order has to be the spicy pele poke, a tasty helping of fresh raw fish tossed with grilled onions and cucumbers in a creamy concoction that provides just a hint of heat but a heap of flavor. On the side I'd recommend the Maui mac salad, a dish I could happily eat by the quart. Spam musubi is a must-have add-on with any plate.

This truck parks at the Ocean Beach Farmer's Market on Wednesdays and the Hillcrest Farmers Market on Sundays. They may also serve elsewhere, so let me know if you find them in another neighborhood and I'll update accordingly.

Favorite Fish Taco: Mariscos Alex

  • Neighborhood: City Heights
  • Cost: A damn good bargain

The fish taco is a staple for folks on both sides of the US/Mexico border. It's hard to cross a city block here without running into a place that serves them, so it's a tough field to stand apart in. This unsuspecting truck is my go-to. Every order will come with a complimentary consome while you wait; a delicious spiced broth, it's just enough to whet the appetite for what's to come.

At peak times this truck is generally popping, so go for a late lunch if you aren't feeling patient. The grilled octopus is my standard order, but if you aren't in the mood for a taco they also serve excellent ceviche and a tostada loca that is to die for.

Favorite Kenyan: Flavors of East Africa

  • Neighborhood: University Heights / Hillcrest Farmers Market
  • Cost: Good bang for your buck

Full review to come. If you're at the restaurant, get the goat curry, a side of nyoyo and a sambusa. The food truck offers a nice mix-and-match of stewed meat, rice and veggies. You can't really go wrong here.

Favorite Korean: Friend's House

  • Neighborhood: Convoy
  • Cost: Ranges, but all reasonable

This one was a tough choice. Convoy is absolutely stuffed at the gills with amazing East Asian restaurants representing a huge variety of nationalities, and there are several Korean places nearby that could have easily made it to the list. I still haven't tried them all, so Friend's House may yet be replaced. But if you have to pick one, you could do far worse.

I suggest going with a small group of friends and going in on one of the hot pots. The spicy seafood stew is rich, complex and delicious. Depending on the size of your crew (or your appetite), a plate full of short ribs and a side of fried dumplings are excellent compliments.

Favorite Pizza: Bronx Pizza

  • Neighborhood: Hillcrest
  • Cost: Extremely fair

Full review to come. The only real New York pizza I've found in town. Pizza is personal so get whatever you'd like, but I'm keen on a slice of "Porko" and a slice of plain cheese to balance it out.

Favorite Thai: Bahn Thai

  • Neighborhood: University Heights
  • Cost: Extremely fair

Full review to come. I order something different just about every time I come. Amazing curry.

Favorite Vietnamese: A Chau

  • Neighborhood: City Heights
  • Cost: A damn good bargain

Full review to come. The order here varies as everything is great, but make sure you get the pork rolls no matter what.

Favorite Wings: TapRoom

  • Neighborhood: University Heights
  • Cost: Gentrified

Full review to come. The order here is "crack" wings with a side of truffalo sauce. You're welcome.