The types of places featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network show, Diners, Drive Ins and Dives, are generally not the restaurants I want to frequent. As I’ve observed in the past, “What makes [the show] work is the sense it highlights examples of a mythical ‘authentic American food.’” That’s not the stuff I tend to want to eat.
But the show also highlights “‘honesty’ and ‘food of the people’ and how that’s good.” And that, taken in an ethnic direction, is what I’m all about. We, in San Diego, are blessed with a wealth of ethnic options, many of the best of which fly under the radar. There is, of course, a part of me that really wants to keep them to myself, but such is public service.
When it comes to San Diego ethnic food, Mexican is probably the first that comes to mind. And when it comes to San Diego area Mexican—and more specifically barbacoa—all eyes turn to Aqui Es Texcoco in Chula Vista. Perhaps it was the feature on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods or perhaps it is just the quality. But it’s not the only excellent San Diego barbacoa option. The barbacoa at El Borrego (4280 El Cajon Blvd.) in City Heights is every bit as good as that of its more famous counterpart and there are dishes that are, hands down, better. Try the banana leaf wrapped tamales, for example, or the wonderful quesadillas. The huitlacoche (a fungus that is euphemistically, if not entirely inaccurately, called “corn truffle”) quesadillas are eye opening and delicious. The squash blossom quesadillas are even better.
“Ethnic food” in San Diego is not just about Mexican. Tip Top Meats (6118 Paseo Del Norte) in Carlsbad is both a restaurant and an Eastern European foodie emporium. Both offer some of the best German delicacies this side of Pittsburgh. While you may not think that “headcheese” is your thing that is probably because either (a) you haven’t tried it yet or, (b) someone told you what it was before you did. This headcheese sandwich features rich flavors, somewhere between top-quality Italian bologna and spice-infused ham, spiked with just enough vinegar to make the flavors pop. It is luxurious and intensely ethnic at the same time. Liverwurst, sauerbraten, rouladen and schnitzel all feature on Tip Top Meats’ menu and they’re all worth a trip.
A huge part of the fun of ethnic dining is the feeling of travel without travelling. There may be no better place to experience that in San Diego than at Al Azayem Restaurant (550 East Main St.) in El Cajon. The family-run Chaldean spot features a top-40 menu of the dishes you might experience in a Baghdad restaurant: baba ghanoush, hummus, shawarma (both chicken and beef ), falafel, kabobs and lamb shank, for example. But perhaps the best dish at the place is an extraordinary eggplant salad, slightly acidic with a beguiling and mysterious sweetness over the rich flavor of eggplant. The best thing about the restaurant, though, is the way it transports you to the Middle East. It looks, smells, sounds and feels like you’re in Baghdad.
San Diego’s Asian ethnic dining scene has taken off in recent years. From the elegance of Japanese to the spice and pungency of Thai or Lao cuisine, the fires of Sichuan and Hunan to the BBQ of Korea, San Diego has innumerable Asian options. At the heart of it is the Convoy District in Kearny Mesa. On a hot summer day there can hardly be a better lunch than cold soba noodles at Musashiya in the Mitsuwa Market (4240 Kearny Mesa Road). Dip the cold noodles in a soy-based sauce spiked with green onions and wasabi, add some shrimp tempura and a few Japanese pickles and you’re good to go.
At the other end of the year warm up a cold, rainy day with a bowl of Korean soft tofu soup at Convoy Tofu House (4229 Convoy St.). From the dumpling soft tofu stew to a curry version and some more exotic options (like tripe), they are hearty, slightly spicy, warming and delicious. And, like any Korean meal, come accompanied by a bottomless supply of a selection of banchan, small side dishes like kimchi, ranging from the familiar Napa cabbage version to ones made of cubed daikon radishes, cucumbers, scallions, seaweeds and even shellfish.
While San Diego-area Chinese food sometimes gets a bad rap, our regional Chinese game has gotten good of late. Spicy City/Sichuan Garden (4690 Convoy St. #107) is a great introduction into ma la, the combination of numbing and spicy flavors that characterizes Sichuan cuisine. The “boiled fish” may be the best tasting dish with a terrible name I’ve ever tasted. Or, try the pure heat of Hunan food at Village Kitchen (4720 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.). Its earthy smoked meats and the mashed eggplant and green chili pepper with eggs preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime and rice hulls are each dishes worth it on their own. Or, taste India’s take on Chinese food at Rasraj (9252 Miramar Road) in Mira Mesa.
If I had only one choice for an ethnic meal in San Diego that place would be Pho Hoa (4717 El Cajon Blvd.). You have choices to make at Pho Hoa but every single one of them is pho: Vietnamese beef noodle soup featuring an impossibly deep beef broth, rice noodles, your choice of cuts of beef and garnishes such as bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, lime and chile peppers are common. Get the mixed pho, featuring lean and fatty cuts, tripe and tendon.