For student budgets, San Diego is a challenging place to eat if you're looking for anything other than fast food or standard taco shop fare-particularly if you don't venture farther than a few miles from your school. Another sad fact of life in San Diego is the absence of late-night dining spots. If it's 2 a.m. and you need to eat, you're again stuck with a choice between Denny's and something ending with -erto's.
Nevertheless, there are a few decent places that won't break your bank for those times when you need a break from the routine of student dining, and also some decent spots open late (until midnight, anyway) that are worth checking out, should you be capable of driving after all those wine coolers or whatever it is you kids are drinking these days.
UCSD areaThis is a tough one. Located in La Jolla's Golden Triangle, you're basically stuck with expensive, fancy-pants dining, or chains like CPK and the McDonald's-owned Chipotle. However, I did manage to find a few places that have decent and relatively inexpensive fare nearby that are worth your while.
International Market & Grill
3211 Holiday Ct., Suite 100
This unassuming Persian grill offers a range of kebabs, kebab sandwiches, salads and kebab plates, all under $10. The house kebab sandwich-a fresh ground beef kebab, well-seasoned and wrapped in lavosh bread with lettuce, tomato and cucumber yogurt sauce-is a good deal at $6.75. They also serve chicken, fish and vegetarian items.
Yummi Maki Yummy Box
3211 Holiday Ct., Suite 101A
This curiously named Japanese place features lunchtime box specials starting at $6.75, including salad, miso soup, meat, rice, gyoza and tempura. They also offer sushi in a startlingly broad array of choices, including baked varieties.
Chicago on a Bun
8935 Towne Centre Drive
(Renaissance Towne Centre)
Chicago-style street grub is offered in this casual spot. Prices are cheap, and the food is good, if health-unconscious. The hot dogs are served Chicago-style with fresh tomato, pickle spear, dill pickle relish, onions, sport peppers, mustard and celery salt, and only $3.50 apiece or around $6 in a combo with fries or homemade potato chips (highly recommended) and a drink. They also show sports programming on the dining-room TV.
SDSU areaWhile this neighborhood is overstuffed with chain- and fast-food options like Subway and Quizno's, there are definitely a few gems here worth seeking out.
6866 El Cajon Blvd.
This Mexican carneceria features some of the best homestyle Mexican food available in San Diego. It's nothing pretty-a lunch counter in a butcher shop-but the carne asada and pollo asado are unsurpassed. They also offer the hard-to-find Mexican specialty barbacoa (slow-cooked beef, sort of like Mexican pot roast). Tacos are $1, with burritos around $3.50. The homemade salsas are well worth sampling, including a habañero-spiked, XXX-hot variety for the tough guys. As the owner said to me, gesticulating with a habañero pepper, "You need to stay awake to study? Eat one of these!"
Zia's Tropical Grill (formerly Café Zia)
6686 El Cajon Blvd.
Zia's specialty is healthy food, which is in short supply in this neighborhood. Try the wraps, enormous burrito-like creations filled with delicious grilled chicken (or other protein) and vegetables, served with your choice of homemade chutney for $5. The chutneys come in six varieties, with peach and tropical being particular standouts. Make sure to try the lemonade-it's made with rosewater and is incredibly delicious and refreshing.
Osaka Japanese Food & Sushi
4242 Camino Del Rio N., #26
Unpretentious Japanese fare, reasonably priced. Combination platters start at $5.75, but the real deal is the sushi, with basic rolls priced at $3.50 (specialty rolls a bit more expensive). All the standards are here, as well as a full range of tempura fish varieties.
This neighborhood isn't graced with the largest number of eateries, located as it is in San Diego's home carpeting and lighting utopia. However, there are a few great places worth checking out, with reasonably priced food that provides a great alternative to the Carl's Jr. down the hill.
Andres Cuban Restaurant
1235 Morena Blvd.
Andres offers some excellent lunch deals, especially with the Cuban-style pressed sandwiches. Large and filling, they come in a variety of flavors-the carne asada and roasted pork are especially delicious. The black beans are also outstanding. Open for dinner, but probably out of the range of most student budgets.
JV Taco Shop
1112 W. Morena Blvd.
While JV has all the standard taco shop items, it also has many unusual creations that set it apart. The stewed pork in green chile sauce is one such standout, though my personal favorite is the tuna melt quesadilla. Yes, that's right-a quesadilla filled with tuna salad. I know it sounds weird, but it's actually good. Promise.
6925 Linda Vista Road
Up the hill from USD, in the Vien Dong parking lot, this spot features inexpensive, vegetarian-friendly Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food. The vegetarian egg rolls are delicious (and better than their meaty counterparts), and so is the country-style tofu. Try the gai yang, Thai-style barbecued chicken marinated in coconut milk and spices.
While San Diego isn't known for the late-night cuisine, some places are worth knowing about, should you tire of Moons Over My Hammy.
4681 Convoy St.
Open until midnight on weekends, this Chinese restaurant offers authentic and inexpensive fare, with the 9 p.m.-to-midnight specials menu priced at five bucks a plate. Vegetarian- and vegan-friendly choices abound.
3871 Fourth Ave.
Open until 2:30 a.m., this is an Americanized Chinese joint. Still, the food is good, and the place is clean. Hard to see from the street, thanks to its tiny neon sign in the window. Just follow your nose.
535 University Ave.
Some people scorn this place. Granted, it's not gonna set the world on fire. However, it's open 24 hours, and it's definitely better than Denny's. The burgers are probably the safest bet here. They are greasy and diner-like, served with steak fries, and are under $10. The people-watching in here is pretty awesome once you hit 1-2 a.m.
La Posta de Acapulco's
3980 Third Ave.
Yeah, it's a taco shop. But La Posta has one item unavailable anywhere else-the special quesadilla with carne asada. Two 18-inch flour tortillas made into a quesadilla, then wrapped around carne asada, salsa and guacamole, making a cheese-wrapped carne asada burrito. Rich and oh-so-gluttonous, this really hits the spot after a night of drink... er, studying.
When it's time to take a break from the books, you'll likely find yourself in one of San Diego's many beach neighborhoods. There's lots of good, cheap dining there, Mexican and otherwise.
Ocean BeachThe hippie neighborhood of San Diego, the main drag of Newport Avenue and its surrounding area is home to biker bars, head shops, surf shops and good food.
5010 Newport Ave.
This little surf-themed burger joint proudly proclaims "Under 99 Billion Sold," and serves some of the best burgers found anywhere in San Diego. Sizes range from reasonable to you-gotta-be-shitting-me. Available with cheese and bacon, the burgers are the best thing on the menu, though they do offer tuna on wheat, chicken sandwiches, veggie burgers and the "Un-Burger" (cheeseburger without the meat). The fries and shakes are also delicious. The cheeseburger basket with fries and lemonade is the bargain at around $6.
South Beach Bar and Grill
5059 Newport Ave.
The best fish tacos in San Diego. And the view ain't bad, either. Fresh fish varieties include wahoo, mahi mahi, thresher shark, swordfish, lobster and the traditional battered and fried fish. The fried oyster taco is great for the adventurous. Tacos cost around three bucks, with a daily special usually offered at $2.50.
5001-A Newport Ave.
Vegetarian wraps, smoothies and shakes made from organic ingredients. Light, healthy, inexpensive and perfect for the beach.
A popular college-student destination, Pacific Beach features bars/meat markets located within staggering distance of each other. Not quite as great a concentration of cheap eats on the main drag, but good deals can be found with a little walking.
4614 Mission Blvd.
Nothing but tortas of all kinds here, served on excellent rolls. Quick, cheap and delicious.
3844 Mission Blvd.
This is a bar, so 21 and up only. The beer is great, featuring the best of San Diego's many excellent local brews, and the food is bar grub taken to another level. If you like your food spicy, the "Fuego" steak melt is a face-melting experience. Also excellent are the seared ahi sandwich (with wasabi mayo) and the burgers. The appetizers are excellent as well, particularly the Stone Arrogant Bastard ale-battered popcorn shrimp.
Rum Jungle Smoothie Bar and Internet Café
4150 Mission Blvd. #153
Smoothies, exotic teas and fresh juices, as well as delicious bowls filled with the rainforest fruit acai, granola, yogurt, honey, berries and bananas. This makes for an ideal pre-beach-going destination.
1846 Garnet Ave.
Some of the best Greek food in San Diego is healthfully prepared here, with an eye towards low-fat cooking. The vegetarian dishes easily outshine the meat entrées, with my favorite meal consisting of several of the veggie appetizers, making visits quite affordable. The sandwiches are excellent bargains, too. Try the falafel.
This is one of San Diego's ritziest neighborhoods, so the bargains don't exactly abound. However, there are a few decent places to grab something quick and inexpensive.
El Pescador Fish Market
687 Pearl St.
Fresh-caught fish is sold here to cook at home, but they also have tables where you can order stuff from the cases and grilled right up. It's not the cheapest place to eat (sandwiches are around $7), but it's definitely worth the money.
7837 Girard Ave.
This family-owned Belgian deli has excellent and affordable sandwiches, salads, soups and pre-made entrees like beef Burgundy and lamb stew. Get a sandwich made on one of the delicious homemade breads, assembled with your choice of tasty ingredients, including roasted red peppers and eggplant, and take it down to the Cove. The pastries are delicious, as well.
1030 Torrey Pines Road
Unpretentious Persian kebab eatery, with outdoor seating so you can enjoy the sun. Mesquite grilled kebabs are the order of the day here, with outstanding basmati rice on the side. The grilled tomatoes are also delicious.