Breaking down the composition of San Diego's culinary fare entails far more than a few classes in organic chem. Ancillary scientific concerns include -budget -tamiability, gastrointestinal impact, per-serving fortitude and environmental (psychological and physical) health. Survey says...
Best weekend breakfast spot with the worst view
A chain drugstore is its neighbor, and a funky thrift store, Sports Arena Boulevard and an I-8 onramp dominate the generally yucky Midway-area landscape, but the good people at Coconut Café know how to deliver consistently tasty morning fare with a Caribbean flare. It's open for lunch, too-the Jamaican jerk chicken salad is a standard-bearer-but the big crowds of far-reaching locals, surfers and students converge on the place by the carloads on the weekend. From the traditional eggs-your-way/buttermilk pancakes/bacon-or-sausage combo to the more decadent fruit-and-coconut-topped Caribbean Stack or coconut-syrup-slathered banana-and-coconut French toast, ain't no way your tummy will be anything but happy.
-John R. Lamb
Best Sino-Italian cuisine
How many times has this happened to you: you get in the car to head to lunch, and you can't decide if you want an egg roll or eggplant parmesan? Your salvation lies in an out-of-the-way strip mall in Leucadia, where it's two, two, two restaurants in one. No, it's not some lame sitcom, it's two former neighboring restaurants. Chinatown Chinese Cuisine and Grissini Italian Cuisine are one and the same, with the same dining room, the same wait staff and the same wine list. The end result is not so much a bizarre and unique fusion of cuisines as a bizarre and unique experiment in communal capitalism. Funny bit of irony: the Grissini Italian menu offers a Chinese Chicken Salad. You'll be spouting "Green Tea Tiramisu" jokes and the like long after your friends beg you to stop.
Best breakfast burrito
It's been a hub for Leucadians for years and a place where both suits and wetsuits are equally at home. Mozy Café is open early and busy with surfers fresh from the morning session, along with professionals making a quick stop for a healthy snack to take to the office. The bestseller is the Tropical Breakfast Burrito, chock full of eggs, jack cheese, grilled plantains, black beans, avocado and some secret ingredient that makes you crave it at least once a month. If you're really hungry, check out the killer homemade falafel. Mosey on down for breakfast any day or for late-night musical gatherings on nights when the moon is full.
Best place to drink wine while you wait
Poor Dominic's. It just may be best known as "that little Italian joint next to the place where David Westerfield tried to hit on Brenda van Dam." Yet if sharing a mailman with San Diego's grotesque tourist attraction is what it takes to draw attention to this killer Italian eatery, then so be it. First thing you see when you walk in the door is a large, very large carafe of Chianti. If one of the servers isn't there to seat you right away, grab a glass. By the time you can say, "Honey, I'm feeling saucy," you've got a table. The real secret of Dominic's isn't that they greet you with booze or that the food is good (and it is very, very good, especially the bread knots). It's the service and ambiance, which make you feel like you just stumbled into the home of an Italian family who's been displaced in Poway just long enough to know what Americans need. Which is, of course, to feel like we're somehow special, that we're not just another consumer with a valid credit card who can read a menu.
Breakfast is breakfast is breakfast. (And apparently, according to San Diegans, breakfast is eggs benedict.) For a too-cool change of pace, head to La Jolla. Across from the post office on Wall Street is the Coffee Cup Café, the oldest and still the best and most consistent of the Mission Café pseudo-family of restaurants. The menu features lots of brown rice, lots of beans and lots of egg whites. If you're feeling the need to eat healthy, try the pesto scramble or the Chino-Latino beans and rice. Prefer food comas? Order the crispy-edged pancakes, or the gargantuan sugar-dusted plate full of French toast. Occasional crowds descend, but on most days, you can grab a sidewalk table and pore over your morning paper for hours. Or at least until the Coffee Cup closes at 3 p.m.
Best burger combo
Hodad's low-grease grub, kick-ass music and hot, tatted servers with smiles-tough to tell which one's the draw, but simple solutions for hangovers and stoners (basket, no basket, bacon and cheese or best damn veggie in town) make it a no-brainer beach break. Beach bums beware-be hungry.
Best hush puppies
Hush puppies are like dinnertime doughnut holes-soft, round and savory balls of fried cornmeal. Gulf Coast Grill in Hillcrest mixes a mild dose of spicy peppers in with the cornmeal and fries the dough balls until they're perfectly crisp on the outside, and soft and doughy on the inside. Nine of the little critters come lightly drizzled with a creamy sauce, encircling a small pile of fresh greens. Pair it up with a beer and you've got yourself a meal.
Best late night to be
Inevitably, people call Pokéz Vegetarian Mexican restaurant downtown a young hipster hangout. But those people are missing the point. Sure, there are a lot of tattoos and piercings wandering around, but then there is the table full of students enjoying a cheap lunch, the guy with coat and tie who is ordering his usual carne asada TAKE-oh, the local Mexican laborers slipping in for a quick meal. The thin chips are homemade, as is the salsa, which is as wildly inconsistent as the service, but always bright and spicy. Advice: Order your burrito wet. Best of all, Pokéz will soon be open until 3 a.m. And please take note, 5-to-9ers: Pokez is always busy.
Best place to get hot and steamy
Extensive research and trial and error has brought evidence to the table that sake is the most lethal of out-of-control party stimulus. Thus, the preferred cuisine from the Asian continent will always be Chinese food, in order to avoid the burning draw of sake in Japanese restaurants. At least it should be. Peking Palace in the UTC mall is the perfect place to avoid the sake and engorge in some serious wonton soup and binge on crunchy fried noodles in sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. Peking Palace can be as casual or as nice as you'd like it to be-businessmen and daters come along at all hours of the day. A widespread menu serves any Chinese-food craving, and portions are generous and appropriately priced. Check out the hot n' steamin' broccoli beef entrée or order one of the many vegetarian plates for a healthier choice that still fills you up.
Best bar and grill with Pacific perception
South Beach Bar & Grill's fresh fish taco totally takes tops in town, but don't stop there. Unlike other restaurants with ocean views, their fresh-Mex feasts and bitchin' brew selection are unparalleled without being pricey. Other pluses include superior service and an eclectic selection of surrounding shops and live entertainment venues.
Best underwater restaurant view
Descending into the dining room at La Jolla's Marine Room feels a little like marching right into the surf. A seahorse aquarium adds to the illusion, but joggers huffing by the windows at low tide do not. That's why the Marine Room may be the only restaurant whose website features a calendar of exceptionally high tides. Use it wisely, and reserve a table on a day when the waves will be beating against the windows. (Don't get too comfortable: the waves have already won twice. Check out the photos of the flooded dining room.) Of course, you could just sip cocktails in the lounge and watch the waves, but then you would be missing out on perhaps the most exciting and innovative kitchen in San Diego. The oh-so-worth-it four-course tasting menu is $55 per person, $72 with a wine pairing, Sunday through Thursday.
Best overwater restaurant view
Located at the end of the Imperial Beach Pier, the Tin Fish is a large, somewhat run-down shack with a cut-bait-and-gull-shit décor. But inside, happy shiny minimum-wage warriors prepare every meal to order. They fry fresh fish fillets and shellfish in thick cornmeal batter so popular they sell it by the pound to their die-hard regulars, of whom there are many. The menu is far too extensive, but you can't go wrong with the fish & chips, burritos and, especially, the fish tacos, which are available grilled (salmon, swordfish, halibut, shrimp and calamari) or fried (North Atlantic cod). And if you prefer your fish fresher, they sell bait and fishing poles, or rent poles for $5 per half-day. (No fishing license required on the IB pier.)
Best cheap eats in town
Entering the Chicken Pie Shop, 2633 El Cajon Blvd., North Park, you are immediately hit by the hustle and bustle of the place, with waitresses scurrying back and forth, and a dizzying customer turnaround. Open since 1938, the Chicken Pie Shop has been a staple of budget-minded folks, particularly starving musicians and the elderly, for decades. For those in a hurry, the food gets to your table so quickly, it shames even fast-food joints, but you're also welcome to linger over coffee and dessert. The restaurant offers a full range of food, but it's their namesake chicken potpies that have made them world famous, and with good reason. Not only are they delicious and filling, but at $1.60 for a takeout pie or less than $5 for a full sit-down dinner with all the trimmings, it's one of the best bargains in town.
Best place for chicken necks and sweet potato pie
The flame-bordered graffiti-looking sign on the wall of Barnes Bar-B-Que reads, "$.99 Soul Food," and a pig in a chef's hat urges passersby on Lemon Grove Avenue to "Put the South in Yo Mouth." The menu includes soul food treats like chicken necks and collard greens, and southern staples like catfish and redfish, but more importantly, Barnes is the place for some of the best barbecued ribs, links, beef tips, chicken, et al, in San Diego, either for patrons in the small, prim dining area or, more often, for takeout. The staff of the spacious kitchen makes everything themselves, and they make everything right, including a dynamite pulled pork sandwich that comes drenched in a deep, smoky barbecue sauce. The dessert case includes "ain't your momma's banana pudding" and the smoothest, spiciest sweet potato pie in the world.
Best funky pier dining experience
Oh sure, Oceanside has a '50s-style chain diner on its pier, and the Imperial Beach Pier boasts the Tin Fish, a cool name but a long walk to get there. But in San Diego's funky capital, the Ocean Beach Pier Café can't be beat for convenience, spectacular views and reasonable prices for decent eats. Fish-netting on the wall, plenty of windows to take in the view back to Ocean Beach and Point Loma as well as the crashing waves below. Culinary snobs might scrunch their noses over the occasional fly buzzing by and the informal wood-plank tables, but think about it. You're eating while sitting over the Pacific frickin' Ocean! Pretty cool.
-John R. Lamb
Best post-bar Mexican food
Riverside native Adam Schenk won't even drive into San Diego County without eating at Juanita's Taco Shop at least once. "The Best Mexican Food in the World" he calls it, and he's not alone. On a busy part of Highway 101 in Leucadia-next to Lou's Records and Ducky Waddle's-Juanita's serves up killer tacos, burritos, carnitas and taquitos to a carnivorous North County populous eager for a better post-bar Mexican binge. Patrons of the Leucadian or Martini Ranch jet over for a burrito, forming a line around the outside of Juanita's small corner shop. Even in afternoons folks line up for lunch breaks on the weekdays or beach snacks on sunny weekends. For people tired of the environment of Santana's drive-thrus or the belligerent PB crowd at Roberto's, Juanita's is a welcome break for late-night, or anytime, Mexican favorites.
Best place to get the sandwich Mom used to make
If you have a friend who grew up on the East Coast, ask her about fluff 'n' nutter sandwiches-marshmallow fluff (the stuff that comes in a jar) and peanut butter on Wonder bread. You have to be under 12 to appreciate it. For those of us who grew up on the other side of the states, our moms put a layer of sliced banana in between peanut butter and bread. Krakatoa in Golden Hill takes that perfect combination of protein and potassium a step further and adds the slightest layer of cinnamon and puts it all on the eatery's fabulous telera bread. You even get a side of fruit salad-including mangoes. They call the sandwich the Amboy-the same name as a town in California and a ship that sank in Lake Superior-why, we don't know. The iced chai latte is a perfect complement to the sandwich and also one of the best in town.
Best spot for wannabe paparazzi
Stop looking for the rich and famous at PF Changs. The only people you'll find there are Qualcomm mid-level managers who had to leverage themselves to the hilt to lease that sort-of-snazzy BMW convertible. Celebrity favors little, out-of-the-way places like Harry's Coffee Shop on Girard Avenue. La Jolla residents like sportscaster and author Charlie Jones, or lame-duck school board member Frances Zimmerman, are regulars. Favorite sightings? Harry Jr. mentions Ryan Klesko and Doug Flutie, while Harry Sr. was in awe of Johnny Vander Meer, the only major league pitcher ever to throw back-to-back no-hitters. The waitresses recall the time John Lithgow stopped by during Super Bowl week, and Geena Davis was a regular back when she was dating a La Jolla doctor. Go back a little further and Henny Youngman and Dick Van Dyke were once among the daily clientele.
Best place to eat ravioli, casually
A breed of beachside restaurants has accomplished a fine new thing: Allowing patrons to enjoy a high-quality meal without dressing for a Royal Ball. Some decry this movement of fashion as the end of respect and old-time values, but enjoying one of the best plates of Fusilli Alla Vodka in a pair of jeans is pure heaven at When in Rome. A covered patio complete with old school brick floor and garden planters is for a more social dining experience while a more formal dining room opens up towards the back of the restaurant. The friendliest staff this side of the Mississippi will take care of your every whim and desire and will recommend a few of the chef's tasty specials (try the lamb). The pear salad is to-die-for as warm-up act for When In Rome's special homemade ravioli. Located in the heart of Encinitas, the restaurant is perfect for a candle-lit date atmosphere and a post-dinner walk through town on any evening.
Best combination vegetables-and-cause in one convenient package
Organic produce is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Few people offer organic, because few people buy organic. Few people buy organic, because organic produce is expensive. Organic produce is expensive, because no one grows organic produce. No one grows organic produce, because... you get the idea. Well, the crowds form at the Good Faith Organic Farms stall at the Hillcrest Farmers' Market even before they unload the trucks. Prices are lower than most other organic stores (about one-third what you would pay at Rancho Santa Fe's nationally renowned Chino Farms, for example). Not only are they popular, they are irresistibly populist: they were recently booted off their leased Jamul farmland to make room for a polo field. How can you not love that story? While you're there, enjoy the Hillcrest Farmers' Market, one of the best of those nomadic low-rent strip malls we call "farmers' markets."
Best feast with feminism
Over the years, the Big Kitchen Café in South Park has dished out a healthy serving of community interaction, along with its sumptuous breakfasts. Owner "Judy the Beauty" Forman, also know as the "Mayor of Golden Hill," is a strident activist, especially when it comes to women's issues, and the hostess of Kulture in the Kitchen, which showcases theatre, music, poetry and art. As for the food-yum-it's served in the friendliest atmosphere in town, created by Judy's sing-songy calls for dining parties waiting outside. And, whether you like it or not (we think you will), she'll also break into spontaneous song in the dining room as she works. Useless trivia: Whoopi Goldberg used to work there.
-Jaime Davis & David Rolland
Best coffee, "And now for something completely different" division
Turkish coffee is traditionally brewed in hot desert sand. And you know if it's hot enough to brew coffee in the sand, but someone is still drinking coffee, it must be good. Put sugar in a special pot, cover it with water, and cover the water with coffee grounds the consistency of baby powder. Then, bring the pot almost to a boil three times, stirring each time. The Pomegranate Russian Restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard serves this stuff, grounds and all, in a funky little traditional pot with two tiny ceramic cups. The menu says the coffee is "black as night, hot as love, sweet as sin, and powerful as damnation." Instructions: pour a little cup of damnation, and drink it until you can drink no more. Now go pick the coffee grinds from your teeth.
Best double bypass with angioplasty
In a city drenched in menus boasting vege-burgers and Noni juice, sometimes, my carnivore friend, you just need a good burger. You'll find one of the busiest, best little burger joints in North County damn near underneath the Highway 78 in San Marcos. At George's Burgers you can get a single, a double or a triple burger, all made personal with an assortment of condiments slopped on just the way you like it. The crowd is a mix of regular working-class Joes and starving students who have all discovered that George's makes da bomb, big, messy burger, for the price of drive-through crap. Our local boy's favorite choice is the double bacon chili-cheeseburger, also knows as the "double bypass with angioplasty," and a huge bag of fat-ass French fries. If you want to be really health conscious (smirk) try their kick-butt deep-fried fish and chips. Dieters in search of a salad and vegetarians shouldn't bother-there are no Boca burgers here.
Best tall cool glass of yogurt
Long before Go-Gurt, doogh-pronounced like Homer Simpson hitting his thumb with a hammer: D'oh!-was a popular drink in Iran. A doogh is little more than yogurt, cut with lemon and salt and served over ice. The distinctive taste and texture are very foreign for most lactose-unfriendly Americans, but the doogh will grow on you. Locally, Sadaf Persian Cuisine, with locations downtown and in La Jolla, serves an upscale version with flavor to spare. As with many words from that part of the world, the exact spelling in English is apparently flexible: the drink shows up as "dooh" on the typo-ridden Sadaf menus, and "dough" on the receipts.
Best place to get drunk and enjoy "real' football
Ah, a nice deep-bodied Boddingtons. There's nothing like enjoying this U.K. specialty in the friendly confines of Shakespeare's Pub, where half the people you meet are internationals. Bask in the accents. Close your eyes in the warm glow of your full-bodied beer buzz. Cool off on the huge patio area or hubbub about the last "football" match with a seasoned English soccer veteran. The bartenders are always friendly and the prices aren't too out-of-this-world. Parking can be a bit of a nightmare on weekends, but it's all worth it when the bar back calls you a "dear" and calls your "American accent" a "wee-bit cute." Arrive early on Saturdays and Sundays during Premier League season and you'll be treated to an English breakfast, a bloody Mary and a lively crowd for an English football match.
Best breadless bakery
Sure, the oh-so-smarmily named Jimbo's... Naturally! in Del Mar may be greasing the wheels of industry with the blood of the worker (boo!) and price-gouging wealthy North County yuppies (yay!), but that Jim (bo?) really knows how to bake up a storm. For anyone who has ever suffered through a well-meaning attempt to bake a healthy dessert, Jimbo's bakery can heal the pain. Everything here uses alternative grains and sweeteners. (No, not Sweet-N-Low. Stuff like Stevia and Sucanat, which always gets a big laugh if you pronounce it suck-a-nut.) The beauty is, you might never be able to tell the difference between Jimbo's stuff and the white flour and refined sugar stuff that comes out of a traditional bakery. Except that, occasionally, as with his maple syrup carrot cake, Jimbo's healthy version is actually better.
Best breadless bread
The disingenuously named Julian Bakery, disingenuously located in Bird Rock, is a bizarre little retail storefront, featuring antique appliances, born-again propaganda, a bookshelf of religious and baking (and a couple religious baking) tomes and an unimaginable amount of clutter. The operation is mostly dedicated to their wholesale business, but what a tremendous waste of olfactory resources that is. The smells can draw a man from across the street, over the antique washer/dryer, past "Baking with Jesus" and right up to the cash register, where the inevitably illiterate cashier will sometimes ring you up, sometimes not. The shelves behind the counter are lined with traditional and coffee-can shaped loaves of wheat-free, gluten-free, high-fiber, chemical-free, all-natural, all-organic and all-good breads. Except when the shelves are empty, which is all too often. But the unpredictability, somehow, only adds to the fun.
Best damn chicken burrito for less than three bucks
With the quiver of vintage surfboards hanging from the ceiling, you might be excused for thinking that the owners of Taco Surf are more interested in Gidget pop-art than they are making a killer carne asada. But the family-owned-and-operated taco joint (the registers are usually handled by one of two daughters) has somehow defeated the laws of economics. They're located almost on the beach (read: astronomical rent) and somehow they're able to get by charging chump change for some pretty damn good Mexican food. Their saving grace is that they have real, live Mexicans at the stove (whom they also treat like family) and they make up for low profit margins with a relentless stream of PBecians that just don't want to cook for themselves. In the past six months, I have eaten approximately 70 chicken burritos and have not once been less than stoked with my purchase, nor gone running for the toilet.