Kearny Mesa, including Clairemont and Linda Vista, is the quintessential Southern California suburb, serving as the source material for Cameron Crowe's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A friend of mine, who attended Clairemont High around the same time as Crowe, told me, "Yeah, that Jeff Spicoli character? There were hundreds of those dudes."
In the '90s, the character of this area changed dramatically as Asian-oriented businesses moved in-revitalizing a neighborhood that had become synonymous with mullet-coiffed, El Camino-driving, 101 KGB-FM listeners. Kearny Mesa has since become one of San Diego's most interesting places to explore, especially if you appreciate exotic dining.
There is no better place in San Diego to experience Asian dining, especially if you're adventurous-not because of weird food (though you can certainly find that if you want it), but because of authentic cuisine that will challenge your palate with unfamiliar flavors.
Jasmine (4609 Convoy St.): San Diego's premier spot for dim sum, a brunch made of hot and cold appetizers wheeled between tables on carts. Just point at what looks good and hope it's nothing too unusual. Adventurous items include fried shrimp with shell and head intact (and yes, you eat the shell and the head) and stewed chicken feet. Tamer offerings include a wide range of dumplings, steamed buns, soups and roast-meat dishes-the soy-sauce chicken a particularly delicious example.
Tajima (4681 Convoy St.): This Japanese restaurant offers sushi, noodle dishes and entrées that feature a modern take on Japanese fare such as Japanese-style meatloaf. The young Japanese crowd that gathers is loud and talkative, helping make dining here a fun experience.
Pho Hoa Cali (7351 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.): Top-notch Vietnamese fare in a large, brightly lit restaurant. Pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, is appetizing, and the pho ga (chicken) is a particular standout. Pho tai (rare steak) is also really good, with the thinly sliced raw beef cooking before your eyes in the hot broth. If soup isn't your thing, try one of the entrées, like Bun-cool rice noodles atop lettuce, radish and carrots, with barbecued meat on top of it all-or one of the broken-rice dishes. The char-grilled ground shrimp on sugar cane should not be missed.
Korea House (4620 Convoy St.): Not all tables come with grills in the center, but those are the ones you want. The grills are fired up and left to preheat, during which time the waitress will stock your table with a staggering array of small appetizers, usually numbering a dozen or more. Kimchi, preserved minnows, fried seaweed chips and pickled garlic are some of the ever-changing options that accompany your marinated meat selection, which you cook yourself. Make sure to ask for the lettuce leaves, which you use to wrap up your barbecue.
China Max Seafood Restaurant (4698 Convoy St. #101C): Possibly the best Chinese food I've eaten, China Max serves some of the most unusual high-end Chinese in town. The pepper steak, for example, is made from a de-boned Porterhouse. Another highlight is fried lamb chops. Everything on the menu looks so good that it's difficult to settle on anything. A must-try dish is the fried crab cakes-delicately seasoned and rich with large lumps of crabmeat, these are perfectly cooked and flake apart at the touch of your fork, a bargain at $8.
Spicy City (4690 Convoy St. #107): Another unusual Chinese place, Spicy City specializes in hotter dishes, leaning towards the exotic. Cold appetizers include chicken feet pickled in Szechuan peppercorn sauce, and shredded pork stomach in hot chili oil. For an unusual noodle dish, try the twice-cooked pork noodle, which uses a gelatinous rice starch-based noodle that has an amazing texture. Spicy City keeps odd hours, closing between 2 and 5 p.m. every day, and ending dinner service at 9 p.m. Closed on Mondays.
Le's (6925 Linda Vista Road): This homey Linda Vista eatery serves Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine, with a healthy selection of vegetarian and vegan items. The Vietnamese dishes are exotic, including frog in butter sauce, and a range of venison entrées. The Thai gai yang can't be recommended highly enough-chicken breast marinated in coconut milk and spices, then barbecued.
Kearny Mesa is home to a number of drinking holes-none fancy, and some downright scary. Bars aren't this neighborhood's strength, but there are a few entertaining places to hang.
Victor's Cocktails (4365 Convoy St.): This pool hall seems out of place, located as it is next to a Chinese restaurant, Korean gift shop, tofu house and sushi bar. Clearly a bastion of Clairemont's earlier days, they have Stone IPA on tap and a Sunday lunch special that draws a crowd eager to feast on $3 top sirloin, freshly barbecued and served with baked potato and corn. I prefer Victor's to the well-known Hungry Stick, as it has a mellower vibe.
The Carriage House (7945 Balboa Ave.): A true dive bar, The Carriage House features karaoke on Saturday night and the song selections include Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Meat Loaf-with the latter's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" presented in its full eight minutes and 30 seconds of gloriousness. Cheap drinks make this a fun place.
O'Brien's (4646 Convoy St. #117): One of San Diego's best places to drink beer, O'Brien's features some of San Diego's many excellent local brews, as well as rare taps from Belgium, England and Canada-along with a killer bottle selection of Belgian rarities. Food is decent pub grub, with particularly good burgers.
Entertainment in Kearny Mesa takes many forms, and has something to fit just about any need-with the exceptions of live music, art, cinema and theater. In other words, the entertainment is what you make it, and is geared more towards the freaks and geeks than anyone else.
Famous Video (4698 Convoy St. #205): Why settle for regular ol' porn when you can get some hot face-sitting, wrestling, pregnant women or midget fetish videos? Catering to any and all bizarre tastes, Famous Video makes for a fascinating half-hour of exploring the depths of the id. The descriptions on wrestling and fighting video boxes are especially entertaining reading.
94th Aero Squadron (8885 Balboa Ave.): I'm not sure how or why this place came to be, but it's easily the best World War I-themed restaurant/bar I've ever been to. Constructed to look like a damaged German farmhouse, the exterior is decorated with hay bales, cannons, biplanes and burlap sandbags. The dark interior is decorated with a variety of early 1900s bric-a-brac, with signs pointing to the "Ready Room" (the bar), the "Officers Mess" (mess being an apt description for the outrageously priced Sunday buffet) and the "Latrines," where guests are treated to World War I-era recorded speeches while they do their business. The back patio cozies up to Montgomery Field, where the Cessnas taking off and landing add to the aeronautical theme. Friday nights, the place becomes a bumpin' hip-hop club. What hip-hop has to do with World War I is anybody's guess.
Game Empire (7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. #306): An ideal place for geek watching, this game shop boasts a huge room for gamers to congregate and play Magic, Dungeons and Dragons and other geeko games. The gamers are interesting to watch as they position their figurines on model terrain and buildings, and bust out their tape-measures to see how many of the other guy's plastic dudes got killed by their dice-rolling techniques.
Skate World (6907 Linda Vista Road) This old-school indoor skating rink hosts an "Adult Night" on Tuesdays-which is a great opportunity for Gen-Xers to relive their teenage years. Video games, '80s music and bad snacks are the stuff here, and the Mission Beach roller disco contingent typically occupies the center of the floor, performing their dazzling tricks. Skate rentals are available, but it's best to bring your own. Rollerblades are permitted.