Located in the corner pocket of America, Imperial Beach is culturally diverse, slow-paced and relatively free of the pale and pasty hordes that crowd other local coastal communities. And while it's often pooh-poohed because poopy surf from Tijuana occasionally closes its shoreline, Imperial Beach is still a favorite for those brave, yet stinky souls who appreciate lonesome breaks.
However, the main attraction here is the Imperial Pier, and, more importantly, the fish, seals and dolphins that congregate beneath its pilings. On weekends the pier is packed with fishermen and onlookers, but a venture into the gauntlet of flying hooks, past overflowing buckets of quivering sardines and through ankle-deep drifts of fish scales is well worth the risk.
At the tip, The Tin Fish (910 Seacoast Drive) awaits, serving up damn fine fish tacos and fried seafood platters in a peerless setting.
Back at the easterly end-just far enough to walk off lunch-Cow-A-Bunga (10 Evergreen St.) serves espresso concoctions and homemade frozen goodness from its café and micro ice-creamery.
Just across the street, the relatively new MZM Seacoast Bistro (875 Seacoast Drive) is the best and only option for casual fine dining in IB. Owned by Joan Kroc's former personal chef, Marek Migdalski, MZM serves Polish and American favorites for lunch and dinner including potato crusted snapper, dill pickle soup, goat cheese potato ravioli and pirogues. On weekends they also dish up outstanding breakfasts-the apple pancakes alone are worth the drive.
Another solid choice, Aroma Thai (757 Seacoast Drive), features the usual Thai favorites and some outstanding seafood dishes.
Shopping here is limited but Bibbey's Shell Shop (903 Seacoast Drive) is worth a stop. Unlike most seaside seashell shops that traffic in tourist crap, Bibbey's deals in a truly stunning variety of underwater wonders from around the world. Look closely enough among the stuffed sand sharks, the colossal conch shells and puffed-up puffer fish and you'll find Bibbey's murex and Cymatium Bibbeyi, two species of mollusk discovered by and named after the owner.
Also keep your eyes peeled for bushtits, wrentits and the more than 300 other types of birds that hang out at the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Preserve (301 Caspian Way). The birds are most active early or late in the day, but with more than 2,500 acres of unmolested beaches, dunes, mudflats and salt marshes to explore, the preserve is always a great place to escape from civilization and reconnect with nature.
If you'd rather study man in his natural habitat, head to one of IB's watering holes. While the IB Forum Sports Bar and Grill (1079 Seacoast Drive) and Ye Old Plank Inn (24 Palm Ave.) are neighborhood haunts for the Bud-swilling set, the no-less-sophisticated IB Rockin (285 Palm Ave.) features karaoke during the week and live music on weekends. For a genuine cultural experience check out Lydia's Cafe and Nightclub (1628 Palm Ave.) and don't forget a cowboy hat and oversized belt buckle. On weekends the venue features live Mexican folk music and attracts a large crowd of well-dressed Hispanic locals-ranging in age from barely legal to barely breathing-who mix together on the dance floor.
With three screens showing six movies nightly, there's really no reason to ever leave the comfort of your car at the South Bay Drive-in Theatres (2170 Coronado Ave.). True, the movies are mostly mainstream crap, but the whole point of the drive-in-a nearly extinct creature-was never to catch a good flick. Even if you don't get the opportunity to give the springs on the old Dodge Caravan a workout, there's nowhere else to catch two features for just $5.