Travel Eats: San Diego

San Diego is one of my favorite places for a weekend getaway. It has a nice mix of beautiful scenery, interesting attractions and relaxing vibes. Plus—there’s tons of great food! 

EncinitasI got my first real taste of San Diego back in college. I spent a couple summers interning  in North County, and fell in love with the local community. It was my first time living somewhere with an actual, pedestrian-friendly main street.  There were cute local businesses. I could walk to the beach in 15 minutes. And I ate really, really well.

These days, I’m lucky to live a short plane ride away. I make my way to San Diego a few times a year, and try to hit up different neighborhoods every time. There’s a real variety of things to see, from lush gardens to classic art. When it comes to food, you’ve got your pick of cuisines, from Mexican to Italian to that “New American” label we see all over the place these days.

But where should you eat? Here are my favorite spots. Whether you’re looking for brunch ideas, dinner reservations or just a sweet treat, this list should help you out!

Breakfast and brunch

Isabel’s Cantina (Pacific Beach): This charming restaurant offers a really nice mix of decadent dishes and healthy options. There’s something for everyone—and it’s all delicious. I usually convince someone to share with me so we can get one sweet and one savory dish. My faves are the Very Berry Pancakes and the Avocado Scramble.

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Clayton’s

Clayton’s Coffee Shop (Coronado): Clayton’s looks like an old-timey diner, but its food is fresh, and there are lots of interesting things on the menu. There’s usually a wait, so try to get there on the early side. The service is great here—they refill my coffee so frequently, I lose track of how much caffeine I’ve had!!!!

Potato Shack (Encinitas): The pancakes here are so big, they’re called Manhole Covers! It’s not a gimmick, though: they’re also big in flavor. If you go here, make sure to try their “American fries,” too.

Papagayo (Leucadia): I’ve always loved the atmosphere at this North County spot. It’s laid-back, with lots of personality and great food. I usually get the Macadamia Nut Pancakes or Gran Marnier French Toast.

Little Italy Mercato: Head to Little Italy on Saturday morning for their lively farmer’s market. The market takes over several city blocks with fresh produce, food stalls and local crafts. You’re sure to find something delicious!

Lunch and dinner

Juanita’s Taco Shop (Encinitas): My favorite Mexican restaurant in San Diego! No frills, but huge on flavor. I usually get a combo plate here, and love the rice and beans that come with it. 

Ki’s Restaurant (Cardiff): All meals are great here, but lunch is my favorite. I especially love the butternut squash enchiladas. The dining room has ocean views, so go here during the day and pick your seat wisely!

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Lunch at Volcano Rabbit

Volcano Rabbit (Gaslamp): We wrote this place off as another generic Gaslamp bar…until it came up with super high reviews on Yelp. Ten points to Yelp, because we loved this place! I got short rib tacos, a mushroom taco and a margarita flight. Yes, you read that right: a margarita flight. Highly recommend. 

Cafe Sevilla (Gaslamp): Grab a group for this Spanish restaurant, so you can try all the things. My fave dishes are the Queso Fundido, grilled lamb and veggie paella. Their sangria is great, too. I’ve never been to the nightclub downstairs but… maybe next time?!

Barbusa (Little Italy): This Sicilian spot is a real scene, but the food speaks for itself. Definitely make a reservation before you head over here, because it gets real busy.  

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Pasta at Leroy’s

Leroy’s (Coronado): One of my more recent finds, Leroy’s has an ever-changing menu with lots of interesting options. My favorite dish so far was fettuccine with duck ragu and chili threads. Last time we had some pretty awesome quail, and sweet corn spaghetti. You can’t go wrong! 

Trattoria I Trulli (Encinitas): I don’t want to sound controlling but…if you go here, get the pesto. It’s impossibly good, and they mix pine nuts, string beans and potatoes in with the pasta.

Bakeries and desserts

Charlie’s Best Bread (Pacific Beach): My go-to spot for breads like chocolate cherry, challah and olive. You can also find Charlie’s at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores.

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Cravory cookies

The Cravory (Multiple locations): These cookies are SO good, and come in really interesting flavors. Think Rosemary Balsamic, Taro and Lemon Matcha. I’ve never actually made it to their shops, but you can find the cookies all over town, from the Little Italy farmer’s market to Balboa Park.

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Gelato at Bobboi

Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (Little Italy): I’ve never actually eaten a meal here...but I’ve come for cookies many, many times. They offer a huge selection of classic Italian cookies. My favorites are the sandwich cookies filled with jam or chocolate!

Bobboi Natural Gelato (La Jolla): Come here for cool flavors! Last time I got a rose/hazelnut/pistachio scoop. They have lots of dairy-free flavors, too. Plus, they’re right by the beach!

Things to see in San Diego

I know this post is called Travel Eats…but I have to give you some sightseeing tips, too. Note that San Diego’s top spots are scattered around a large metro area. You might want to rent a car, but you don’t actually need one. Between public transit and ridesharing apps, it’s totally possible to get around without your own set of wheels. These are just a few of my favorite things to do in SD!

Meditation Gardens (Encinitas): These beautiful, well-maintained gardens overlook the ocean. They’re run by a local spiritual group that also offers retreats and meditation. It’s free to go in the gardens, but you can make a donation to contribute to upkeep.

Balboa Park Museums: Balboa Park offers a crazy amount of sights. Make sure to visit the Timken Museum, which is full of masterpieces and free to enter. You should also check out smaller museums like the Centro de la Raza and the International Cottages.

North County fun: Don’t limit yourself to downtown San Diego! Head up north to get a different feel. You can start your day with breakfast at one of my fave Encinitas spots, then hit up Moonlight Beach for a bit. After that, head a bit south to the meditation gardens. Then, go to the Cedros Design District in Solana Beach. It’s full of small crafts stores and a great place to discover local artisans.

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My San Francisco Favorites

People often ask me about the best bakeries and ice cream shops in San Francisco. Friends joke that I’m like a walking encyclopedia to San Francisco’s best desserts: name a neighborhood or dessert type, and I’m sure to have a tip. I’m always happy to help other people experience SF’s best. So after quite some time of planning to do this but not actually doing it… I finally built my own San Francisco Treat Map.

This handy map plots out my top picks for baked goods, ice cream and coffee. You’ll find a mix of celebrated gems and places that don’t seem to get much press–but should. You can find the full map at the bottom of this post or over on its dedicated page. Click on the map markers to see menu tips and other notes.

And just in case you don’t feel like clicking all over a map… here’s a quick guide to my San Francisco favorites:

Where to find the best…

Cookies: Nob Hill’s Batter Bakery is my go-to for delicious cookies with a great texture. I love the cherry ginger, and they’re directly responsible for getting me hooked on herbs in cookies (their lavender sea salt shortbread is incredible). They’re known for their “sand angel,” a sort of molasses/snickerdoodle hybrid. Bonus tip: they do a cookie happy hour every day from 3-6 PM.

Croissants: Neighbor Bakehouse is one of my favorite 20160327_105821bakeries in the city, and their croissants are incredible. Imagine layers of the perfect buttery croissant dough, complemented by flavorful fillings. My favorite is the pistachio, which also includes a layer of blackberry jam. Their savory tarts are incredible too. (Review here)

Scones: Arizmendi is a co-op with locations scattered around the Bay Area. I’m particularly partial to their scones: they have the best crusty top and fluffy interior. Their mixed berry scones are my #1 pick. Their menu rotates, so if you’re lucky enough to visit when they’re offering chocolate cherry sourdough, make sure to scoop it up!

IMG_1957.jpgSticky buns, morning buns, etc: Marla Bakery is one of my favorite spots in the city thanks to their delectable baked goods, laid-back atmosphere and stellar brunch. Start your brunch with a sticky bun, or whatever morning pastry is on offer that day. (Review here)

Cake: Alright, my answer here depends on what you’re looking for. Seeking slices of American cake-and-frosting classics? SusieCakes is your place, and you should get the Celebration Cake or red velvet. Looking for more of a Euro-style cake that pairs spongey cake with denser fillings (jam, pastry cream, etc.)? Go to Moscow & Tiblisi Bakery and pick up the Sunshine Cake. And for cupcakes, make your way to Sift Dessert Bar in Pacific Heights, where the almond cupcake makes me swoon.

10474609_10100721491442192_1525715483481751452_nIce cream: Swensen’s opened at the corner of Union and Hyde in 1948. They’ve since expanded into an international chain but this location is the classic, and way old-school. My favorite flavors are the Swiss Orange (chocolate orange) and the peppermint that appears during the holidays.

Gelato: Lush Gelato has a few locations around the Bay Area. Their gelato tastes very fresh and you can tell they use high quality ingredients. They offer a range of classic and edgier flavors. I especially like their cheese flavors: mascarpone, ricotta and the like.

Macarons: Chantal Guillon, without a doubt. They offer everything from chocolate to Persian rose to seasonal flavors like yuzu hazlenut. The shells have just the right amount of crisp, and all the fillings are balanced and delicious.

Bread: The Mill, which gets extra points because their lead baker’s name is actually Josey Baker. Mondays and Wednesdays are pizza nights, so you can grab tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s bread in the same fell swoop.

IMG_3047.JPGCoffee: I spend a lot of time at coffee shops, and Contraband Coffee Bar is my favorite. I get the Black Market every single time–it’s a medium dark specialty drip. Friends go gaga for their espresso. Contraband also gets bonus points for being the first place I tried a Neighbor Bakehouse pastry!

Avocado toast: Avocado toast is a strangely contentious category in these parts, and my vote goes to Cafe St. Jorge near Bernal Heights. Wheat toast is topped with a generous helping of smashed avocado, chili and lemon. Mmmm.

Spin on s’mores: Yes this deserves its own category, and the honor goes to Dandelion Chocolate in the Mission. Their version includes a homemade graham cracker, marshmallow and chocolate ganache. They toast it to order, too!

Think I’m missing somewhere special? Drop me a line at culturecookies@gmail.com.