What I learned about San Diego’s food scene after a day in the city

As the sunset daftar situs slot online illuminates the San Diego skyline, a kayaker launches from a beach, Monday, April 22, 2019, in Coronado, Calif.

Ask nearly any local what kind of food San Diego is best known for, and the universal answer is tacos.

The city’s location, less than 20 miles from the Mexican border and flanking the Pacific, makes it the perfect spot for fish tacos (or just about any type of taco, if you ask around).

“We are Mexico North,” said Troy Johnson, publisher and chief content officer of San Diego Magazine. “Our chefs use a lot of Baja tricks and tips and secrets that really get exported 20 minutes up from the border.”

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Combine that with the city’s ability to bring in fresh seafood from the Pacific and you’ve got “ground zero” for fish tacos, according to Martin Lindsay, board chair of the Culinary Historians of San Diego, a nonprofit that hosts free public meetings on food history.

While there are plenty of award-winning establishments that will dish out some mouth-watering food, locals say good tacos can be found in nearly every corner of the city.

“Our local gas station has my favorite fish tacos,” said Elaine Lewinnek, a professor at California State University, Fullerton who teaches a course on food history. “It has a walk-in freezer of craft beer next to the 99-cent fish tacos, and they’re adored around here.”

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I had just about 24 hours in San Diego to try to get a sense of the city’s food scene and try out its world-renowned tacos. This is by no means a list of the San Diego’s best restaurants – that will all depend on what kind of food you’re looking for and who you ask – but here’s a peek at a few spots recommended by local experts.

First stop: Lola 55 Tacos & Cocktails

Lola 55 Tacos & Cocktails was my first stop – a suggestion from Johnson.

“Their fish taco literally comes from whatever the local fishing boats catch that morning,” Johnson said. “It’s gourmet tacos for cheap. … You walk out of there and feel like you stole from someone.”

The exterior of Lola 55 Tacos & Cocktails in San Diego.

The exterior of Lola 55 Tacos & Cocktails in San Diego.

I ordered the Baja Style Fish taco and the special of the day, an “insanely spicy smoked fish taco” that one staff member described as a mix between a taco and a jalapeno popper. Each cost around $5.

Two fish tacos from Lola 55 Tacos & Cocktails in San Diego on April 5, 2022.

Two fish tacos from Lola 55 Tacos & Cocktails in San Diego on April 5, 2022.

The restaurant offers plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, with a dog-friendly al fresco dining area. That’s where I ran into locals Toni and Teresa Ceotto as they sipped on happy-hour margaritas alongside their collie, Reign. The two are big fans of the city’s food and talked about the fresh and sustainable ingredients found in restaurants across the city.

“You pay a little bit more, but the experience makes it worth it. Like the cilantro is just as fresh as can be. So they are attentive to that detail,” Toni said.

Teresa recommends tourists track down locally-owned restaurants while in town.

“They have the best food and service, to be honest,” she said.

  • Address: 1290 F Street

  • Service: Self-seating, order at the counter

  • Wait time for food: 10 minutes

  • Price per taco: $3.95 – $5.50

  • Drinks: Yes (Toni Ceotto said he’s a big fan of the house margarita)

  • Known for: Fish tacos

Dinner: Tuetano Taqueria

Tuetano Taqueria’s tacos are not only tasty; they’re a show.

One of their best-known dishes is the birria bone marrow taco: a beef taco served with roasted bone marrow that has a wooden stick speared through the center. Diners are tasked with using the stick to push the bone marrow onto their taco for extra flavor. (Thankfully, there are instructions on the side of the shop for newcomers.)

A birria bone marrow taco, birria consumme and extra tortillas from Tuetano Taqueria in San Diego.

A birria bone marrow taco, birria consumme and extra tortillas from Tuetano Taqueria in San Diego.

I also got a side of birria consomme, a broth soup with beef, onion and cilantro.

The shop draws both locals and visitors; Johnson called birria “the biggest thing in San Diego right now.”

“The shock and awe of that bone marrow delivered on the taco is theater. It’s fun, but also bone marrow is meat butter. It’s delicious,” Johnson said. “It makes everything better.”

The restaurant is surrounded by local shops (I spotted a jewelry and gem store across the street and a wine shop next door), which makes the restaurant a good stop for tourists looking to kill some time.

A mural of Frida Kahlo near Tuetano Taqueria in San Diego.

A mural of Frida Kahlo near Tuetano Taqueria in San Diego.

San Diego local Alex Pesqueda, who was sipping on a cider at Tuetano Taqueria in early April, said the restaurant’s tacos were a little expensive for his taste – some of his favorite tacos in town are sold by street vendors – but still tasty.

He noted that the city’s Mexican food offerings have improved since he first moved to San Diego from Mexico City 20 years ago.

“I remember when I came here the first time, rarely people find places where you can get some Mexican products, the real (stuff),” he said. “(You’d get) flour tortilla, la Mission. Something like that. But now we have tortillerias, businesses that do fresh tortillas. Now … you don’t need to go to Tijuana to get products. It’s nice.”

Johnson also believes the city’s food scene has improved over the past decade. He credited the farm-to-table movement, fresh produce and fresh seafood for elevating the city’s culinary options.

“Ten years ago, Applebee’s was considered our Michelin star. I hate to say that about my own city, but we were a desert when it came to food that pushed boundaries,” Johnson said. “I made apologies for San Diego for so long. 2019 was really the first time I could honestly look at the food scene and go, nope. We’re here. We’ve arrived.”

Tuetano Taqueria offers plenty of outdoor seating at 2540 Congress Street, San Diego.

Tuetano Taqueria offers plenty of outdoor seating at 2540 Congress Street, San Diego.

  • Address: New location at 2540 Congress Street

  • Service: Self-seating, order at the counter

  • Wait time for food: 10 minutes

  • Price per taco: $5.25 – $11

  • Drinks: Yes

  • Known for: Birria bone marrow tacos and consomme

Breakfast: The Taco Stand

I added The Taco Stand to my list of restaurants to check out after receiving recommendations from multiple sources.

I arrived shortly after the restaurant opened at 9 a.m. and there was already a small line of hungry customers waiting to order. Their location on B street was small – a sign noted that the venue holds 34 people max – but the line moved fast and most people were putting in take away orders, which means there was plenty of seating both inside and outdoors.

The Taco Stand in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

The Taco Stand in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

The morning show “Despierta America” ran on a TV in the corner while cooks in red aprons dished up meals during my Wednesday morning visit. The restaurant no longer serves machaca tacos – the menu item recommended to me – but there were plenty of breakfast burrito options. The restaurant drew in a mixed crowd that morning, from visitors on business trips to local construction workers clad in bright yellow vests.

I suggest checking out the salsa bar in the back – the Huevos a la Mexicana burrito the cashier recommended (filled with eggs, refried beans, rice, cilantro, onions and tomatoes) came naked, allowing me to top it with the salsa of my choosing. The restaurant also has tortilla chips made in-house, frozen ice pop, Mexican beer and horchata.

A Huevos a la Mexicana burrito The Taco Stand in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

A Huevos a la Mexicana burrito The Taco Stand in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

  • Address: 645 B Street (there are 6 locations in California, one in Las Vegas and one in Miami)

  • Service: Self-seating, order at the counter

  • Wait time for food: Six minutes

  • Price per taco: $2.99 – $4.99

  • Drinks: Yes

  • Known for: Handmade tortillas

Lunch: Puesto at The Headquarters

Puesto was full when I arrived around 11:50 a.m. on Wednesday. I was able to get in quickly with a reservation, but I overheard a staff member warning customers of a 20-minute wait. Most of the diners there were in town for a conference at a hotel next door.

Puesto at the Headquarters in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

Puesto at the Headquarters in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

The award-winning restaurant, started by first-generation Mexican Americans, is best known for its crispy melted cheese. The prices are on the higher end, with each taco priced at $8 to $10, but Johnson said that the elevated experience is part of what makes Puesto so great.

While locals had long grown used to viewing Mexican food as a cheap fast-food option, Johnson said the general consumer has come to realize it can also be “rich and vibrant” and worthy of a star chef’s attention.

“And that’s kind of what that’s what Puesto has done. They’ve really invested in the quality of the ingredients, the quality of their cooks. Their cocktails are craft and made from scratch in-house and every single detail they got the best that they possibly could,” he said.

I had the filet mignon taco – which comes with the famous crispy melted cheese, avocado and a spicy pistachio serrano salsa – and a tamarindo shrimp taco with guacamole. Both were recommended by my waiter.

While the majority of customers were seated outdoors, each table comes with a bright orange umbrella that offers plenty of shade.

A tamarindo shrimp taco and filet mignon taco from Puesto at the Headquarters in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

A tamarindo shrimp taco and filet mignon taco from Puesto at the Headquarters in San Diego on April 6, 2022.

  • Address: 789 West Harbor Drive (there are eight other locations)

  • Service: Table service

  • Reservations: Yes

  • Wait time for food: 20 minutes

  • Price per taco: $8 – $10

  • Drinks: Yes

  • Best known for: Crispy melted cheese on their tacos

Where to go for good views: Tom Ham’s Lighthouse

While Tom Ham’s Lighthouse doesn’t serve tacos, I made a late-night stop after a co-worker and various San Diego locals talked it up.

The restaurant is just a mile or so from San Diego International Airport, which makes it a great stop for tourists looking for a quick bite to eat after their arrival.

The view at night was breathtaking – you can see the San Diego skyline on the opposite side of the North San Diego Bay – and I imagine the view is even better at sunset.

Their drink menu prices range from $7 to $18 per glass. Entrees include plenty of fish options (crispy whole fish, pan-seared salmon and Maine diver scallops are just a few of the choices listed) and prices range from $24 to $52, not including market prices.

Tom Ham's Lighthouse in San Diego.

Tom Ham’s Lighthouse in San Diego.

What else to explore

While my main objective was to check out San Diego’s taco offerings, locals note that the city offers so much more from a variety of cultures.

“There’s a lot of refugees who come to San Diego, so there’s some great Syrian food and Middle Eastern food,” Lewinnek, the California State University, Fullerton professor, said. “We don’t have a traditional Chinatown, we’re kind of a sprawling place, but we have streets like Convoy Street where you can get amazing Japanese and Korean and Chinese and Asian foods.”

The city also has a Little Italy, now known for its food and drink scene but originally home to immigrant fishermen.

Natalie Tran, store manager at KSandwiches, a family-run Banh Mi restaurant her Vietnamese immigrant parents helped start in the 2000s, said the restaurant gets lots of “love and support” from the San Diego community.

“I feel like San Diego is definitely very diverse. You can find all sorts of food,” Tran said. “You can find different cultures and different cultural food everywhere in San Diego. It’s a very good place for people who want to travel and try new foods.”

A Banh Mi sandwich from SandwichK in San Diego.

A Banh Mi sandwich from SandwichK in San Diego.

Alvin Owino, owner of Flavors of East Africa in San Diego, is helping introduce more people to the flavors he was introduced to while growing up in Kenya.

“Food neutralizes people in the sense that food does not have color. Does not choose ethnicity. Does not choose anything. Food brings people together,” he said. “They might have a different geology, but they eat together. They come pasarbola to the same restaurant and eat and they have a different perspective on things, but the food brings everyone together.”

You can follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter @bailey_schulz and follow our free travel newsletter here.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Diego day trip: My experience at 4 taco shops in 24 hours

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