San Diego. The newest addition to my happy places. I have been traveling to southern California my entire life, but had never found a chance to venture too far south of LA-LA Land. At least once a year, I’ve been able to visit my western relatives - loving the change of scenery and change of pace. Never shy to remind me of the guaranteed blue skies every day and both mountains and beach in such close proximity, my family members are constantly asking me why I would ever live anywhere else. They do have a great point (especially post June 2009 on the rainy east coast). But, after seeing San Diego, it’s time I ask them why they haven’t moved even further south.
Now I could probably go on and on about what an amazing place San Diego is, but I know it’s the food that you are really interested in. And, yes, the food is, without question, one of the area’s highlights. How could my newest happy place not have fed me well? What I loved most about the dining in San Diego was the variety of authentic cuisine - and authentic cuisine done just right. Whether I was eating at Japanese, Vietnamese, or Mexican restaurants, it felt like the real deal, with no frills or fusion - a rarity for city dining. Another perk is being able to visit so many of the surrounding neighborhoods by car and not being stuck in hours of freeway traffic. In just a few trips to San Diego, I already feel like I’ve covered the grounds - from the beaches to the hills - and dined my way through them too.
First stop, Carlsbad - The Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe, just off the highway in an unassuming location. To live in and/or visit the San Diego area without making a trip up here would be a sin - especially if you love brunch as much as I do. As I am never shy to mention, brunch is not only one of my favorite meals, but also one of my favorite things to do in NYC. And it’s always such a comfort to find that this exists outside of New York. In fact, I have been trying to think of a place comparable to the Pie Shoppe in NYC and am actually at a loss. This place is a true classic. A cross between a diner and a good old, southern-style family restaurant, the food is the best of both. From the simplest egg dishes to scrambles and omelets, you cannot go wrong - especially if you order up the biscuits and sausage patties. I’m now realizing southern cuisine should definitely include the west coast too - since the patties at the Pie Shoppe are as good as it gets back home. From the looks of the french toast, the cinnamon rolls, and the pies, I actually wish I could take this place home with me.
Next stop, Oceanside - Mr. Pho, a total dive. Don’t let its strip-mall location keep you away! I knew this place was a winner the minute I stepped inside and realized I was in the minority. I was actually surprised that there was an English menu. While I immediately recognized my Vietnamese favorites, the menu was endless - offering so many more variations of pho, vermicelli, and other specialties than I had ever imagined. We started with the spring rolls. I loved wrapping them in fresh mint leaves and dipping them in the light, sweet sauce on the table. The chicken pho was one of the most comforting soups I have ever tasted. I have never seen a bigger, cheaper bowl of soup that, at the same time, was absolutely fresh and delicious. The vermicelli with roasted pork is another great option - and as authentic as they come. All dishes are accompanied with the traditional Vietnamese sides - fresh vegetables, mint, limes, and sauces that you are free to add according to your liking.
Final stop, Old Town, San Diego - the Coyote Cafe. Once you hit up this neighborhood, you may actually think you have driven far enough south and ended up in Mexico. Could this be San Diego’s Little Mexico? No matter the direction you turn, there will be a Mexican restaurant or bar surrounding you. While at first glance it may be a challenge to pick out the hits from the misses in this festive area, I’ll help you out by directing you towards Cafe Coyote. You can and should sit outside either downstairs or on the upstairs deck and enjoy all that San Diego has to offer - warm evenings and authentic food, and just a step away from the border. The homemade chips and salsa waiting for us as we sat down reinforced our close proximity. Everything from the tostadas to the shrimp tacos to chicken enchiladas screamed both fresh and Mexico. It was the perfect ending to a day spent diving into the Pacific, driving from one beautiful beach to the next.
In all honesty, I cannot believe it has taken me more than 28 years to discover this place. But, I guess better late than never! And, it’s nice to know that there is always room for new happy places in our lives. I’ll keep enjoying the old, but am thrilled to welcome the new. And, the best part of happy places is that there is always a return-date. See you soon, San Diego!
Village Kitchen & Pie Shoppe
950 Tamarack Ave
Carlsbad, CA 92008
4750 Oceanside Blvd # 821
Oceanside, CA 92056
2461 San Diego Avenue
San Diego, CA 92110