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San Diego coastal gem

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California Eating

Linger by the beach as long as you can, then make your way to one of these four neighborhoods for a taste of why San Diego is being hailed as a modern culinary mecca.

 

Little Italy

This neighborhood has become a foodie destination, and one of the big-name chefs leading the way is Brian Malarkey, who owns the rightly popular Herb & Wood. The space is gigantic, with an industrial feel that’s tempered by upscale design elements: extralarge globe lights and chandeliers; ombre-style, watercolor walls that start off blue near the ceiling and then fade to white; comfy sofas in the waiting area; plush banquette seating; a centerpiece bar adorned with greenery.

The menu is designed to impress, too. Although it changes regularly, you’ll always find a mix of seafood, wood-fired pizzas, housemade pasta and proteins such as grilled pork, roast chicken and braised lamb. If the burrata and blistered tomato toast is on the menu, order it. The blend of flavors is so addictive, you’ll find yourself trying to replicate it at home all summer long. Or try one of the most popular items, the homey oxtail gnocchi, after showing off your insider knowledge by asking for the off-the-menu Parker House rolls.

 

Hillcrest

Sure, you can find a taco anywhere in San Diego. But where else besides Tacos Libertad can you get inventive versions served with a side of social conscience? Every month, this taco shop donates all of its profits to a different charity, many of them local. Past recipients include the Balboa Park Conservancy, the California Innocence Project and San Diego Youth Services.

The quality of Tacos Libertad’s food is as good as its intentions. Order at the counter and then grab a seat on the outdoor patio while you wait. The compact menu features made-by-hand tortillas (choose from corn and flour) and tons of fresh ingredients. Avocado—grilled or tempura-battered—or mushrooms form the basis for the vegetarian options, while the others sport fillings such as octopus, grilled steak, pork belly and duck confit.

 

Point Loma

Since closing in 1997, the Naval Training Center has morphed into Liberty Public Market, an arts- and food-lover’s paradise. Browse through the myriad boutiques and galleries built into former barracks, then make your way to the food hall at the north end for items from around the world.

Save room for dinner at the most-talked-about place in the neighborhood: El Jardín. Located across the street from the public market, this spot blends the influences of San Diego, Guadalajara and Tijuana, reflecting the background of executive chef Claudette Zepeda. A seat on the terrace puts you in the middle of all the action, while a table inside lets you admire the spare yet artful décor: On one wall, brightly painted bull skulls hang in a row, while the adjacent wall is planted with a living garden.

Each dish on the menu is accompanied by a notation of its origin: Guerrero for the red snapper pozole, Valle de Guadalupe for the wood-grilled rib-eye and “every abuelita’s house in MX” for the fideo seco, a version of spaghetti with chilies de árbol, crema, queso fresco and cilantro. Like the main menu, the cocktail and dessert offerings are ever changing and geared for the season, with local ingredients in the limelight.

 

Old Town

Old Town, home to the first settlement in California, will be hopping this summer as it celebrates its 250th anniversary. Explore the historic buildings, then wander down to Tahona for a meal with a side of mezcal.

More than 100 bottles of the spirit line a small room that sits just off the lobby, and fans of the agave-based Mexican liquor will want to sign up for a tasting. The intimate experience mixes education with a sampling of at least four mezcals, usually based on a theme.

For something less structured, opt for a mezcal flight to pair with your dinner. Start off with the trio of moles, move on to the mix-and-match taco platter (don’t skip the pork belly negro) and finish with churro s’mores, cinnamon sugar-coated pastry bites served with chocolate ganache and marshmallow fluff.

 

Where to Stay:

Hip and millennial-focused, the Moxy San Diego Downtown Gaslamp Quarter has done away with the traditional reception desk in favor of making the bar the hotel hub. And while the rooms may be small, the vibe is big.

 

Where to Drink:

Speakeasies are huge in San Diego: Realm of the 52 Remedies disguises itself as a Chinese apothecary; Raised by Wolves in La Jolla whisks guests—via a turning fireplace—into 19th-century Europe; and Prohibition Lounge hearkens back to the 1920s. 

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