Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guide to San Diego for ISA 2012

I posted a guide for ISA travelers to Montreal last year, and I thought I would do so again for San Diego.  Sure, I don't live there, and my info from grad school is extremely dated.  So, instead, I will make a few general, timeless suggestions and then hand over to a more recent graduate of UCSD: Cullen Hendrix of William and Mary.  I then add a list of tips from a current student, Chris C, who posted on my page.  If you have any suggestions, let me know and I will add them.

Steve's timeless tips:
San Diego is a great town, but it lacks mass transport other than a slow, slow trolley. The trolley will take you to Tijuana and to La Jolla, but the best way to get around San Diego is a car.  The good news is that this year's ISA is in a very different neighborhood than ISA's of the past--which was a hotel area devoid of anything but hotels.  Now, it is downtown, next to the Gaslamp district and the baseball stadium.  Seaport Village, a shopping centre on the water, is in walking distance.  

Anyhow, if you can get on the road, the standard places to go, and justly so, are 
  • Coronado--the ride on the bridge to the peninsula is worth the trip. The Hotel Del Coronado is beautiful, expensive and locale of many a movie, including, if I remember correctly, Some Like It Hot.
  • La Jolla--yes, lots of rich people and tourists, but good restaurants with great views, a nice walk along the waterfront.  Del Mar, further up the coast, also has rich people, fewer tourists, and the coast drive between the two is very sweet.  Plus you go by UCSD along the way.
  • Pacific Beach/Mission Beach--they have a long boardwalk where folks ride/skate/walk.  And surfers to watch (does not matter the weather).
  • Balboa Park is more than just the zoo.  It has museums, restaurants and the site where I got married.  I hope it does not rain as much on you as it did on us that day.
  • If you are bringing kids, the zoo, wild animal park, sea world, Legoland (up the coast) are all standard destinations.  If you can only do one, I would recommend the Wild Animal Park since it is quite distinct from the average zoo.  
 [Update: I forgot to mention--sun block is actually a very good idea--sun is deceptively strong even in late March/early April]
Anyhow, my info is out of date, so pay attention to:

Cullen's take

Oh, San Diego. I’ve missed you. I spent years there as a graduate student. I spent my first summer after my first year on the job there. I met my wife there. I’m pretty sure I left claw marks on the floorboards of my apartment as they dragged me out of there. I promised Steve I would come up with some recommendations for things to eat/drink in San Diego. Here goes. I should preface this by noting that my wife and I were vegans most of our time there, so references to meat joints (but not seafood) are second-hand.

Here are some thoughts about food/booze options in the Gaslamp/East Village (where the conference hotel is located), Hillcrest (midtown’s unofficial capital), and North Park/South Park (up-and-coming neighborhood). Those were my haunts – there's a lot of other stuff out there, too.


The Gaslamp/East Village area used to a pretty hardscrabble area, with muggings and stabbings rather commonplace. Nowadays, the only meat getting skewered in the neighborhood is at tourist-oriented churrascarias. The downtown arrival of Petco Park has brought lots of nightlife and dining to the neighborhood. The Gaslamp is long on dining/drinking options but relativelyshort on character. However, there are some tasty bites to be had and fun/interesting people-watching to be done.

Food – There’s a ton to choose from. Those looking to skip morning panels and enjoy a leisurely breakfast/brunch could do a lot worse than the Mission (1250 J St). Make sure to try the rosemary toast. For something far off the beaten path, try Pokez (947 E Street), a true San Diego punk-rock institution. It’s a must-go for vegetarians and people who used to have a 7Seconds and/or Bad Brains patches on their jackets. Grad students (really anyone on a budget) who want to try some sushi should check out Sushi Deli 2 (135 Broadway); expect long lines at dinnertime. If you are thinking somewhat more upscale and don’t mind the idea of cooking your own steak, try the Gaslamp Strip Club. I don't eat meat, but I’ve never had a bad experience at a Cohn restaurant ( Searsucker (611 5th Avenue) has tasty food and a good-looking crowd, and Oceanaire (400 J Street) has some of the best seafood downtown.

Booze – Most of the bars in this area are interchangeable variations on the following themes: pseudo-Irish sports bars, upscale lounges/nightclubs, and nondescript chain restaurant bars (think Yard House). Monkeypaw Brewing (805 16th St) breaks the mold by serving hearty beers – both their own and other local breweries’ (Ballast Point, Green Flash). The only true dive bar in the area is Star Bar (423 E St). Not for the faint of heart. There’s Stingaree (454 6th Avenue) if you feel like having a true nightclub experience, i.e., high cover charge, high-priced drinks, guys/gals way out of a political scientist’s league.

Hillcrest/University Heights

Hillcrest is the self-acknowledged gay neighborhood of San Diego. It’s also one of our favorite neighborhoods for its walkability, shopping options, and diversity of high quality and accessibly priced food and drink. You can spend a lot of money if you like, but you certainly don’t have to.

Food – Amarin (3843 Richmond Street) is my favorite Thai restaurant, period. We both dream about it at night. It’s her standard for penang curry, and their art salad (marinated mock duck, green beans, broccoli, and eggplant) is what I’ll request from the warden if I ever wind up on death row. Khyber Pass (523 University Avenue) is Afghan food (my wife made me put this on the list – I’m required to do nothing further. OK, fine. It’s tasty). Sushi Ono (1236 University Avenue) is our favorite place to get sushi in the midtown area. Many of the chefs are total bros but know their stuff.  El Zarape (4642 Park Boulevard) is the best fast-food Mexican you are likely to find, and fairly regularly win best fish tacos awards from the San Diego Reader. Mama Testa’s (1417 University Ave) is on the main drag and also very popular. For breakfast, Big City Bagel (1010 University Ave) does a reasonable facsimile of a New York bagel shop (tofu cream cheese  and all).

Booze - Drinking options are plentiful and reasonably down-to-Earth (compared to the Gaslamp, anyway). The Alibi (1403 UniversityAve) is a decent neighborhood/pseudo-divey bar, Wine Steals (1243 University Avenue) offers reasonably priced wine by the bottle and tapas, and Mo’s (308 University) pumps out burgers and loud music for a mostly gay crowd. If you are willing to make the trek over to sample El Zarape, I highly recommend stopping in for a drink at Small Bar (4628 Park Boulevard).

North Park/South Park/Golden Hill

North Park, South Park and Golden Hill are three “up and coming” neighborhoods that lay to the east/northeast of downtown. All cater to a somewhat younger crowd, and all are a lot of fun. Golden Hill is the least tourist-friendly of the three. That old joke about Brazil (“Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be”) seems to apply there. No matter what happens to rents and development in North Park/South Park, Golden Hill stays the same.

Food – I probably wrote more of my dissertation at Krakatoa (1128 25th Street) than in my office at UCSD. Folks who eat these sorts of things tell me the Ubehebe (get it, named after a volcano?) sandwich is the real deal. The coffee is excellent, the people are friendly, and the patio,with large overhanging trees, is pretty tranquil. The Linkery (3794 30th Street) features artisan sausages and local produce, as well as an awesome selection of wines and beers. Plus, the environs are ideal for watching people stroll by on the street.  Alchemy (1503 30th St) is hip – a good date place/ladies’ night place, I’m told. The Station (2204 Fern St) features burgers, outdoor, icehouse-style seating, and good company. Rancho’s (3910 30th St) serves awesome vegan/vegetarian-friendly Mexican fare and cinnamon-spiced coffee; highly recommended for brunch.

Booze – I know these three places a little too well: Hamilton’s (1521 30th Street) is a local beer bar with an excellent tap selection (heavy on local brews, which trend heavily toward stronger IPAs and some Belgian-influenced stuff). The Whistle Stop (2236 Fern Street) is pretty hipster – it’s also the scene of my wife and my first date. The Turf Supper Club (1116 25th Street) is technically a restaurant along the same lines as the Gaslamp Strip Club, though we tended not to treat it as such, focusing more on their martinis and the Sneaky Tiki, a potent but flavorable (hence the sneakiness, which is easy to underestimate) umbrella drink.

General stuff that doesn’t fit in any of these neighborhoods/categories

The Casbah (2501 Kettner Boulevard) is San Diego’s premier live rock establishment. I couldn’t even begin to describe how much I love this place.

Nearby is the Starlite Lounge (3175 India St), a nice place for a classy cocktail and imagining yourself as a member of Fleetwood Mac circa “Gold Dust Woman.”

Old Town (2415 San Diego Ave) is the touristy area where people go to get giant margaritas and Mexican food. [Steve again: Old Town is fun despite/due to its cheeziness.]

Jake’s and Poseidon (1660 Coast Blvd) are a hike (Del Mar), but offer the best beachside dining you’ll find in the area.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography professors (who ostensibly know fish) think Sushi Ota (4529 Mission Bay Dr) is the best sushi in San Diego.

There’s so much more that could go on this list…but I have to finish my paper. Back to work. 

Chris Chiego, current student

Not too much seems to have changed in SD. There's still no decent public transit from the airport except for one bus that really goes nowhere and the biggest controversy now is over a statue on the waterfront (the La Jolla seals have faded to the background).

The biggest changes may have been on the SD beer scene. A brief guide:

Green Flash, now the 2nd-largest in the county behind Stone, makes a superb West Coast IPA that should be widely available.

If you see Victory at Sea or Sculpin IPA from Ballast Point Brewing, grab 'em--their other offerings are alright but those two really steal the scene.

Alpine is rarer, but almost all their beers are excellent.

Lost Abbey makes good, if somewhat overrated Belgians. They're a subsidary of (Pizza) Port Brewing which may have been around in your time and is still quite good, though uneven.

Stone still has hops a-plenty in basically all their beers. If you can find their Cali-Belgique, try it; it's an excellent interpretation of a Belgian-style IPA.

Karl Strauss is also still in business. Look for the "Off the Rails" version of their standard Red Trolley for an interesting twist on a caramel-red.
Best Non-TexMex Mexican Food: Super Cocinas. Imagine really good Indian food with an entirely different palette of spices. A must-try if you think Mexican food is only tacos and burritos (City Heights, 3627 University Avenue west of the 805)

Best Happy Hour: West Coast Tavern. $3 pints of superb beer and affordable appetizers. Unlike nearby places, they also keep the hipsterness in check (North Park, 30th St. and University)

Most Sketchy Yet Awfully Good Coffeehouse: Cafe Bassam. Strangest collection of stuff and people that I've seen in SD yet makes a really good chai that's somehow magic for productivity (Banker's Hill, 3088 5th Avenue straight north of downtown). 
Best Downtown Fill-Up: Darband's on 5th Ave. Very, very good Persian cuisine that comes in enormous portions for a very reasonable price. Also unlimited free hot tea. (Downtown, 1556 5th Ave)

Best High-Class Downtown Establishment: Bice, which has a deceptively affordable happy hour and a tasty cheese selection (Downtown, 425 Island Avenue)

Biggest Ripoff: Anywhere in Seaside Village downtown. Avoid, if at all possible. 


Mike Tierney said...

All this prose and nothing about the single finest establishment in Southern California???

The answer is Pizza Port. Best beer in town. Pizza is fine, but not why you go there.

Rodger A. Payne said...

I can buy Stone IPA in my local grocer and Green Flash West Coast IPA on tap at a nearby pub. I really want to try the Sculpin IPA.

Suzanne Lanoue said...

I think Chris meant Seaport Village, not Seaside Village. I agree that places there tend not to be so good.

The Gaslamp has many fantastic restaurants and bars. Most of them are pretty expensive.

This is a really good Greek restaurant.

The best Irish bar in the gaslamp is The Field. Good food and drinks. Try the boxty!

Asti is a great Italian restaurant, but there are lots of them.

If you have a lot of money and like gourmet food, I would recommend Osetra in the Gaslamp. It's not bad, though, if you go in for just appetizers.

Horton Plaza is a fun yuppie mall downtown near the Gaslamp. The Panda restaurant in there is really good, too.

For a true San Diego experience, go to the Farrell's in Mira Mesa.
It's a great ice cream place, especially if it's your birthday.

Great special occasion restaurant and also fun boat cruise if you have time

Another good fancy place - it used to be really good but we haven't been there in a long time Tom Ham's Lighthouse

If you want really good authentic Mexican's not hard to find in San Diego. However, I will say that you're more likely to get it in a tiny little fast-food-like taco place than in a regular Mexican restaurant or in Old Town.

Fish tacos are the big thing... even the chain Rubio's is good (think they have one at the airport).

See's candy is a wonderful San Diego candy you must bring back to your loved ones in gift boxes! The truffles are the best.

If you have a car, go out to Thai Mee Choke on 7030 El Cajon Blvd. it's a great Thai place.

If you have a car, the restaurants in the Hillcrest area tend to be really good, too, and more "natural" and "healthy".

Naked Pizza in PB has gluten free pizza and it's very healthy. I don't know their delivery area.