By Patricia Carswell
San Diego may be better known for its zoo and theme parks but it’s worth a visit for the food alone. A fusion of Californian and Mexican cuisines known as Cali-Baja results in vibrant, colourful dishes made from super-fresh, sustainably sourced ingredients.
My culinary adventure began at Currant at the Hotel Sofia on Broadway. Styled on an American brasserie, it underplays the exquisite talent of chef Walter Manikowski. The foie gras toast – a feather-light foie gras mousse served on compressed peaches with a hint of lavender – was a sensation, and fat, butter-poached prawns with peas and pistachio almost as good.
Mexican restaurant Puesto, by the harbour, has won awards for its tacos and margaritas and I soon found out why. The octopus tacos were astonishingly tender (they poach then flash-fry them) and the guacamole a taste revelation. The Puesto Perfect Margarita – just tequila, agave and lime – deserves its plaudits. It’s intense and dangerously moreish.
Dinner at Sally’s Seafood on the Water, overlooking the marina, began with an early morning visit to the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market – an open-air seafood market with stalls packed with rows of fish from local waters – to choose my fish. The stallholders delighted in sharing their expertise and I settled on a yellowfin tuna fillet, which the chef later served lightly chargrilled, perfectly balanced with polenta, salad and pimento sauce.
Little Italy has an unmissable food market, bursting with fresh produce, artisanal wares and freshly-cooked treats. The highlight was an ocean-fresh oyster with a twist of lime.
Nearby, the Ballast Point Brewery provided a welcome rest and the chance to taste local craft beers, from the coffee-tinted Victory at Sea to the peachy Landlord.
A quick hop over the border into Mexico, Tijuana merited a day trip. The elegant Caesar’s Hotel still serves the Caesar salad – which it invented – made fresh at the table.
At the Mercado Hidalgo, stalls groaned with vast tubs of spices, herbs and beans, vats of Mexican mole sauce and fresh coconuts cut for you on the spot.
Back in California, well-heeled locals flock to the Hotel del Coronado for its lavish Sunday brunch. The “regular” buffet brunch at $93 is spectacle enough, and the $150 chef’s table a delight. A tour of the herb garden by the chef was followed by personally prepared dishes alongside the buffet, accompanied by champagne and their signature Bloody Marys. Bliss.
For fine dining in the neighbourhood La Jolla, I went to Nine Ten in the Grande Colonial Hotel. An intensely seasoned octopus salad was prettily presented with baby vegetables, and a bold choice of rabbit stuffed with offal for the main course a surprisingly light and nutty concoction.
Galaxy Taco, also in La Jolla, with its Baja-hip décor and Day of the Dead motifs, was a delight. It grinds its own masa for the tortillas every day and it shows – the tortillas, not normally an event in themselves, shone through the taco fillings. Equally impressive was a bitingly fresh mahi ceviche tostada.
North along the coast at Torrey Pines, the Cliffhanger Café offered spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and generously filled sandwiches.
Where to stay
La Jolla: the Grande Colonial provides airy, old-world luxury and ocean views.
How to get there