What food is San Diego known for? Top food trends from San Diego to try

You know what’s totally overwhelming? Besides helplessly watching wages stagnate for the working class relative to the soaring cost of living.

San Diego’s food scene. It’s so darn big, delicious, and creative.

There are so many unique foods here– largely due to San Diego’s surfer lifestyle and Mexican culture coexisting and melting together.

You might have had some of these in a different city, but trying them in San Diego is like trying New York pizza in New York. Sure, it’s influenced by food from somewhere else, and you can probably get it in most cities, but you’re crazy if you dont try it there!

Here are my favorite local foods that San Diego is known for that you absolutely have to try when you visit.

Açaí Bowls

What are these?

Açaí berries are a “superfood” berry. The traditional bowl has a thick smoothie base of açaí and bananas. It’s then topped with strawberries, bananas, blueberries, and granola, and finished with a honey drizzle. Many places stray away from the traditional bowl with new bases- for example, pitaya bowls, or new toppings- like any fruit imaginable, peanut butter, flaxseeds, etc.

How did they start?

This is a little misleading because they are actually from Brazil- but they were popularized in the US because of Southern California and Hawaii. In California, the frozen acai packets which are used in the bowls were first sold to other restaurants and buyers by California surfer brothers with their sustainability focused company Sambazon in San Clemente (Orange County).

But, this was not the first place in California to serve an acai bowl. Where was that? I couldn’t figure it out. As far as I can tell, it may be Rum Jungle Cafe, who claim to be “first to bring you acai in 2012”, but their claim is a little unclear. Do they mean first in San Diego? First by the beach? First in California? First in the year 2012? Surely, not first in the world, because of Brazil.

Why start this list here if the first could very well be in Orange County rather than San Diego County? They’re still incredibly popular here (if you walk around a beach area, every other restaurant/cafe/deli will have them), they’re affordable relative to other states (likely because the main supplier of acai is so close), and if it was any other state, starting in the same region would count as being local.

Where do you try them?

Literally wherever you go in San Diego, you’ll find a place that sells these. Most will be tasty, but here are a few of my recommendations:

This is one of the most popular acai bowl places, and for good reason- they’re amazing. There are a ton of different fruits and toppings you can add. A lot of people just get everything and it makes for a gigantic bowl, even if you order a mini!

One reason I like Northside Shack so much is because their acai base is perfect. But it’s always so busy there! Second Nature has the same perfect base but is less packed. Even though Second Nature is technically a restaurant rather than acai cafe, check out their also awesome acai bowls.

I wasn’t on their about page by accident- I love their bowls too. You absolutely have to try their Himalayan bowl, which uses goji berries for tiny little pops of juice. If you do things only for social media, they are also known for their totally instagrammable acai bowl in a pineapple.

Acai bowl

Carne Asada Fries

What are these?

Now, let’s do a total 180 in terms of nutrition from the acai bowl (not that that much sugar was the pinnacle of healthy anyway).

As the name implies, picture shoestring fries and then add juicy carne asada on top. But don’t stop – keep adding guacamole, sour cream, cheese, and occasionally pico de gallo, and you’ll get carne asada fries. These taste so amazing but are massive, so you absolutely have to split them with someone when you order.

How did they start?

These originated in San Diego- in Lolita’s Mexican Food. Legend is the owner got the idea of even serving fries from a tortilla supplier, who technically got the idea from a restaurant in Arizona. Check out this source for more info.

Should we really then credit this unknown Arizona eatery with the origin of carne asada fries? Or is that like crediting them to Belgium since that’s where the first french fry was fried?

Where do you try them?

Similarly, you can get these almost anywhere in San Diego, from 24 hour taco shops to upscale bars and restaurants. My personal favorites are:

If you like fries like I do, go here. They don’t use shoestring fries. Theirs are a little thicker but they put some breading or something so the fries are extra crispy yet still thick.

  • 24 hour taco shops

Go to these for the cheap, fast carne asada fries, where the star tends to be the perfectly grilled and flavored carne asada, rather than perfect fries.

There are so many of them that it’s hard to pick “the best”, but my personal favorite is Ortiz’s Taco Shop. They deliver on both the good carne and also the crispy fries front. Many people will tell you to go to Rigoberto’s, and I love theirs because of the huge portions.

For the OG. The portions are smaller compared taco shop fries, but that could be better for you depending who you are

Note: Look into trying new fries – tehmchnically the picture above isn’t carne asada fries but rather mar y tierra fries with steak and shrimp, which are also amazing. Some places are evolving even more and have crazy creations like doner kebab fries or pork BBQ fries!

California Burritos

What are these?

Picture the above, now in a burrito.

Note: San Diego’s burrito tortillas tend to be grilled, which makes them extra tasty. Or maybe all are? and the outlier is really just Seattle which isn’t known for Mexican food anyway?

How did they start?

The internet lore is that these started in San Diego as a way for surfers to quickly fill up on filling food. There are two competing theories as to which San Diego restaurant started them however.

Locals on the internet and real life have told me Santana’s Mexican food (also called Tony’s, also called MXN). Actual food historians believe it to be Roberto’s.

Either way, both chains are delicious and native to San Diego.

Where do you try them?

Wherever has carne asada fries also probably has California burritos. So in addition to the above, also consider checking out:

Going back to my non-traditional-ness, I love that you can customize the meats (beef, chicken, none) and fillings (fries are given) for a less traditional, but still amazing and food coma inducing burrito. If you do stick with the traditional, their carne asada is super flavorful and crisp and the fries are extra crispy.

Before I even thought of writing this post, this was introduced to me by someone who’s been living in San Diego longer than I’ve been alive as the “gold standard of a California burrito.” To be honest, even their breakfast burritos have fries!

  • *-berto’s

Also before I thought of writing this post, Roberto’s specifically was introduced to me by a different local as “the best thing you will ever eat.” Was it the best thing I ever ate? Yes, it was up there. What put it up there? The flavorful carne.

The above burritos are mostly between $7-$8. So when I went to (aka Ubereats’d) La Puerta and saw the $15 price tag I laughed and said no. However, my hand slipped and all of a sudden my driver was on the way.

I’m glad it did, because the burrito was amazing and unique. Theirs have a smoky flavor that made me fall in love and forget that I was paying double. Therefore, you need to go here and try these if you want your mind blown.

Baja-style Fish Tacos

What are these?

Fish tacos generally speaking are any fish on any taco. For example, seared tuna, smoky swordfish, or grilled yellowtail, with corn, pico, shredded cheese, avocado, or even capers, on a tortilla. While you do see these everywhere in San Diego (and there many amazing places that serve them), what we’re talking about here as being from San Diego are baja style fish tacos.

The “authentic” recipe calls for battered white fish, cabbage, crema, and lime on a corn tortilla. Many places experiment with this combination using with other types of toppings and sauces- avocado, pico, fried onions, etc. If you’re a pretentious food writer, you might be triggered by this, but if you’re a regular person like me, these are still amazing.

How did they start?

Like the acai bowls, this is a little misleading because these are originally from Baja California, Mexico, and some sources narrow it down even further to the coastal town of Ensenada.

Ralph Rubio of the Rubio’s chain brought them over to and popularized them in San Diego first before they hit the rest of the US, and now they’re everywhere in San Diego. From his website, Rubio fell in love with the qtacos while on a surf trip and needing them in his every day life, brought the recipe back to San Diego.

For more info, this site has way more content.

Where do you try them?

If you’re looking for an absolutely amazing traditional baja fish taco, you NEED to check this place out. It’s a food truck a little outside of San Diego and their menu is all in Spanish. Plus they give you free and delicious soup with your order, and have other types of unique fish tacos.

  • 24 hour taco shops

These places have everything. Roberto’s again probably has one of my favorites, but one thing to note is their fish tacos are absolutely gigantic and you probably only need to order one, if you’re stomach is like mine.

For something a little different and totally delicious and mind-blowing, try their TKO baja style fish tacos. This takes the standard baja fish taco to the next level with a cotija crusted tortilla and crispy fried onions on top. It is divine.

Bonus: Jack in the Box

LOL. This is just here for trivia since the first Jack in the Box is from San Diego, on El Cajon Blvd. Though the original location has closed down, there are of course many throughout the city.

Have you had any of these before? What’s your favorite?? What are you most excited to try??

Disclaimer: As stated above, there is a ton of amazing food in San Diego. If you ask 10 foodie locals what their favorite place is to get anything in this list is, you’ll get 8 different answers. Don’t follow the “where to get them” guidance super strictly- try your own places too!

4 Comments

  1. July 28, 2018 / 11:19 am

    mmm! I’m in San Diego for a conference so this is a timely post. šŸ™‚ Wish I had more time to explore all this yummy food!

    • Angelica
      Author
      July 30, 2018 / 1:11 pm

      There’s way too much good food to eat in one trip, that’s for sure ?. Hope you get to make it back to try more!

  2. BaZoooooot24
    July 31, 2018 / 12:22 pm

    I didn’t know what acai bowls and carne asada fries were until I moved to San Diego. And those two things alone would keep me here, they are sooooo bomb! Also the cali burrito is a classic.

    Thanks for another amazing post!

    • Angelica
      Author
      August 2, 2018 / 12:19 am

      Honestly I don’t think I had carne asada fries before I moved to California either ?. But I agree, they’re all so tasty! And thank you for your support!

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