Travel Eats: A long-awaited vacation in San Diego

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

We had originally scheduled this trip to celebrate our first anniversary in April 2020, but we all know how that timing turned out! More than a year later, we were even more grateful for a substantial change of scenery and the ability to travel across the country now that we were fully vaccinated. I enjoyed finally visiting a city I’d always heard so much about and the variety of cuisines available.

SD rock crab, Ironside Fish & Oyster
SD rock crab with coconut curry rice, drawn butter, and toasted bread, Ironside Fish & Oyster

Of course, my top priority was fresh seafood, and Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy didn’t disappoint. The local rock crab was beautifully served with fragrant, creamy coconut curry rice in the cavity. The extra effort to dig out the sweet meat for a dunk in the drawn butter was definitely worth it. My other half also experienced a revelatory dish: chowder fries (exactly what it sounds like). I’m now tempted to recreate this combination at other restaurants, regardless of the confused looks that might ensue.

Chowder fries, Ironside Fish & Oyster
Chowder fries with clam, bacon, and potato, Ironside Fish & Oyster
Ironside Fish & Oyster cauliflower
“Honey walnut” cauliflower with tempura cauliflower, fermented sweet chili sauce, watermelon radish, and cilantro, Ironside Fish & Oyster

The tempura cauliflower with a zippy chili sauce was a welcome veggie addition to our meal. I also sampled a couple of briny oysters (with especially pungent horseradish!), washed down with a Buenaveza salt & lime lager from local Stone Brewing.

Oysters, Ironside Fish & Oyster
King’s Tide and Nautilus oysters on the half shell with mignonette and horseradish, Ironside Fish & Oyster

The grand seafood finale came in our last dinner of the trip at C Level: a platter with salmon tartare, Old Bay-rubbed shrimp, an ahi tuna-crab salad-mango salsa tower, and a half-dozen oysters. It was decadent and refreshing, with so many of my favorite ocean flavors. C Level’s sherry-topped lobster bisque was also top-notch. Besides the food, the main draw of this restaurant on Harbor Island was the sweeping skyline views, which made the experience even more special.

Seafood platter, C Level
Seafood platter with a half-dozen oysters, a half-pound Old Bay peel & eat shrimp, a mini ahi stack with crab and mango salsa, and salmon tartare with taro chips, C Level
Lobster bisque, C Level
Island Prime’s lobster bisque with butter-poached lobster, sherry, and brioche croutons, C Level

We also saw great views at Pier Cafe, a waterfront restaurant in Seaport Village. The crab cake appetizer made an excellent snack after lots of exploring, especially when paired with a gingery happy hour cocktail with strawberry, basil, and mint.

Crab cakes, Pier Cafe
Crab cakes with seared blue crab, roasted corn pico, jalapeño remoulade, and bed of greens, Pier Cafe
Strawberry Bay Breeze cocktail, Pier Cafe
Strawberry Bay Breeze happy hour cocktail with spiced rum, strawberry puree, fresh mint & basil, and ginger beer float, Pier Cafe

Another San Diego food priority was Mexican cuisine, so I was happy to discover a family-owned taco shop a short walk from our hotel that served breakfast burritos. The savory chorizo, egg, potato, salsa, and cheese were well-blended and tightly wrapped in the tortilla. Just half of this hefty burrito was the perfect fuel for a day at the renowned San Diego Zoo.

Rancho breakfast burrito, Lucy's Taco Shop
Rancho breakfast burrito with chorizo, potato, salsa fresca, egg, and cheese wrapped in a flour tortilla with salsa verde, Lucy’s Taco Shop

And continuing with the outrageously-topped-fries theme, we sampled tsunami fries from Lolita’s, which featured both carne asada and shrimp as meaty toppings, as well as cabbage- and pico-laden fish tacos.

Fish tacos and tsunami fries, Lolita's Mexican Food
Tsunami fries with carne asada, grilled shrimp, guacamole, sour cream, cheddar and cotija cheese, and two fish tacos with grilled basa fillet, cabbage, salsa Mexicana, and salsa blanca on soft corn tortilla, Lolita’s Mexican Food

Our most captivating restaurant experience of the trip was at Morning Glory, a popular brunch spot in Little Italy with an opulent, pink-washed interior and tons of fun details (like the champagne vending machine across from our table). I went with the cheesy khachapuri and the coconutty Irish coffee, and both hit the spot for high-end brunch fare.

Khachapuri and Irish coffee, Morning Glory
Khachapuri with mozzarella, feta, olive oil, egg, butter, and bacon, and Irish coffee with Irish whiskey, coffee, coconut butter, and vanilla cream, Morning Glory

The best bites of the meal, though, were the fluffy Japanese-style soufflé pancakes – sky-high, custardy cakes paired with syrup and not-too-sweet whipped cream. They were a unique kind of delicious, and I can see why they’re a best-seller.

Souffle pancakes, Morning Glory
Soufflé pancakes with butter, uncut pure maple syrup, and whipped cream, Morning Glory

We’d also heard great things about the exquisite creations at Extraordinary Desserts, and after a lot of gazing through the glass display case, we chose a slice of cake decked out with rose petals and pink and white chocolate shavings, hinting at the guava mousse, strawberries, and Kirsch-infused vanilla layers inside. A celebration-worthy slice, to be sure.

Shangri-La cake slice, Extraordinary Desserts
Slice of Shangri-La cake with white chocolate mousse, guava mousse, fresh strawberries, whipped cream, and Kirsch-infused vanilla cake, Extraordinary Desserts
Chocolate gooey brownie and salted, malted cookie dough ice cream, Salt & Straw
Split scoop of chocolate gooey brownie ice cream and salted, malted cookie dough ice cream, Salt & Straw

We rounded out our dessert experience with ice cream from Salt & Straw, a scoop shop I’d visited in its original Portland location many years ago, but has since expanded to more West Coast cities. The salted, malted cookie dough flavor lived up to its name, pleasantly salty with a ribbon of rich malted fudge.

I was also very happy to stumble across charming Daniel’s Coffee, a tiny stand inside the colorful Spanish Village Art Center in Balboa Park near the zoo. My iced dirty chai was one of the best I’ve had.

Iced dirty chai, Daniel's Coffee
Iced dirty chai, Daniel’s Coffee in Spanish Village Art Center

One last gem came when we took the ferry over to Coronado Island. Clayton’s Coffee Shop was an endearing kitschy retro diner with bottomless “great diner coffee,” a massive menu, and a walk-up window slinging pie and milkshakes. My caprese-inspired avocado toast, while requiring a little construction, was a great mix of California flavors, and the side of creamed corn (that I amped up with some shakes of Tapatio hot sauce that seems to be ubiquitous in Southern California) was classic and comforting.

Avocado toast, creamed corn, and coffee, Clayton's Coffee Shop
Avocado toast with tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, and herbs, with homemade creamed corn and “bottomless cup of great diner coffee,” Clayton’s Coffee Shop

The details: Morning Glory, 550 W Date St.; Pier Cafe, 885 W Harbor Dr.;  Ironside Fish & Oyster, 1654 India St.; Lucy’s Taco Shop, 109 W C St., Suite D; Daniel’s Coffee, 1770 Village Place; Lolita’s Mexican Food, 202 Park Blvd.; Salt & Straw, 1670 India St.; Extraordinary Desserts, 1430 Union St.; C Level, 880 Harbor Island Dr.; all San Diego; Clayton’s Coffee Shop, 979 Orange Ave., Coronado.

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