San Diego's South Bay represents National City, Chula Vista, Bonita, Imperial Beach and South San Diego communities including San Ysidro. As you can imagine, an area this large is home to quite a few restaurant choices. Because it's located near the Mexican border, of course, Mexican cuisine is quite common and so good that people drive across San Diego County to eat it. However, diners can find a wide range of cuisines.
Aqui es Texcoco tops the list for its outstanding and traditionally-made lamb barbacoa that was recently featured on the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods and is roasted in a fire pit for seven hours. But not to worry, while it's popular, it still feels a bit like a hidden gem.
If you'd like to go with upscale-casual, the SEA180 restaurant inside the new Pier South Resort in Imperial Beach is a Cohn Restaurant featuring a wide range of seafood with the quality this group is known for. It's located next to the beach with lovely ocean views as well as contemporary decor.
There is also Tacos el Gordo which serves up Tijuana street style tacos that have been lauded as some of the best in San Diego. They're small (as is the style) but heave with filling.
Whatever you choose, you won't go wrong at these best restaurants in San Diego's South Bay.
The Waterfront Grill
The Waterfront Grill sits on Pier 32 in National City and serves seafood with a pretty view over the marina. Pay at a register first and the food is delivered to your stable. The menu is full of sandwiches, fresh salads and tasty appetizers that are prepared from scratch. Guests rave about the garlic fries, clam chowder in a bread bowl and turkey club croissant, to name a few. Guests may also dine al fresco on the intimate outdoor terrace. Happy hour offers $3 craft beer and $2 domestics. Wine is $5 during happy hour and all day on Saturday and Sunday.
If you're looking for really great pizza in the Imperial Beach area, here's your place. Seacoast Pizza is family-run and New York style (though a slightly thicker crust) which is hard to find in San Diego. Toppings are generously applied and you can do a half-and-half combo pizza to meet preferences. Ordering pizza by the seriously giant slice to-go is another option. Plan to take your pie to-go as there are only a handful of seating options available. Pricing won't break the bank as cheese slices start at $2.75 and they'll deliver should you be staying in a nearby hotel. (619-423-1111)
Located in a Chula Vista strip mall, Italianissimo Tratorria is known for truly authentic Italian food in a casual atmosphere. From the time the complimentary crusty bread with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and butter arrive to the Zabaglione dessert, chef Mino Puzzo will wow your taste buds. Rave reviews go to the Cesare salad, Penne Arrabbiata, seafood risotto and much more from the long list of offerings. The restaurant also offers a good selection of Chianti and other wines by the bottle and glass. The owners are Italian as is everyone on the waitstaff. A sizable kids' menu is also on offer. (619-651-1457)
Located next to the Imperial Beach pier, this little French cafe is famous for its cooked-to-order pretzels (try dipping in either Nutella or nacho cheese), croissants and other pastries. The owner was a French chef for 40 years and still makes handmade candies and chocolates among other delights. Paninis and crepes are other favorites but those who eat vegan and gluten-free will also be pleased with the options. The only tables are outside but they have a spectacular beach view. They don't have a website so perhaps call to check hours and menu. ParAmour is usually open from 9:30 a.m. to sunset. (619- 423-1434)
SEA180 Coastal Tavern
SEA180 is a Cohn Group restaurant located inside the new Pier South Resort which sits right on the beach in Imperial Beach. Due to the southern location, it's a lesser known gem but that's probably to the benefit of current fans. The menu is largely seafood-based with items like roasted black mussels with chorizo, shrimp ceviche and macadamia nut crusted local catch of the day. But diners can also nosh on salads, steak au poivre, and a cheeseburger with bacon jam. It's the most upscale restaurant on this list, but the vibe is still fairly casual. The social hour menu has discounts for those who can arrive on the earlier side. (619-631-4949)
Tacos el Gordo
Tacos el Gordo is run by a family who has been in the restaurant business for over 40 years. The tacos has been lauded as the best in the United States by a national publication and locals tend to agree. They're Tijuana street style tacos which means the tortillas are on the smaller side but they are packed full with ingredients. Try the al pastor, adobada, and chorizo tacos (among others). Quesadillas, sopes, mulas and other favorites are on offer, too. Plan a little extra time to find parking as there isn't street parking or a big lot at the restaurant. (619-691-8848)
Romesco is described as "Mexi-Med" cuisine which is basically a menu created by popular chef Javier Plascencia with authentic Mexican recipes prepared utilizing Mediterranean techniques. Tucked away in busy Bonita shopping area, the restaurant is a simple, yet elegant bistro with old-world ambiance where friends and family can gather for conversation over amazing food. Choices include a variety of tasty tapas, paella, albondigas, ahi tuna tostadas, and fondutas. Be sure to finish with a seriously amazing churro and/or crepas de cajetas (dulce de leche crepes served with vanilla bean ice cream). The Tapas Bar is a separate space that offers an extensive happy hour menu. (619-475-8627)
Owner Katy Fallon's love of Imperial Beach is reflected in her seaside cafe (literally just steps from the beach), which is a local favorite. When not catching waves, she's usually there making sure customers enjoy their hearty breakfasts and lunches. Katy's Cafe is known for big portions of croissant sandwiches, biscuits and gravy on the weekends, colorful acai bowls and much more. The smoothies and coffee are also excellent. Service is friendly whether you're a local or not. A number of the cafe's signature items are named for regular customers. And, there is also complimentary WiFi for customers. This is a perfect stop in SoCal cool IB. (619-863-5524)
TJ Oyster Bar
TJ Oyster Bar in Chula Vista serves fresh Mexican seafood dishes that will make your heart sing. The variety of seafood tacos and burritos is staggering. The traditional fried fish taco is a favorite but guests can also opt for oyster, stingray, octopus or smoked fish tacos, to name a few. It is almost always busy here and the dining space is small. Expect to wait a little but it will be worth it. There is also a daily 99 cent taco option. There are several locations and this is the original. The 4410 Bonita Road location has a larger dining room. (619-267-4577)
Aqui Es Texcoco
Texcoco brings Mexican-style lamb barbecue to the US, while respecting and maintaining the authentic flavors, recipes and traditions. They keep it authentic by preparing the same way it has been for hundreds of years – by slow-roasting the meat in an underground fire pit for seven hours covered with the succulent leaves of the maguey plant. There are a few unique offerings here that people swear by like the fried grasshopper. But rest assured that homemade horchata, chicharron de queso, flautas and other favorites are outstanding, too. Keep in mind that the lamb is what they're famous for and many rave about the cooked lamb's head, consomme and barbacoa plate. (619-427-4045)
About Katie Dillon
Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as expats in London and Hong Kong. After traveling the world, they returned to the La Jolla sunshine, with a young daughter in tow.
Katie now writes a lifestyle site called La Jolla Mom and is the author of a book called, “Flying With Kids.” Her work can be seen on NBC San Diego, Red Tricycle, Yahoo! Shine and Have Family Will Travel, a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts blog.
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