By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor
Sea World. The San Diego Zoo. Beaches. Conventions. These are several of the attractions that contributed to a record year in tourism in 2015, according to the San Diego Tourism Authority. According to reports, the total number of visitors will reach 34.2 million visitors to the region by year's end. San Diego has always enjoyed a significant amount of tourism dollars, but it was the aforementioned attractions and weather that brought business conventions and tourists to the region. That is changing. Gastro-tourism is on the rise in the region, and locals, business, and visitors are rejoicing.
Los Angeles Suburb
For many years, the culinary scene in San Diego was not held in high regard, while Los Angeles and larger cities up the coast enjoyed critical acclaim. The jokes of San Diego being a “suburb” of Los Angeles were muttered, and while clearly not the case, the food in this border region was different. More casual. A city often defined by the coastline and surf culture was not a destination for haute cuisine. Times have changed.
San Diego’s Mediterranean-like climate allows for a year-round growing season, and allows San Diego to be a major producer for crops like citrus, avocados, and olives, just to name a few. Farm Bureau reports that farming contributes $5.1 billion to the local economy, and that is in San Diego County. Factor in neighboring counties and the amount of agriculture is staggering. Translation: San Diego has access to amazing ingredients all year long. Chefs are finally exploiting this fact and setting up shop in what has potential to be a culinary playground.
The climate is a bit of a double-edged sword, however. Locals and tourists alike splurge for the higher prices of hotel rooms, mortgages, and rents in San Diego in order to take advantage of all the region has to offer. Gourmet dining is not always at the top of that list, and hasn’t been for years. Moderately priced dining experiences and inexpensive options often reign supreme. Beach culture and coastal tourist destinations have often driven crowd-pleasing, family-friendly menus. Also, a huge factor in San Diego is the taco shop. San Diego’s proximity to the border has led to influences from Mexico and beyond, and a palate for fish tacos and California burritos (carne asada, French fries, cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole) has been omnipresent. Increasingly, however, diners are getting educated on what local cuisine is and what San Diego restaurants are capable of.
The TV Connection
San Diego has seen success in a variety of nationally televised shows. Food Network has had connections to San Diego. Budding chef Nathan Odom, winner of Master Chef Junior calls San Diego home. One of Baja California’s hottest chefs, Javier Plasencia has a restaurant Bracero – Cocina de Raiz in San Diego’s Little Italy area. Javier Plasencia has been a guest on The Taste, and has been a favorite of Anthony Bourdain when he visited the region.
Neighbors with Plasencia, Bravo’s Top Chef winner, Richard Blais also set up shop in the Little Italy neighborhood with one of the most talked-about openings in San Diego’s recent past, Juniper and Ivy. Clearly understanding the local market, Blais and team recently opened a more casual (but quality) fried chicken and egg joint, called The Crack Shack, on the same lot as Juniper and Ivy. Top Chef connection doesn’t stop there, as the current season is designed as a California road trip, with San Diego on the list of featured spots. Chef Chad White, former chef and co-owner of Comun Kitchen and Tavern is featured on the current season of Top Chef as well. White was held in highest regard by colleagues and culinary fans alike well before his appearance on Top Chef. It was a blow to the community when White recently decided to move back to the Northwest. The work he and other chefs that worked with him continues, however, and San Diego’s culinary scene continues to grow. Pascal Lorange, of Fig & Olive fame is opening Crudo by Pascal Lorange in San Diego’s North County. A concept that puts the critically acclaimed chef in a region rich with options for inventive menu play.
Nationally recognized chefs and media attention cast a bright spotlight on San Diego cuisine, but what about the local notoriety? There is plenty. Chefs all around San Diego are joining in, often together, to create quite a dynamic dining scene. Collaborations with other chefs and restaurants south of the border, or across town make for exciting events happening regularly in San Diego. The availability of seafood from Catalina Offshore Products, pork from Cook Pigs Ranch, and produce from Specialty Produce are just a few examples of what has chefs so excited.
Large concepts to small, neighborhood establishments all have access and are taking full advantage of the quality San Diego has to offer. The region has the availability of world class brews and an ever-growing number of breweries. There are quality wineries in the region that collaborate with restaurants regularly, from north of San Diego to south of the border in Valle de Guadalupe. San Diego is seeing an overhaul of beverage programs that has small dive bars like Live Wire offering the same world-class, one-of-a-kind brews as the biggest players in town. Cocktails establishments are a destination with places like Noble Experiment offering cocktails that include everything from fresh flowers, fruit, bitters, and just the right ice for the glass. San Diego has realized what amazing quality exists and is positioning to be a top food destination for a wide variety of discerning palates.