Sunday Drive: San Diego Flirtations

November 10, 2009
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La Valencia -- La Jolla's classy Pink Lady

La Valencia -- La Jolla's classy Pink Lady

I’ve always found it hard to get my arms around San Diego. It’s an embraceable city, but for a weekend invader, I always find it so spread out – not unlike the metropolitan area from which I hail, Los Angeles.

Yet I keep coming back, finding another gem or two, content that it will take many forays before I can put together the ultimate tour guide. Here’s what I’ve compiled from my recent peregrinations.

Fidel’s Little Mexico

607 Valley Avenue

Solana Beach, CA

(858) 755-5292

Win or lose at Del Mar Race Track, I always stop at Fidel’s before making the trek back to La Verne. I’m attracted to the ambiance, actually more than to the food.

Tucked away on a residential side street, the San Diego landmark actually started in the early 60s when owner Fidel Montanez came up with the idea to serve tacos at his busy barber shop. Business was so good the barber shop was transformed into a popular cantina. So far, I’ve never found any hair clippings in my albondigas soup, perhaps that’s because Fidel’s doesn’t give haircuts any longer. The menu is as big as the hibiscus flowers on the fountain in the outside eating area. It’s a cool spot because I truly feel this is a hideout that few people know about.

By the way, I tried the lunch on the terrace at Del Mar Race Track, and it provided a lovely interlude from watching race after race. From the terrace, you overlook the hustle and bustle of the racing crowd, and feel momentarily relieved of the pressure of trying to pick a winner to help pay for your lunch.

Nearby both the Fidel’s and the racetrack is Henry’s (659 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach), a family market that peddles lots of farm fresh and flavorful fruits and vegetables.

O’Brien’s Boulangerie

2628 Del Mar Heights Rd.

Del Mar, CA

(858) 755-5303

This is another gem that I found quite serendipitously. When you sit down at Jack’s restaurant in Del Mar, the waiter presents you with a delicious basket of piping hot bread. When my steak finally arrived, I couldn’t eat it because I gorged on too much sourdough. I took the steak home but not before I found out where the bread came from. It was made just up the street on Del Mar Heights Rd. in a little nondescript shopping center anchored by a Vons. The owner of O’Brien’s subsequently told me that he came from the San Francisco sourdough tradition (Boudins). 

O’Brien’s makes sandwiches and soups, too, but it’s the bread I feast on, never leaving without a few loaves to tear into when back in my car. French, Dutch Crunch, rustic, sourdough, sour olive baguettes. They’re all great!

If you got any kind of bankroll, Jack’s is pretty good, too. If funds are short, order Jack’s Bistro Burger with grilled onions and Tilamook cheddar for about $10. Ask the waiter while you’re waiting, if he can’t bring out a little bread to tide you over.

La Valencia Hotel

This is La Jolla’s pink lady, known for its distinctive pink exterior, beautiful courtyards, hand-painted murals, exquisite Spanish mosaics and stunning panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. It looks how I would envision the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to be, if they were still around. It’s a pricey place to stay, but there’s no law that says you can’t wander the grounds or have a libation at the Whaling Bar. I stopped in for a Stoli rocks with a lemon twist in a bucket glass. At the hotel, I saw Tommy Lee, Pamela Anderson’s tattooed ex, and Robin Williams, the comic, who were there for a fundraiser. Since it opened in 1926, it’s always been sort of a celebrity haunt. Many actors appearing at the La Jolla Playhouse would hang their hats here, including Charlton Heston, Ginger Rogers and David Niven.

The quaint La Jolla enclave is almost always crowded, which is a bit of a turnoff, but you can always hide out in the nearby sea caves. Ask the hotel clerk to direct you to the sea cave’s entrance. But be sober before you start your descent down the slippery, ocean-sprayed steps.

Old Town San Diego

I have a love –hate relationship with Old Town. The senoritas in the front windows making homemade tacos pour on the old village charm, but once inside one of these tourist traps, I always find the food a little disappointing. Café Coyote in the heart of Old Town is pretty much like all the rest. Service was inattentive. The tacos and enchiladas are over-priced for what you get.

My recommendation: Walk through the village shops, make a candle if you must in one of the candle-making shops, but save the eating for Hodads in Ocean Beach or Bali Hai in Point Loma.


5010 Newport Ave.

Ocean Beach, CA

(619) 224-4623

How can you not like a place that advertises, “No shirts, no shoes, no problem.” The place is decorated in shabby surfboard and skateboard chic, with a crash of old license plates lining the walls. Hodads is hamburger heaven in more ways than one. If you keep wolfing down all their greasy goodness, you might reach St. Peter’s pearly gates sooner rather than later, especially if you wash down one of their burgers with a thick chocolate shake, another standard here. Portions are huge, so beware. Hodad’s also serves up something called Frings – a fry, onion ring combination. As for the ambiance, there are probably more beach bums squeezed into Ocean Beach per square inch than even Venice Beach back in L.A. – after all, no shirts, no shoes, no problem.

Bali Hai

3330 Rosecrans St.

San Diego, CA

This place should really be called Bali High, because it’s “knock-you-on-your-ass” Mai Tais are legendary. If you have one or two mai tai’s first, you don’t really care much about the coconut shrimp or grilled salmon that follows. You really don’t come here for the food, anyway. You come for the buzz and the great views of the San Diego skyline. Overall, it’s an intoxicating way to spend an afternoon. You really feel as if you’re in a time warp and part of another era when getting sloshed and the double martini lunch were de rigueur.

Hotel del Coronado

1500 Orange Avenue
Coronado, CA 92118
(619) 522-8490

Another tourist high is a trip to the Del.

When it opened in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the world and the first to use electrical lighting. It has hosted presidents, royalty, and celebrities throughout the years. The hotel has been featured in numerous movies and books, the most famous of which is “Some Like It Hot,” starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon and Marilyn Monroe.

Again, you don’t have to eat or stay here (about $300 and up), just walk the grounds and let your mind wander history has traversed the grounds. When the hotel opened for business in February 1888, 1,440 San Diegans traveled across the bay to ring in the new architectural marvel. You can still see why. It is one of the few surviving examples of an American architectural genre — the wooden Victorian Beach resort. The ceiling in the Crown Room was installed with pegs and glue without using a single nail.

What keeps me coming back are the resort’s iconic red turrets shading patrons like big parasols. Under them, you feel as if you belong to a different era – and maybe a better time when life was a little slower and manners mattered.

Howard Johnson’s

3330 Rosecrans Street

San Diego, Ca.

The Del wasn’t in the LaVerneOnline budget. What qualified was the Howard Johnson’s motel near Sea World, which we picked for about $50. The room was clean, comfortable and came with a microwave for heating up Bali Hai leftovers.



San Diego has literally dozens of neighborhoods, but always at the top of my list is the Hillcrest area, northwest of Balboa Park. It’s a gay area, sort of what Castro Street is to San Francisco and the West Greenwich Village is to New York City, but slightly less ostentatious. All I know is Hillcrest rocks with cutting edge cafes and shops. The neighborhood, dotted with bungalow charmers, is diverse, quirky, irreverent and fun-loving.

Bread and Cie

350 University Ave.

San Diego, CA

(619) 683-9322


If the munchies strike, try Bread & Cie (French for company). Favorites include the ham and cheese quiche, warm foccacia covered in cheese and vegetables, crusty loaves of black olive bread, tiramisu and crisp and buttery palmiers. While you’re waiting in line, try to not stare at the glass case full of pastries and bakery items, otherwise, you’ll never be able to decide what to order.

Ultimately for me, it’s always about the bread. Here you’ll find flavors like lemon sage, ciabatta, anise, fig and caramelized onion, any of which can be carved up and turned into a gourmet sandwich.

A rival over on 5th (3628 Fifth Avenue) in Hillcrest is Hash House A Go Go. So I went, went as well. Offerings include O’Hare of the Dog, a 24-ounce Budweiser with a side of bacon, meatloaf hash-tossed with crispy potatoes, topped with two eggs. The Hash House also serves Snickers flapjacks with whipped cream, in case you’re traveling with kids or you’re a big kid yourself. Portions are grand.

North Park

Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria (North Park)

3448 30th St.

San Diego

While waiting for my thin crust pie, I saw somebody gulping down “Loaded” fries that come with sour cream, bacon, cheese, onions and other overwhelming extras – the local heart-attack-in-a-basket. You can also order deep-dish pizza at Lefty’s, which models itself after a Chicago-style pizza joint. What’s best about Lefty’s is it’s off the beaten path. Hanging here, having a slice or two, you feel like you’re a local. Don’t alter your trip to get here, but if you’re in the neighborhood, by all means, drop in.

DZ Akins (near San Diego State)

6930 Alvardo Rd.

San Diego, CA

(619) 265-0218

Near San Diego State University, DZ Akins is tucked in a strip mall along a bend in the road by State Route 8. The owners fled years ago from the L.A. area with the bright idea to open a quality deli in San Diego. I’ve know some people who have flown into San Diego and paid cab fair to order one of DZ Akins’ corned beef sandwiches. I think they’re nuts, but the place has a huge following, which attracted me to find out what all the hubbub was about.

If you don’t like Corned Beef, there are some 130-plus other sandwiches on the menu. The piled-high sandwiches are almost as mind-blowing as the configuration of the deli. Five times the owners have expanded the restaurant since it first opened in 1980. It’s contemporary hodgepodge. It’s not the Del Coronado. It’s simply a place to hunker down for breakfast, lunch or dinner and enjoy your food N.Y. deli style. This kitschy icon also has a gift shop and full bakery.

Had enough? Jump back on the State Route 8, headed west, connect to the I-15 north, and your heading back to La Verne, richer, poorer and fatter.

Maybe next time, we’ll do Sea World, the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Gaslamp and Petco. San Diego is a big wonderful place that you can never quite get your arms around. But that should never stop you from trying.

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