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Chef Tara Monsod is a champion of San Diego dining

Discover where this culinary star dines around town

Animae Executive Chef Tara Monsod, San Diego's first James Beard Award finalist, loves discovering our city’s food community and heritage. Come explore San Diego's vibrant dining scene with this acclaimed culinary star.

By: Written in Partnership with GayCities.com

At 25 years old, Tara Monsod was on the brink of a nursing career. Now, she's a leading force on San Diego’s culinary scene and the first-ever local chef to be named a James Beard Award finalist.

The acclaimed executive chef at Animae, one of San Diego's most notable fine dining restaurants, has come a long way from that moment around 2010 when she was poised to take her final nursing licensure exam. Instead, with the encouragement of family and friends who saw her potential as a chef, Monsod shifted gears and attended culinary school, embracing a passion for food that had been part of her DNA since childhood.

From making pizzas to working at an Albertsons grocery store, Monsod cultivated her culinary and leadership skills, and when the Hollywood-born chef moved to San Diego, a whole new world of opportunities opened up for her, along with exposure to the city's deep culinary roots.

Family dining at a restaurant on the water in Downtown San Diego

A rich culinary heritage

Monsod discovered that San Diego's food scene is as rich as the city's history. Diverse cultures, the city's proximity to Mexico, and an abundance of local farms and food purveyors all contribute to the unique culinary landscape.

Monsod has lived in several of San Diego's diverse neighborhoods, each offering opportunities for the chef to explore the culinary identities of its residents. As she has built community, Monsod has also seized the chance for more creativity in the kitchen.

"There are always pop-ups happening around the city," Monsod says. "Chefs bring in other chefs and plan special menus for annual events like Filipino American History Month."

Such celebrations are part of the city's historical legacy.

Over the centuries, San Diego has seen an influx of immigrants: "What turned San Diego from this sleepy Navy town into the diverse, dynamic metropolitan area that it has become has been that period of great inclusion that brought so many to San Diego and provided them welcome as opposed to persecuting them," Rubén Rumbaut, a sociology professor at UC Irvine, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Along the way, food traditions converged, creating unique opportunities for self-expression. Some of San Diego's oldest restaurants and bars offer a window into this history. Located in the Gaslamp Quarter, Tivoli Bar & Grill, opened by Italian immigrants Angelo and Giovanni "John" Della Maggiora, dates to 1855 and still draws a lively crowd.

In Barrio Logan, Las Cuatro Milpas has served homestyle Mexican cuisine since 1933. The same year, the Waterfront Bar & Grill opened in Little Italy as a hangout for local fishermen. And in the Convoy Asian Cultural District, a range of Asian cuisines can be found, from Chinese dim sum and Japanese ramen to late-night Korean barbecue.

Quintessential San Diego eats have also emerged, from fish tacos and California burritos (stuffed with carne asada, guacamole, cheese and fries) to over 150 independent craft breweries.

Table filled with food at Animae in San Diego

Going big with Animae

Monsod joined the team at Animae, Top Chef alum Brian Malarkey's San Diego hotspot, toward the end of 2020, during a challenging time for the restaurant industry. But the resilient chef made the most of it: "People started cooking out of passion again," Monsod says. "Those who really loved the industry came back."

By the summer of 2021, Monsod had been promoted to Animae's executive chef, and seized the opportunity to continue the restaurant's vision of a world-class steakhouse serving high-quality Japanese A5 Wagyu beef (known for its unique marbling and complex flavor profile) while also adding touches of her Filipina heritage.

"Filipinos are a big part of our American history, and it's time that the food gets a little love," she says. "At Animae, we're taking those flavors and presenting them in a new way/ Her riff on tuna kinilaw (similar to ceviche) uses vinegar and calamansi juice, indigenous to the Philippines. The dish, presented with a bit of flair, is plated with time, effort, and intention, Monsod says. "But when you eat it, it's still very much the dish that a lot of us grew up with."

Along with her leadership role at the restaurant — and her additional position as executive chef of Le Coq, a sister restaurant to Animae — Monsod is visible in the community, appearing at the inaugural Del Mar Wine + Food Festival and collaborating with other chefs throughout San Diego. But after a long day in the kitchen, she's ready to explore San Diego's more casual side.

Hillcrest neighborhood sign above pedestrians crossing the street

Chef Tara's picks for San Diego’s best bites

Monsod now lives in North Park, which she describes as a "younger, hipster kind of area with lots of walkable places and next to Hillcrest," the center of San Diego's LGBTQ+ community. Despite the long hours, Monsod manages to make her way around town to check out what her fellow chefs are doing, take in the sunshine, and spend time at some of the pet-friendly restaurants and breweries with her dog, Mya.

"San Diegans love their dogs," says Monsod, "and since the weather's good, there's a lot of outdoor spaces." With Mya in tow, Monsod enjoys her precious time off at the beach, along a boardwalk, or in other LGBTQ+-friendly outdoor locales.

Bica ("little café" in Portuguese) in Normal Heights has become a favorite spot since opening in July 2023. The daytime café by local favorites Charles Knowles and Manny da Luz offers tartines, coffee and homemade pastel de nata, Portuguese custard tarts.

Close to home, Monsod is a regular at Tribute Pizza, which serves up innovative pies with a catch-all of toppings like Medina Smokehouse's Kalua pulled pork or Wise Ox's Texas-style smoked barbecue beef brisket, with crusts available as Neopolitan, "Grandma-style" sheet pan or New York hand-tossed.

For a chef working long hours, sometimes grab-and-go is the best option, and for Monsod, that means embracing San Diego's rich Mexican food culture, from those overstuffed California burritos to taco shops.

"The taco shop game out here is very high," says Monsod, but after a late night (or early morning), she heads to Colimas Mexican Grill in North Park, a 24/7 spot serving homestyle dishes since 1997.

Monsod always has her eyes out for the freshest ingredients available, sourcing when she can from Chino Farms, northeast of the city. But for visitors, exploring San Diego's farmers markets offers the same thrill of discovery. She recommends the Hillcrest Certified Farmers Market on Sundays. The weekly market includes plenty of local vendors with prepared foods for hungry travelers and a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables for an impromptu picnic at one of San Diego's many parks and gardens.

Patrons at the Gossip Grill bar in Hillcrest San Diego

Queer all year

While Monsod identifies as a chef first, she also recognizes the impact and importance of San Diego's LGBTQ+ community. "I've gone to Pride, get invited to events, and spent plenty of time in Hillcrest, but our community is spreading out much more than that," says Monsod of the city's expansive queer culture.

Gossip Grill, self-described as a "woman-forward restaurant and nightclub," is one of 13 remaining lesbian bars in the country and has been featured as part of the Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary series highlighting the importance of spaces by and for women. Opened in 2009, Gossip Grill has become a thriving community gathering spot for queer women and allies, with a monthly lineup that includes drag kings, cabaret drag brunch and VIP bottle service for those looking to celebrate in style.

Monsod has also rediscovered The Rail, considered San Diego's oldest gay bar, which offers a ladies' night on the third Saturday of each month, where some of the chef's DJ friends spin the night away.

But at the end of the day, Tara Monsod is a chef's chef and always on the lookout for San Diego's next best bite. She's been wowed by the reimagining at the Lafayette Hotel & Club, which includes eight new bars and restaurants, including Beginners Diner, Quixote (a Oaxacan restaurant) and The Gutter, featuring a two-lane bowling alley and craft cocktails.

She's just as inclined to cozy up at such smaller venues as Wolf in the Woods, a Mission Hills tapas and wine bar led by San Diego-born restaurateur Johnny Rivera and executive chef Carmine Lopez.

Can Tara Monsod's palate keep up with everything San Diego has to offer? Unequivocally yes. As she puts it, plain and simple: "I'll eat anything."

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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