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Cali-Baja: The Taste of San Diego's Culinary Identity

Cali-Baja: The Taste of San Diego's Culinary Identity

With some of the country's most sought-after produce, easy access to fresh fish and crustaceans from the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, and an unquestionable gastronomic influence from its proximity to Mexico, it is no wonder why San Diego has developed a culinary identity all its own. Known as "Cali-Baja," the region's unique cuisine reflects the heart and soul of San Diego, an innovative culinary destination.

As California's southernmost city, San Diego sits at the intersection of two culinary styles: California cuisine, distinguished for its devotion to fresh local ingredients, and Mexico's Baja Med cuisine, a food revolution that began in Tijuana and is gaining worldwide recognition for combining traditional Mexican ingredients with those of the Mediterranean. Embracing local culture over trends, San Diego's top chefs and restaurateurs created a seafood and produce-centric cuisine that blends cooking techniques from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The resulting Cali-Baja culinary style offers a wealth of exciting gastronomic experiences one can only find in the San Diego-Tijuana region.

From sampling San Diego's fresh produce at a farmer's roadside stand to tasting Latin fare while attending one of the region's culinary events to sipping a frosty pint of local craft beer, the following are a few ways visitors can savor the bounty of San Diego's new Cali-Baja food scene.

Farm-to-Table from the Beginning

San Diego's diverse landscape and Mediterranean-like climate make the county an ideal place for agriculture, providing chefs access to the freshest possible ingredients directly from local farms, neighborhood farmer's markets and even their own backyards. Since the region has more small family farms than any other county in the U.S. and California Certified Farmers Markets can be found every day across different neighborhoods, the rising farm-to-table trend has been a way of life in San Diego for years.

  • Farms and chefs have been working to reestablish an intimate connection between fresh, locally sourced ingredients and the kitchen. In Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego's North County, Chino Farms draws raves from chefs at California's most celebrated restaurants, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.
  • California Certified Farmers Markets take place every day in San Diego, and the number of festive markets blossoms on weekends. It is here where professional chefs and locals collide to get inspired by the fresh picked fruits, crisp heirloom vegetables, flavorsome regional cheeses and locally baked breads. The most popular farmer markets include the Little Italy Mercato, responsible for breathing life into the streets of this epicurean downtown neighborhood every Saturday, and Hillcrest Farmers Market, where Sundays are transformed into an exhibition of art, music and fresh finds.
  • When it comes to eating fresh, diners will be hard pressed to find anything fresher than dishes prepared at restaurants with their own farms. The Red Door, a restaurant in the lively, uptown Mission Hills neighborhood, offers healthy organic cuisine with ingredients grown at their proprietary farm in San Diego's rural East County. Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens, one of the nation's leading craft breweries, also owns the largest in-house garden in San Diego with five acres of land in Escondido where fresh produce is harvested for its two San Diego restaurant locations. Other eateries like Kitchen 4140 in Clairemont Mesa, Whisknladle in La Jolla and 1500 OCEAN in Coronado also utilize their own farms for menu sourcing.

What's the Catch?

Locals and visitors alike love San Diego's 70 miles of pristine beaches for relaxation and recreation, but the region's famous coastline also offers a sea of opportunities for local fishermen, restaurants and seafood buffs. With high quality seafood at the heart of many Cali-Baja dishes, the flavors of the Pacific Ocean are on the menu at establishments throughout San Diego.

  • For nearly 40 years, Catalina Offshore has been selling the finest seafood to restaurants, sushi bars and the public. The fish market specializes in sushi-grade and locally caught seafood like sea urchin, tuna, yellowtail and salmon. Most of their seafood is ethically sourced from the waters of Southern California and Baja California and fished with hand line techniques to preserve and respect local natural resources.
  • Local fishermen and aquafarmers gather every Saturday at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market alongside the downtown waterfront to sell their freshly caught seafood and aqua-farmed seaweed to locals and chefs. Customers can buy a whole fish, have it fileted, cut into steaks or gilled and gutted on the spot. The open-air market also helps raise awareness about the importance of sustainable seafood practices. The nearby Sally's Seafood on the Water restaurant even offers the option of preparing diners' market-fresh catch of the day al gusto.
  • Perhaps the most prized culinary jewel of San Diego's coastal waters is the sea urchin, or uni, a visually arresting and palatably bewitching marine invertebrate. The best way to describe its taste is by quoting chef Javier Plascencia, who claims "flavor wise, it is like kissing a mermaid." Uni can be eaten raw, freshly cracked right from its shell by Poppa's Fresh Fish Company at various farmer's markets or accompanied with fine caviar at the five-star Addison Del Mar.

Let's Taco About It

One of the cornerstones of San Diego's Cali-Baja cuisine is the fish taco, a delicious, simple dish born in Baja that was quickly popularized by surfers and adopted by locals. By mixing and playing with flavors, fusions and fixings, San Diego chefs have transformed this delightful street food into food art. And, whether filled with fish, beef or something altogether unexpected, the taco experience in San Diego is unlike that of any other city.

  • Fish tacos can be found in every corner of San Diego, from the South Bay up to Oceanside in North County. In Bonita, locals line up for them at TJ Oyster Bar, a former Tijuana seafood stand where San Diegans flock for authentic Cali-Baja flavors. With outposts in the urban Hillcrest neighborhood and just off the boardwalk in Pacific Beach, Oscar's Mexican Seafood is constantly named a fish taco favorite among locals. Of course, one of the most authentic ways to enjoy a fish taco is by visiting one of the many neighborhood food trucks scattered throughout San Diego County.
  • At Puesto at the Headquarters in Seaport Village and in La Jolla, foodies can indulge in the lamb barbacoa taco, a Guadalajara-style braised lamb with whipped avocado, fresh onion and cilantro. East Village gem and Michelin recognized eatery, Lola 55 features elevated Tijuana street tacos; the "Smoked Carnitas" taco boasts bold flavors from pork shoulder confit, crisped maciza, shaved tomatillo, avocado mousse, pickled red onion and cilantro.

Beyond the Tortilla

More than just tacos, Cali-Baja cuisine comes in many shapes and flavors. Local chefs play with the best ingredients to create seasonal menus that reflect San Diego's relaxed vibe but sophisticated taste.

  • With sweeping views of downtown San Diego's skyline, Coasterra on Harbor Island is a vast restaurant and event and banquet center featuring a high-end, Mexican-influenced menu created by chef Deborah Scott and helmed by executive chef John Gray. The dramatic indoor-outdoor setting boasts floor-to-ceiling abstract murals painted by San Diego artist Rafael Lopez, a lounge area, two bars and a soon-to-be-added floating event center. The cocktail program features more than 70 labels of agave spirits, a wine selection from Latin America and Baja, and local and Mexican craft beer options on tap. House specialties include a tableside guacamole cart with add-ins like lobster, crab and shrimp and the Mar y Tierra, featuring beef short rib, Oaxacan mole, lobster risotto cake and charred asparagus.
  • Inspired by the festive colors and flavors of traditional Mexican-style pops called paletas, the delicious offerings at Viva Pops are unlike the popsicles found in any grocery store. Sold at its storefront in Normal Heights as well as at the Little Italy Mercato on Saturdays, flavors like cucumber chili, lavender lemonade and pear vanilla rose have won praise from local critics.

Culinary Events

Throughout the year, visitors to San Diego can sample the region's bounty with special culinary events that range from festive harvest celebrations to Latin cuisine tastings to week-long restaurant promotions. The following is a short list of some of the region's delicious culinary celebrations.

  • San Diego Restaurant Week occurs twice annually in September and January and is one of the most awaited foodie events by locals. During two weeks, participating restaurants offer diners an amazing deal — three-course prix fixe menus at many of the region's top restaurants for just $20, $30 or $40 per person. More than 150 restaurants throughout the county participate, providing diners the chance to experience everything from classic crowd-pleasers to landmark restaurants to the newest, hottest bastions of Cali-Baja cuisine.
  • Baja California's culinary and cultural heritage can be experienced without crossing the border at the annual Baja by the Sea event. The free event occurs every August at the Embarcadero Marina Park North and focuses on five of Baja California's most important food cities: Tijuana, Tecate, Ensenada, Rosarito and Mexicali. Each destination gets to showcase its flourishing food scene, tourist attractions, unique arts and culture and infrastructure and provides attendees the perfect opportunity to try the best of Baja's wines and craft beers, savor more than 30,000 food samples and learn about Baja's agricultural sector, all while enjoying a variety of artistic and musical programs.
  • Since the early 1960s, the Fallbrook Avocado Festival has been the biggest event in this quiet little hamlet in San Diego's North County. The festival is even bigger these days, because San Diego County is the country's largest producer of avocados. Each spring, more than 70,000 avocado lovers converge to sample avocados, take in culinary demonstrations, check out tempting cooking contest entries, buy funky avocado-themed gifts and enjoy bands, live entertainment and beer gardens.
  • San Diego Beer Week returns each year in early November for a 10-day celebration of local craft beer and San Diego's thriving brewing culture. Festivities kick off with a Brewers Guild Festival and conclude with a Chef Celebration of San Diego Beer, a gourmet beer and food pairing event. Last year's San Diego Beer Week boasted more than 300 events, ranging from beer dinners to meet and greets with local brewers, with an estimated 20,000 attendees.
  • Artisans and gourmets converge each fall at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla for Celebrate the Craft, a unique celebration of California's agricultural abundance and tradition of culinary innovation. The weekend celebration features the finest food artisans from across California's broad culinary spectrum demonstrating, discussing and offering tastings of the vast array of premium food products available throughout the state. A portion of the proceeds are donated to Slow Food, an international educational organization dedicated to promoting ecologically sound food production.
  • Each November, wine and food enthusiasts gather at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, Southern California's largest wine and culinary festival. Held at venues throughout downtown San Diego, the festival includes wine tasting seminars, cooking classes by award-winning chefs and cookbook authors and an elegant Reserve & New Release Tasting event.
  • Each year, the Latin Food Fest draws Latin food, wine and spirits enthusiasts to mingle with culinary stars, from local executive chefs to special national guests. The four-day event kicks off with Spirits of the Americas, an invitation-only event where spirits like mezcal, pisco, rum and tequila are the main attraction. The festivities continue with the Grande Tasting, an all-inclusive tasting with chef meet-and-greets and the Family Fiesta at the Broadway Pier, a fun-filled day with food, music and a kids' kitchen; it concludes with a six-course private chef's dinner with live music and dancing.

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