“Forks in the Road”: Sippin’ and Snackin’ in San Diego

Another tasty, fun-filled jaunt — this time to San Diego! It was a jam-packed trip that included visits to 11 breweries/taprooms, and that just scratched the surface of the local beer scene.

The beers certainly did not disappoint. All were really good, and the only ones I didn’t much like were just styles of beer that aren’t my favorite.

Arguably the U.S. capital of craft beer, I’ve been wanting to visit San Diego for some time and finally got off the fence thanks to a TravelZoo hotel deal at the Sofia Hotel. The price was right, as was the location — just a couple blocks from the Amtrak station and right between the Gaslamp District and the up-and-coming (or perhaps already arrived) Little Italy neighborhood.

Day One!
The first and last highlights of the trip were the Amtrak train rides to and from San Luis Obispo. Yes, it took eight hours each way, but it could easily be that long if you drive, and the route offers great views of the Pacific coastline. Add to that plenty of legroom, wifi, and the ability to get up and move around if you wish. Also, though they have a club car with pretty reasonable prices and selection, you can bring your own food aboard (and there may have been some bloody Marys amidst my baggage as well … ssshhhhh).

Karl Strauss Brewing in Little Italy was the first stop.
Karl Strauss Brewing in Little Italy was the first stop.

Arrived in San Diego just in time for happy hour, so the downtown location of Karl Strauss Brewing Company was the first stop. Enjoyed the Tower IPAs and yummy cauliflower Romesco, which is only available on the happy hour snacks menu. Next up was a tasting flight of IPAs at the recently opened Bolt Brewery, and then on to the Ballast Point taproom for a tasting flight and some Indra Kunindra (one of their stouts) curry glazed wings with cilantro dressing.

So many Ballast Point IPAs, so little time!
So many Ballast Point IPAs, so little time!

Yes, Ballast Point, for which Constellation Brands just spent ONE BILLION-WITH-A-B DOLLARS to acquire. Other craft breweries that have been swallowed up by the big boys lately are Golden Road, Saint Archer, Goose Island, Elysian, Breckenridge, Blue Point, 10 Barrel, Four Peaks … sigh. I guess good on the brewers for making such desirable products, but it’s a bit disheartening if you want to have your beer money supporting the little, or at least independent, brewers.

Como se dice "Kitsch"?
Como se dice “Kitsch”?

As a post-beer palate cleanser, seemed like $3 margaritas and chips and salsa at the delightfully kitschy El Camino were in order. After that, managed to find a spot by the fireplace for a glass of wine at the hip Kettner Exchange, which seemed to be full of people who thought they were also hip. Meh.

Day Two – in the city less than 24 hours.

Though it’s not the seafood spot it used to be, Anthony’s Fish Grotto on the waterfront was a must visit for a bloody Mary. Can’t beat the waterside view, and – since it’s been there since 1946 – wanted to say I’d been there before it got ousted for a newer, shinier restaurant this year.

Even if you don’t actually go in, it’s intriguing looking at all the vessels docked at the San Diego Maritime Museum, located next to the USS Midway Museum. Amazing to see how REALLY BIG an aircraft carrier actually is!

Pork, zucchini, and ahi tacos at Puesto.
Pork, zucchini, and ahi tacos at Puesto.

Evidently the theme of today ended up being Taco Tuesday, with street tacos at the fairly new Puesto and – after meeting friends for beers at Half Door Brewing and Monkey Paw Brewing

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Rising Tide IPA

some of the best tacos I’ve ever had (chorizo asado, mahi al adobo, puerco agri dulce) from City Tacos, which was staging a popup at neighboring Mike Hess Brewing in North Park.

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Day Three – halfway!

Strolled up to and through Balboa Park, which has to be one of the best city parks anywhere. Lots of open space, gardens, walking paths, and buildings dating back to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, several museums, performing arts venues, a zoo and several restaurants. Opted for Panama 66 and sharing a housemade bratwurst sandwich with a New English IPA.

Next up were fish tacos, a HUGE sashimi salad, and IPAs at South Park Brewing. From there had planned to meet friends at Quad Ale House in the Gaslamp for happy hour, but were put off by the fact that only about 10 of the beers on their very extensive list qualified for happy hour. I clearly don’t mind paying for beer, but their attitude was a little proud, so we went down the street to Café 21 for some very good flatbread and sangria before hitting Mission Brewery for some yummy IPAs. (Are you sensing a theme here? I’m all about my IPAs.)

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Day Four – hittin’ the home stretch.

Grabbed a bagel with bacon/scallion schmear (why hadn’t I ever thought of that?!) from Bruegger’s Bagels before boarding the ferry to Coronado Island. The route takes you almost directly under the tail of the USS Midway – did I mention that is a REALLY BIG ship?

A trip to a brewery often lets you try beers not available anywhere else.
A trip to a brewery often lets you try beers not available anywhere else.

Enjoyed the Sandside and Stingray IPAs available only at the Coronado Brewing Company taproom, along with a steak salad, fish tacos, and Caesar salad. All that food provided more than enough reason to walk across the island to the Hotel Del Coronado, where I really wore out the phrase “Hallo from the other Del.” Apologies to those I inflicted that upon, and to Adele.

“The Del” is a truly stunning property, and definitely worth a visit even if you just stroll around the grounds or have a pricey drink at one of the beachside bars overlooking the ocean. It also has a small display of its history near the lobby, and among the items is this “meatless” menu from WWII. Evidently, “meatless” back then just meant no beef.

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After taking the ferry back to San Diego proper, an evening sipping around the Gaslamp District with friends ran the gamut from margaritas at La Puerta …

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… to drinks at the Star Bar (a claaaaaaassic dive bar with the distinction of having been a brothel back in the day), to Florent (a restaurant/lounge in a circa-1874 building that used to be the Old City Hall).

The Star Bar is often mentioned as one of the best dive bars in the city, and I heartily agree! Plus, if you take time to look around, you'll see that they have a raft of craft drafts.
The Star Bar is often mentioned as one of the best dive bars in the city, and I heartily agree! Plus, if you take time to look around, you’ll see that they have a raft of craft drafts.

Day Five – last day! (Well, technically leaving the next day at noon, but …)

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Walked back up to Little Italy for tasty breakfast sammies on the patio at the just opened Crack Shack, Chef Richard Blais’ new casual concept located adjacent to his upscale Juniper & Ivy. Next time, I’ll go back later in the day for fried chicken, biscuits, and a housecrafted cocktail.

Cuando en Rome ... or Old Town San Diego!
Cuando en Rome … or Old Town San Diego!

Took the trolley up to Old Town, where of course a margarita at Barra Barra’s was in order! Strolled around the Historic State Park (would definitely make time for a meal up there next time – probably the place with the handmade tortillas) before friends picked us up to go to Stone Brewing’s World Bistro and Gardens. A beautiful location, especially when you can sit outside. After that, visited the much smaller Acoustic Ales, which occupies part of the historic Mission Brewery facility that was shut down due to Prohibition.

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Back to Little Italy to check out another dive bar. We were told that if we’ve been to Star Bar, we had to go to Waterfront Bar & Grill, which dates back to 1933 and is San Diego’s oldest bar. It was there that we encountered a most unusual holiday sight – a tour coach pulled up outside and began to disgorge a large group of revelers on a dive bar crawl. Normally not much to notice, except they were all wearing Santa-themed onesies! Waterfront was the fourth or so stop on their seven pub list, so suffice it to say there was some awesome people watching. Pictures could not do it justice.

Nothing fancy, nothing needed to be. Perfect.
Nothing fancy, nothing needed to be. Perfect.

The last stop in San Diego will be one of the most memorable – an old school Italian dinner at Mona Lisa. The half market/half restaurant was founded in 1956 and moved to its current location in 1973. Did I mention this was old school? Though no red-checkered tablecloths, it sported red vinyl upholstery, vintage family photos, and wood paneling. Nothing fancy on the menu, but a spot-on traditional meal of half spaghetti/half meat ravioli with red sauce, pesto alla Genovese, and one of the “pricier” bottles of Chianti came to all of $51, and there was more than enough left over to bring on the train for lunch. (There might have been some bloody Marys served on the way home too … ssshhhhh.)

~~~~ text and photos by Katy Budge

Ballast Point ... it's not just for beer anymore.
Ballast Point … it’s not just for beer anymore.

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