San Diego is so mellow, even a persnickety Goldilocks-type can relax. (Not too cold, not too hot, just right.) So when dining in this Southern California border town, a laid-back vibe seems the way to go. The ocean is a draw, of course, with beachgoers cooking on grills off the backs of their vans and surfers congregating in their glistening black wet suits. You may even see, as I did recently, a woman strolling along with a cockatoo perched on her sun-tanned shoulder. A desire to sup in an atmosphere that matches that free-spirited mood doesn’t necessarily mean choosing a restaurant within view of the Pacific. A few miles inland, the mood remains casual. In that spirit, here are three spots where you can enjoy three squares — minus the sand.
Mornings bloom bright at Nomad Donuts (nomaddonuts.com; 3102 University Ave.; 619-431-5000). That’s due, in part, to large windows on two sides of this 28-seat diner that occupies a former bookstore. Even cheerier is the vivid display case. The bold frostings on the fried cakes owe their colors to the fruits and purées that flavor them; no artificial dyes or preservatives are used here. The rotating menu includes such options as blueberry jam Meyer lemon, blackberry jam habanero peach guava and blood orange creamsicle. For those who prefer a dependable morning routine, one doughnut is available daily: the ube [purple yam] taro coconut. I opted for a green-tea doughnut with black sesame seeds. Doughnuts are $3-$4, with occasional special creations — such as Scotch egg for Father’s Day — priced at $5-$6 each. Everything at Nomad is made from scratch, including the Montreal-style bagels, which are boiled in sweetened water and baked in a wood-fired oven. Sandwiches ($5-$10), such as egg and cheese or cured salmon, are served on the bagels. Need to justify the indulgence? Your other meals will likely be seafood. This is, after all, a coastal city. Plus, there’s walking. Balboa Park is just an 18-minute stroll from this location in North Park. My group of three made that trip, toting our white pastry box like a prized present.
A visit to Chicano Park, a U.S. National Historic Landmark and the largest collection of outdoor murals in the country, burned camera batteries — and calories. Clearly, a food foray to the nearby Barrio Logan neighborhood was necessary. After admiring the vintage lowriders that cruise nearly every weekend, we ducked in to Salud (saludsd.com; 2196 Logan Ave.; 619-255-3856), where patrons waiting in line to place orders were entertained by a mix of American oldies and Mexican music. The walls are decorated with car parts and local artists’ murals and framed paintings. With our order in hand — food-truck style in a cardboard dish lined with parchment — we settled in at a communal table among parents and kids, couples and IPA-drinking buddies to chow down on tacos with guacamole and chips. Try the Barrio taco ($2.75) with stewed beef, beans, cactus and sour cream in a flour tortilla. Other offerings include nachos ($8) and ceviche ($7), as well as margaritas and desserts. Among the pleasures of Salud is that it’s easy on the wallet and the schedule. As a nod to its origin as a food cart, you can dine well and quickly — it’s fast without being “fast food.”
A few miles from the ferry docks and sailboat masts, Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill (bluewaterseafoodsandiego.com; 3667 India St.; 619-497-0914) offers a fresh catch. “All we do is fish, we are local fishermen,” is its claim. Blue Water is the kind of restaurant you wish were around the corner from your house. Its format — choose your fish, your marinade and type of presentation (sandwich, salad, plate or taco) — feels as if you went to the local fish monger, brought home a fillet and decided how to cook it yourself. Be prepared to stand in line beside a display of the day’s catch before placing an order. The staff will deliver your food, along with your drink of choice in a Mason jar or bottle. We found a corner seat at an old wooden table where I had a view of the trophy tuna on the wall above the cash register. My half pound of blackened Scottish salmon with rice ($19.75) was pleasantly filling, but not so much that I couldn’t steal a couple bites of my dining mate’s red-snapper tacos ($4.75 each) heaped a with quarter-pound of fish, shredded green cabbage, tomatoes, red and green onions, Baja white sauce and avocado (extra). Other offerings include sashimi appetizers ($11-$16), chowder ($3.75 a cup) and bisque ($15.75 a bowl). Blue Water’s original Mission Hills neighborhood location will be joined by a second address in Ocean Beach this summer, and they recently opened an outpost at Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres.