Savoring San Diego: An Epicurean Adventure

To truly discover a place, take a culinary tour.

I recently found myself with a few unscheduled days alone in San Diego, a city about which I knew nothing and no one. When planning a trip to a city, I often start by looking for the best local restaurants, which is how I stumbled upon culinary guide Stephanie Parker and her business, Epicurean San Diego. What luck!

San Diego foodies gather at Dickinson Farm in National City to celebrate the local sustainable food movement. This event was organized in part by my tour guide, Stephanie Parker of Epicurean San Diego. Photo by Sara Moore.

Stephanie has worked in the food industry in San Diego, as well as in San Francisco, for many years, and she founded her culinary tour business to show tourists and locals alike what San Diego can offer foodies, beer lovers and wine aficionados. A truly gracious host, she helped me discover hidden gems that I never would’ve found on my own.  

My conclusions from a day spent savoring San Diego? To truly discover a place, take a culinary tour. I tasted a little of this great American city between the ocean and desert, and left fulfilled.

5 Culinary Spots in San Diego

Here are the spots I visited on my Epicurean San Diego tour. If you’re planning a trip to San Diego, be sure to stop in, or better yet, give Stephanie a call — she’ll set up a custom tour that matches the tastes and interests of your crew. She also has access to some locations that aren’t generally open to the public.

1. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters

At their Morena Boulevard Roastery, one of three locations in the San Diego area, guests can get a cup and also see the operation behind the award-winning coffee. Photo by Nicholas Berardi.

This roaster takes coffee to another level, urging customers to think of coffee as they would seasonal produce — as in, there’s a time for everything, but that time isn’t year-round. Bird Rock sources from all over the world but only buys during prime harvest times and sells coffee that is truly fresh. This dedication comes from the founder, Chuck Patton, who started as a home roaster and gradually turned his passion into Bird Rock in 2006, then soon won Roast Magazine’s 2012 Micro Coffee Roaster of the Year.

My visit with Epicurean San Diego focused on a cupping demonstration and tasting, in which I learned to truly taste coffee, detect flavors and tones, and compare one bean from another. If you’re not on a tour and just stopping in, be sure to ask questions of the super-knowledgeable staff. They can recommend a cup based on your personal tastes and point you to the correct in-season bean for your preferred home brewing method.

2. Catalina Offshore Products

CAPTURED SOULS

Tommy Gomes is the Trusted Fishmonger at Catalina. Photo by Chuck Pegot.

Not known to many tourists but loved by locals, this fish market is a nod to San Diego’s former claim to fame as the Tuna Capital of the World. While they do source the freshest tuna and sell it to chefs all over town as well as to the public, Catalina’s offering is more varied than just tuna — from local lobster to sea urchin, the specialty that got owner and diver Dave Rudie into this seafood business many moons ago.

At Catalina, Stephanie and I saw huge tuna, fresh off the boat, being cut and divided into different quality cuts. Most products at the market are sourced from southern California or Baja waters by fishermen who are in tune with Catalina’s commitment to sustainability and quality. If you’re a local, get ye to the fish market. If you’re just visiting but have a love for seafood, stop in to see what treasure Catalina has on deck — they can also direct you to local restaurants where their freshest seafood is on the menu.

3. The Red Door Restaurant and Bar

An inviting labor of love, Red Door's beautiful, simple interior reflects the fresh menu defined by local, seasonal ingredients.

At Red Door, we stopped in for a lunch with owner Trish Watlington, a farmer and restauranteur with a deep passion for local, healthy food. It was a special treat for me to sit with Trish, learn her story and pick her brain about food systems and opportunities and barriers to sourcing local, all while eating from a menu on which each ingredient's source is revealed. On the day of my visit, locally-sourced ingredients included persimmons and arugula from Trish’s own backyard garden (as well as fish from Catalina). In addition to the restaurant, an adjoining bar serves what Trish calls “garden to glass” cocktails.

Unique among restaurants in San Diego and across the country, Red Door has taken a holistic approach following a new trend of community-supported restaurants (CSR). Like community supported agriculture (CSA), in which customers buy a share in a farm, CSRs allow members to buy into the business with an annual membership that includes perks like special dinners, deals on wine, preview tastings, and farm tours. Trish likes the CSR idea because it helps develop the San Diego local food scene while giving her a way to expand Red Door with an insured level of financial and community support.

4. Dickinson Farm

Tucked behind her historic home in National City, one of the oldest areas in San Diego, Stepheni Norton's farm is growing seeds of health and hope in a food desert. Photo by Sarah Wilson.

In National City, one of the oldest and most diverse areas of San Diego, military veteran Stepheni Norton has put down roots, tending a small organic farm in the backyard of her historic homestead. On our tour of her labor of love, Dickinson Farm, we walked among the beautiful rows of lettuce, radishes and other fall crops and the raised beds filled with the last tomatoes, basil and peppers of summer.

We also learned about how a long battle with Lyme disease led Stepheni to gardening and healthy food, and how that experience elucidated the problem of living in a food desert. Today, Stepheni sells her organic produce at a nearby farmstand, offering some of the only fresh produce for miles around. It’s her mission to change the nature of eating in National City and improve the community's health, as well as her own. Thankfully, she has some like-minded neighbors next door at Olivewood Gardens & Learning Center, a teaching space where local kids and families learn about everything from growing veggies to making healthy meals at home. (To bring it back full circle, Trish of Red Door is on the board at Olivewood.)

5. Nibble Chocolate

At Nibble Chocolate, bars are prepared the old-fashioned way — by hand, with only the purest ingredients sourced from sustainable farms across the globe.

The last stop on my tour is a chocolate-lover’s dream. Similar to Bird Rock, Nibble Chocolate, in the heart of San Diego’s historic Old Town, focuses on sustainable sourcing across the global, but the bean of choice is cocoa. Owner Sandra Bedoya talks about cocoa beans like fine wines, and our taste test proves there are just as many distinctions. The real difference between a Nibble bar and other bars is that it’s made direct from the beans, which are ground to a paste in the traditional manner, rather than from cocoa powder. The four primary Nibble cocoa sources are small farms in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Peru, and each has its own unique flavor. All of Nibble’s chocolate bars are dark chocolate (only organic cane sugar is added), making them vegan as well.

In addition to a large case full of tempting treats, the Nibble Chocolate shop also includes educational demonstrations that show how the cocoa is sourced and the chocolate is made, as Sandra says, “the old way.” I walked out with a four-bar sampler pack so I can taste test at home with friends and share the news that not all chocolates are made the same.

More For the Epicure

Asheville, NC
Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina

North Carolina is home to more than 100 wineries with more than 20 in the mountains. Varietals near Asheville include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. The largest winery in the area is the world famous Biltmore Estate, in operation since May of 1985, when the Biltmore Estate Wine Company opened its $6.5 million state-of-the-art winery to the public. But newcomers cannot be overlooked. Burntshirt Vineyards features a 10,440-square foot winery with a crush pad, special equipment to de-stem the grapes, a laboratory to test grapes, and a 1,700-square foot barrel room which mimics wine caves found in European chateaus. Overmountain Vineyards, a boutique winery on a 70-acre family-owned farm, grows 17 acres of French vinifera. While they focus primarily on Petit Manseng (an aromatic white grape originally from southwest France) and classic red varietals, two acres of organically grown blueberries are also under cultivation for future winemaking. 960 1280

Ashley Bowen / Burnt Shirt Vineyards  

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

In 1990, this region had 17 wineries. Today there are around 200, growing everything from Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay to Pinot Noir, Pinot Franc and, most recently, Syrah. The 132-mile Okanagan Valley is British Columbia's largest wine region, but wine lovers can also explore Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island for a taste of the old-vine plantings plus new-breed blends. For an over-the-top experience in Fraser Valley, take a tour with SKY helicopters, which offers private tastings, spectacular views, and your very own sommelier guide. For a unique way to enjoy Vancouver Island, take a floatplane across the Strait of Georgia to Victoria. Staying in the city of Vancouver? Try more than 51 British Columbian wines on tap at one of the three locations of Tap & Barrel or explore the 16 BC wine taps at their smaller sister restaurant, TAPshack. 960 1280

Tap & Barrel Room  

Paso Robles, Calif.

Paso Robles, Calif.

Paso Robles, one of the cowboy-meets-winemaker towns in the Central Coast, has more than 200 wineries and 26,000 acres of vineyards, but often takes a backseat to its better-known and older sibling up north (Napa). Situated slightly inland, its warmer climate is ideal for Zinfandel, Bordeaux, and Rhone-style vintages—and it’s often referred to as “American Rhone.” Not to mention, it’s completely stunning. The proprietors of Law Estate Wines believe that a tasting room should be just like your living room, and their modern architecture in an idyllic setting will incite any wine lover to want to stay awhile. Turley’s renowned Zinfandels and Petit Syrah are part of their collection of 28 separate wines from 35 different vineyards (some with vines that date back to the late 1800s), which comes as no surprise since proprietor Larry Turley is a former emergency room physician and he can now focus his skills on the old vineyards. Others in the area not to miss include Booker, Jack Creek Cellars, and Denner Vineyards. 960 1280

Law Estates Winery  

Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, Calif.

Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, Calif.

The Santa Maria Valley is hot right now. Why? For starters, the cost of living and of properties in this Central Valley region are much less expensive than up north in Napa. And that is attracting many young, up-and-coming winemakers to the area. Fruit is so spectacular here that many northern winemakers are traveling south to purchase pinot grapes. Mild days and cool evenings help Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes reach their maximum potential—the climate is ideal for these varietals, with its perfect flow of air from the coast without being blocked by mountains. Scar of the Sea is receiving very high marks from top wine publications, and the Presqu’ile Winery, led by a South African winemaker, just built a stunning tasting room. And veteran Rancho Sisquoc is situated on a 37,000-acre cattle ranch nestled in the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail and produces more than 20,000 cases per year.  960 1280

Rancho Sisquoc  

Woodinville, Washington

Woodinville, Washington

Woodinville, in the heart of the Sammamish River Valley, is a great day trip from Seattle. Spend a relaxing day at the more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms in this urban-esque area—a new wine lover’s addition to nearby (and better known) Walla Walla. Nestled between the vast vineyards east of the Cascades and the Puget Sound, the area is home to authentic beverage makers (wine, beer, and spirits), great food, a diverse downtown, and a myriad of scenic outdoor activities. Take the Savor at Sunset Wine Walk on the first Thursday of every month, or visit a nearby winery. During the summer months, relax on the patio of the Bookwalter Wines tasting studio. Chateau St. Michele hosts outdoor summer concerts and there's always live music at the DeLille Cellars Carriage House Tasting Room or the Maison DeLille Wine Lounge. 960 1280

Richard Duval / Woodinville Media Group  

Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse City is situated halfway between the North Pole and the Equator—the same locale as the wine regions of France and Italy. The area’s two wine trails are located on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas—both of which stretch out into the waters of Lake Michigan. Bonobo Winery, founded by brothers and Traverse City natives, offers world-class wines in a rustic yet elegant atmosphere. Mario Batali (of Food Network fame), curates the menu to pair with their unique wine selections, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. The facilities at Black Star Farms Winery include tasting rooms, a distillery, a luxury inn, a farm-to-table cafe, an equestrian facility, and a unique urban tasting room/wine bar in the historic Village at Grand Traverse Commons. And for a brush with celebrity, wine and pop-culture lovers can visit Ciccone Vineyard, which is owned by Madonna’s father, Silvio Ciccone, and offers a special Madonna series of wines. 960 1280

Bonobo Wines  

Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg, Texas

Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg, Texas

Wine Road 290 is an association of 15 wineries located on a 45-mile stretch of US Highway 290 from Johnson City to Fredericksburg. Only 90 minutes from Austin and San Antonio, the dynamic nature of the Texas Hill Country wine industry makes every visit to this rapidly growing region a journey of discovery. “In the past five years we have seen wineries grow from boutique curiosities to beloved estates. Tourists come to taste the wines along Wine Road 290, and many become wine club members for an experience that is uniquely Texas Hill Country,” explained Miguel Lecuona, part of the Fredericksburg Road 290 Association. Hye Meadow Winery, in the heart of Wine Road 290, is just one of dozens of wineries that dot the area. “Wine aficionados are rapidly discovering this area and we see a great mix of people who have been visiting us for years and folks who are just discovering the great wines now being made in Texas," said owner Mike Batek. Grape Creek Vineyards utilizes a state-of-the-art wine production complex with more than 35,000 square feet of crush, production, cellaring, and bottling space. The Pedernales Cellars winery and tasting room is located just south of the Hill Country town of Stonewall, and opened its doors to guests in 2008 to sell its inaugural wines produced from the 2006 vintage.  960 1280

Grape Creek Vineyards  

Snake River Valley, Idaho

Snake River Valley, Idaho

Snake River Valley creates a micro climate that has shown its suitability for grape growing, despite its higher elevation and arid landscape. New-wave vintners are planting Riesling, Malbec, Syrah, Viognier, and more—in the last decade, the number of in-state wineries has jumped from 11 to 50. Since 2009, Fujishin Family Cellars has focused solely on wines made from the Snake River Valley in their unique high-dessert climate—the combination of warm days and cool nights creates a balance of acidity, fruit, and regional character. The tasting room for Cinder Wines, named for the volcanic cinder of the area, is located inside their urban winery, just five minutes from downtown Boise in Garden City.  960 1280

Fujishin Winery  

Ashland, Rogue Valley, Oregon

Ashland, Rogue Valley, Oregon

Ashland consists of more than 100 wineries and 250 vineyards growing grapes on nearly 5,000 acres, which is not surprising since Southern Oregon has a seven-month European-like growing season, making it an ideal place to grow wine grapes. The 12 area wineries that market themselves as the Bear Creek Wine Trail won an unprecedented number of top awards at the statewide competition called the Oregon Wine Experience (OWE) this past summer. The Weisinger Family Winery won a Double Gold medal for both their 2013 Malbec and their 2015 Chardonnay. RoxyAnn Winery won a Double Gold medal for its 2012 Claret. Other must-visit vineyards include Ledger David, Edenvale Wines, and up-and-comer Bella Fiore 960 1280

Mark Mularz / Weisinger Family Winery  

Sonoma and Napa Valley, Calif.

Sonoma and Napa Valley, Calif.

The new proliferation of urban tasting rooms on and off the Sonoma Plaza are creating a totally different experience than visiting the vines. But traditional wineries are also changing things up, focusing more on the experience of tasting wine. Madrone Estate Winery in nearby Glen Ellen offers special events featuring yoga. One Hope Wine, led by innovative CEO and co-founder Jake Kloberdanz, integrates a social impact into every one of its wines: the Chardonnay funds clinical trials for breast cancer, the Sparkling Brut funds meals for children, and the Pinot Noir funds pet adoptions, just to name a few. Jordan Kivelstadt of Kivelstadt Winery and Free Flow Wines is putting wine in kegs, which reduces the cost of traditional packaging and transportation, and allows establishments to offer more wines by the glass. And newcomer Materra Wines has incorporated sustainability into all facets of the operation. Their self-pump tanks save a minimum of 8,100 gallons of water during harvest, about 25 percent to 60 percent of the normal amount of water needed for cleaning. 960 1280

Madrone Napa  

man and woman drinking italian espresso indoors with daylight
Italy: Espresso

Italy: Espresso

You’ll surely get an eye roll or two if you order a to-go cup at an Italian cafe, for espresso is the Italians’ version of to-go coffee. This strong brew served in tiny cups is commonly sipped while standing at cafes. And don’t order a cappuccino late in the day in Italy, either — the only appropriate time to enjoy that particular drink is in the morning.  960 1280

Zero Creatives / Cultura / Getty Images  

Turkey: Türk Kahvesi

Turkey: Türk Kahvesi

A famous Turkish proverb says that coffee should be "as black as hell, as strong as death and as sweet as love." This thick brew is usually served after meals from a long-handled copper pot called a cezve, accompanied by chewy Turkish candy. 960 1280

Nico Kaiser via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0  

Denmark: Kaffee

Denmark: Kaffee

Perhaps because of the cold, dark Scandinavian winters, coffee consumption in Denmark has always been some of the highest in the world. Coffee is such a vital part of the Danish culture that packed cafes can be found on nearly every corner, especially in cities such as Copenhagen.  960 1280

Rhiannon Taylor  

France: Café au Lait

France: Café au Lait

The French begin the day with their café au lait –coffee with hot milk, served in a mug wide enough to allow the dunking of baguettes or croissants.  960 1280

Jessica Spangler via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0  

Cuba: Café Cubano

Cuba: Café Cubano

Cubans like their coffee strong, whether it's first thing in the morning, after meals or at any chance they get throughout the day. An important part of the social fabric, the Cuban’s strong brew is served in shots and best enjoyed while socializing.  960 1280

By Ivan2010 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons  

Saudi Arabia: Kahwa

Saudi Arabia: Kahwa

In Saudi Arabia and other Arab cultures, coffee ceremonies follow many rules of etiquette, including always serving the elders first. It is also a common custom to serve this cardamom-spiced drink with dried dates to counter the coffee’s bitterness. 960 1280

Nalf alOwais / Moment / Getty Images  

Netherlands: Kaffe

Netherlands: Kaffe

Not to be confused with Amsterdam’s infamous coffee shops, coffee-serving cafes are a celebrated part of the Netherlands' culture. Also known as bakkie troost, the Dutch kaffe is enjoyed any time of day, usually comes black, and is served alongside a cookie.  960 1280

Goncalo Valverde, flickr  

Ireland: Irish Coffee

Ireland: Irish Coffee

Coffee meets cocktail with this after-dinner drink. Irish coffee includes hot coffee, Irish whiskey, sugar and the crowd-pleasing whipped-cream topper. Irish coffee was actually created in Ireland in the 1940s to warm up American tourists on a cold winter’s night, and it remains as popular as ever today.  960 1280

bbq / Moment / Getty Images  

Mexico: Café de Olla

Mexico: Café de Olla

If you like cinnamon in your coffee, this is your drink. Spiced café de olla is brewed with cinnamon sticks in earthenware pots, which Mexicans swear brings out the coffee taste.  960 1280

Leon Rafael / iStock / Getty Images Plus  

Ethiopia: Buna

Ethiopia: Buna

In Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, traditional coffee ceremonies are a distinguished part of the culture, with the brewing and serving process lasting up to two hours. Historically, buna, as coffee is called here, was served with salt or butter instead of sugar.  960 1280

Tim E. White / Photolibrary / Getty Images  

Austria: Mélange

Austria: Mélange

Served in Viennese cafes, Austria’s traditional drink, mélange, is very similar to a cappuccino. It contains espresso and steamed milk and is topped with froth or, sometimes, whipped cream (which is what makes it different from a traditional cappuccino). 960 1280

Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images  

Greece: Frappé

Greece: Frappé

The Greek frappé is a frothy iced drink made with Nescafé instant coffee, cold water, sugar and evaporated milk. It's best enjoyed in an outdoor cafe.  960 1280

Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0  

Los Dos Kitchen, Mexico
Los Dos, Merida, Mexico

Los Dos, Merida, Mexico

The most popular class in Chef David Sterling’s Merida, Mexico cooking school Los Dos is “Taste of Yucatán.” The class includes an overview of Maya techniques and ingredients, a market tour, culinary instruction, and a full afternoon meal. 960 1280

Eduardo Cervantes  

School of Artisan Food, North Nottinghamshire, England

School of Artisan Food, North Nottinghamshire, England

Located in Sherwood Forest (yes, Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame), the Schoolof Artisan Food in North Nottinghamshire teaches all levels of students, including one-day classes in cheese making, bread baking and sausage making. 960 1280

John Bradley  

Giuliano Hazan’s Northern Italy Cooking School, Verona, Italy

Giuliano Hazan’s Northern Italy Cooking School, Verona, Italy

In this one-week immersive food and wine course with Giuliano Hazan, chef, cookbook author and son of Marcella Hazan, the godmother of Italian cooking, guests learn to make homemade pasta, risotto, meatballs and more. The class takes place in a sixteenth century villa in the heart of northern Italy’s wine country, where guests stay in luxury accomodations. 960 1280

Pettene Flavio  

James St. Cooking School, Brisbane, Australia

James St. Cooking School, Brisbane, Australia

With a variety of hands-on classes ranging from Modern Australian Cooking to Dude Food (meat-heavy, single serving one pot wonders), Brisbane’s James St. Cooking School offers three-hour classes in which professional chefs demonstrate techniques followed by small group hands-on work, culminating in a shared meal as a class. 960 1280

Photo Courtesy of James St. Cooking School   

Tokyo Kitchen, Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Kitchen, Tokyo, Japan

Students in Tokyo Kitchen’s three-hour classes learn about Japanese seasonings and table manners before diving into hands-on lessons in Japanese home cooking techniques. The menu rotates daily between different varieties of sushi, tempura and other Japanese specialties such as okonomiyaki, ramen, katsu and more. 960 1280

Photo Courtesy of Tokyo Kitchen  

Cass Abrahams Capetown, Capetown, South Africa

Cass Abrahams Capetown, Capetown, South Africa

Considered the doyenne of Cape Malay cuisine, South Africa’s oldest cuisine, local celebrity chef Cass Abraham teaches private cooking lessons in her home. These courses, organized by Cape Fusion Tours, have been described as a history lesson and a cooking class rolled into one. 960 1280

Photo Courtesy of Cape Fusion Tours  

Langlois Culinary Crossroads, New Orleans, Louisiana

Langlois Culinary Crossroads, New Orleans, Louisiana

Chef Amy Cyrex-Sins describes Langlois Culinary Crossroads as part dinner party, part interactive entertainment. While Langlois hosts private cooking classes by appointment, regular diners at Langlois can tour the kitchen, interact with the chefs and learn about traditional Cajun and Creole cooking.

 

960 1280

Charles Ravaglia Photography  

Beijing Cooking School, Beijing, China

Beijing Cooking School, Beijing, China

Offering one-day and 10-day classes in traditional Hutong cuisine, Beijing Cooking School trains students in both wok techniques and pastry, which includes dumplings, dim sum and noodles. Classes involve market tours and interactive demos as well as hands-on practice. 960 1280

Photo Courtesy of Beijing Cooking School  

GalilEat, Galilee, Israel

GalilEat, Galilee, Israel

GalilEat Culinary Adventures bring students into the homes of Druze, Muslim and Christian hosts to learn traditional Arab cooking. A typical day includes two hours of hands-on instruction followed by a shared meal. 960 1280

Photo Courtesy of GalilEat  

Issaya Cooking Studio, Bangkok, Thailand

Issaya Cooking Studio, Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand’s original celebrity chef Ian Kittichai and his team teach fun friendly workshops in a modern studio space. A favorite class features four recipes from his Issaya Siamese Club restaurant. 960 1280

  

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