If you have one goal in San Diego it should be to spend the maximum possible amount of time outside in the sun. I mean like no more than 15 minutes a day inside. That includes ordering at places, using restrooms, and sitting down. The weather here is a gift to you and you better not squander it. If you do, the polar vortex will find you and exact revenge. Life is too short to sit inside in San Diego. Luckily all of our stops today have outdoor spaces.
It’s going to be a long day of drinking and walking. This section can either be driven or if you are masochistic like me, walked. In total it’s only a bit more than 3 miles, but you’ll have to loop back at some point. You’re going to want to start the day fueled up.
Start at Devil’s Dozen donuts. These huge fluffy confections will give you the sugar you need to get going, and the substantial dough will help soak up some of the beer. The flavors here are awesome too with salted caramel and nutella varieties. We’ll be back in this area later.
Sugar will only get you so far, you’re going to need some caffeine as well. For a fine brew that doesn’t involve hops, head to Pappalecco, the finest espresso roasters this side of Naples. This place is authentic, and I don’t just mean because the staff involves men with better shaped eyebrows than the women. Accents abound here, but the coffee is exceptionally good. This is what the body craves, well coffee and beer. It’s not called Little Italy for nothing.
From Little Italy, it’s time to start hitting up some breweries in the Gaslamp Quarter. Called so because they probably used to have lots of gaslamps here, I don’t know, I was too busy enjoying the beer to look it up, this area is full of cool bars and lots and lots of typical (read: bumbling) tourists from across this nation. That’s fine, we’ll avoid them by exploring during the day rather than at night when Edna and Hubert head out exploring in their bright pink and white.
The best places in the Gaslamp Quarter aren’t the showy neon lit lounges and cocktail bars, but the relaxed neighborhood beer spots. Knotty Barrel is such a place. I mean it even has urinals made from beer kegs.
If you’re going to stay under 15 minutes inside today though, you’ll have to take my word. You want to be at the eponymous barrels outside that make great tables for people watching on the street. And boy does San Diego have good people watching. While here we watched the same person walk around the same corner four times, each time with a different dog. Where did they come from? Where did they go? The beer selection is pretty good here as well with tons of local craft beer on taps. It’s a perfect place to begin to familiarize yourself with San Diego breweries. And how often do you get to work on your tan while enjoying craft beer? Plus you’ll get to overhear patrons discussing their new profession as a “healer”. Not their Dungeons and Dragons character, but their real life honest to goodness job!
A block up the street is a bar that you might miss due to the small front, Neighborhood. Yet it is aptly named as it is a great neighborhood bar. Though they don’t have keg urinals, they do have a great menu of craft beer. The outside seating on the sidewalk, complete with astroturf; San Diego seems obsessed with the stuff; is not huge, but it it’s comfy. The best spot is a small table that is actually an extension of the bar inside, meaning you get served quickly. You can also see the big draft chalkboard from here, though you may need to squint. Or maybe I just need glasses. Pro-tip: go for anything on nitro, the creaminess makes every beer taste delicious.
After a drink or two, or a flight at each, it’s time for some fresh air (in case you haven’t gotten enough yet) and a walk. Head down to the city’s public library. Its huge dome is easy to spot from around town. The dome is worth visiting for some views of the city and is freely accessible on the top floor of the elevator. Also check out the rare and antique book collection up there which has some really interesting ancient manuscripts and the like.
On the ground floor is the children’s room which celebrates the works of San Diego’s own Dr. Seuss. It is certainly a bit of a wonderland with vibrant colors everywhere and it isn’t just the beer making you trippy.
From the library, it’s a quick walk through a bunch of parking lots to the off the beaten path Mission Brewing, located in of course an old mission building. The space is enormous though some is still being constructed, and there is plenty of space to stretch out. Sadly the large bar means slower service, but the beers here are worth the wait. The Shipwrecked double IPA at over 9% is the most popular draw here, but for a largely hop forward brewery, the maltier wheats, dunklebocks, and koclshs are pretty tasty as well. The shuffleboard table is also nice if you can get a turn at it. The world’s biggest dog, a husky that looked like a direwolf also was here, but that might not be like a permanent thing.
Alright, let’s get this out of the way early, up next is a walk that doesn’t seem like it is worth it. It’s lengthy, warm, and goes past some seedier neighborhoods and literal homeless tent shanties. Walk fast and I assure you the walk is worth it. At the end of this rainbow of homelessness rests a pot of gold with the best Mexican food you will ever find. You may not see the small entrance or awning, but the line around the corner will be pretty obvious.
Cuatras Milpas may not look like much, but you will not find better tacos and Mexican food elsewhere. The atmosphere is like a bad picnic with tables covered in checkered tablecloths. The menu is only about 4 items, tacos, tamales, and rice with chorizo. Periodically there may be one more item. Tacos come in an order of 5 and they are fairly small. Load up on the toppings though, you won’t regret it. The rice was a truly transcendental experience with perfect flavor and moisture, even for chorizo. The little old ladies at the counter aren’t super helpful on what to order, but rest assured you can’t really go wrong.
If you can manage to move after all those tacos and rice, walk back to Little Italy. If not, grab a cab. It’s not as far as it looks. Right on top of the donut shop from this morning is an awesome rooftop bar and restaurant, Kettner Exchange. Sure it can become a bit of a scene later in the evening, but this is California, even In N’ Out does. The lounge chairs and hammocks get taken early, so grab one if available, otherwise the seats aren’t bad. Try to catch the sunset over the ocean to the west if you can. Watch out for the airplanes that appear to be about to land on top of you from the nearby airport. Most importantly, sample some more local beer from the strong menu here and soak up the last golden rays of the sun as it sets. Once those very last rays are gone, you may be excused to leave.
Now we’re going to make one exception to the outside rule, even at night, for Juniper & Ivy. When in San Diego, you have to eat at this upscale restaurant run by Top Chef contestant and local celeb Richard Blais, it’s practically the law. Your friends will judge you if you don’t. It’s a huge scene, but the atmosphere alone is worth it, and maybe you’ll be discovered here. The beer menu isn’t much here, but there are a few options. Mostly it’s going to be wine. And the wine is awesome. Any place where a ladder is needed to fetch your bottle is likely going to be good, and Juniper doesn’t disappoint.
The food is excellent as expected, from the buttermilk biscuit with butter so good it’s probably illegal in other states, all the way to the decadent chocolate dessert called only the yodel.
Men speak in hushed whispers about the amount of chocolate in this dessert which is basically a log of chocolate with more chocolate poured on top. The sea bass cheeks were a bit cheeky, but delicious none the less. That was a weak joke; let’s move on.
To the San Diego chicken which proves that putting an egg on top of anything makes is 100 times more delicious. The menu proves if nothing else, that the chef isn’t a chicken as there are a huge number of vastly different items. You could probably order 4 dishes and not repeat an item here for a half dozen visits.
If Juniper & Ivy isn’t your style, or a bigger selection of beer for dinner is desired, there are two other great options nearby.
Bracero Cocina is a top notch Cal-Mex (I still don’t know what that means) restaurant with an amazingly flavorful menu and a pretty good beer selection. Apparently Tijuana just across the border has a pretty burgeoning craft beer scene, and some tasty brews are on display here. The food is also awesome if you like spice, and even if you don’t, but a meal here can begin to creep up to Juniper & Ivy levels if not kept in check. The octopus here is awesome with a nice spice from jalapenos. Even the tortilla chips are spectacular with a gentle sprinkling of spice and an express pass to flavortown aboard the USS habanero salsa that it comes with. I promise no more Guy Fierri references. The pork was also out of this world with a perfect moistness and tenderness, and of course some spice, though not a ton, that added to the delicate balance of flavors.
Alternatively, Puesto, a taco restaurant at the Headquarters building by the waterfront is a bit less pricey, though equally a scene, particularly on weekend evenings. A house DJ spun beats as sick as the spinning tortillas, but meant we could barely hear each other across the table. Service was a bit surly too, but the margaritas and tacos were amazing. I found the swordfish ones a bit boring, but the chicken al pastor were the first al pastor ones I’ve ever ordered and then not regretted trying something different. They were the pastors you compare all other pastors too. Sure the ambiance was basically a slightly upscale Don Pablo’s, but the food was great.
After all this food and drink, it’s probably a good idea to hit the hay. And I don’t mean by getting more chicken at the Crack Shack next door to Juniper & Ivy, also owned by Blais. You may want to get to bed as tomorrow is going to be just as intense.