March 18, 2019
By Chacho Herman
With MSA FORWARD being in San Diego this year, MSA gave me the unenviable task of doing a write-up about the wonders and delights of the city (thanks, David Duddy). I say unenviable because there is so much! Starting south in Tijuana (Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT), Tacos El Franc and Telefónica Gastro Park!) all the way north to Oceanside (if you get a chance to go to Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub for an omakase meal by executive chef Davin Waite, do it. You will thank me forever.) — there is a lot to cover, and I will invariably miss something. What I thought I’d do is list some of my favorite neighborhoods and places to go and give you a “guy who’s lived here all his life” overview. The nice thing is that all the places I talk about are at most a 10- to 15-minute Lyft ride from the conference hotel.
One of my favorite neighborhoods is just south of downtown. Barrio Logan is home to Chicano Park and all of its historic, colorful and powerful murals that are painted on the supports of the Coronado Bridge. After visiting the murals, walk or drive south down Logan Avenue to grab lunch or dinner at Salud Tacos. My favorite is their birria tacos — stewed beef served in a crispy shell — but, really, you can’t go wrong with any of their food. Across the street from Salud is a little warren of independently owned shops you can browse, and Border X Brewing where you can grab a craft beer with a Mexican twist and, if you’re still hungry, another taco from their taco cart on the back patio. Finish off — and feel like a local — by getting a coffee down the street at Cafe Moto. People make pilgrimages from all over the country to visit this bean roaster. Yeah, it’s that good. Their outdoor patio furniture is repurposed industrial components like old oil barrels and giant industrial gears. Barrio Logan is also home to several galleries like La Bodega Gallery and Chicano Art Gallery. Be sure to see what’s happening at Bread & Salt, a former Wonder Bread bakery and now art hub in the neighborhood with rotating exhibitions, performances and concerts. Over the weekend of MSA FORWARD, there are glass-blowing workshops and a found music opera.
What do you not know about Balboa Park, the largest urban park in the country (yes, bigger even than Central Park) that you haven’t already read about? I imagine you already know that there are nearly 20 cultural institutions, including The San Diego Museum of Art, golf courses (Frisbee and the other kind), the world famous San Diego Zoo, miles of hiking trails, the largest outdoor organ in the world and glorious gardens. If you are into cars, science, natural history, humanities, local art, photography and theater, then Balboa Park has something for you. Visit one — or several — of the museums, and shop in each of their unique stores. Each cultural institution is independently operated, as are their stores, so there is a lot to see. Also of note, many of the stores will be offering discounts to MSA FORWARD attendees. Just show them your MSA FORWARD badge. Next, stop for lunch or dinner and a local beer or wine at the fabulous Panama 66 at The San Diego Museum of Art. (Hot tip: Every Wednesday, there is a free jazz jam hosted by multi-award-winning trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos.) The beers are all San Diego microbreweries, the wines from local vineyards and the food made from local fresh ingredients. You can find other good eats a short walk across the Cabrillo Bridge. For a high-end experience, visit Mister A’s where the meal (and prices) match the glorious view. Kitty corner to Mister A’s, on Fifth and Laurel, is CUCINA urbana where you will have a wonderful Italian meal. For great ramen, it’s Hachi Ramen. (It’s my lunchtime go-to. I always order the Tan Tan ramen). Hachi is on the same block as Mister A’s and CUCINA urbana.
The Adams Avenue corridor includes several neighborhoods that all have great, and local, food and beverage establishments. I live in Kensington, the first “suburb” in San Diego, which was subdivided in 1910. It’s home to palm tree lined streets, 1920s California bungalows and Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant. It’s at Ponce’s where you will get the best margarita in town — I promise. Sit on the patio, order an enchilada combo plate or a burrito and a margarita, and then pretend you’re a local. Hey, you may even see me walking my pup, “BB” (be sure to invite us for a drink!). Across the street from Ponce’s is the one remaining single screen theater in San Diego, Landmark’s Ken Cinema. It features independent and classic films. Heading west on Adams Avenue, you get to Normal Heights, where you’ll find Blind Lady Ale House, which is consistently rated among the top brewpubs in the country. They even have their own microbrewery, “Automatic,” in the back. The food is exceptional. Jaynes Gastropub on 30th Street near Adams is locally owned and a no-brainer for a great dinner and superb service, especially on their back patio (make a reservation). Across the street from Jaynes is Polite Provisions, a cocktail bar where you will be taken back in time to the era of the sophisticated cocktail. Finish off your evening at An’s Dry Cleaning, a Zagat-rated homemade small batch gelato shop housed in a former dry cleaning shop (open until 11 p.m.). If you don’t have a sweet tooth, then head a block or two south on 30th Street from Jaynes and visit Fall, another of the many great local breweries. Be sure to check out the bathrooms, which are decorated with hundreds of old punk rock flyers from the early ’80s. They’ll usually have a food truck out front to help with hunger. Oh, and the beer is pretty good too. Be sure to tell Dave that Chacho sent you! All the places listed in Normal Heights are within a three-block walk, so Lyft there and then let your feet guide the way.
Heading south, 30th Street bisects El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue. The 30th Street corridor has become a dining and shopping destination. This area is known as North Park. As you travel south down 30th, you’ll eventually get to South Park. Both North Park and South Park are very vibrant and old neighborhoods. The old North Park Theater (now known as “The Observatory North Park”) first opened in 1929 and is now a concert venue with musical acts to fit most any taste. If you decide to see a show at The Observatory, enjoy a pre-concert dinner at Saiko Sushi across the street. Their unusual rolls have delighted diners like me since they opened in North Park in 2014. Of course, it’s San Diego, so there are tacos. Among the best taco places in that neighborhood is City Tacos. As you make your way around North Park, there are several eateries, shops and bars. Of note for food are The Smoking Goat, One Door North and Underbelly. For drinks, try Modern Times Beer, Live Wire (a true dive bar with a great jukebox) and Bar Pink. Visit Tiger!Tiger! on El Cajon Boulevard for wood-fired oven-roasted sandwiches. Tiger!Tiger! is really, really good — so good, in fact, that I understand a certain MSA chapter will be hosting its chapter dinner there! For the vegetarian and vegan foodies, South Park’s Kindred is a must. It’s a heavy metal vegan must-do. Great cocktails, hardcore décor and delicious food — all really good and vegetarian. Across the street is Buona Forchetta, which has absolutely amazing Italian fare. A wood-fired homemade pizza oven creates among the best pizzas in town. Make a reservation to sit on the front patio. For shopping, try Pigment for gifts, The Book Catapult for books and gifts, Artelexia for unique Mexican crafts and decor, and Simply Local, which has seemingly endless options for handmade and local products, all from local artisans.
I can’t possibly include everything that makes me happy about San Diego. It’s a great town to explore. I didn’t even mention Cabrillo National Monument and its tide pools located in Point Loma. On the other side of Point Loma is Liberty Station where the Mingei International Museum has its temporary store while their huge museum remodeling project takes place in Balboa Park. Visit the Mingei store, then head to the exceptional Liberty Station food court. Maybe even pay a visit to Fathom Bistro, Bait, and Tackle on a pier off of Shelter Island. It’s a fishing pier, so they do sell bait and tackle, but their specialty is their homemade (yup, made on the pier) artisanal sausages and rare beers. Sit on the pier, sip a beer with a nibble and enjoy an incredibly beautiful view across the bay toward downtown San Diego. And if you want authentic tiki, there is the Bali Hai Restaurant, which is also on Shelter Island. There’s so much, and I didn’t even mention hikes in Torrey Pines State Reserve, walks on the beach in Coronado and the Hotel Del Coronado, San Diego’s Old Town — a cultural center with many great places to visit, and Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala in Mission Valley, which was founded 250 years ago this year. So, now that you’ve read through this entire post, your job is to — in between meetings, roundtable discussions, seminars and shopping — get out and explore all that this great city has to offer. See you soon!
Chacho Herman is a native San Diegan and associate director of earned income at the San Diego Museum of Art. Herman has over 30 years of cultural commerce experience. When not working, he and his wife can be found playing fetch on Coronado Beach with his dog, BB, or exploring the deserts and beaches of Baja.