The rise and rise of San Diego's Cali-Baja cuisine

New wave of cooking: Galaxy Taco's Baja fish tacos.
New wave of cooking: Galaxy Taco's Baja fish tacos. Photo: Supplied

It all began with the humble fish taco. According to popular lore, it was during the '70s that American surfers catching waves south of the border discovered the tasty Baja Californian street snack, returning year after year to devour this simple and delicious offering of the sea.

Among the devotees was college student Ralph Rubio, who in 1983 borrowed his favourite vendor's recipe and opened a taco stand in the southern Californian city of San Diego.

The rest, as they say, is culinary history. The fish taco now sits alongside the hamburger as an American staple, while Rubio's is a multimillion-dollar empire, with the 200-store chain spawning a distinctive food culture now synonymous with San Diego – Cali-Baja cuisine.

Galaxy Taco's chef de cuisine Christine Rivera.
Galaxy Taco's chef de cuisine Christine Rivera. Photo: Supplied

In broad terms, Cali-Baja is a subtle fusion of the traditional Mexican and Mediterranean influences associated with Mexico's Baja Peninsula and the abundant, fresh produce of southern California, with a slew of young, innovative chefs finessing local flavours and elevating the cuisine above its fast food roots.

Location, of course, is paramount: occupying a narrow, fertile strip between the desert and the Pacific Ocean, San Diego County is blessed by the bounty of both land and sea, boasting a thriving fishing industry as well as more small farms than any other county in America. Local restaurants can draw on an abundance of seasonal, organic produce, with family-run plots such as the legendary Chino Farm growing heirloom vegetables, herbs, microgreens and strawberries, as well as 60 per cent of California's avocado crop.

Also key is a respectful acknowledgement of San Diego's multicultural heritage and its contribution to the city's economy. Hispanics make up 32 per cent of the county's 3.3 million population, and unlike President Trump's derision of "bad hombres" from beyond the Rio Grande, the city considers its southern neighbour an ally, working together to promote a regional focus.

Galaxy Tacos, San Diego.
Galaxy Tacos, San Diego. Photo: Supplied

"My goal is to translate my appreciation of Mexican food through a San Diego lens," says leading chef Trey Foshee, the creative force behind the trailblazing Cali-Baja restaurant George's at the Cove and its more casual spin-off, Galaxy Taco.

"We want to sit outside, we want to wear whatever we want, we prefer to eat with our hands, and we want a good drink. Right?"

Here are some of the best places to enjoy the burgeoning San Diego restaurant scene, from high-end dining to cheap and cheerful.

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Galaxy Taco

Opened in 2015, Galaxy Taco leads a new wave of restaurants redefining the casual Mexican dining experience. Traditional dishes are given a playful, flavour-punched twist: Oaxacan crickets served with kale guacamole, orange, pickled pearl onions and lime; mussels steamed in Michelada (a spicy beer and lime cocktail); lengua (tongue) tacos served with coriander, onions and avocado salsa verde; and of course, a classic grilled fish taco with avocado mousse, chilli-lime crema, cabbage and pico de gallo (salsa fresca).

The secret to a good taco, according to chef de cuisine Christine Rivera – a semi-finalist in the Eater Young Guns 2016 – is in the masa (flour), which she creates daily from hand-ground heirloom blue corn sourced from single-origin farms in Oaxaca, Mexico.

"We store it, we cook it, we process it, we grind it – all here in house," says Rivera, known as the "maven of masa". "It's a 24-hour process, which is why it's easier to buy it from the store. But you can definitely feel the difference in texture and flavour with the homemade tortillas."

Red wine-braised beef short rib, Anson Mills polenta and roasted torpedo onion at A.R. Valentien, San Diego.
Red wine-braised beef short rib, Anson Mills polenta and roasted torpedo onion at A.R. Valentien, San Diego. Photo: Supplied

Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar

Located in the culinary hotspot of Little Italy – the traditional home of San Diego's tuna industry – Ironside Fish and Oyster Bar champions the fishermen who haul in the catch of the day, crediting them on the ever-changing menu.

"A lot of the fish is still flopping when it arrives here," two Michelin-star chef Jason McLeod jokes as we tuck into seafood caught under strict quotas and via ethical techniques. "We want to showcase fishermen as they are the heart and soul of this neighbourhood, an integral part of Little Italy."

Offerings include raw bar oysters, rock fish ceviche, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and octopus resembling the mythical kraken of the deep. The daily catch may include sea bass, yellowtail, swordfish and even the controversial thresher shark, which McLeod insists is sustainably caught in San Diegan waters.

Ironside Fish & Oyster, Little Italy, San Diego.
Ironside Fish & Oyster, Little Italy, San Diego. Photo: Julie Miller

AR Valentien at Torrey Pines Lodge

When discussing the evolution of San Diego's food scene, one name keeps recurring: Jeff Jackson. Now executive chef at luxury resort Torrey Pines Lodge's signature restaurant, classically French-trained Jackson is credited as a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, utilising seasonal fare in a menu celebrating the abundance of the south-west.

Jackson is also the driving force behind one of San Diego's most popular gourmet events, the annual Celebrate the Craft food and wine festival, where leading chefs are paired with local farmers to create seasonal concoctions on the spot for a ravenous, receptive crowd.

Puesto La Jolla

The colourful La Jolla outlet of Puesto celebrates the art of Mexican street food with fresh, organic produce seasoned with Cali-Baja flavours. Mexico City-born chef Luisteen Gonzalez's seafood-rich menu includes delectable ceviches and a blue-crab guacamole, while the selection of tacos – all made from scratch in an open kitchen – feature dishes such as roasted chayote (choko) in adobo verde; zucchini and cactus; seared ahi tuna and Maine lobster.

Puesto La Jolla.
Puesto La Jolla. Photo: Julie Miller

An impressive beverage menu – including local San Diego brews, wines from Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe and a mind-boggling list of tequilas and mezcals – enhances the fiesta ambience, with the aim of recreating a trip to Mexico, sans passport.

Cucina Urbana

Illustrating the broadness of the Cali-Baja concept is this California-inspired Italian kitchen and wine shop near Balboa Park. Executive chef Joe Magnanelli is a vocal champion of the farm-to-table movement, his menu reflecting seasonal availability with an emphasis on affordability – think zucchini blossoms stuffed with lemon ricotta, roast beet and fig salad, and squid ink campanelle.

Originally from the east coast, where he trained in some of Washington DC's finest restaurants, Magnanelli headed west to warmer climes in 2003, quickly establishing his reputation as one of the leading lights in the growing culinary hub.

California-inspired Italian kitchen and wine shop Cucina Urbana.
California-inspired Italian kitchen and wine shop Cucina Urbana. Photo: Julie Miller

"Oh man, the San Diego food scene is totally different now," he says. "When I came here in 2003, there were only four or five places to eat. Now the competition is incredible in this neighbourhood, Little Italy, North Park. The dynamic has really changed. We have the restaurants and the talent, and big name chefs now make a beeline here. It's a discerning food clientele."

Julie Miller travelled as a guest of San Diego Tourism.

DETAILS

Galaxy Taco, 2259 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla, galaxytaco.com

Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar, 1654 India Street, San Diego, ironsidefishandoyster.com

AR Valentien, 11480 Torrey Pines Road, San Diego, lodgetorreypines.com/ar-valentien

Puesto La Jolla, 1026 Wall Street, La Jolla, eatpuesto.com

Cucina Urbana, 505 Laurel Street, San Diego, urbankitchengroup.com