Opinion: A good dining experience in San Diego doesn’t need to break the bank

Union-Tribune reporter Lauren J. Mapp dining out in San Diego.
Me, dining out at Encontro North Park in San Diego. Peter Hefti

There are restaurants that cover cuisine styles from near and far, ones suited for casual attire or your Sunday bests, and menu that fall into a wide array of price categories to accommodate diners of all budget levels.

But when it comes to accolades like Michelin star allocations and “best of San Diego” lists, all too often restaurant critics pick spots that are out of the price range for many.

Although eating at an incredible, expensive restaurant can be a special treat for when you’re in a celebratory mood, there are also so many places in San Diego on the lower end of the price spectrum that can be just as amazing.

Gelati & Peccati

On University Avenue in North Park, nestled into a tiny storefront, lies one of my all time favorite restaurants: Gelati & Peccati. This restaurant under the Buona Forchetta family serves Roman-style pizzas that aren’t what you’d typically see at a pizza-by-the-slice restaurant.

The Roman-style pizzas at Gelati & Peccati are some of the most delicious — and most creative — slices in San Diego.
Lauren J. Mapp

The fluffy, focaccia style portions are cut into rectangles, not triangles, and while the specialties vary by day, they often include ingredients that you don’t often see at other restaurants. There’s the lasagna, sliced turkey and raspberry jam, eggplant, zucchini flowers, fennel and oranges, pears, cacio e pepe. Gelati & Peccati even got me to enjoy mortadella, an Italian sausage or lunch meat made with pork, port fat and pistachios.

Equally as delicious is its selection of gelato with flavors like honey lavender, Peruvian chocolate, Lemon-basil-ginger, and tiramisu.

My personal favorite lives up to its name lussuria (Italian for “lust”) with its crown of prosciutto, smashed potatoes and truffle oil, and it easily tastes more upscale than its $4.50 menu price.

Pomegranate

Walking into Pomegranate on El Cajon Boulevard feels like entering into one of the ruin bars of Budapest. The yellow walls are covered in marker-scribed messages, and each table has an ornate lamp on it akin to something you’d find in your great aunt’s living room.

With it’s menu of Georgian and Russian cuisine, Pomegranate serves some of the best comfort food in San Diego with some of the most reasonable menu prices. Even the complimentary bread and compound herb butter that are served before the meal are worth writing home about. I recommend ordering a cup of the beef or vegetarian version of the borscht soup to start, followed by any of the dumplings (especially the pelmeni or the broth-filled soup dumplings, when available).

For a main course, I highly recommend the golubsti, or ground meat stuffed cabbage rolls dressed with a tomato-carrot sauce and sour cream (served with rice and roasted potato) or the beef stroganoff. Although many of the dinner plates fall in the $20 range, the generous portion sizes often mean you get to take home some leftovers.

White Rice at Liberty Public Market

Before working for the Union-Tribune, I had a long career in the restaurant during my college years working as a server and bartender. While I worked at many different spots in San Diego, my favorite would have to be the experience of working behind the craft cocktail bar — Mess Hall — at Liberty Public Market.

Nearly two years after making my transition into the newsroom full-time, and LPM is the only former workplace I still visit because of its ever-evolving lineup of eclectic restaurants. The market is perfect for when your group is undecided about what they want to eat, or if you want east several different styles of food, and most of the restaurants serve dishes that are under $15.

Recently, I tried White Rice for the first time and fell in love with the bowls, especially the Lechon Kawali with atchara pickles, egg, fluffy garlic rice topped with a miraculously crispy yet tender slab of pork belly — I loved it so much that I went back again a week later for more. I also recommend the Lumpia Shanghai made with pork, shrimp and vegetables, and if it’s in stock, the ube pandesal.

After picking up your dish, grab a drink at Bottlecraft, then head to the patio to devour your meal as planes fly overhead. 


A version of this story was first published in The San Diego Union-Tribune online on Oct. 5, 2020.

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