It’s not always the easiest thing to find time to eat when you’re a busy college student, but sometimes you need to take a break from leftovers and tear yourself away from the usual cafeteria food and brown bag staples and treat yourself. (Food is nourishment for the soul is a popular saying for a reason, you know?)
We encourage you to move beyond the cafeteria and usual fast food places near campus and towards the food scene surrounding City College. Downtown San Diego has become a food mecca in it own right, with restaurants that are both affordable, inventive, and most importantly, really tasty. Here are some of our favorites. We promise you’ll find something to please your palette.
A Middle Eastern take on what they’re eating across the pond
By Jennifer Manalili
The Kebab Shop
630 9th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
(between G Street and Market Street in East Village)
If you’ve watched “Marvel’s The Avengers,” you’ll know about Iron Man Tony Stark’s recent fascination with shawarma, a form of Middle Eastern meat preparation that includes meat fire-roasted on a pit on what looks like a vertical rotisserie. Joints that offer shawarma and kebabs are uniquely popular to Europe, as popular as hamburgers are on this side of the pond.
The Kebab Shop (located in the East Village) boasts that it’s the first European kebab shop of its kind in the U.S. If what they’re offering is a unique peek at what European diners are enjoying, then we’re definitely missing out (and equally thankful to them for sharing).
The doner kebab is a menu highlight, like a Turkish spin on a burrito and close relative of the gyro, with flatbread in place of a tortilla and stuffed with your choice of beef (we went with the succulent lamb) and a salad made of cucumber, tomato and a flavorful dill sauce. Alternately, the restaurant also offers flavorful seafood, such as salmon and Moroccan shrimp shish kebabs served with your choice of two sides. Shawarma sandwiches and rotisserie plates called iskender kebabs round out the menu.
The portion sizes are huge, a welcome surprise to accompany their affordable price tags. (The most expensive menu item is $10.99.) Condiments are welcome here. All orders come with a red sauce (reminiscent of a spicy cocktail sauce) and a cool garlic yogurt sauce for dipping or slathering onto your respective food of choice. The side dishes are plentiful and the choices are many, including Greek salad, falafel, orzo salad, green lentils with walnuts, saffron rice, french fries and hummus amongst many others. The restaurant even offers gluten-free options as well as a short of list of desserts that includes baklava.
The vibe here is very chill with plenty of seating room, though wait times can peak around the hurried lunchtime hour with many customers opting to run in and order out. The staff is kind and cheery, courteous and helpful. The restaurant even offers a catering menu, and discounts are available through their Yelp app and joining their Doner Club mailing list. For an affordable and delicious taste of what another part of the world has to offer, you simply can’t go wrong here.
Rustic meatballs (or what is a tapa exactly?)
By Mark Elliott
455 10th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
(between Island Avenue and J Street in East Village)
Rustic is able to win over customers the instant they see the blue and purple chairs in their den. Their employees are always encouraging, telling visitors to take a load off, relax, and while you’re here, “Please draw on the walls.” Take a seat in those chairs; and you may think sitting there — “Will the waitress be willing to serve food in that den?”
As an ’80s keyboard plays a reggae half step on the house radio, it feels no different from being at a kickback at home. Sink into the intimate atmosphere, converse with a friend, or hopefully a foxy date, and when UB40 sings “The Red Red wine goes straight to my head!” — so will the impression Rustic leaves on you.
Rustic’s meatballs are a recipe that had to have been penciled in a page of a family cookbook decades ago. This is the kind of comfort food you see moms on TV preparing as a snack. Keeping to the cookbook mentality, there are variations to the signature dish, traditional meatball, burrito, beef and soy chorizo too.
The mussels were so well prepared and persevered. The tender little claim dwellers were bathed in a wine sauce that was so nourishing and blissful in all of their organic sun dried tomato glory. It’ll make requesting an entire side plate of bread for dipping seem not odd at all.
Alesmith’s nut-brown ale is perfect in potency, forcing a drinker to sip and let that stoic drunk feeling slowly be known. Crossed with the Bordeaux Merlot’s, the buzz evens out nicely.
Mentioning a place that serves fancy wine and cheeses with names that are hard to pronounce may make some people shy away from hearing about what Rustic has to offer, but trust that this isn’t above your pay grade. Here’s the kicker, dear budget planning readers: This place has been made with savings in mind. That’s right, for us students trying to rub two quarters hoping to make it a buck.
“I wanted to have a place where students could come get quality food, at a price that doesn’t take too much from them,” says owner Loris Compiano.
Before an eater or fancier of wine finishes, the waitress, like a cool parent, encourages Rustic’s guests to draw on its bare walls, using chalk matching those chairs they have in the den. You’ll see that many visitors take Rustic up on that offer. This place sends a message and though it’s not written on the walls, it’s easy to read: just be here and be comfortable in these rustic settings.
A taste of East meets West
By Jennifer Manalili
J.Wok — Asian Modern Eatery
744 Market St.
San Diego, CA 92101
(between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave. in East Village)
The rise of the popularity of Asian fusion food in recent years can be traced back to chef Roy Choi, who gained prominence with his invention of the Kogi taco, a Korean barbecue taco that he went about selling through gourmet food trucks in Los Angeles. Since then, the popularity of fusion food, which entails fusing two different kinds of cultures of food together, has been on the rise.
J.Wok Asian Modern Eatery is just the right restaurant to bring this flavor of food to the city.
Opened in 2009, the restaurant has become a welcome addition to downtown, where good Asian food can be admittedly hard to find. The food is affordable and surprising, with a location that is relaxing and a staff that is polite and attentive. (It’s worth the trip just to see their famous chopstick tree.)
The menu offers impressively large entree plates that range from kung pao chicken to spicy yellow and red curry and other dishes, all served with a side of white or brown rice and a salad. Standalone dishes include their tasty shrimp pad thai (they also offer chicken, beef and tofu) and salmon fried rice.
The holy grail of their fusion menu is the “Korean bbq philly cheese steak,” a large sandwich filled with grilled ribeye cooked in flavors reminiscent of bulgogi, sauteed green and red bell peppers, onions and melted jack cheese, served with a side of french fries or potato salad. It’s the delicious embodiment of what happens when East meets West.
The appetizer and drink menu is not to be ignored, either. The pork and scallion gyozas (or dumplings) are served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce that makes it a perfect and surprisingly filling meal all on its own. The location also offers an extensive beer and wine menu, but their inventiveness stretches into their non-alcoholic flavors, and their delicious passionfruit iced tea and Thai tea with boba drinks.
For a delicious peek into different Asian cultures and a modern take on their cuisines, J.Wok is not to be missed.
The South-ern cuisine will rise again!
By Mark Elliott
Acme Southern Kitchen
901 E St.
San Diego, CA 92101
(between 10th Ave. and 9th Ave.)
While some diners may be disappointed that this isn’t quite the ACME associated with catching that damn running bird, many will be delighted that the restaurant does offer a southern kitchen that rivals any backwoods home meal down the Mason Dixon line. Lucky for readers, though, it won’t be necessary to take that long trek down south, as Acme Southern Kitchen is located just seven blocks away from San Diego City College in sunny East Village.
The fried skin on each heavenly piece of chicken crunches and melts simultaneously, which is why anyone who knows the proper way to cook fried chicken will explain why it’s best to bread it, rather than oil fry. The side dishes are all interesting in their own right. The collard greens are perfect: in between bites, you’ll be sucking the juices out of each soaking leaf. The macaroni and cheese delivers nice bursts of peppered flavor crystals along with a flaky crust infused into the cheese.
Acme’s Texas chili is all about big Texas flavors. It’s meaty and spicy, and best to be savored and not eaten too fast. See, once the bold flavor settles is when that five-alarm chili spice creeps in. Be sure to have a glass of sweet tea readily available.
Now if the fried chicken or chill doesn’t give eaters a heart attack, with it’s big portions then seeing the prices for these large plates might do the heart stopping trick. Granted, although the wallet will take a big hit, the food is beyond worth it.
The restaurant is in character to the tee as a Southern cuisine place. They went so far as to have roosters on walls, paintings of little houses on a prairie, and offering fried green tomatoes on the menu. The waiters are gallant gentlemen who make sure to top off drinks every five minutes.
One last word of advice to anyone eating at Acme: do not operate any heavy machinery afterward in case of potential food coma.