When people think of San Diego, more often than not they think of beaches and tacos. This isn’t necessarily wrong: Sunshine and Mexican food come in large helpings in this Southern California city. Yet, there are many lesser-known gems waiting to be discovered—the cluster of vintage shops in Hillcrest, for instance, and Fathom Bistro, an eatery where one can fish while enjoying a burger and a brew. Here, five locals take us on a tour of their city, each highlighting the wonderful aspects that don’t always make it into the guidebooks.
Soni Lopez-Chavez, 38
When Soni Lopez-Chavez co-founded La Bodega six years ago—in an old tortilla factory in Barrio Logan—the surrounding area had such a bad reputation that taxi drivers would refuse to go there. Since then, the gallery has become a hugely popular destination, helping transform Barrio Logan into the bright and buzzy neighborhood it is today. “People come, they see the art and they get inspired,” Lopez-Chavez says, sitting at a makeshift desk in the middle of her gallery at 10 a.m. “Then they walk out and they want to eat, they want to drink, they want to shop.”
Located south of San Diego’s busy downtown, Barrio Logan feels like another world. “It’s an art community now,” Lopez-Chavez says. A temporary exhibit of more than 100 artworks with a comic-book theme hangs on the spacious white walls of the gallery. We step outside and smell the carne asada and carnitas being prepped for lunch at ¡Salud!, a popular taco destination next door. As we walk south along Logan Avenue, Lopez-Chavez points to a corrugated steel wall daubed with Day-Glo Frida Kahlo eyebrows—just one of the many street art projects that have brightened the neighborhood. “Every single mural has a story to tell,” she says, growing even more animated as we approach a warehouse. “I need to show you the front of this building—it’s so rad!”
The building in question is an old warehouse covered with vivid murals. Inside is La Pulga Flea Market, which overflows with crafts, clothing and jewelry the second Saturday of every month during the Barrio Art Crawl, a day when local artists open their studios and food vendors flood the streets. “It’s my favorite day each month,” Lopez-Chavez says. “It’s so neat to see everyone out supporting one another.”
On National Ave., we stop at Cafe Moto, a fashionable coffee shop and roastery. Around the back, we spy sacks of beans from Kenya, Costa Rica and Colombia awaiting their trip to the roaster, then head to the counter to sample the goods. “You ready for tomorrow?” a young barista says to Lopez-Chavez, referring to an upcoming show at her gallery. “I’m definitely coming!”
From here, we loop back around and continue in the opposite direction on Logan Avenue, a street abuzz with shops, restaurants and bars. To our left is Border X Brewing, which is known for its Latin jazz nights, and newcomer to the neighborhood Ciccia Osteria, a spot quickly becoming renowned for its delectable homemade pasta and homey atmosphere. “When I tell you it’s amazing,” Lopez-Chavez says of the Italian restaurant, “I mean, it’s just amazing!”
Despite its newfound status as a cool part of town, Barrio Logan has stayed true to the Chicano culture that dates back generations: The hip eatery Barrio Dogg heaps its dogs with pickled jicama and smoked paprika sesame seeds; Lopez-Chavez’s favorite local lunch spot, Las Cuatro Milpas, hasn’t changed its menu for three generations and commands theme-park lines for its rolled and crispy tacos; and at night, elote vendors roll their boiled corn in Flamin’ Hot Cheetos crumbs rather than chili powder. Mom-and-pop shops are still thriving, too, like the one selling traditional piñatas on the main drag.
A few minutes later, we arrive at Chicano Park, the heart and soul of the neighborhood (and a National Historic Landmark since 2017). Set beneath a lattice of raised freeways, their supports adorned with scores of vibrant murals, the park contains jungle gyms, a skate park and even a wood-framed sweat lodge. The space dates back to the 1960s, when local residents were displaced to make way for the I-5 freeway. The community was promised a park as compensation, but the city failed to deliver, so people took matters into their own hands and protested until they got Chicano. “I’m a very spiritual person, so I can truly feel the struggles they went through here to fight for the park,” Lopez-Chavez says.
“I feel joy when I come here, because I know it’s possible to fight for something and win.”
It was this fighting spirit, in part, that led Lopez-Chavez to open her gallery in a section of town that, at the time, seemed unsuited for it. Her own early struggles now inform the way she runs the place. At the end of our day together, we arrive at La Bodega to find three women knocking on the door. Lopez-Chavez apologizes, tells them she’s closed, then adds, “Well, you know what? Come on in anyway!” The women smile broadly, as if this is the best thing that has happened to them all day.
Rob Machado, 45
An important thing to know about Rob Machado, a renowned surfer and environmentalist, is that he rarely leaves Encinitas, a laid-back beach town just north of San Diego, where he has lived since he was a kid. “My bubble here is pretty tight,” he says. Machado doesn’t even like to go east of the freeway, which is only a mile from the coast. “I start sweating and get nervous,” he says with a laugh. “But really, this area is a little slice of heaven.”
We are in a courtyard at Sambazon Cafe, eating acai bowls piled with fruit and nuts. Teenagers ride by on bikes with boogie boards strapped to the back. They’re all wearing flip-flops, their hair tousled and salty. “No one is stuck up, you know?” Machado says of the local dress sense, which deems anything above swimwear to be formal. “No one cares if you roll in with sand on your feet and wet hair. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, right?”
Across the courtyard is Rimel’s, which Machado insists serves the best rotisserie chicken in town, and around the corner is Fish 101, where he gets his fish tacos. “We converge here—friends and neighbors,” he says. “We’ll come out here with a tribe of kids and watch them run around.” We finish our acai bowls and head to the nearby Cardiff Seaside Market, famous throughout San Diego for its marinated tri-tip beef, which locals say is addictive. “They have live music here sometimes,” says Machado, “a little jazz trio just jamming; it’s pretty cool.”
A few minutes from here is the San Elijo State Beach campground, a beachfront spot that’s so popular it tends to get booked up months in advance. “Can you imagine what this part of the coast would be like if it wasn’t a campground?” Machado says, noting it’d probably be dotted with mini mansions. “It’d be pretty crazy.” He and his family, when they hanker for an overnight, often come here to check for last-minute cancellations. “I try not to bank on it,” he says, “but sometimes we get lucky.”
After driving north for five minutes, we spot the white, gold-topped stucco towers of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a century-old yoga and meditation center, whose attractions include “Expansion of Consciousness” sessions and verdant winding gardens that offer spectacular views over the ocean’s craggy bluffs. “When we were kids and we saw the guys come down to the beach to meditate, we’d always try to make noises to see if they’d look,” he says. “We were such punk kids. Now, later on, it’s like, ‘Oh, they were onto something.’”
Next, we visit Machado’s wife, Sophie, who co-owns and runs Salt Culture, a boutique selling upscale surf gear, clothing and unique items from around the world. “They are all things that fit our lifestyle and beachy culture,” she says, pointing to some Indonesian bamboo purses and Machado’s own custom-designed surfboards. The shop also hosts occasional gatherings, including a movie night (surfer films, of course) on the back deck.
We’re not far from Swami’s, the beach where Machado learned to surf, but he wants to take me to Seaside Beach, his current go-to spot. He always arrives in his spray-painted brown van (nicknamed The Creeper). Along the way, you can catch the smell of fresh baked goods wafting from VG Donut & Bakery, a beloved local place that he used to visit as a kid. “In the mornings, there’s always a line out to the sidewalk,” he says. “My son now loves it—he always gets the chocolate with rainbow sprinkles.”
We look out over the beach, which is lined with seagull-proof trash cans Machado helped design, and beyond these an ocean whose rhythmic swelling and rising seems almost to have left him hypnotized. “That looks super fun,” he says finally. “Playground right there.”
Amanda Suter, 38
Vintage Clothing Dealer
With practiced, almost mechanical efficiency, Amanda Suter flips through a rack at Buffalo Exchange, a vintage and used clothing store in the artsy and progressive neighborhood of Hillcrest. The flipping stops when she gets to a gauzy orange dress. “Wow, this piece is from the ’20s,” she says. “That’s gnarly!”
Suter, known as Butch Wax Vintage to her 100,000-plus Instagram followers, collects, models, refurbishes and sells vintage pieces, many of which she finds in this diverse area just north of downtown, which is also where she lives. “There are so many hidden treasures right here,” she says of Fifth Avenue, where shops like Flashbacks, Luigi Vera and Lost and Found are clustered. She holds up the orange dress. “Look at that silhouette! The embroidery!”
Finally we head outside. Up and down Fifth Avenue, it seems every business flies a rainbow flag. Hillcrest, with its liberal and laissez-faire attitude, has long attracted artists and misfits. For Suter, who moved here in 1999, it is simply a place where she can be herself. “Where I grew up, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” she says. “I love that it’s so open here.” As a case in point, she tells me about The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who dress in drag while performing street theater and secular public services, and the many other lively events happening around town, including Showtunes Spaghetti Tuesdays at the hetero-friendly gay hotspot Urban MO’s Bar & Grill down the street. “That couldn’t happen anywhere else in San Diego.”
Suter’s retro sense of style—winged eyeliner, cherry-red lips and pinkish blond pixie ’do—is perfectly suited to Hillcrest’s old-school bars. Her favorites include Imperial Steakhouse and Martinis Above Fourth, on Fourth Avenue, which, as we approach, is in the throes of happy hour. “What a blast from the past,” Suter says as we take a seat in a black pleather booth next to neon lasers dancing on the wall. “The people-watching is out of control.” We each order a dirty martini as a singer belts out show-tune ballads from the stage. “Do you see that?” Suter says, referring to the singer. “A sequined blazer!”
The thing Suter most appreciates about Hillcrest is that the places she loves are within walking distance—spots like Mister A’s, a fine-dining establishment 12 floors up with a five-star view of the city skyline, and Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre green space housing the San Diego Zoo, various museums, restaurants and gardens, which is where we are off to now. We get to the park as sunset casts an orange glow on the glorious Spanish-colonial and neo-Renaissance buildings. “I just can’t get sick of this place,” Suter says, walking along a palm-lined promenade.
Before long, we come to Panama 66, a farm-to-table eatery inside a sculpture garden. “I’ve spent many evenings talking the night away with friends on the grass,” she says. A moment later, as if on cue, we spot a mariachi band performing on the arched stage of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. “I didn’t know this was happening today,” Suter says, “but I can’t say I’m surprised.”
Finally, we reach an old cactus garden that had been on her agenda all along. “Where are they?” she says under her breath. “There they are!” She points to a small cluster of feral but well-fed cats lounging in the dusk. “There’s always something special here,” Suter says, petting two heads at a time.
“Every visit is unique.”
Tommy Gomes, 58
It’s 11 in the morning and Tommy Gomes—a.k.a. Tommy the Fishmonger—is already well into his day. He started hours earlier, fishing for corvina sea bass and spotted bay bass, and then went to work filleting fish to supply local restaurants. Right now, he’s working the counter at Catalina Offshore Products, a sustainable retail and wholesale seafood market. The descendant of generations of fishermen, he is keen to show me how the lifestyle, in some areas, still exists to this day. “I’m so proud to be part of this heritage,” he says.
We head out of the market and drive onto the peninsula of Point Loma, also known at Tunaville, past a pocket of homes where there are still vestiges of the Portuguese fishing families who settled here—including his own, who arrived in 1892. He points to the front yards flashing by, many of them covered with cement. “It was like that because husbands weren’t around to take care of grass,” he says. Other telltale signs include garages that have been transformed into kitchens (“so it wouldn’t stink the house up”) and the ubiquitous grapevines out back.
Gomes knows the history of almost every house in this area. “Here,” he says, pointing to a white one-story, “Anthony Madruga had fish tanks filled with lobsters and sold them to the neighbors.” He has also had to watch as many of these old homes have been replaced by condos and malls. “I’m old-school,” he says. “I hate to see things torn down.”
We drive south for five minutes before we reach the pristine yachts and sailboats that line the mile-long strip of land that makes up Shelter Island, along with the eating and drinking establishments that cater to those who arrived in them: the tiki-themed Bali Hai restaurant, for instance, and the popular music venue Humphreys Concerts by the Bay. Gomes can still recall when the waterfront here was populated by fishermen. Until 1985, he tells me, San Diego supplied the bulk of the world’s tuna. “There were bustling markets everywhere,” he says. “It was a true working waterfront.”
This golden age is commemorated by the Tunaman’s Memorial, a bronze sculpture of three men reeling in a tuna with bamboo poles. Gomes stands before the statue reading out the names of the people he knew, listed under “founders” and “pioneers” of the industry. “I have a major sense of pride to be part of this,” he says, wiping his eyes. “The last great generation.”
From here, we stroll northeast a couple of minutes and head to the end of the Shelter Island pier, passing a handful of people fishing along the rails. Gomes nods to the eatery at the end. “This is such a badass little spot,” he says of the tiny blue structure with a few tables out front. Fathom Bistro, Bait, and Tackle, which can fit about 15 patrons at any one time, is decorated in nautical kitsch and boasts a great view. Gomes tells me that many locals aren’t even privy to this spot. Owner Dennis Borlek, who handmakes all the sausages and pours all the craft-brewed drafts on the menu, agrees. “When they come here, they’re like, ‘How did I not know about this?’”
“I come here to clear my head of flying monkeys,” Gomes says, looking out at the people standing with their poles. “We all get them as we get older.”
Heading farther south on the peninsula, we drive 20 minutes through woods and then the sprawling Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery before reaching Cabrillo National Monument, a statue and park commemorating Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast in 1542. Along with hikes, a lighthouse and tidal pools, there are also terrific views: the San Diego skyline ahead of us, the seemingly miniature boats below. “People save up all of their pennies to see this, the Pacific,” Gomes says, opening his arms out wide. “And we have it right here in our backyard.”
To end our excursion we head back to the Point Loma waterfront, just off Shelter Island, for lunch at Mitch’s Seafood. Fishermen clomp in wearing heavy rubber boots, nodding to Gomes as they pass by. We each get two piping hot tacos, made from the sea bass and halibut that Gomes had filleted for Mitch’s that very morning. “Things are changing here,” he says, cleaning his plate, “but this place hasn’t.”
Kiyoshi Shelton, 37
The first time Kiyoshi Shelton visited San Diego, in 2010, he spent all of his time in the Gaslamp Quarter, located in the heart of downtown and known for its stellar nightlife. “I didn’t go anywhere else,” says the Michigan-born hip-hop artist. “I was so amazed by these few blocks.” Within a year, he’d become a local. “It was always sunny, everyone was nice. And tacos!” he says. “I just knew I had to live here.”
One of the places Shelton spent his time during that trip was Float, an outdoor bar at the Hard Rock Hotel, where we are having a beer as the sun goes down over the vast maritime-inspired convention center and high-rises that make up the dense downtown. He recalls being especially impressed by the bar’s pool scene. “Great party spot,” he says. But, as the last nine years have made perfectly clear, Shelton’s affinity for this city is based on something more substantial than having fun. “I feel like being here really set me on the right path,” he says. That path is expressed in his music. (Kiyoshi is part of Buddha Music Group, a San Diego-based concious music collective.) His favorite lyric being, “I am the light.” To him, it means that no matter our color, creed or orientation, we are all the same at our core. “I want to raise the vibrations of the planet through art and music,” he says. “I want to uplift and inspire through my words.”
From Float, we head deeper into the Gaslamp Quarter, named after the 50 or so gas lamps situated throughout the 16-block area, distinguished by its Victorian architecture. It’s pumping with energy and noise, restaurant hosts are vying for the attention of hungry passersby, and street-side tables are packed with alfresco diners. Bicycle rickshaws doused in neon roll past while music spills out from restaurants and bars. “I enjoy observing the mayhem,” Shelton says, pointing out a few of his favorite clubs, such as Omnia, Atomic and Vin de Syrah, a subterranean lounge hidden behind a wall of faux foliage. “It gets crazy here.”
There are also bars with fun gimmicks like Trailer Park After Dark—which is fitted with plastic-covered sofas, shopping-cart barstools and milk-crate lighting fixtures — as well as more refined spots such as Searsucker, a New American eatery that pulls in the foodie crowd. “You can just find it all here in a very compact area,” says Shelton.
While he is generally busy either recording or performing—his favorite local music venues are Belly Up and Music Box—Shelton also finds time to offer private rap-coaching lessons. “I use rap as a tool,” he says, “to help people break through their fears, find their own voice and really shine in ways they aren’t used to.”
When his students graduate, he urges them to perform at one of the city’s open mic nights—his favorite is happening tonight at Queen Bee’s in North Park, a revitalized neighborhood packed with eateries, breweries, boutiques and nightspots. We take a short drive to the spacious venue and watch, in quick succession, a comedian, a slam poet and a rap duo. Between performances, Shelton shakes hands and hugs familiar faces. “They make me feel so inspired,” Shelton says as we head to find some food after the show. “I respect it so much—sharing those creative parts of themselves.”
After walking around the neighborhood for a while, we settle in at a hole-in-the-wall spot called The Burrito Station, which Shelton has never been to, and which tonight forms part of his ongoing quest to eat at every Mexican eatery in the city. He orders a California burrito stuffed with tangy carne asada and French fries. “This burrito had some light,” he says as we stand up to leave. “Lots of light for sure.”