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Tahini

15 Essential Spots for Affordable Eats in San Diego

Find everything from bánh mi and shawarma to tacos and vegan eats

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It might sound counterintuitive, but San Diego is full of restaurants, cafés, and take-out counters where you can get a meal (and tip your server) without overspending. From North County to the South Bay, we’ve rounded up 15 iconic and under-the-radar spots for affordable eats in San Diego.

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; the latest data about the delta variant indicates that it may pose a low-to-moderate risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial transmission. The latest CDC guidance is here; find a COVID-19 vaccination site here.

Note: entries on this map are listed geographically.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Pho Truc Xanh

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At this Escondido spot where people come for brothy phở, they’re delightfully surprised by the complementary cup of egg drop soup and return for friendly service. The sprawling menu combines Vietnamese specialities like bánh mì sandwiches, with Chinese dishes like lo mein noodles and crispy ginger chicken. Max out the spice factor for an additional $1.50 per order. Most entrees run $13 to $15.

Bowl of beef broth pho.
Pho Truc Xanh
Yelp

Sipz Clairemont

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With locations in Clairemont, La Jolla, and North Park, this go-to spot offers up vegetarian and vegan Asian-inspired dishes like drunken noodles or pad thai with the choice of meatless proteins like tofu, “chicken,” and “shrimp.” They also offer a range of vegan desserts from brownies and cookies in flavors like ube and pandan, to Thai sweet rice with mango. Its Clairemont and North Park locations also serve a vegan sushi menu.

Tahini’s built-to-order offerings span hefty bowls, sandwiches, and salads that for some double as next day’s lunch. The Middle Eastern street food, fast casual spot in Kearny Mesa carves same day spit-roasted shawarma, made-to-order falafel, and pita bread that’s baked every hour.

Shawarma bowl with fried halloumi and dipping sauces. Tahini

Hinotez

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Classic Japanese dishes like yakitori, ramen, udon, and rice dishes grace the menu at this Kearny Mesa restaurant. Currently open for dinner and late night dining (‘til midnight Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m, all other days) seven days a week, Hinotez accommodates large parties and accepts reservations. Dine-in parties order from tablets, and the restaurant also fields online orders.

Phuong Trang

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Though Phuong Trang serves up more than two hundred dishes (from noodles, soups, and rice dishes), its eight styles of beef broth-based phở stand out. Go meatless for $7.95, add steak or beef meatballs for $10.95, or for $12.50 opt for shrimp. Vegetarians might order the tofu with lemongrass and hot peppers, or the vermicelli noodle bowl with vegetarian egg rolls served with fresh mint.

Homestyle Hawaiian Restaurant

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Classic island-style dishes are well-priced at this mini-chain. From its numerous locations, including in Oceanside, Tierrasanta, and Pacific Beach, find plate lunches from $8.95 that all come with a side of steamed rice and macaroni (or green) salad. Try the Kalua pig, lava chicken, or seared ahi sandwich with alfalfa sprouts. For something sweet: Pineapple Dole whip.

Ali Baba Family Restaurant

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El Cajon is home to one of the largest Middle Eastern communities in the county, and the area benefits from no shortage of restaurants like Ali Baba. The restaurant has served halal food since 2002, from Iraqi dishes and more such as lamb Tashreeb, eggplant-based baba ghanouj, and masgouf, a grilled fish dish. Its family feasts serve up to ten people and include various numbers of kebabs, salad, rice, and hummus.

The Original Sab-E-Lee

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This ever-popular Thai restaurant has locations in Linda Vista, Rancho Peñasquitos, and Santee. Here, people zero in on (Northeastern) style Thai curries and papaya salad with most dishes, from larb to noodles and fried rice dishes under $15. A cash-only establishment for years, Sab-E-Lee now accepts Visa and Mastercard.

Ben & Esther's Vegan Jewish Deli

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The once omnivorous turned completely vegan deli serves bagels (gluten-free options too), bagel and deli sandwiches on marble rye bread, and rotating soup specials from its newish outpost in the College area. Or stock up on by the pound items including whitefish made from hearts of palm, chicken salad, and stuffed knishes and potato latkes sold per piece. The Reuben sandwich and potato salad are fan favorites. 

Minh Ky Restaurant

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Generous portions and accessible prices make this City Heights staple a reliable place for affordable eats. Braised duck, crispy egg noodles with mixed vegetables, and barbecue pork lo mein are among the most popular items here. Chinese specialties skew Cantonese style, though you’ll also find Vietnamese options.

A Chau Restaurant

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The Vietnamese fried egg rolls from A Chau have achieved cult-like status amongst those in the know. They sell for about $1 per roll. Note: It’s cash only.

Lucky's Breakfast

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Remember to bring cash for a full breakfast ($6 to $9) and free coffee refills at this iconic North Park diner where proprietor “Lucky” has been cooking and serving breakfast most days of week for more than 40 years.

Las Cuatro Milpas

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Line up (an inevitable activity here) on any given day for well-loved housemade tortillas and Mexican street food staples — think pork tacos and tamales, rolled tacos, chorizo with eggs, and rice and beans. Bring cash, and an appetite.

El Carrito Restaurant

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Find at least five different styles of chilaquiles in this former 1930s cable car turned go-to breakfast spot in Barrio Logan. Most plates are priced under $12 and come with potatoes and refried beans. Pancakes, molletes, tortas, burritos and sopes also make the menu. Don’t forget a cup of spiced, citrusy café de olla. 

Spiro’s Greek Café

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Coronado-based Greek restaurant Spiro’s serves Mediterranean options from platters to salads and family-style meals. For example, a salmon platter will run $23 and comes with a choice of rice pilaf or fries, a side Greek salad, pita and tzatziki. Family-style meals feed four people, come with sides, and range from $44 to $55; choose the lamb and beef, or chicken gyro; or beef, lamb, or chicken kabobs. The family-run restaurant also welcomed a La Jolla location in Fall 2020.

Pho Truc Xanh

Bowl of beef broth pho.
Pho Truc Xanh
Yelp

At this Escondido spot where people come for brothy phở, they’re delightfully surprised by the complementary cup of egg drop soup and return for friendly service. The sprawling menu combines Vietnamese specialities like bánh mì sandwiches, with Chinese dishes like lo mein noodles and crispy ginger chicken. Max out the spice factor for an additional $1.50 per order. Most entrees run $13 to $15.

Bowl of beef broth pho.
Pho Truc Xanh
Yelp

Sipz Clairemont

With locations in Clairemont, La Jolla, and North Park, this go-to spot offers up vegetarian and vegan Asian-inspired dishes like drunken noodles or pad thai with the choice of meatless proteins like tofu, “chicken,” and “shrimp.” They also offer a range of vegan desserts from brownies and cookies in flavors like ube and pandan, to Thai sweet rice with mango. Its Clairemont and North Park locations also serve a vegan sushi menu.

Tahini

Shawarma bowl with fried halloumi and dipping sauces. Tahini

Tahini’s built-to-order offerings span hefty bowls, sandwiches, and salads that for some double as next day’s lunch. The Middle Eastern street food, fast casual spot in Kearny Mesa carves same day spit-roasted shawarma, made-to-order falafel, and pita bread that’s baked every hour.

Shawarma bowl with fried halloumi and dipping sauces. Tahini

Hinotez

Classic Japanese dishes like yakitori, ramen, udon, and rice dishes grace the menu at this Kearny Mesa restaurant. Currently open for dinner and late night dining (‘til midnight Friday and Saturday, 10 p.m, all other days) seven days a week, Hinotez accommodates large parties and accepts reservations. Dine-in parties order from tablets, and the restaurant also fields online orders.

Phuong Trang

Though Phuong Trang serves up more than two hundred dishes (from noodles, soups, and rice dishes), its eight styles of beef broth-based phở stand out. Go meatless for $7.95, add steak or beef meatballs for $10.95, or for $12.50 opt for shrimp. Vegetarians might order the tofu with lemongrass and hot peppers, or the vermicelli noodle bowl with vegetarian egg rolls served with fresh mint.

Homestyle Hawaiian Restaurant

Classic island-style dishes are well-priced at this mini-chain. From its numerous locations, including in Oceanside, Tierrasanta, and Pacific Beach, find plate lunches from $8.95 that all come with a side of steamed rice and macaroni (or green) salad. Try the Kalua pig, lava chicken, or seared ahi sandwich with alfalfa sprouts. For something sweet: Pineapple Dole whip.

Ali Baba Family Restaurant

El Cajon is home to one of the largest Middle Eastern communities in the county, and the area benefits from no shortage of restaurants like Ali Baba. The restaurant has served halal food since 2002, from Iraqi dishes and more such as lamb Tashreeb, eggplant-based baba ghanouj, and masgouf, a grilled fish dish. Its family feasts serve up to ten people and include various numbers of kebabs, salad, rice, and hummus.

The Original Sab-E-Lee

This ever-popular Thai restaurant has locations in Linda Vista, Rancho Peñasquitos, and Santee. Here, people zero in on (Northeastern) style Thai curries and papaya salad with most dishes, from larb to noodles and fried rice dishes under $15. A cash-only establishment for years, Sab-E-Lee now accepts Visa and Mastercard.

Ben & Esther's Vegan Jewish Deli

The once omnivorous turned completely vegan deli serves bagels (gluten-free options too), bagel and deli sandwiches on marble rye bread, and rotating soup specials from its newish outpost in the College area. Or stock up on by the pound items including whitefish made from hearts of palm, chicken salad, and stuffed knishes and potato latkes sold per piece. The Reuben sandwich and potato salad are fan favorites. 

Minh Ky Restaurant

Generous portions and accessible prices make this City Heights staple a reliable place for affordable eats. Braised duck, crispy egg noodles with mixed vegetables, and barbecue pork lo mein are among the most popular items here. Chinese specialties skew Cantonese style, though you’ll also find Vietnamese options.

A Chau Restaurant

The Vietnamese fried egg rolls from A Chau have achieved cult-like status amongst those in the know. They sell for about $1 per roll. Note: It’s cash only.

Lucky's Breakfast

Remember to bring cash for a full breakfast ($6 to $9) and free coffee refills at this iconic North Park diner where proprietor “Lucky” has been cooking and serving breakfast most days of week for more than 40 years.

Las Cuatro Milpas

Line up (an inevitable activity here) on any given day for well-loved housemade tortillas and Mexican street food staples — think pork tacos and tamales, rolled tacos, chorizo with eggs, and rice and beans. Bring cash, and an appetite.

El Carrito Restaurant

Find at least five different styles of chilaquiles in this former 1930s cable car turned go-to breakfast spot in Barrio Logan. Most plates are priced under $12 and come with potatoes and refried beans. Pancakes, molletes, tortas, burritos and sopes also make the menu. Don’t forget a cup of spiced, citrusy café de olla. 

Spiro’s Greek Café

Coronado-based Greek restaurant Spiro’s serves Mediterranean options from platters to salads and family-style meals. For example, a salmon platter will run $23 and comes with a choice of rice pilaf or fries, a side Greek salad, pita and tzatziki. Family-style meals feed four people, come with sides, and range from $44 to $55; choose the lamb and beef, or chicken gyro; or beef, lamb, or chicken kabobs. The family-run restaurant also welcomed a La Jolla location in Fall 2020.