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Foreground: A scoop of creamy looking ice cream in a pale off white color on a sugar cone, held by a hand. Background: the colorful patio of Cafeina Cafe in City Heights, San Diego.
Ice cream from Cafeina.
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Where to Dine and Drink in City Heights

The diversity of the community is reflected in the neighborhood’s cuisine

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Ice cream from Cafeina.
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The cuisine in City Heights may best be described as unassuming, unpretentious, underrated and underpriced. It’s one of few places in San Diego County where the hungry and thirsty can devour (in no particular order) Chinese, Cambodian, Nigerian, Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese, Laotian, Somali, Ethiopian, Filipino, El Salvadorian, Colombian, Peruvian and American (from burgers to soul food), all within a long walk (or short bike ride). The variety also comes across in the styles of food, from smoothies and ceviche to low and slow roasted meats to tortas and other quick bites.

This map highlights area restaurants to check out right now, but beyond that you will find street food carts with elote and tamales, marisco trucks, grocery store delicacies like the tacos from Pancho Villas, the weekly farmers market, and other surprises this neighborhood has to offer to anyone with open eyes and an appetite.

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.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Super Cocina

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3627 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92104
(619) 584-6244
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It’s always a good sign when the parking lot is full. Due to the pandemic, Super Cocina converted part of its lot to a patio, which makes parking trickier, but worth it as ever. The homestyle dishes are deeply seasoned and taste like your grandma made them, if your grandma was an abuela and she was the best cook ever. The menu changes frequently, but recent offerings have included a goat soup in a chestnut brown, umami-rich broth, carnitas (that had a hint of heat), four kinds of enchiladas, two kinds of empanadas (chicken and cheese, drenched in sour cream, shredded lettuce and crumbled cheese), a smoky, subtly spicy, fork-tender adobo pork and a homey beef stew that whispers “autumn,” miraculously, without pumpkin spice.

A combo plate with rice, beans, stews and tortillas.
A combo plate from Super Cocina.
Super Cocina/Facebook

2. Fredcel Lumpias & Catering

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3876 38th St
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 282-2305
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A few miles north of San Diego’s Filipino dining destination (also known as National City), Fredcel offers many of those same dishes in a very different venue: no long lines, no buffet. Just the food behind a display case, ready for consumption. This family-run kitchen, in a bright yellow building around the corner from a dollar store, churns out Filipino standards like beef lumpia, pancit and chicken adobo. While a quick lunch is one way to go, Fredcel is especially geared toward catering. Trays of various sizes, with prices written in large sans serif labels, make figuring out quantities easy.

A tray full of lumpias and bright red dipping sauce from Fredcel.
Lumpias from Fredcel.
Fredcels/Facebook

3. El Salvador Pupuseria Y Restaurante

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3824 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 282-3018
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The name says it all: pupusas and more. And yet the name doesn’t reveal that there’s also a selection of Mexican standards, plus El Salvadoran-style tamales. Fillings are half of what makes a pupusa great; here they include broccoli, chicken, fish, chicharron, and cheese with pepperoni. The other half is the masa. Put them together, heat until everything gets gooey, and you get pockets of goodness that are best consumed in groups of at least three. The Mexican side of the extensive menu has beef birria and options like tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and burritos. Worth a sip: atol de elote, a warm breakfast drink.

4. Saigon Sandwiches Deli

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4133 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 284-3034

Even though its address is on University Avenue, you could drive along University 500 times and miss this place, since it’s in a strip mall facing 41st Street. But that turn on 41st is so worth it. The deli’s menu spreads across two broad panels behind the counter packed with choices. On one side: banh mi. On the other: smoothies. Part of the space is a small grocery store. For those in a rush, grab-and-go spring rolls are stacked on the counter. Saigon Sandwiches Deli (no relation to Saigon Restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard) also caters.

5. FireBirds Chicken

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4155 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 326-8235
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The first thing to know about FireBirds is that the chicken may be the main draw, but it’s far from the only thing worth exploring on the menu. About that chicken: The sandwiches and sliders are stacked and smothered with toppings like diced bacon, buffalo sauce, and fresh veggies. (For people who like their chicken unsmothered, The restaurant also has simple fried tenders with a side of coleslaw, toast and a sauce on the side.) Beyond chicken there are fried pickles, loaded fries in four styles (simple or drizzled with onion strings, blue cheese and various sauces), coleslaw and mac and cheese.

6. El Borrego Restaurant

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4280 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 281-1355
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El Borrego and barbacoa. The two are inextricably linked in City Heights. Perhaps in San Diego. It’s hard to think of one without the other. That’s all due to the exquisite care that the owners, Rodnia Novarro and her mother Rosario Sotelo, put into every dish, from the slow roasted lamb to cafe de la olla. The menu is a window into Mexican cuisine that goes beyond carnitas and menudo, with nopal (cactus) salad, pozole and the juicy meat that makes this place the go-to spot for lamb barbacoa.

A close-up view of three tacos with roasted, fork tender, juicy lamb meat
Tacos from El Borrego.
El Borrego/Facebook

7. Leon Bakery

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4366 Poplar St
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 230-5462
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Drive to Leon Bakery, and you might get lost. It’s off the beaten path, on a side street half a block from Fairmount Avenue, and it got even harder to find after the ownersrepainted the outside bright green — and painted right over the huge “PANADERIA” sign. Get closer, and any doubts should be erased when you approach the door and smell the sugar. Inside: a tiny bakery packed with tender pan dulces for takeout. At $1 a piece for various items, diners here can get the same treats that coffee shops might sell for three or four times that price.

8. Ali's Chicken & Waffles

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4350 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 635-1269
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Tucked inside Donut Star at Fairmount and University Avenues, Ali’s chicken hits the trifecta of craveability: tender (despite being breast meat), flavorful (seasoned with a bit of a kick but not to the point where it burns), and golden (because that also matters, right?). The kitchen, which is halal, has other Southern essentials like mac and cheese and cheesy shrimp and grits and waffles, plus Thai Tea and Ali’s fries, topped with cheese sauce, corn pico, diced chicken and chipotle mayo, because why not? Sauces, 50 cents each, include herb mayo, chipotle mayo, Ali sauce and coconut syrup. That syrup, by the way — it’s transformative.

A stack of golden, crispy looking fried chicken and waffles from Ali’s Chicken and Waffles in City Heights, San Diego, California.
Chicken and waffles from Ali’s Chicken and Waffles.
Ali’s Chicken/Facebook

9. Tacos El Panson

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4433 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115
(619) 241-2222

Meats are the draw at this taco shop: adobada, lengua, birria, cabeza, tripa, the list goes on. It’s not just about the meat, though. It’s how the kitchen handles them: drench them in cheese and slap tortillas around them, and you get mulitas. Plop them between buns and you get massive tortas. The restaurant’s set up, with a counter at the front and a dining room with about eight tables and a TV in the back, is pandemic-friendly (easy for ordering takeout right by the front door). And the prices are budget-friendly, too: around $2 a piece, and hefty enough that customerscan have a solid meal for under $10.

10. Cafeina Cafe

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4011 46th St
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 861-2104
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True to its name, this Tijuana-style coffee and dessert shop fills a much-needed gap in the City Heights caffeine landscape, considering this zip code of 65,000 has only a handful of independent coffee shops (and a Starbucks). As a cafe, it serves two styles of espresso prepared with beans from James Coffee Co.: the classics, plus Mexican twists like cajeta and mazapan lattes. As a dessert shop, it doles out locally sourced ice cream scoops in flavors like passion fruit, cappuccino and horchata. The small, colorful back patio is a quiet oasis, perfect for co-working or a moment of calm. Above all: the cold brew float is the perfect fix for days that simply require coffee AND ice cream.

Three colorful beverages from Cafeina Cafe in City Heights, San Diego
Drink choices from Cafeina Cafe.
Cafeina Cafe

11. Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant

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4717 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105
(619) 285-9722
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San Diego neighborhoods south of the 8 are blessed with a few Ethiopian restaurants sprinkled between University Heights and City Heights. Red Sea Ethopian Restaurant, owned by Ethiopian refugee Shimeles Kibret, is toward the eastern end of the map. Red Sea’s food has all the hallmarks of Ethiopian slow-cooked dishes: patience, complexity, succulence. Whether for takeout, dine-in, or patio seating, diners can find tender stews dolloped over fluffy injera, collard greens simmered with garlic and Ethiopian coffee. The sweet staff make newcomers feel welcome, and if the travel posters on the walls inspire a trip to Addis Ababa, Red Sea’s doro wat and tibs are a great option until international travel is easier again. 

12. Eli's Peruvian Kitchen

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4979 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115
(619) 452-2852
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Eli‘s serves traditional Peruvian dishes with appetizers costing between $3 (for sweet corn tamales) and $18 (for halibut ceviche with sweet potato and Peruvian corn) and entrees priced between $14 for a quarter of a Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken and $19 for lomo saltado. Other offerings include a trio of sauces (green, red and yellow), chicha morada (Peru’s traditional purple corn drink), a lucuma ice cream and a Peruvian lager.

13. Phở Ca Dao Restaurant

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5223 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115
(619) 326-1420

When San Diego gets chilly (read: the weather dips below 70), pho is always the answer. Full stop. One of several Vietnamese restaurants that line Little Saigon, Phở Ca Dao Restaurant (not to be confused with the chain of that same name) excels in classic dishes like its namesake pho, which it serves with brisket, tripe, tendon, oxtail, meatballs, and many combinations thereof all topped with fresh basil leaves, bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime. Rice noodles, broken rice, a broad kids menu and a mix of rolls (fresh and fried) round out the offerings, where portions tend to be on the bigger side.

1. Super Cocina

3627 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92104
A combo plate with rice, beans, stews and tortillas.
A combo plate from Super Cocina.
Super Cocina/Facebook

It’s always a good sign when the parking lot is full. Due to the pandemic, Super Cocina converted part of its lot to a patio, which makes parking trickier, but worth it as ever. The homestyle dishes are deeply seasoned and taste like your grandma made them, if your grandma was an abuela and she was the best cook ever. The menu changes frequently, but recent offerings have included a goat soup in a chestnut brown, umami-rich broth, carnitas (that had a hint of heat), four kinds of enchiladas, two kinds of empanadas (chicken and cheese, drenched in sour cream, shredded lettuce and crumbled cheese), a smoky, subtly spicy, fork-tender adobo pork and a homey beef stew that whispers “autumn,” miraculously, without pumpkin spice.

3627 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92104

2. Fredcel Lumpias & Catering

3876 38th St, San Diego, CA 92105
A tray full of lumpias and bright red dipping sauce from Fredcel.
Lumpias from Fredcel.
Fredcels/Facebook

A few miles north of San Diego’s Filipino dining destination (also known as National City), Fredcel offers many of those same dishes in a very different venue: no long lines, no buffet. Just the food behind a display case, ready for consumption. This family-run kitchen, in a bright yellow building around the corner from a dollar store, churns out Filipino standards like beef lumpia, pancit and chicken adobo. While a quick lunch is one way to go, Fredcel is especially geared toward catering. Trays of various sizes, with prices written in large sans serif labels, make figuring out quantities easy.

3876 38th St
San Diego, CA 92105

3. El Salvador Pupuseria Y Restaurante

3824 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105

The name says it all: pupusas and more. And yet the name doesn’t reveal that there’s also a selection of Mexican standards, plus El Salvadoran-style tamales. Fillings are half of what makes a pupusa great; here they include broccoli, chicken, fish, chicharron, and cheese with pepperoni. The other half is the masa. Put them together, heat until everything gets gooey, and you get pockets of goodness that are best consumed in groups of at least three. The Mexican side of the extensive menu has beef birria and options like tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and burritos. Worth a sip: atol de elote, a warm breakfast drink.

3824 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105

4. Saigon Sandwiches Deli

4133 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105

Even though its address is on University Avenue, you could drive along University 500 times and miss this place, since it’s in a strip mall facing 41st Street. But that turn on 41st is so worth it. The deli’s menu spreads across two broad panels behind the counter packed with choices. On one side: banh mi. On the other: smoothies. Part of the space is a small grocery store. For those in a rush, grab-and-go spring rolls are stacked on the counter. Saigon Sandwiches Deli (no relation to Saigon Restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard) also caters.

4133 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105

5. FireBirds Chicken

4155 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105

The first thing to know about FireBirds is that the chicken may be the main draw, but it’s far from the only thing worth exploring on the menu. About that chicken: The sandwiches and sliders are stacked and smothered with toppings like diced bacon, buffalo sauce, and fresh veggies. (For people who like their chicken unsmothered, The restaurant also has simple fried tenders with a side of coleslaw, toast and a sauce on the side.) Beyond chicken there are fried pickles, loaded fries in four styles (simple or drizzled with onion strings, blue cheese and various sauces), coleslaw and mac and cheese.

4155 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105

6. El Borrego Restaurant

4280 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92105
A close-up view of three tacos with roasted, fork tender, juicy lamb meat
Tacos from El Borrego.
El Borrego/Facebook

El Borrego and barbacoa. The two are inextricably linked in City Heights. Perhaps in San Diego. It’s hard to think of one without the other. That’s all due to the exquisite care that the owners, Rodnia Novarro and her mother Rosario Sotelo, put into every dish, from the slow roasted lamb to cafe de la olla. The menu is a window into Mexican cuisine that goes beyond carnitas and menudo, with nopal (cactus) salad, pozole and the juicy meat that makes this place the go-to spot for lamb barbacoa.

4280 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92105

7. Leon Bakery

4366 Poplar St, San Diego, CA 92105

Drive to Leon Bakery, and you might get lost. It’s off the beaten path, on a side street half a block from Fairmount Avenue, and it got even harder to find after the ownersrepainted the outside bright green — and painted right over the huge “PANADERIA” sign. Get closer, and any doubts should be erased when you approach the door and smell the sugar. Inside: a tiny bakery packed with tender pan dulces for takeout. At $1 a piece for various items, diners here can get the same treats that coffee shops might sell for three or four times that price.

4366 Poplar St
San Diego, CA 92105

8. Ali's Chicken & Waffles

4350 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105
A stack of golden, crispy looking fried chicken and waffles from Ali’s Chicken and Waffles in City Heights, San Diego, California.
Chicken and waffles from Ali’s Chicken and Waffles.
Ali’s Chicken/Facebook

Tucked inside Donut Star at Fairmount and University Avenues, Ali’s chicken hits the trifecta of craveability: tender (despite being breast meat), flavorful (seasoned with a bit of a kick but not to the point where it burns), and golden (because that also matters, right?). The kitchen, which is halal, has other Southern essentials like mac and cheese and cheesy shrimp and grits and waffles, plus Thai Tea and Ali’s fries, topped with cheese sauce, corn pico, diced chicken and chipotle mayo, because why not? Sauces, 50 cents each, include herb mayo, chipotle mayo, Ali sauce and coconut syrup. That syrup, by the way — it’s transformative.

4350 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105

9. Tacos El Panson

4433 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

Meats are the draw at this taco shop: adobada, lengua, birria, cabeza, tripa, the list goes on. It’s not just about the meat, though. It’s how the kitchen handles them: drench them in cheese and slap tortillas around them, and you get mulitas. Plop them between buns and you get massive tortas. The restaurant’s set up, with a counter at the front and a dining room with about eight tables and a TV in the back, is pandemic-friendly (easy for ordering takeout right by the front door). And the prices are budget-friendly, too: around $2 a piece, and hefty enough that customerscan have a solid meal for under $10.

4433 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115

10. Cafeina Cafe

4011 46th St, San Diego, CA 92105
Three colorful beverages from Cafeina Cafe in City Heights, San Diego
Drink choices from Cafeina Cafe.
Cafeina Cafe

True to its name, this Tijuana-style coffee and dessert shop fills a much-needed gap in the City Heights caffeine landscape, considering this zip code of 65,000 has only a handful of independent coffee shops (and a Starbucks). As a cafe, it serves two styles of espresso prepared with beans from James Coffee Co.: the classics, plus Mexican twists like cajeta and mazapan lattes. As a dessert shop, it doles out locally sourced ice cream scoops in flavors like passion fruit, cappuccino and horchata. The small, colorful back patio is a quiet oasis, perfect for co-working or a moment of calm. Above all: the cold brew float is the perfect fix for days that simply require coffee AND ice cream.

4011 46th St
San Diego, CA 92105

11. Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant

4717 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92105

San Diego neighborhoods south of the 8 are blessed with a few Ethiopian restaurants sprinkled between University Heights and City Heights. Red Sea Ethopian Restaurant, owned by Ethiopian refugee Shimeles Kibret, is toward the eastern end of the map. Red Sea’s food has all the hallmarks of Ethiopian slow-cooked dishes: patience, complexity, succulence. Whether for takeout, dine-in, or patio seating, diners can find tender stews dolloped over fluffy injera, collard greens simmered with garlic and Ethiopian coffee. The sweet staff make newcomers feel welcome, and if the travel posters on the walls inspire a trip to Addis Ababa, Red Sea’s doro wat and tibs are a great option until international travel is easier again. 

4717 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92105

12. Eli's Peruvian Kitchen

4979 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

Eli‘s serves traditional Peruvian dishes with appetizers costing between $3 (for sweet corn tamales) and $18 (for halibut ceviche with sweet potato and Peruvian corn) and entrees priced between $14 for a quarter of a Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken and $19 for lomo saltado. Other offerings include a trio of sauces (green, red and yellow), chicha morada (Peru’s traditional purple corn drink), a lucuma ice cream and a Peruvian lager.

4979 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115

13. Phở Ca Dao Restaurant

5223 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

When San Diego gets chilly (read: the weather dips below 70), pho is always the answer. Full stop. One of several Vietnamese restaurants that line Little Saigon, Phở Ca Dao Restaurant (not to be confused with the chain of that same name) excels in classic dishes like its namesake pho, which it serves with brisket, tripe, tendon, oxtail, meatballs, and many combinations thereof all topped with fresh basil leaves, bean sprouts, cilantro, jalapeno, and lime. Rice noodles, broken rice, a broad kids menu and a mix of rolls (fresh and fried) round out the offerings, where portions tend to be on the bigger side.

5223 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115

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