The Free-Spirited Summer of San Diego: A Once-Sleepy Beach Town Turns into a Surprise "It" City

By Golden, Caron; Kroth, Maya | Sunset, May 2012 | Go to article overview

The Free-Spirited Summer of San Diego: A Once-Sleepy Beach Town Turns into a Surprise "It" City


Golden, Caron, Kroth, Maya, Sunset


AMERICA'S FINEST CITY. It's the kind of jingoistic boosterism employed for decades to lure visitors to San Diego with its always fair weather; sparkling beaches, and SeaWorld. If you wanted a coot urban playground, you went to San Francisco or L.A. But that's no longer true.

In the timeline of San Diego's emerging cool factor, the first stirrings were in the late '80s/early '90s, when the defense industry downsized and biotech and high-tech industries took off. Good-bye, General Dynamics. Hello, Qualcomm. Transplants brought different expectations of culture, food, and style, which finally started to gel.

Today, San Diego is both border town and edgy Pacific Rim city of the future, with an immigrant population infusing neighborhoods with new flavors and attitudes.

Gorgeous beaches, surfer dudes, and Shamu? Always. But they no longer define San Diego. America's Finest City? More like America's Coolest City.

BRAIN CLOUDS ON THE BEACH

La Jolla, known for its well-heeled boutiques, has never been tolerant of graffiti on its immaculate streets. But when the artists in question have works in the Guggenheim and the Whitney? Different story. Local curators and collectors commissioned the six large-scale Murals of La Jolla, the first of which went up in fall 2010 (with eight more slated). Artworks by international talents like John Baldessari and Ann Hamilton are appearing in parking tots, alleys, and other underused spaces, giving residents plenty to talk about. Like, say, that Anya Gallaccio's Surfs Up looks like a desolate landscape from far away but is actually a photograph of a grain of La Jolla sand magnified 400 times. Or that the stylized posing nudes of Ryan McGinness's 53 Women could be a sly poke at the town's yoga-panted brigades. One of the most visible murals is Baldessari's 37-by 40-foot Brain/ Cloud, best seen from the rooftop of George's at the Cove restaurant. muralsoflajolla.com

4 CHEFS GONE WILD

Access to year-round agriculture, an ocean to source from, and a growing clamor for great food at all Levels are luring innovative chefs. Here are four to watch.

1 Shark corn dogs? A Abalone fritters? That's just a sampling of seafood creations dreamed up by Chad White (left) at Gabardine, Top Chef Brian Malarkey's new restaurant in Point Loma. The former Navy chef serves live uni (sea urchin) with sea salt and lemon, but even more out-there is his uni gelato, with a vanilla-bean flavor morphing into briny cream as it melts in your mouth. $$; 1005 Rosecrans St.; 679/398-9810.

2 At Hanis Cavin's Carnitas' Snack Shack, opened last December in North Park, it's all about the pig. The io-dish menu is an ode to pork, with items like the pork sandwich (a discerning glutton's delight of pork schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pickled pepperoncini relish, and house aioli), and pork belly with spicy sweet glaze (shown below). The Shack has become a late-night hot spot for chefs. $; 2632 University Ave.; 619/294-7675.

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3 Jason Knibb, the first local to head to Iron Chef America, is shaking up the La Jolla dining scene at Nine-Ten. He borrows from his Jamaican roots for the jerk pork belly with plantain, black-eyed peas, and spicy jellies. And his innovation shines in pan-roasted squab with sunchoke puree and dolmas wrapped in Swiss chard grown in the restaurant's garden. $$$$; 910 Prospect St.; 858/964-5400.

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4 El Vitral's Norma Martinez is one of the chefs leading the Mexican food makeover, having trained under acclaimed Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia. Martinez, also from Tijuana, elevates traditional family dishes with fresh ingredients and techniques, like her cochinita rich pork redolent of the Mexican spice achiote, wrapped in banana leaves and topped with pickled onions. …

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