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Neighborhood Guide: El Cajon

Where to eat, shop, and play in East County’s most populous city
Downtown El Cajon sign on West Main Street in East County San Diego
Courtesy of Kayak

El Cajon (Spanish for “the box,” so named because it is “boxed in” by foothills on all sides) served as fertile ranchland for decades before being incorporated in 1912. Once a sleepy farming town, the city is now the largest in East County, housing more than 100,000 residents and an unrecognized wealth of eateries (especially of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern variety), shops, and visitor-friendly farms and gardens. 

Here’s where to explore next time you’re in El Cajon:

Middle Eastern restaurant Sahara: Taste of the Middle East in El Cajon, San Diego featuring a table full of meat dishes, flatbread, and falafel
Courtesy of Sahara: Taste of the Middle East

El Cajon Restaurants and Bars

Ali Baba Family Restaurant

This Mediterranean spot known for its big portions offers excellent bang for your buck. Try Ali Baba’s chicken tekka, pompano fish with rice, and tannour bread. Feeding a crowd? Order a feast for up to ten people with kabab skewers, shawarma, cream chop, salad, rice, burghul, and hummus. 

421 East Main Street

Sahara: Taste of the Middle East

At this haven for Middle Eastern bites, start with hummus, tabbouleh, and cucumber salad and follow with kabobs, chicken tikka, or falafel. Drench it all with unlimited sauces from the Sahara‘s self-serve bar.

2990 Jamacha Road, Unit 116

The Breakfast House

Stepping inside this quaint breakfast spot feels like traveling back to a 1950s diner. The extensive menu at The Breakfast House offers nearly every classic American breakfast dish imaginable, as well as lunch choices like salads and sandwiches. 

1464 Graves Avenue

Royal Sweets

Royal Sweets offers not only royally good Middle Eastern desserts, but also a variety of other pastries and cakes. Stop by for baklava, tiramisu, or gelato, or order a custom birthday cake that is sure to impress. 

110 South Mollison Avenue

Grand Ole BBQ Flinn Springs

Inspired by the BBQ he ate in his youth, Andy Harris bought a smoker and set out to bring the flavors of Central Texas to San Diego County. Make sure to arrive early at Grand Ole BBQ to beat the long lines and get your share of some of the best pork, brisket, ribs, and sides the city has to offer. 

15505 Olde Highway 80

Funky Fries and Burgers

Funky Fries and Burgers lives up to its name with creative combos like a bacon mac n’ cheese burger and a Philly cheesesteak burger, but the true stars of the show are the extravagant milkshakes. Piled precariously high, each “Funky Freak Shake” is topped with enough candy and treats to feed a first-grade birthday party.

101 West Washington Avenue

Hacienda Casa Blanca

Happy hour and Mexican food go together like peanut butter and jelly, especially at Hacienda Casa Blanca, which offers sweet deals Monday through Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. and all day on Sunday. They also serve brunch on Sunday mornings, laying down chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. 

700 North Johnson Avenue, Suite A

Antonelli’s Deli

The Antonelli family brought their classic, East Coast–style deli to California in 1984. Tucked away between motor shops in El Cajon, the old-school locale has almost 50 unique sandwich options, including capocollo subs, liverwurst sandos, and a French dip.

1354 North Magnolia Ave

Burning Beard Brewing Company

Head to Burning Beard for punk rock vibes and good brews, from hoppy IPAs and lagers to seltzers. Pair your drink of choice with bites like smashburgers, truffle and garlic fries, and chicken tenders.

785 Vernon Way

The Yogurt Mill

The Yogurt Mill vends a rotating menu of classic fro-yos such as vanilla and strawberry, plus more off-the-wall flavors: toasted marshmallow, Irish mint kiss, banana cream pie. Keep an eye on their Instagram page to get the inside scoop on the flavors of the day.

935 Broadway

Al Azayem

If you find yourself craving stuffed chicken, breakfast lentil soup, or baba ganoush, head to Al Azayem. The Middle Eastern dishes at this counter-serve joint come with a small price tag and a big flavor profile. 

550 East Main Street

Mal Al Sham

In addition to popular Mediterranean eats like falafel, pitas, and meat kabobs, Mal Al Sham serves the hard-to-find quzi—a roasted lamb and rice platter that’s one of Iraq’s national dishes—on weekends and holidays.

388 East Main Street

Exterior of Summers Past Farms in El Cajon, San Diego featuring a red barn with the farm's name and various plants in their garden
Courtesy of Tripadvisor

Things to Do in El Cajon

Summers Past Farms

Stop by Summers Past Farms to see what the farmers are planting, harvesting, and crafting. There are shops, gardens, and wildlife to explore here, and the farm can serve as a background to any photo shoot, as it changes each season depending on what plants are growing. 

15602 Olde Highway 80

Water Conservation Garden

The Water Conservation Garden offers fun ways to learn about saving H2O. Play and learn with the six-acre farm’s four hands-on exhibits, or simply observe the beautiful landscape as inspiration for your own home garden

12122 Cuyamaca College Drive West

Olaf Wieghorst Museum & Western Heritage Center

Self-taught artist Olaf Wieghorst, born Denmark in 1988, drew upon the aesthetics of the American West in his paintings of landscapes, humble abodes, cowboys, and lonely travels. This museum honors Wieghorst and fellow Western genre painters with exhibitions, workshops, and tours.

131 Rea Avenue

Sycuan Casino

El Cajon is home to Sycuan, a resort and casino to rival those in Sin City. Get gaming, attend a concert, or relax at Sycuan’s full-service spa and lazy river pool. You’ll also find a wealth of dining choices, including pizza, Mexican food, and steak.

5469 Casino Way

A Simpler Time Alpaca Farm and Mill

Alpacas never make the list of oft-spotted wildlife in San Diego, but this family farm on the outskirts of El Cajon provides private tours that give you the chance to get up close and personal with the critters. Don’t forget to browse the store, where you can purchase yarn, clothes, accessories, toys, and dryer balls spun from alpaca wool.

1802 Alta Place

Parkway Bowl

Reserve at this family-owned El Cajon bowling alley and entertainment center for an evening of all-ages fun. Not a fan of bowling? Hit the arcade, play a round or two of billiards, or grab a meal and drink at the in-house restaurant and bar. 

1280 Fletcher Parkway

Interior of the Parkway Plaza indoor mall home to hundreds of shops and restaurants in El Cajon, San Diego
Courtesy of Parkway Plaza

El Cajon Shopping & Boutiques

Off the Shelf Games

Board game store and tabletop lounge Off the Shelf offers table reservations and a retail shop with a unique library of more than 1,500 games. Join the shop’s membership program to enjoy three-day board game rentals for $20 a month and $6 a game.

173 Fletcher Parkway

El Cajon Guitars and Music

Owned and operated by musicians Maria Hart and Frank Cogliana, El Cajon Guitars and Music is a friendly, community-driven spot for both guitar newbies and seasoned shredders. In addition to vending instruments and accessories, the store provides instrument repairs and guitar classes.

172 East Main Street

Harvest International Market

Taste flavors from around the world at the Harvest International Market, a one-stop shop for fresh local produce and imported goods. Visitors will discover a tasty Middle Eastern bakery onsite, too.

733 East Main Street

Parkway Plaza

A rare enclosed mall in SD County (good for rainy days!), Parkway Plaza is home to more than 130 stores, from major chains like Best Buy, Ulta, and H&M to small local businesses such as 619 Underground Clothing.

415 Fletcher Parkway

Comics N Stuff

Calling all comic fanatics: San Diego’s largest comic and collectibles shop is right here in El Cajon. Expand your comic collection with fairly priced, new and vintage books.

1020 El Cajon Boulevard

By Maren Hawkins

Maren Hawkins is an editorial intern at San Diego Magazine. She is in her second to last year at San Diego State University and serves as a staff writer for The Daily Aztec. When she is not writing, she spends her time finding the best workout spots in SD, thrifting for the cutest clothes, and traveling whenever possible.

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