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Finding SD’s Culinary Gems in Unexpected Places

An ode to strip mall dining, where edible wizardry remains in focus over flash
Courtesy of Seamless
Strip Mall Food San Diego Adobo House

Entrees and appetizers from Adobo House in Rolando

Courtesy of Seamless

Many of San Diego’s best eats aren’t perched along the waterfront or atop high-rises with panoramic views. They’re nestled next to dry cleaners and convenience stores, sharing parking with nail salons and vape shops, overlooking car washes and drive throughs instead of million dollar views. But food fiends know behind every shabby doorway, underneath every fluorescent light, in every single strip mall across San Diego lies potential for palate-inducing ecstasy.

Take Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach: The nondescript, bamboo-lined facade wedged between a 7-11, Planned Parenthood, and a string of car dealerships disguises one of the best Japanese restaurants in the county (not to mention my personal favorite sushi spot). Its omakase, a revelation. Standard menu, just as divine. It’s not flashy, but frankly, I’d love it less if it were. Even the world-famous ramen joint Menya Ultra’s neighbors in Hillcrest include a tax preparer and nutritional supplements shop.

Strip Mall Food San Diego Phatties Vegan Mexican Restaurant

Cucumber and strawberry lemonade from Phatties Vegan Mexican in Escondido

Courtesy of Phatties FB

The same goes for the Rolando neighborhood’s Filipino favorite Adobo House (next to a real estate office), National City’s Poke Etc. (adjacent to a barber shop and computer repair), Rancho Bernardo’s Burma Place (across from a Jack in the Box), or Miramar’s SMACK’N Guamanian Grill (where you can feast on Chamorro barbecue and then roast your own flesh at the tanning salon next door).

Even San Diego’s food nirvana—Convoy District—prides itself on its culinary delights over ambiance. Sichuan, Korean, Taiwanese, yang nyum gal bi cooked over an open flame, bowls of boiling hot shabu shabu, face numbingly spicy hand-pulled noodles, pleasure groan–inducing piles of soup dumplings served on chipped plates in dingy lit dining rooms: Here, the fine in “fine dining” refers to the food, not atmosphere. (Thank God for nonexistent dress codes because these feet don’t do high heels.)

Chefs at strip mall restaurants may not always be classically trained or, frankly, very good at social media. Instead, their legacy is often passed down from families, like Phatties Vegan Mexican in Escondido (in the same strip as a liquor store, chiropractor, and nail salon, naturally). Phatties co-owner Olga Saldivar says the food truck-turned-brick and mortar was originally inspired by her mother’s Central Mexican style of cooking, eventually evolving into a completely vegan menu in 2018. Sharing space in a strip mall has its challenges, she admits, but it comes with benefits as well.

“One of the good things about strip malls is that people find you because of the other businesses they tend to come to,” she explains. Patrons who accidentally find these places tend to come back again. And again. And again. Come for a pedicure, stay for the pambazos. As a chronic multitasker and devoted student of global cuisine, strip mall eateries check all my boxes. It’s time they get the respect they so richly deserve.

By Beth Demmon

Beth Demmon is an award-winning writer and podcaster whose work regularly appears in national outlets and San Diego Magazine. Her first book, The Beer Lover's Guide to Cider, is now available. Find out more on

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