As a border-straddling kid, I have always had to explain where Imperial Beach is located for the people who live north of the 8 freeway. Usually, the easiest explanation is simply to say it’s “at the border.” The southwesternmost beach in the United States definitely has changed since I grew up running around as a feral teen in BUGG boots (not a typo, they were from the drive-in swap meet) on a “borrowed” beach cruiser.
Described by the residents as a one-mile-by-one-mile beach town (I have never thought to see if that was accurate, but it sure has felt that small for the last 40 years of my life), IB is home to die-hard locals who haven’t always loved the evolution and modernization of their town through the years.
The food scene was always quiet and humble—people are creatures of habit in IB—but taco shops and family restaurants like the iconic Ed Fernandez Birrieria are the glue that has held Imperial Beach in my heart where food is concerned.
A perfect weekend of splitting time between eating and enjoying the sun involves these four main stars.
Siam Imperial Thai Kitchen
Few cuisines make Mexican food look comparatively mild in heat. A small, immigrant family–owned restaurant, Siam Imperial takes that challenge head-on in an addictive and delicious way. I am a creature of habit with certain cuisines—I will try anything twice, but I like what I like. On a cold day (or at least cold for San Diego), I can’t think of anything better to both warm my soul and clear my sinuses than Siam Imperial’s tom kha. The salty, sweet, and sour signature flavors of Thailand are center stage in the larb gai, which I have with an order of som tum. The crunch…. the damn crunch.
I can’t count the number of collective days we spent loitering in the booths or on the curb at El Tapatío. The restaurant serves as a lighthouse for many families who’ve lived in IB over several generations. The ladies in the back remind me of my family’s restaurants that I grew up roaming. My favorite breakfast is the chilaquiles—they’re ubiquitous in many eateries, Mexican and beyond, but very few taste like mom makes. At El Tapatío, they do them just right. For lunch, the molcajete is a thing of beauty: four proteins, nopales, and panela cheese, doused in roasted tomato sauce and presented in one of the mortar-and-pestle volcanic rock serving vessels found across Mexico.
While Big Kahuna’s did not open until I was leaving IB, it has become another reason for me to head home. Go for the burger and stay for the saimin, a staple noodle soup and the national dish of Hawaiʻi. The broth is simultaneously unctuous and delicate, the “white whale” balance that most chefs could only dream of mastering. The walls come alive with the just-cheesy-enough décor. This is a restaurant Tarantino could have easily dropped into any of his movies and have it fit right in.
Stardust Donut Shop
With over 50 years in business, Stardust is the pièce de résistance of Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach’s OG community. Don’t let the beat-up sign promising “Fresh Nuts” deter you. That sign is the epitome of classic IB charm. Now, I will not lie and tell you that you will find the legendary doughnut shop open when you want it open. I will tell you that the first bite into one of the freshly fried and glazed raised cinnamon rolls might just change your life. Places like Stardust are the spots that I cling onto when thinking of the town that I called home after my family migrated from Tijuana. No matter what big name comes into the ’hood to gentrify us, we will always know where to find our local tribe.