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Top Chef Phillip Esteban Shares His Favorite SD Hot Spots

The force behind local haunts such as White Rice calls out his most-frequented restaurants and shops
Courtesy of Mostra Coffee
Mostra Coffee

Mostra Coffee

Courtesy of Mostra Coffee

Chef Phillip Esteban, former research and development chef for Consortium Holdings and proprietor of White Rice Bodega, Wildflour Delicatessen, and Weapon Ramen (plus a few other creative ventures all over town), never seems to slow down. On July 15, he’ll be opening White Rice Morena in Linda Vista, quickly followed by Wildflour in Liberty Station around September.

So when we asked him where he spends his free time, the San Diego native made sure we knew not to expect white tablecloths or stuffy atmospheres.

“These are places that I normally dine on a regular basis,” says Esteban. “As much as I love big name restaurants, big name chefs, and will frequent them, this [list] is a ‘if you go here, you’ll probably see me’ situation.”

If you’re looking for recommendations on where to unwind, chow down, and drink up in San Diego—according to a chef—Esteban knows just where to send you (leave your pearls at home). Here’s what he had to say, in his own words:

TJ Oyster Bar

TJ Oyster Bar

Courtesy of TJ Oyster Bar

TJ Oyster Bar

Order: Fried Fish Tacos 

I’ve been going to TJ Oyster Bar since I was in high school. I remember as a kid, we would go play golf across the street at Bonita Golf Course. It’s down the street from my aunt’s house, where I would spend a lot of time in summers with my cousin.

We’d go play golf and then we’d go over to the original store. It has maybe 15 seats tops. Everything on the menu is good, but they’re really known for their fried fish tacos. Fresh ingredients—you can watch them fry it fresh in front of you—good tortillas, good sauce. It’s just nostalgia for me.

4246 Bonita Road, Bonita (additional locations in Bonita and Chula Vista)

Juan Jasper

Known For: Rotating Dinners & Wine

It’s also very small, probably 12 seats in total. Juan Jasper is one of those neighborhood spots. It’s the same owners as next door’s Sepulveda Meats, and it’s like this little French bistro where the menu is written in chalk, or the specials are, at least. They have maybe 10 items that are constantly rotating. It’s fun! You never have to get the same thing twice.

1216 28th Street, Golden Hill

Longplay HiFi, coffee highball

Longplay HiFi, coffee highball

Photo Credit: @jay.villa

Longplay HiFi

Order: Coffee Highball

I love Longplay HiFi. I’ve known Gibrán for a few years. Frankly, he was the first one to bring the vinyl listening bar scene and energy to San Diego. He did it in his way and his style, which is very true to form for the jazz kissa model, and having been to jazz kissas in Japan, it’s very reminiscent of that. It’s the first, and most authentic vinyl listening bar experience.

2547 Imperial Ave., Suite B, Sherman Heights

J & Tony’s

Order: Any Cocktail

Obviously, coming from CH and loving their spots, I didn’t want to go the route of selecting the next beautiful, amazing thing, but they have such a big impact on the city. One of their most low-key spots, and actually my favorite of the whole company, is J & Tony’s. They make my favorite cocktail, a variation on a Manhattan, and it’s just amazing. It came off the menu, but I’m sure a lot of other people ask for it.

631 Ninth Ave., East Village


Request: Chris Provo, Barber

I wanted to add a lifestyle feel to this list, and Chris has been cutting my hair for 10 years plus. When I was at Consortium, there were 700 people who worked there when I was the R&D chef going around, and everyone would ask where I got my hair cut. I’d just send them to Monarch. Great friend and great barber.

485 Tenth Ave., East Village



Courtesy of Taisho


Order: Yakitori

Taisho is like the Asian version of CH. They have a group of their own within Convoy, and Taisho’s yakitori is the highest level. The guys prep all the meat skewers at one location, but Taisho gets the best cuts. It’s small and quaint, and the two chefs are there all the time. The quality is the highest.

Around March, they have firefly squid, which is amazing. Year-round, I get the chicken teba, the wing, and I love the black miso cod. They have an amazing selection of sake as well.

5185 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Kearny Mesa

Mostra Coffee

Mostra Coffee

Courtesy of Mostra Coffee

Mostra Coffee

Order: Choconana Cold Brew

The head roaster, Mike Arquines, is actually a chef by trade. We opened The Cork & Craft in Rancho Bernardo back in 2013 together. He was the executive chef and I was the chef de cuisine. He left shortly after we opened to focus on being the head roaster and co-owner for Mostra.

So I met all the other owners, and I was part of the original cupping group that helped them develop their Brazilian roast that’s now kind of like their mainstay. For their Choconana, he makes a banana milk and then blends it with their cold brew for this chocolatey, roasty, nice banana undertone. It’s probably my favorite on the menu.

Multiple locations in Carmel Mountain Ranch, 4S Ranch, and Bankers Hill (Hillcrest coming soon)

Shino Sushi

Shino Sushi

Courtesy of Yelp

Shino Sushi

Order: Omakase

I think the point of this list is that there are so many hidden gems, and sometimes other sushi places take a lot of the limelight. But Shino is right up top with quality. Sushi Chef Robert [Nakamura] is amazing. If you get an opportunity to sit down in front of him, take it. Everyone, their whole staff, is always so hospitable and nice and knowledgeable.

838 W. Ash St., Downtown

8th & B Poke

8th & B Poke

Courtesy of Yelp

8th & B Poke Co.

Known For: Fresh Poke

The owner of 8th & B Poke Co. is Chris “Toppie” Aure, the son of the family that owned Zarlitos on 8th Street in National City. For me, Zarlitos was a very iconic place growing up. Great Filipino food, family-style, but what Chris added when his parents retired was when he started to sell poke inside the restaurant.

It was very popular until the pandemic, when they had to sell and close, but everyone was always asking, “Where can we order your poke?” He started to sell it party-tray style, and now it’s very popular for people within our community. We only go to Chris for poke. He was trying to open through two years of delays, but finally opened a few weeks ago. He’s open until he sells out, and he’s selling out every day.

806 B Ave., National City

Thanh Tinh Chay

Known For: Vegan Vietnamese

I went for the first time with Koy Sun, who does all of our artwork and murals for Open Gym and White Rice. Every week, we either go climbing together or go eat somewhere, and now this is a frequent spot for us to do business meetings. I love eating all kinds of food, including vegan, and the food here is so great.

Vietnamese food has a freshness to it, and Thanh Tinh Chay is a place that I don’t think people frequent enough. The owner is so sweet, talking to every table, and everything is vegan top to bottom. My partner is pescatarian, but we eat vegan a lot, and this is one of our favorite spots.

4591 El Cajon Blvd., Little Saigon in City Heights

So Saap

So Saap

Courtesy of So Saap

So Saap

Known For: Lao & Thai Street Food

There’s a big Laotian community here, but there aren’t many restaurants that are highlighted. So Saap is in the neighborhood I grew up in and I’ve been going here for quite some time.

Their lemonade is made with fresh sugarcane with machines you’ll see in Laos, or Vietnam, or even down in Mexico. It’s delicious, but so is everything, from their laab to their crab fried rice. I order it all the time, probably at least once a week.

4710 Market St., Chollas View

Lang Books

Lang Books

Courtesy of Lang Books

Lang Books

Buy: The Books, obviously

The group that owns and operates Lang Books is Swish Projects, some of the biggest creatives in San Diego. They own this very small, curated bookstore on El Cajon Boulevard, and it’s such an eclectic place.

It’s not your typical Barnes & Noble or even Verbatim in North Park. They carry the things that are harder to find: magazines, smaller prints, zines, variations of artistic cookbooks. Within the arts and culture community, they definitely have a pulse on the next generation.

2903 El Cajon Blvd., Unit 2, North Park

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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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