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Dining In San Diego's Old Town

Churros at The Cosmopolitan
Churros at The Cosmopolitan
Photo by Wendy Lemlin

Dined in Old Town lately? If you’re a visitor to San Diego, your answer is probably “yes”, but if you’re a local, I bet it’s been a while. Touristy kitsch aside, there is some decent food to be had in Old Town, even some fantastic food. There’s no shortage of restaurants there, the majority offering what I call the 3 Ms -- Mexican, Margaritas and Mariachis, which is not necessarily a bad thing if done well. There are also several excellent restaurants serving other cuisines that are worth checking out, and if you are a local who rarely ventures into Old Town, these can convince you to change your ways.

Multiple award winning Harney Sushi is one of these unexpected gems. Newly remodeled and now celebrating its 10th year of serving some of the most cutting edge sushi creations in town, Harney Sushi serves creative and wonderfully delicious food. Case in point -- the Rolls Royce Roll, one of 35 specialty rolls, with a core of tender lobster tempura and cucumber, topped with silky tuna sashimi, then hand seared and lightly covered with garlic ponzu and eel sauce. Sushi not your thing? There are plenty of other options, from Dr. Pepper Steak, to pan seared snapper with fried eggplant and coconut curry, as well as vegetarian rolls and dishes. Also known for playing around with molecular gastronomy (for instance the “soy air” with the lobster fried rice), Executive Chef Anthony Sinsay will soon introduce new menu items based on seasonal local produce and re-interpreted classics. Open 7 days a week, with a full sake bar, a late night food happy hour, dining with DJs nightly, and lunch specials. Wasabi Wednesdays feature discounted cocktails.3964 Harney St.

El Agave Tequileria & Restaurant serves nouvelle Mexican cuisine and over 2,000 tequilas. Not the usual Tex-Mex menu, El Agave presents authentic Aztec-influenced recipes from the Yucatan and central Mexico, including over a dozen different moles (a thick sauce that generally includes chile, tomato, spices and unsweetened chocolate), which are served with chicken or pork. Dishes like Camaron Cancun (sauteed jumbo shrimp in a fresh mango and spice sauce) or Filete Agave (filet mignon stuffed with goat cheese and served with dark tequila sauce) will surprise the palates of those who think Mexican food is just tacos and burritos. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.2304 San Diego Ave.

At Café Coyote y Cantina, the tortillas are made fresh by hand, the margaritas are large and frosty, and the mariachis serenade diners in the festive courtyard dining area. Café Coyote is also one of only two “tequila houses” in the US certified by the prestigious Academia del Tequila in Mexico City and serves 120 tequilas, especially on “Tequila Thursdays” (which, luckily, are also Lobster Thursdays). There’s an excellent variety of the traditional tacos, burritos, chimichangas, enchiladas, carnitas, tamales, and the like, and portions are large. For seafood lovers, the tequila lime shrimp are succulent and flavorful, and the pescado Monterrey features moist and flaky sea bass baked in a tomatillo sauce and cheese. Open daily 7 a.m. – 10 p.m.2461 San Diego Ave.

History lives at The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, once the home of early San Diegan Juan Bandini, who built the original structure in the 1820s. The restaurant’s comfortably elegant dining room and casual courtyard are oases of soothing calm in an otherwise bustling tourist area. The Cosmopolitan is one of those rare restaurants where it’s possible to have a conversation without having to shout over a noisy crowd or blaring music -- the live music is provided by a harpist, pianist, or acoustic guitarist. Paying homage to the past while incorporating the tastes of today, the menu focuses on American grill specialties such as apple cider glazed pork cheeks, seafood creations like Albacore with braised sunchokes, roasted tomato and olive tapenade, and such signature Mexican dishes as pozole, a hearty pre-Columbian soup. Desserts rule here, especially the homemade churros, which could be the best in the world. Light as a popover and not overly sweet, they are served with an Ibarra chocolate dipping sauce, with delectable hints of chile and orange. Lunch and dinner daily, three-course prix fixe daily 5-7 p.m., happy hour 3-6 p.m., Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m.2660 Calhoun St.

Dining at Casa de Reyes, in the courtyard of Fiesta de Reyes plaza, feels a bit like a celebration in an old Mexican town. Mariachis serenade, costumed folklorico dancers dance on the nearby stage, brightly colored flowers bloom in painted ceramic pots, and all around is the bustle of people having a good time. Especially those couples sharing the 52-ounce El Jeffe Margaritas for two! The cuisine is Mexican fare with flare—tacos, burritos, tamales, fajitas, enchiladas, tostadas, chili, and specialties like Achiote Slow Roasted Pork. Open daily.

One doesn’t normally think of Old Town for Louisiana food, but at the New Orleans Creole Café, you can get your fill of gumbo, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, Cajun-style alligator sausage bread pudding with whiskey sauce, or any of a number of other Big Easy specialties, crafted from recipes handed down by Chef Mark Bihm’s New Orleans family. The restaurant is housed in two cottages dating back to the 1870s, tucked away among the trees in the historic Whaley House garden, and the ambience truly evokes life on the bayou. Stop in for Mardi Gras, March 7 - 8, for beads and specials on Arbita beer, the favorite brew of New Orleans. Hours vary, but generally open Thurs.-Sun. 11:30 a.m. – 8 p.m.2476A San Diego Ave.