Foodie’s Quest at Hillcrest


Here’s my experience taking a food tour of San Diego’s Hillcrest neighbourhood, writes Crystal Neri


I just moved to San Diego and have never been to Hillcrest ever. But I’ve heard a resounding comment from everyone that it’s the neighborhood most similar to San Francisco (where I used to live). At first glance, Hillcrest does look like SF — small shops owned by hardworking people, a strong and thriving LGBT community, a place teeming with big stores, specialty shops and nightlife. I want to know more, and the best way I know is through a BITE Food Tour.

BITE is a company that offers a three-hour food tour of various cities in the US. The tour consists of about 15 people and the guide, who talks about the neighborhood and takes you to restaurants. The main catch is that you’ll stop by food establishments (at least five restaurants) to try samples. It costs $25-$40/person. You’ll have to book way in advance though, because this tour is in demand. On this trip, I brought along my mom who is also a first-timer in Hillcrest and BITE.

Ready for the food tour!
My comfy OOTD for the 2-hour walking food tour.
Our first stop was at Jimmy Carter’s Mexican Cafe (3172 5th Avenue). There, we met the rest of the group — a couple with a newborn, middle-aged European tourists, several other mid-20’s couples, and the tour guide, Dani. I apologized to Dani for being late, but she shrugged it off and handed me a takeout box of fish tacos and carnitas tortillas. We missed dining at Jimmy’s, but bright-eyed Dani was very welcoming. My mom and I munched on calamari tacos while crossing the street to nearby Balboa Park.

According to Dani, Balboa park is the “largest community park in the US, spanning 1.8 square miles.” People fought tooth and nail to keep this park open to the public. Today, the park is one of San Diego’s favorite spots because of its museums, open-space and sheer greenery. It sure does look perfect right beside Hillcrest.

After Balboa Park, we stopped at R Gang Eatery (3868 5th Avenue). Dani mentioned that it’s owned by Rich Sweeney, a former contestant of Top Chef. R Gang is ranked Top 3 in San Diego for the best Chicken and Waffles. As soon as they mentioned their vanilla-infused maple syrup, I made a quick mental note to go back there. We sampled their cheddar and chai cheese stick, served by a funny waiter. His shirt said: “So good you’ll slap your mama!”

I never imagined I could get these outside Hawaii

Our third stop is Kona Coffee Company (3995 5th Avenue). They are one of the few suppliers of Kona Coffee in town. Two years ago when I visited the island of Kona, Hawaii, I bought several packs of their famous coffee as souvenirs. Now through this tour, I learned that I could get this coffee locally.

Just a few blocks to the right is Harvey Milk’s American Diner (535 University Ave.). Upon entering, we were greeted by rainbow-colored cakes. It didn’t look it from the outside — but this diner boasts of desserts and special cocktails. The owner asked us to come back for their Thanksgiving special, Pumpkin pies for $9.99. I found their cakes soft and not too sweet (usually a hallmark of using quality ingredients). I made another mental note to come back there with dessert-loving friends.

Gay pride cakes
Last but not the least is Pita Jungle (1045 University Ave.) It instantly became my favorite as soon as the menu came out with this subtitle: “The art of healthy eating.” The place is inviting with warm lights and feather-covered chandeliers. It instantly evokes the feeling of “bring-your-friends-here-to-converse-and-eat-healthy food!” They generously served us vegetarian nachos, pita bread with three kinds of hummus, caprese salad, and a spicy chicken hummus dish.

In summary, the BITE Food Tour is absolutely worth every penny. From this tour I learned about Brass Rail, the oldest bar in town, and Pernicano’s, the so called, “eye-sore” of Hillcrest. All of the restaurants we visited welcomed and entertained us by their cuisine and spunky interiors. At the end of the day, the best part for me was walking along 5th Avenue, marveling at the Hillcrest sign, and the hundreds of other store signs. It’s such a lively neighborhood — a place where I can tour my own friends and spend the day feasting on a niche shops, a green park, and affordable, local food.