Photo by Emily J. Davis for Kura Sushi

A Taste of the Convoy District: San Diego’s Pan-Asian Food Capital

Chow Down on Everything From Dim Sum to Soba Noodles in This Culturally Rich Neighborhood

The road signs on Interstate 805, both northbound and southbound, read: “Convoy Asian Cultural District, next two exits.” However, they might as well say, “Best Asian food in town or anywhere close.” That would not be a lie. There is nowhere in San Diego County with a higher concentration or diversity of Asian restaurants and supermarkets than the Convoy District: the geographic area in San Diego that is east of Interstate 805, west of State Route 163 and South of State Route 52 (though there are some excellent choices that slightly widen those strict boundaries).

The Convoy’s greatest strengths, though, can also make it somewhat intimidating to navigate. How can one find their way through the wealth of culinary choices? We’re here to help with this in-depth guide to eating your way through San Diego’s Convoy District.

 

🇨🇳Chinese

Best Asian Food San Diego
Credit: Jasmine Seafood Restaurant

Perhaps the best place to start getting to know the Convoy is at Jasmine Seafood Restaurant in Kearny Mesa. While Jasmine offers many classic Cantonese specialties like Peking duck, ginger and scallion lobster, and more, it is their dim sum that makes the place special. There is a certain romance to just picking what you want—a seemingly infinite variety of dumplings, stewed or fried dishes—off an endless stream of rolling carts.

The Convoy District offers a wide variety of Chinese styles, including excellent examples of some of the classic eight great Chinese cuisines. For some of the best Chinese food in San Diego, head to Spicy City, which features the beguiling mala flavors of Sichuan: both spicy from chilis and numbing from Sichuan peppercorns. Hit the cold appetizer bar, but don’t miss the oddly named but utterly delicious Boiled Fish. Another is Village Kitchen with its classic Hunan fare. It’s spicy—and we mean really spicy. The heat, though, works with the other flavors. Hunanese chefs focus on fresh vegetables, seasonality and liberal use of vinegar, smoking and curing. Try the Mashed Eggplant and Green Chili Pepper with Century Egg, the addictively spicy Cumin Lamb, or Mao’s Braised Pork Belly.

One Chinese regional cuisine is Shaanxi, the cuisine of Xi’an, and it’s offered at Shan Xi Magic Kitchen. The signature dish is Biang Biang Noodles: thick, wide and flat, hand-pulled noodles sitting in a pool of a soy and vinegar-based sauce with garnishes of chili powder, garlic and scallions. You’ll also want to try the Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles, which are lighter and thinner than the Biang Biangs and are served cold, tossed with tasty, spongy blocks of wheat gluten, bean sprouts, slivers of cucumber and a sauce of sesame paste, vinegar, chili oil and a bit of soy. These noodles are downright addictive.

 

🇯🇵Japanese

The poster child for Japanese cuisine in America is, inarguably, sushi: pristine, glistening nigiri with flawless slices of the freshest (or wonderfully cured) fish sitting atop perfectly vinegared rice. That is pretty much what’s on offer at Michelin-recognized Hidden Fish, where John Hong (aka Chef Kappa, formerly of Sushi Ota) offers an 18-piece timed omakase with optional a la carte available. If you’re on the hunt for some of the best sushi in San Diego, Hidden Fish might just be your best bet.

Photo by Emily J. Davis for Kura Sushi

At the other end of the sushi spectrum sits Kura Revolving Sushi Bar, where sushi is served via a conveyor belt. If it looks good, grab it. If it doesn’t look to your liking, the next offering is just inches away. What’s great about Kura? The fun.

On a different part of San Diego’s Japanese cuisine spectrum sits Wa Dining Okan. The word “okan” means “mother” in Japanese, and a Japanese mother’s classic homestyle cooking is what the restaurant offers. Try their Bento lunch box offerings that arrive on lacquered trays. The miso mackerel is a standout, with the richness of the shiny fish playing well with the salty umami of the miso. Other good choices are Okon’s fresh (not deep-fried) Agedashi Tofu and the cold soba noodles.

 

🇰🇷Korean

The food of Korea might, for some, fly under the radar. One somewhat odd way for the uninitiated to think about it would be to imagine the deliciously unholy offspring of Japanese and Mexican cuisines. Think classic North Asian flavors with chili pepper spiciness. Perhaps the best place for those new to the cuisine to start is with Korean barbeque (aka “KBBQ”). Over the last decade, it has taken America by storm. And why not? It’s barbecue, right? Well, actually, it’s grilling but done indoors, and in addition to the grilled meats, there is a dazzling array of mostly vegetable-based, deeply flavored, marinated side dishes called banchan. Most of all, though, Korean barbecue is all about the experience.

Perhaps the best place to get KBBQ in town is at Dae Jang Keum, where a nearly unparalleled selection of quality meats is cooked at the table over real coals, not a gas grill. For a somewhat less expensive experience, go for the gas grill and the AYCE KBBQ at Taegukgi Korean BBQ.

 

🇹🇭Thai/Lao

While there is very good Lao and Thai food in San Diego, they are perhaps the least represented Asian cuisines in the Convoy District. The standout is Mekong Cuisine Lao and Thai. One of the features of Mekong’s menu is the opportunity to explore the differences between the two neighboring cuisines. One example is their respective takes on green papaya salad. The difference-maker is the Lao version’s use of a fish sauce made from pickled or fermented Mekong River fish. It adds an umami depth and a funkiness to the salad that is overpowering for some and wonderful for others. Or try the Lao Law Nam Khao Tod, a crispy coconut rice dish with cured pork sausage or the Thai Boat Noodles.

 

🇻🇳Vietnamese

Credit: Pho Duyên Mai

At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, there was a significant wave of migration from Vietnam to the United States, which resulted in more than 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants by about 2000. California has the greatest concentration of Vietnamese, with many in San Diego County. One result of this is some excellent Vietnamese restaurants.

Perhaps the signature dish at Phuong Trang is the Shrimp, Pork and Jellyfish Salad, featuring a delicious little mound of shredded green papaya, celery, cucumber and carrots topped with shrimp, pork, jellyfish strips, mint and crushed peanuts surrounded by shrimp chips that double as edible scoop spoons. Another Phuong Trang standout is Bò Nhúng Dấm, beef in vinegar hot pot—basically, a Vietnamese fondue where thinly sliced beef is cooked at the table in a vinegar broth and then put together in a summer roll with noodles, lettuce and herbs. Once assembled, you dunk the roll in a spicy, sweet and umami-rich dipping sauce. For phở, the beef noodle soup that is the signature dish of Vietnamese cuisine for many Americans, the best bet around the Convoy is Pho Duyên Mai. The phở is good, but the Bún bò Huế is even better.

In reality, there is no shortage of great dining options in San Diego’s Convoy District. Throw a stone and chances are there is really good food within feet of where that stone lands. The toughest question is which country’s cuisine to try on a given day and which to save for the next. The Convoy District truly is a mecca for Asian dining.

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