OMG: Best Food Challenges in San Diego

It’s Huge!

Unleash Your Inner Competitive Eater at SD’s Best Food Challenges

Written By: Marissa Wright

Photographed By: Hunter Cole

Competition is as old as civilization, so it’s safe to say that we have had plenty of time to turn any situation into an opportunity to be victorious. Even the ancient Greeks with all of their philosophy and education created the Olympic Games to please Zeus. Physical challenges have come in many forms over the years, but there wasn’t much talk of competitive eating until county fairs began featuring a pie eating contest. Nowadays we have Major League Eating and between 80-100 competitions a year with some of them airing on ESPN. If you have ever watched Kobayashi mow down hot dogs and wondered what you’re made of, San Diego has plenty of food challenges to help you measure your competitive eating potential. With a varied list of cuisine options hosting huge food, you have the luxury of choosing your flavor or poison – depending on how you see it. Feeling Italian? Grab a friend and hit Luigi’s At The Beach in Mission Beach. Never had the meat sweats? Tackle the Trough or try to join Club 38 and you might get to feel them in all their glory. No matter where you choose to flex your chowing muscles at least you have quality grub to (almost) ease the pain, and you won’t be too far from the beach if you need to relax after. I would rather have a stomach ache in San Diego than most places.

Bull’s Smokin BBQ
1127 W Morena Blvd
San Diego, CA 92110
619.276.2855 |

Bull’s Smokin BBQ has been doing Texas-style BBQ since opening their doors in March of 2009, and if you ask any of the locals who frequent, they’ll tell you Bull’s is doing it right. Texas-style BBQ is all about the dry rub and smoking low and slow. The brisket and pulled pork are smoked for 11-14 hours while the salmon, chicken, and beef and pork ribs are all smoked for three hours. The beef and pork ribs are probably what they’re best known for and would be falling off the bone if there wasn’t so much meat on them. If you’re into sauce on your BBQ, Bull’s has three signature sauces to choose from: original (a classic BBQ sauce with layers of flavor), sweet (with a touch of honey), and what they call their Aioli BBQ Sauce (it’s more like a spicy kick to the taste buds, but in a good way). The husband and wife dynamic duo Bull’s has in the kitchen make all of the rubs and sauces from scratch and handle smoking all the meats, and they really have it down to an artform. I haven’t tasted BBQ this good since the last time I was visiting family in Texas. It is that serious. Bull’s selection of sides mostly sticks to classics: coleslaw, Bull’s (baked) Beans, Bull’s Fries, sweet corn, mac and cheese, and cornbread. They elevate their sides with little surprises like crumbled Cheez-Its topping their mac and cheese. True to San Diego, the beer selection at Bull’s Smokin BBQ is focused on local breweries and just the thing to wash down some hearty ‘que.

What’s the challenge?

Finish the Trough in one hour or less — weighing in around seven pounds of food, it’s a beast. The Through is comprised of eight smoked pork ribs, six smoked beef ribs, half of a smoked chicken, two sides (of your choice), and four pieces of cornbread.

What do you win?

As if pride isn’t enough, winners get a photo on the Wall of Fame with their name and the date and $25 gift certificate.

Who’s finished?

The first winner was Darren back in March of 2009. They have also had friends complete the challenge side by side (I guess big appetites flock together). However,  the most recent winner, Joshua Hockett, is the reigning “Trough Champion” after completing the challenge in a mere 25 minutes and 30 seconds. After seeing the plate of food, I’m amazed 15 people have completed the challenge over the last six years.

Native Knowledge: Their covered patio is dog-friendly (they provide water bowls and complimentary bones) and has a 20-foot projection screen they use to show sporting events and even rock concerts.


Fat Sal’s Deli
956 Garnet Ave
San Diego, CA 92109
855.682.4373 |

Fat Sal’s delivers on its original goal to bring delicious and over-the-top food to anyone who enters its doors. Their Fat Sandwiches start innocently enough with a fresh hero roll base and then the rules of sandwich making go out the window, leaving room for ingredients like mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, fries, potato salad and potato chips. The creation burdened with living up to the Fat Sal name is comprised of freshly sliced roast beef, mozzarella sticks, onion rings, and fries all topped with brown gravy and mayo on a garlic hero roll, but the most popular Fat Sandwiches are probably the Fat Jerry and the Fat Texas BBQ. While it would be easy enough to rest on the novelty of the menu, Fat Sal’s keeps the emphasis on the ingredients themselves. They use Boar’s Head deli meat that is shaved in-house. They make their burger patties by hand and sauces from scratch. They even get their bread delivered daily to ensure that every sandwich from Sal’s is a home run. But the fun doesn’t end with sandwiches, Fat Sal’s has Fat Fries loaded with everything from buffalo chicken to Philly cheesesteak. They also have tasty salads for those concerned about their beach body, and a new take on egg rolls stuffed to taste like a meat lover’s pizza, buffalo chicken wings, or a pastrami Rueben.

What’s the challenge?

Finish the Big Fat Fatty sandwich in under 40 minutes (and don’t die). The Big Fat Fatty is a 27 inch garlic hero roll with five burger patties, one and a half pound cheesesteak, one and a half pound pastrami, chicken fingers, an entire package of bacon, mozzarella sticks, five fried eggs, jalapeño poppers, french fries and onion rings topped with chili, marinara and fat sauce. This beauty hits the scale weighing an estimated 10-12 pounds.

What do you win?

Fat Sal’s will pick up the tab for the sandwich, and you get to design your own “fat” sandwich that goes on the menu at every Fat Sal’s.

Who’s finished?

Out of hundreds who have attempted, there have only been two people who have successfully taken down the Big Fat Fatty. The Fat Jamie was born after Jamie “The Bear” McDonald became the first to slay the beast, and the Fat Bahn-Mi(ki) was the result of Miki Sudo’s victory.

Native Knowledge: They deliver in Pacific Beach if you get the Postmates app.


Papa Luna’s Empanadas
1050 Columbia St
San Diego, CA 92101
619.236.8400 |

An empanada is a baked or fried pastry that is stuffed with meat, cheese, vegetables, or whatever else you can get in there. While no one is for sure on who made them first, you can find variations of the empanada in cuisines all over Europe, the Middle East, and central and South America. For owner, Scott Baer, Argentina was the setting for his discovery of and eventual love affair with the empanada. Good for any situation, Baer was determined to bring these filled pockets to Southern California and opened the doors to Papa Luna’s in 2012. The menu at Papa Luna’s pays homage to Argentina with the Carne Molida (a classic made of lean ground beef, green olive, hard-boiled egg, potato and raisins), the Empanada de Pollo (chicken, onion, green chile, and bell pepper), and Espinaca con Queso (spinach and cheese with onions and garlic). But it’s the more adventurous stuffing ideas that get the most attention at their Downtown location. The Sunny Goat is of their most popular and starts with a classic pastry and is filled with organic goat cheese, Italian sausage and sun-dried tomatoes. If empanadas don’t feel like a complete meal already or you’re in the mood for something lighter, Papa Luna’s has salads and ceviche for you to grab while you’re on the go. No matter what you choose, you can taste the love in the locally-sourced ingredients that make up everything they serve.

What’s the challenge?

Eat more empanadas in a 90 minute period than the reigning champ.

What do you win?

A snazzy t-shirt, full reimbursement for the meal, and bragging rights for days.

Who’s finished?

Ryan Cullenward of Pacific Beach took down 12 but was bested by Rick Telles when he finished 14 in just 70 minutes. The title was at 17 until Jamie “The Bear” McDonald came to town and demolished 37 empanadas.

Native Knowledge: They now have gluten free options, but with limited quantities it’s best to call ahead for availability and flavors.


Luigi’s at the Beach
3210 Mission Blvd
San Diego, CA 92109
858.488.2818 |

Originally opened by an Italian man named Luigi (surprise, surprise), Luigi’s At The Beach has been a staple of Mission Beach since 1985. While the ownership has traded hands a couple of times now, Luigi’s family recipes still drive the simple menu. The newest and most current owners refuse to alter any recipes because they know a good thing when they taste it — and the food tastes like someone’s Italian grandma is in the kitchen. Serving up New York style pies, Luigi’s makes their dough and sauces from scratch and cook their pizzas in a stone oven, like they should be. The majority of guests take advantage of their enormous slices that they can customize with whatever toppings they want and enjoy their draft selection that features some local craft beers. The regulars know their 30-inch pizzas are perfect for parties or nights that you just don’t feel like cooking.

What’s the Challenge?

Luigi’s Pizza Eating Challenge is pretty simple. Two people have one hour to devour a 30-inch cheese pizza without leaving, going to the bathroom or throwing up. Think it sounds easy? You’re probably underestimating the size of this pie.

What do you win?

Two Luigi’s shirts, the giant pizza free of charge, and a spot on the Hall of Fame.

Has anyone won?

74 duos have managed to tackle this monster pie since they started the challenge.

Native Knowledge: It can get crowded inside and on the patio, so just grab a giant slice and take it to the beach across the street. Beach front picnic anyone?


Lucha Libre Taco Shop
1810 Washington St
San Diego, CA 92103
619.296.8226 |

San Diego is home to more than its fair share of Mexican food spots, and it’s no surprise. While plenty of places are focused on the most authentic experience, Lucha Libre tries to distinguish itself by delivering gourmet tacos and burritos with a little something extra. The Surf & Turf Taco is mostly what you would expect featuring steak, shrimp and avocado with “Special Sauce” on top, but the Flaco Taco is the real hero if you’re trying to be a lightweight and watching the carbs. Forgoing the usual tortilla for a lettuce wrap, the Flaco Taco gives you the choice of grilled chicken or Mahi Mahi to go with pickled onion strings, cilantro and avocado. Their tacos aren’t the only star; the DDT Loaded Baked Potato is totally unexpected for a taco stand, and you won’t find any places that serve TJ Corn like Lucha Libre. If you brought a big appetite, a burrito or one of the overflowing quesadillas will do the trick. Man v. Food came for the Surfin’ California Burrito and was not disappointed by the combination of steak, shrimp, fries, cheese, avocado and Super Secret Chipotle Sauce. When you make your way over, keep your eyes peeled — it can be easy to drive right by if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Also, they get packed during peak times so don’t be surprised if you can’t grab a seat. I promise the food tastes just as good on your feet.

What’s the Challenge?

Eat the most TJ hot dogs in 20 minutes. In case you aren’t in the know, a TJ hot dog is bacon wrapped and topped with grilled onions, mayo, ketchup and mustard on a bun.

What do you win?

A t-shirt and a date with some antacids.

Has anyone won?

Competitive eater Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set the record at 29 TJ dogs and went unchallenged for a while, but “The Bear” aka Jamie McDonald managed to choke down 30 just in time to become the new reigning champ.

Native Knowledge: Vegetarians love this spot – they don’t cook with lard unlike a lot of the traditional Mexican places around and have lots of options for those not carne inclined.


Bully’s East
2401 Camino del Rio S
San Diego, CA 92108
619.291.2665 |

Bully’s first opened in La Jolla but has been at home in Mission Valley since 1971. Most well known for taking prime rib off the banquet table and making it accessible, Bully’s East is a San Diego landmark according to locals. The carved wood door gives a nod to the founder’s horse racing roots and welcomes you to the dimly lit sports bar and its classic décor. Walking into Bully’s East is like hopping in a time machine back to the ’70s in the best ways possible. At the same time, they still have an online presence, and update specials daily on Facebook and Instagram thus proving they have moved into the future (at least a little). Their menu is pretty expansive while still staying true to what made it an institution in the first place — the prime rib. With many different options for the prime rib, guests can opt for eight ounce (regular or horseradish crusted), 11 ounce, 16 ounce, 22 ounce bone-in, or the 38 ounce “Beast”. The general consensus says to avoid the side salads but definitely get the French onion soup and Anna’s Potatoes and their cheesy gloriousness. They still do Early Bird Specials, so it pays to get there before 5:30 p.m. or just come in on a Wednesday when it’s Early Bird All Night. If you’re a late night eater, they serve appetizers until 11 p.m. most nights so you can grab a bite without having to resort to the drive through.

What’s the Challenge?

Sounding more like an exclusive group, the Club 38 challenges guests to eat their 38 ounce “Beast” slice of prime rib and two sides.

What do you win?

A t-shirt. Unless you join the club five times, then they buy your next Club 38 meal.

Has anyone won?

Despite the staggering 38 ounce size, quite a few have finished, but I suspect it’s because they don’t give you a hard time limit. A manager said they had two little old ladies complete the challenge side by side.

Native Knowledge: They serve abalone on Friday and Saturday nights but don’t worry – they get their abalone supply from a sustainable source so you can enjoy guilt free.


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Marissa is an Orange County native who has called Costa Mesa home for the past ten years. Small business supporter and a lover of all things “locally grown”, she spends her free time cooking from scratch, singing in the shower, and trying to break a sweat. If you asked her mother, she would say Marissa is “something else” and has no shortage of opinions. A long-time veteran of the service industry, she can be spotted in the wild probably trading war stories and laughing too loudly.


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