Dragon at Vietnamese New Year in San Diego

It was only supposed to be a simple getaway; our first time venturing out to see what the ‘rest’ of California had to offer for one just night. I always thought of San Diego of being kind of tame. I assumed it was a little pocket of the world with infinitely perfect weather home to palm trees, exotic zoo animals and the happy-go-lucky-because-i-don’t-know-what-winter-is residents.

But then we arrived, and all of our expectations vaporized. The first gem was the wonderful smell of food permeating the open air like an infusion; every block was a pocket of new and intriguing scents. Everywhere we looked there was a cafe, or restaurant, or bar all equally inviting, with seductive menus and inviting terraces. Before us was a fusion of NYC cuisine, San Francisco architecture, the village atmosphere of Amsterdam and the night-life of all three. Oh, and did I mention the stunningly turquoise blue ocean? No? Shame on me.

Barbecue pork bun

There was no plan. We had no time to prepare one. And apparently didn’t need one at all. Within 30 minutes of arrival, we had hit the street and happened upon the Chinese Lunar New Year Festival. The celebration was in full force just two blocks from our hotel in the Gaslamp district.

The Gaslamp is a historic district in downtown San Diego chock full of more fabulous food and drink options than you can shake a stick at. Oh, and there are clubs, lots of ’em. Naturally, this is where we spent the duration of our trip. From Lunar New Year, the next 20 hours were a nonstop adventure. Amazing food, fabulous music, people everywhere having the time of their lives. Let’s start with the first couple hours, shall we?

The Chinese celebrate New Year in February according to the lunar calendar. Many other countries and cultures around the world do this as well, but on this day, it was Chinese-focused event. And that meant dim sum. Despite only two small sections being roped off for the event, there were at least 9 food stalls, all hocking various dim sum, noodles, pastries and other Chinese goodies. And just about every one of them had a sampler. Sign me up.

Assortment of dumplings in San Diego

I am a total whore for street food. And dirty water dogs are not included. Whenever traveling to a new place, be it LA or Istanbul, street food is the easiest way to learn about the food culture. Most of the time it’s great.

Just follow the long lines for a clear path to a happy tummy. Think of it as tapas you can walk around with. No big bowls of pasta. But 5 or 6 different courses, or more, that cure the hunger, stimulate curiosity, and clue you in to what the locals eat. With the huge concentration of Chinese in California, I nearly jumped out of my skin after eying the smorgasbord.

First we chowed on some dim sum. Our first sampler included Cha Siu Bao, a bun (or roll, if you will) the size of your fist with a filling of tender barbecued pork and sweet BBQ sauce. Also, Siu Mai, dumplings with a rice noodle shell filled with huge moist chunks of shrimp and pork, and savory sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf.

But hands down my favorite of the festival was the Asian BBQ sandwich, as they called it, but was a near dead ringer for Bahn Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of roasted pork, pickled carrot, cucumber and cilantro on a, no kidding, French baguette. Which we proceeded to then douse with chili sauce. This version featured juicy roasted chicken in place of the pork. You many not hear me say this ever again, but on this sandwich, the chicken was definitely giving pork a run for its money.

Banh Mi Sandwich

Round two was a bit more Americanized-Chinese, as happens with most transplanted cultures in the States, but delicious nonetheless. Vegetable egg rolls, spicy chicken wings, a surprisingly rich steamed chestnut sponge cake and potstickers with a pork and veggie filling. We washed it down with Boba Tea, or bubble tea. This is an iced beverage of black tea, condensed milk and the star, huge tapioca pearls which solve the burning question of what it would be like to chew your drink.

Drummer at Lunar New Year in San Diego

Nothing aids digestion better than performance art! While munching on dessert, we watched a group of amazing drummers pounding on massive drums in a coordinated, almost choreographed, display of Chinese tradition. Then there was singing, which consisted of a pitches I was never meant to hear, but the outfits were totally awesome.

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3 thoughts on “san diego

  1. Actually, yes. With Filippinos especially, we can eat whatever type of food at any time of the day. Dinner for breakfast? Why, yes!

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