Recently named one of San Diego County’s top ten places to live, the town, affectionately nicknamed IB, represents the continental U.S.’s most southwesterly city, with circular signage at its Palm Avenue entrance proclaiming this distinction.

A drive through this laid-back, low-key, under-the-radar kind of place reveals a destination in the midst of transformation. Once a locale to go to for blockbuster surfing and basic seafood, IB still serves up epic waves along its 3 ½ mile shoreline, but complementing these noted breakers is a food scene that is deliciously divergent.

Tijuana Estuary nature walk

Follow me beyond IB’s noted Surfboard Museum, its pier, and the Tijuana Estuary (Southern California’s largest coastal wetland and home to more than 370 native and migratory birds) on a tasty tour of the city.

SEA180˚ Coastal Tavern (a member of the renowned Cohn Restaurant Group) is IB’s best known and highest profile restaurant. It is situated beachside at the three-year old, four-story, 78-room Pier South Resort, which also showcases the D‘ames Spa and Alta Mar Rooftop Terrace. Positioned with a prime view of the pier and the surrounding sea, the restaurant’s expansive terrace is the place to be, sangria is the beverage to imbibe, Baja cioppino is the dish not to miss, and Jason is the waiter to serve you (among his suggestions: Oysters Rockefeller, Brussels sprouts with balsamic glaze and crispy pancetta, and the day’s fresh catch).

Lobster roll at SEA180˚ Coastal Tavern
Alta Mar Rooftop Terrace
Lobster roll at SEA180˚ Coastal Tavern
Alta Mar Rooftop Terrace
The Spirit of Imperial Beach bronze sculpture at sunset

Only steps away are more options—all flavorful and most in nondescript settings. Among Aroma Thai’s chef specials are such distinctive choices as mango, avocado and pumpkin curries and a sampler of fried spring rolls, crab angels and coconut shrimp.

Known for the region’s best tacos is IB Street Tacos, touted for its simple menu and authentic preparation of specialties such as the portobello taco.  

Little Red Café is especially valued for its breakfast choices—from red baked eggs (served with harissa, red bell pepper, chili pepper, cilantro, and feta) to the açaí bowl with peanut butter, apple, cinnamon, toasted coconut, and almond milk—and its assortment of hot and iced coffees and teas.  

Island-inspired and a perennially popular favorite is Big Kahuna’s (featured in the movie Pulp Fiction), whose menu description of its signature Big Kahuna burger says it all: Biggest and best burger in town. For its end-of-the-pier location, a visit to the casual seafood chain restaurant Tin Fish is a must. But if you want to go straight to dessert, a trip to Cow-A-Bunga ice cream shop for such delights as pistachio, peanut butter brownie, or caramel sea salt ice cream is mandatory.

And the best part of IB’s “eats” is that it’s possible to munch your way through the city’s variety at the annual Taste of Imperial Beach, held each March for the past 14 years.

Volcano burger from Big Kahuna’s

A banner on Seacoast Drive captures the vibe of this San Diego County destination: “Ocean air, salty hair, not a care, take me there.” With the addition of such future enticements as the city’s second beachfront hotel, placement of the Navy’s Special Warfare Training Campus on the town’s north side, and the Bikeway Village project (a two-acre development catering to bikers and walkers along San Diego’s 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway, including a Coronado Brewing Company restaurant and tasting room), IB is clearly on the move.

In summary, Van Zandt is succinct: “This is not your grandfather’s Imperial Beach. IB’s stock is going up.”

Bikeway Village project rendering
Bikeway Village project rendering
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