Though La Mesa lies just east of San Diego’s official boundary, it’s an easily overlooked neighborhood—which is unfortunate considering the new additions to the area’s drinking and dining scene over the last few years.
Living by the beach, I’m especially guilty of dismissing La Mesa’s charms, so I decided to head a few miles inland for a day to see what I’ve been missing.
9:30am—Public Square Coffee
Nestled right in the middle of La Mesa’s main drag—the eponymous La Mesa Boulevard—is Public Square Coffee.
In its description, the shop says what the world “needs is connection...Public Square is a place for exactly that.” Since I often find myself identifying with this need, I knew that Public Square was where my tour of La Mesa should begin.
The cafe has an appealing and varied menu; I settled on a freshly baked scone with a “flight” of housemade maple-cayenne, guava, and blueberry butters. To drink, I ordered my usual morning standard, a cappuccino, and took out my laptop to get some work done in the cheerful and creative space.
I decided to take a quick hike before it got too hot—and hiking is fairly easy to do in La Mesa with its variety of neighborhood hills and trails. Secret Stairs are somewhat hidden near the downtown area, but the popular climb can be found at the intersection of Canterbury Avenue and Windsor Drive, just a few blocks from University Avenue and La Mesa Boulevard.
The hike up 245 steps is a real heart-pumper, but well worth the huffing and puffing: The summit boasts generous city views.
All of that exercise convinced me I deserved a beer, so I trekked back down to La Mesa Boulevard and headed to Sheldon’s Service Station, an appropriately named restaurant in a former gas and service station.
The tap list here features a rotating cast of local brews, and the food menu is geared towards breakfast and lunch dishes. I grabbed a Mikkeller hazy IPA and an order of avocado toast, took a seat on the outdoor shaded patio, and watched the lunch crowd materialize as foot traffic began to pick up across La Mesa Boulevard.
After lunch I headed to Vine Ripe, a market that specializes in European and Middle Eastern grocery and deli items alongside organic produce and other foodstuffs.
Of particular interest are their bulk and spice sections, which offers a range of products not easily found elsewhere in San Diego. The spice aisle has just about everything a cook could ever want: Pink peppercorns, za’atar, sumac, anise, and five-spice powder are just a sampling from an impressive selection. Beans, grains, lentils, and rice are also available in bulk.
Locals love Vine Ripe’s deli section—notably their variety of feta cheeses and sandwiches, like the popular Tri-Tip Fecta, a pepper medley tri-tip hoagie with caramelized red onions, mushrooms, wasabi-cilantro mayonnaise, and fresh provolone cheese on a crusty roll. I grabbed one for the road.
La Mesa is the latest community to play host to San Diego’s craft beer obsession, where new tasting rooms seem to open every few months.
Helix Brewing Co. features 12 rotating taps, ranging from double IPA hop bombs to chocolatey stouts to Belgian-style ales. The afternoon heat inspired me to order the Acid Drop, a tart but refreshing Bavarian-style weizen with Goldings hops and German yeast that clocks in at a low 3.7% ABV—perfect for the blazing sun. While there, I dug into my sandwich from Vine Ripe; the red onions cut the fat from the mayo, cheese, and tri-tip, and the heat from the wasabi rounded everything out. The light beer was the perfect accompaniment.
After drinking and snacking some more, I decided to walk it off by heading to Amethyst Moon and perusing the boutique’s offerings; bright purple and opaque amethysts and other stones, metaphysical books, incense, massage and Reiki candles, essential oils, and jewelry are all on display in the well-appointed gift shop.
5:30pm—La Mesa Wineworks
I found that when it comes to happy hour, La Mesa Wineworks can’t be beat.
It’s a cooperative tasting room operated by two separate San Diego County wineries, San Pasqual Winery and Wyatt Oaks Winery. Though some of the wines offered were made with grapes sourced from elsewhere in California, I decided to stick to San Diego County fruit. I opted for a peppery 2013 Zinfandel from Wyatt Oaks because I appreciate opportunities to taste wines that omit sulfites (preservatives) from the winemaking process.
For dinner, I decided to check out one of my favorite North Park mainstays: City Tacos. Their La Mesa outpost has the same California-meets-Mexico menu but is more friendly to dining in.
With ample seating inside and a sprawling, comfortable patio out back, it’s the ideal spot to wile away an evening while eating original tacos and sipping on Mexican brews or agua frescas. My favorite is the chorizo asado taco with melted Oaxaca cheese, so I ordered up one of those as well as the Especial with shrimp, octopus, squid, Oaxaca cheese, panko-fried snow crab, cilantro, and serrano chiles on a flour tortilla.
With its bustling residential community and hearty dose of local pride, La Mesa is an example of San Diego County at its best. La Mesans are embracing the way their enclave is growing and changing and are dedicated to supporting local businesses and restaurants (like the highly anticipated fourth location of Surfrider Pizza). This is no small feat in a world where big-box stores and chain restaurants are proliferating at a fast clip.
Another bonus is that the downtown village area is exceptionally walkable and has multiple transit stops for both the MTS bus and trolley. There are plenty of excuses to explore the Village on foot during the farmers’ market (3–7pm) on a Friday afternoon, during the summer car shows on a Thursday evening, or during the La Mesa Oktoberfest—one of the best in the county—which will be celebrating its 45th anniversary this year from September 28–30.
Looking for a delicious day steeped in all things local? Turns out one needn’t look much further than just east down the 8.