“Food is so expensive in San Diego- I spent over $30 just on breakfast!”
That’s what my friends who visited San Diego told me before I moved here.
So, I was worried. I love eating out. I remember thinking, “Do I need to stop eating out regularly? Will I still be able to overpay my loans by $2000 each month, even though it doesn’t make a dent because the interest rate is so high and I live in a country that values education only for the wealthy?”
But, I quickly learned that while it is easy to find expensive food, it’s just as easy to find cheap food.
No, I’m not talking about going to large, global fast food chains.
I’m also not talking about making all of your meals at home or skipping out on the typical three meals a day.
And I am not going to make you drive out of your way to some suburb-y place when you’re exploring the city with limited time.
It’s possible to find a variety of amazing, delicious, local-ish, and sometimes even health conscious restaurants whether you’re exploring downtown, around Balboa Park, at the beaches, North Park, Hillcrest, etc. This guide will help you not go completely broke on food while still trying tasty food near the main places you’ll be visiting if you’re traveling to San Diego. I’m using my friend’s baseline of $30 on a meal as the max for the day. In fact, these are all under $25! If that’s not affordable for you, this post won’t apply, sorry.
Where to eat in San Diego on a budget
Notes before we dig in:
- Alcohol, soda, sides, desserts, appetizers, fancy add-ons, etc aren’t included- you’re broke!
- Tax/tip are not included. It’s the American way!
- This isn’t targeted towards people with dietary restrictions (but if you’re interested in this, let me know in the comments).
- This is not a comprehensive list of all the cheap restaurants in San Diego. These are (1) examples of types of places that are cheap and (2) proof that a couple do exist.
Sample Day 1: $22
Breakfast burritos at Cheap Taco Stands: <$6
Fast Mexican food places are everywhere in San Diego. For a cheap, tasty, and filing breakfast, you need a breakfast burrito from one of these places. To be perfectly honest, if you’re me this will last you all day because they are massive.
Where to get them? Well, good ones are everywhere. There are too many good ones. Here are a couple of my personal favorite cheapest (under $6) ones:
- El Maguey de Cotija: $4.99 egg, cheese, and potato burrito
- Taco Stand: Though not a taco shop in the El Maguey de Cotija sense, they have $5.99 chorizo and egg burritos.
Note: This breakfast burrito is technically from Kono’s Cafe and, while amazing and massive, was a whopping <$7.
Sandwiches at Local Coffee Shops: <$7
Are people surprised to see coffee shops in this diatribe of cheap food? Or is it just me that thinks they’re cheap here after moving from a place that had $15 coffee shop sandwiches? Anyway, many coffee shop sandwiches in San Diego tend to be filling, delicious, and affordable. Just don’t get a latte if you’re trying to save. Those are still expensive.
- 99 Cups has a tasty $6 turkey sandwich, but my absolute favorite is:
- Influx Cafe‘s $6.95 Turkey 1 sandwich on foccacia
- This sandwich is one of the best things I have ever eaten. Full stop.
If you want to save a bit more money, head to a deli instead. Delis with cheap sandwiches are everywhere in San Diego. Is this also a thing in not Seattle places?
Note: this sandwich is actually from Board and Brew, a local sandwich chain with $7.50-$8.95 sandwiches on fresh chewy bread. Use their sweet and sour sauce on your sandwich when you go.
Food from Local fast casual chains: <$9
There are a few restaurants that fall into this category. My favorites are:
- The Kebab Shop
- Their panini sandwich bread is thinner (healthier?) than what I’m used to, but it’s so delicious and incredibly filling. For people like me, get two extra garlic sauces. For the meat eaters, 2/3rds of the lamb and beef sandwich is meat. And it only costs $8.49. Look at it below!
- Carnitas Snack Shack
- Get the carnitas torta for $8.50. It’s the most meat filled and delicious sandwich I’ve ever had. Note that the Embarcadero location costs slightly more than the North Park location, but all the main foods range between $8.50-$12.
Sample Day 2: $24
Randomly Cheap Acai Bowls in Pacific Beach: <$7
My very first acai bowl was $17 (which to be fair, tasted really good). So when I moved to San Diego, I was so surprised to find bowls even under $10! For a sugary, fruity start to your day, consider getting an acai bowl from somewhere in Pacific Beach (is this a thing? In every other district in San Diego, I paid a pricey $8-$9). Here are a few of my favorites:
- The Mad Beet: $6.45, super creative, super tasty bowls
- Rum Jungle Cafe: $6.50, for also creative, super tasty bowls
- Leilani’s Cafe: $6 tasty bowls from a Hawaiian restaurant
- Plus, their ‘real’ food breakfast (omelettes, french toast, rice/eggs/spam) are amazing and affordable ($6-$9).
Food that’s cheaper possibly because of racism <$10
Why is food from some immigrants cheaper than food from others? Oh yeah, this is why. Sarcasm aside, gyros, pho, fast Thai food, fast Chinese food- these are all some of my go to cheap foods whenever I’m traveling anywhere in the US. Some San Diego examples:
- Olympic Cafe: $7.75 for an amazing gyro
- Pho Point Loma and Grill: $6.95 for a small but large-flavored pho
- Red Moon Noodle House: $7-$10 for huge portions of tasty noodle, meat, or veggie Chinese-ish dishes.
Burrito from Cheap Taco Shops: <$7
For an extremely filling and cheap dinner, you could grab a burrito, which will only set you back anywhere from $3 (for like a bean and cheese burrito) to $7 (for a literal pound of meat and potatoes- I mean California burrito). If you want something relatively big but cheaper, get a non-street taco (these are the size of like frozen burritos from the grocery store). You can go to the places in the breakfast burrito section, or really anywhere you see that looks interesting, because they’re all so darn tasty. Here are a few more specific recommendations:
- Roberto’s: $7 for a carne asada burrito
- Santana’s: $7 for a California burrito
- Both of the above are the go to places many would recommend.
- La Perla: $6.50 for a California burrito
- This place is honestly a hidden gem.
Sample Day 3: $23
Sugar from Baked Goods Places: <$3
For those who want a sweet but potentially more fried option, check out some of the Mexican bakeries or local donut places. For example:
- Panchita’s Bakery
- This is one of my favorite Mexican bakeries. Their pastries are anywhere between $0.50 and $3, and they have $1 drip coffee. Note that it’s cash only.
- Donut Bar
- Not only are their donuts creative, fresh, and tasty, but they’re also gigantic. For example, they have one with a pop tart inside. I reaaaally like the cake batter donut ($3) but the donuts can really range from $2-$5.
Food from Slightly more Expensive Local-ish fast casual chains: <$12
For how awesome these places are, the price is totally worth it, and way cheaper than what I would have expected. A couple examples:
- Crack Shack
- Are you interested in the most perfect fried chicken you can get? If so, head to The Crack Shack and get the Coop Deville. It’s also $12.
- Technically the cheapest real food option here $12 and they go up from there. So trying to just stay in that range, I would say to get the chipotle barbeque chicken (also- after choosing your protein, you choose your greens and side). But really all their food is tasty, sustainable, healthy, and fast. There needs to be Tendergreens around the world!!
Local fast burger spots: <$8
- Burger Lounge:
- Grass-fed burgers for $7.99? How is that possible?! Somehow, it is at Burger Lounge. Plus, they taste amazing.
- Crazee Burger
- Though they’re better known for having crazy burgers, with ‘exotic’ ingredients like camel, ostriche, or crocodile, their basic $6.99 burger is delicious, fresh, and one of my favorites.
- In n Out
- The essential delicious Southern California burger. You want a double double, animal style, which will cost <$4.
And there you have it – some of the ways you can eat cheap-ish in San Diego, without having to go out of your way when you’re traveling.
If you want to save even more money on food while traveling, consider not eating out three times a day or going to grocery stores for food (hey, Sprouts’ sandwiches are huge, meaty, delicious, and <$6).
Do you have other recommendations for cheap food in San Diego? Let me know in the comments.
PS: Did you like my food suggestions? Want to read more about my favorite places in other cities (or just wondering why I consider <$12 a cheap meal)? I lived in Seattle for much longer- check out my comprehensive where to eat in Seattle guide!