As the name Little Saigon suggests, this corridor along El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue in City Heights is a Vietnamese enclave. But it’s so much more than a destination for delicious spring rolls and bahn mi. For starters, Little Saigon is home to many people of Southeast Asian origin. And—if that weren’t enough of its own identity—it’s also home to Little Mogadishu, the U.S.’s second biggest community of Somali-Americans. And did we mention that it’s becoming a full-fledged arts district in its own right, too?
Where: Southeast Corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Menlo Avenue
For a bit of local color, stop by this eye-catching mural gracing the side of Sin Lee Food Corporation. The dragon, cyclist wearing a conical hat, and other images speak to the area’s Southeast Asian roots. It’s just one of as many as 20 art installations that are part of the Little Saigon Project, an art campaign featuring the work of local artists that speak to the area’s personality.
Where: 4644 El Cajon Boulevard
What better way to get a taste of the area than to stop into this no-fuss Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant for soups, noodles, and vegetables galore. Enjoy a freshly hacked-open coconut or Vietnamese coffee while you peruse the extensive menu of rice porridge, chow fun, fried rice, and countless other tasty dishes from the region.
Where: 4869 University Ave.
The kabobs and gyros here are familiar as staples of Middle Eastern and East African cuisine. But this unassuming restaurant serves it all up Somali style. The plates of chicken, goat, and lamb with salads and rice pair with tropical fruit juice and the all-important banana—both complimentary accoutrements to every meal.
Where: 3120 Euclid AVe
City Farmers Nursery, a working organic farm and supply store, whose sister restaurant, Nate’s Garden Grill, is on the property. The local, organic produce, free range chicken and eggs, and grass-fed beef are served along with house-brewed beer on an outdoor patio. Enjoy rustic charm and frequent live music sets with house-cured salmon gravlax, biscuits and gravy, barbecue chicken, kale salad, and more.
Where: 4465 University Ave.
Far more than a mere coffee shop, this nonprofit organization that believes in “radical inclusiveness” provides job training to local young people who might have trouble getting work experience. Their current employees include one native San Diegan as well as natives of Ethiopia, Burma, and Eritrea. You can donate directly to their website. Or support them by stopping in for “culturally authentic” drinks like Vietnamese iced coffee, Ethiopian coffee, Mexican mocha, and some small bites.
Where: 4644 El Cajon Blvd.
No stop to this part of town would be complete without sampling a bahn mi sandwich. This to-go-only restaurant isn’t much for atmosphere. But serious sandwich aficionados know it’s the place to grab this classic Vietnamese snack. Order your char-broiled pork, meatloaf and pate, or other variety. Then devour their delicious mix of salty meats and pickled vegetables on a crispy and soft baguette.