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Central + South American Food in North County San Diego

Central + South American Food in North County San Diego

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It would surprise few to learn that, given its relative geographic proximity to the regions situated below it, that San Diego’s North County region is a bit of a mecca for cuisine emanating from Central and South America.

San Diego County at-large is more well-renowned for delicious and authentic Mexican food due to its shared border with the country. But North County also offers a variety of options ranging from Peruvian, Salvadorian, Brazilian, Colombian, Venezuelan, Cuban and other varieties of Latin American grub, too.

Because it can be difficult to figure out who is who and what is what, we’ve pulled together a guide for you easily separated off by food category and mapped out by location.

So plug in what you’re looking for, get the coordinates in your GPS and hit the road and go explore! A taste of Central and South America awaits you right in your neck of the woods.

Cafe Secret

With both a breakfast menu and an online order take-out food option, Del Mar’s Cafe Secret is a good entry into the orbit of Latin American food, especially if you’ve never tried it. While not a fusion restaurant, the menu is fully spelled out in terms of what you’re getting for each item found within it, making it user-friendly for a novice.

As for the details of the food itself, choices range from Peruvian-style soup, quinoa, salad, tamales, empanadas and other delectable dishes for appetizers. Main dishes feature a large range of options for ceviche-based dishes (cold fish), as well as a seafood-dominant list of entrées. If you’ve got any room in your stomach after that, try the cuatro leches cake or the chocolate bread pudding.

If you’re looking for the breakfast menu, it’s more of a typical US-style affair, featuring french toast, eggs and toast, a breakfast burrito and a bacon croissant sandwich. But if you’re looking for something a bit outside of your normal comfort box, try out some quinoa oatmeal or a quinoa tamale.

El Chapín Restaurant

Looking for a spot with a wide-ranging and authentic menu, as well as breakfast choices in the morning? El Chapín Restaurant in Oceanside is your spot for Guatemalan cuisine.

If you’ve never tried one, definitely order a pupusa, also known as a thick flour tortilla-like piece of bread stuffed with a mix of ingredients and cooked on a hot iron. How about a michelada, a blended beer-based drink mixed with lime juice, as well as a mix of sauces, spices, and peppers? Now’s your chance to give it a try.

The menu’s staples features a big list of soups, seafood-based dishes and various meats well-marinated and loaded with rich flavor.

Panca Peruvian Rotisserie

If you’ve got a craving for Peruvian food, then Panca Peruvian Rotisserie is your jam. It even has a delivery option if you’re not up for dining in or driving over. Appetizers include quinoa cakes, scallop wantons and a chance to try out authentic sauces such as ocapa and papa a la huancaiana. Fish-based soups and a chicken-based soup are also on the menu.

As the restaurant name implies, the entré list includes various sizes of Peruvian-style rotisserie chickens (only $23.95 for a full family size chicken, which comes with a large side and a salad). It also features stuffed potatoes (papa rellena) and other meat-centric choices.

Arepas Papachon

Arepas Papachon, a Venezuelan restaurant located in Encinitas, is a one-trick pony. It serves exclusively several iterations of arepas, a food that basically can be described as a corn-based or flour-based thick piece of dough stuffed with a variety of fillings. It is known as the food of Venezuela, chowed down as both a snack and as the anchor of meals.

The menu for Arepas Papachon includes various chicken, beef and cheese-stuffed arepas.

Sabor de Vida Brazilian Grill

If fusion-style food is your thing, Sabor de Vida Brazilian Grill in Encinitas has what you’re looking for. Like many US-based Brazilian restaurants, meat choices dominate the menu. Yuca fries and pastels, which are a bit like empanadas, are also featured items worth ordering as appetizers.

Looking to take the food home to-go and not really up for talking on the phone with anyone to make the order? You’re in luck, as Sabor de Vida has an online ordering option.

Cuscatlan Comida Salvadoreña

The outlet Thrillist offers a synopsis of the Cuscatlan Comida Salvadoreñas menu with more enthusiasm and excitement that I ever could, so here’s their take:

“El Salvador’s version of a French Dip, the Pan Relleno (pictured up top) is a hollowed-out, house-baked French roll loaded with shredded chicken/veggies, and served with a dip (which they also recommend pouring over the whole shebang) of peanuts, sesame seeds, bell pepper, tomato onion, and achiote. Those wearing elastic-waisted Bugle Boys will want to smash on the Cuscatlan Sampler with chicharrones, fried yuca, sweet corn tamales, banana leaf-wrapped chicken or pork tamales, and two of the stuffed pupusas with chicharron, beans & cheese.”

Interestingly, Cuscatlan Comida Salvadoreña started as a pizza shop and still serves pizza, so if you’re looking for a catch-all meal, that’s also an option. The menu is immense and includes various cuts of meats, seafood, soups and plenty of appetizer choices, all for a rather low price.

Las Pupusas Mama Lita Restaurant Salvadoreño

With a name that’s a mouthful to say, you won’t have any problem stuffing your mouth with the authentic Salvadorian food that is the hallmark of Las Pupusas Mama Lita Restaurant Salvadoreño. The restaurant has a large menu, including a breakfast menu, which features steak and eggs, chorizo and eggs and several other options.

Papusas, or finger-width stuffed thick pieces of flour bread, are also central the menu, going for only just over $3 a pop. Fried yucas (a bit like potatoes), fried bananas, empenadas and tamales are all on the appetizer menu, too.

Casa Del Q’ero

Casa Del Q’ero has what many other Peruvian restaurants on this list have, but in a fine-dining setting. The prices are higher, but if you’re seeking out fine-dining within this particular genre, this is a place to do it. Various steaks, seafoods, salads and vegetables and other Peruvian dishes all adorn this restaurant’s menu.

Looking for a pre-meal happy hour hangout? Case Del Q’ero also has you covered, with draft beers, sangria, wines and tapas all on the menu from 4-6 on Tuesday-Saturday.

Q’ero Restaurant

With the same owner as Casa Del Q’ero, the name similarities aren’t a coincidence. Neither is the similarity in the quality of the food over at Q’ero Restaurant, which has a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu.

Breakfast features tacu tacu, which combines refried Peruvian canary beans with rice, fried plantains, and baby spinach topped with fried eggs. There’s also a quinoa bowl mixed with eggs and vegetables, as well as purple corn pancakes. Need a morning caffeine pick-me-up? Grab a café de olla, which combines brewed coffee and grounded cinnamon in a clay pot. Plantains, yucas and other items also are available as sides. Suffice to say, if the restaurant were breakfast alone, it’d be worth checking out!

Luckily, it has two other meals covered, too and covered well at that. Both meals combine hallmark Peruvian items, such as ceviche, steak and seafood plates, quinoa-centric dishes, empenadas, arepas, yucas, plantains, and more.

Steve Horn: Steve Horn is a Carmel Valley-based writer the climate/energy website and a freelance investigative journalist/researcher for-hire. Before moving to San Diego in December 2017, Steve also served on the Narrative/Documentary Shorts Film Review Committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he lived from 2016-2017, moving there from Madison, Wisconsin. Born in Chicago and raised in the southeastern Wisconsin city of Kenosha, WI, Steve is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His writing has appeared in multiple publications, including Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, The Guardian (UK), Vice News, TYT Investigates, NUVO, Isthmus,, Vocativ, Wisconsin Watch and elsewhere. In his free time, Steve is a competitive runner, with a personal best time of 2:43.