As a self-proclaimed foodie, there’s nothing I enjoy more than trying different foods and new restaurants. I grew up in the Bay Area, which is known for being diverse, which means all of my favorite foods growing up are all from varying cultures. In moving to San Diego for school, I was excited to try new restaurants, but I had difficulties actually finding the authentic ones, especially while living in La Jolla, where everything is mostly gentrified. While learning about San Diego’s vast refugee population in class, and in my search for good authentic cuisine, I fell down a rabbit hole of researching refugee owned restaurants in San Diego. I hope this collection of refugee owned and operated restaurants can serve as a guide for your next foodie adventure.
Zad Mediterranean Cuisine (yelp)
Zad Mediterranean Cuisine serves delicious grilled dishes such as chicken, veal, lamb, and kofta kebab and shawarma, with classic sides such as fresh tanour bread, pickles, hummus, Iraqi salad, all available in the forms of plates or wraps. The restaurant has earned rave reviews on yelp, all claiming the food is authentic and flavorful, the meats are tender, and the service is amazing. Many claim this is one of the best middle-eastern grills in southern california. Restaurant owner Hassan Frangoul came to the United States as a refugee with his son and pregnant wife during the Iraq war. His family, along with 18,000 other refugees, were relocated to San Diego County where they continue to build a community in El Cajon, which has earned the nickname Little Baghdad due to families and businesses like Frangoul’s.
Al Azayem Restaurant (yelp)
Al Azayem offers classic middle eastern dishes such as biryani(one of my favorites), falafel, lentil soup, chicken tikka, beef kebab, and shawarma, as well as specialty dishes such as liver tikka cutlets and kubba saray baghdadiya. They also offer complimentary tea, bread, soup, and salad to all dine in customers. According to yelp, this restaurant is very popular within the Iraqi community with its delicious food, fast service, large portions, and reasonable prices. This place is perfect for those in search of an authentic, delicious, affordable, and hearty meal. Restaurant owner Mazin Majeed runs this restaurant with his right-hand Reem Esttefain, both men are Iraqi refugees who have built this gem of the community from the ground up.
Alhamdani Sweets (yelp)
Alhamdani Sweets serves a huge variety of traditional middle eastern desserts such as custard-filled znoud el-sit, cheesy kunafa, Iraqi delight, and other Turkish-style sweets. This place is very popular within the diverse middle eastern communities all throughout San Diego, and for good reason. With 4.7 stars on yelp and reviews raving about the fresh, authentic, and beautiful treats, Alhamdani Sweets is a must try if you love desserts and pastries. Husband and wife, Nael Alnajjar and Manar AlZibay run this bakery together, Alnajjar actually learned to make these delicious sweets while in Turkey awaiting for his refugee visa to process. *Pro-tip arrive before noon for fresh-baked, syrup-soaked kahi with clotted-cream geymar. (One of the best, in my opinion)
MAKE Cafe (yelp)
MAKE Cafe serves a very unique and diverse range of different food every weekend, with fresh ingredients coming straight from the vegetable garden right next door to the cafe. With a combination of authentic Middle Eastern, Mexican, Somali, Vietnamese and traditional American breakfast and lunch cuisine, MAKE Cafe is a neighborhood gem. The mix of cultures results in nothing but delicious and unique dishes prepared with fresh ingredients. However, MAKE Cafe is not just a restaurant, it’s a workforce program for refugee and immigrant women that helps them learn skills that help build confidence and experience to move up in employment. This cafe is not just run by refugee women but also helps them gain real working experience moving forward to find a career path.
El Borrego Restaurant (yelp)
El Borrego offers classic Mexican cuisine, specializing in lamb dishes such as lamb tacos and mixiote de borrego, which is marinated lamb meat that has been simmered for hours resulting in a juicy and tender dish. El Borrego has amazing reviews on yelp, all about the authentic food and welcoming environment. However, the majority of the reviews are about the delicious, flavorful, and tender mixiote de borrego as well as the very popular pozole, a classic comfort meal which is actually one of my dad and I’s favorite soups. Rosario Sotelo and her family opened El Borrego after immigrating to America from Mexico and noticing the lack of authentic Mexican food, especially lamb, as it was Sotelo’s favorite dish growing up. As a small family-owned restaurant El Borrego contributes to building a culturally enriched community.
Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant (yelp)
Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant is the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in San Diego, serving up authentic traditional dishes such as tibs, yebere siga wot, and yedero wot, all with a side of injera. The sambussa and baklava are also very popular menu items when it comes to appetizers and dessert. According to Yelp, Red Sea is the hidden gem of the community and has some of the best Ethiopian food in San Diego. There’s no doubting the authenticity of this restaurant, as hundreds of people left reviews about the flavorful and delicious cuisine due to the ingredients owner Shimeless Kibret imports from his home country. Kibret and his wife prepare all the spices and sauces themselves with their imported ingredients. Kibret initially escaped his home country to Greece and eventually received asylum and moved to the United States in 1984, where he along with a group of other Ethiopian refugees jointly started the Red Sea. Since then, the restaurant has become a popular meeting place for Ethiopian and African refugees who had fled violence and war in their home countries.
Le Bambou offers Vietnamese French fusion cuisine with 90 different dishes on the menu they serve a wide variety of dishes ranging from traditional pho and shaking beef to vegetable ambrosia and cornish game hen. They also offer rice paper as a side to build your spring rolls, which is a delicious and fun meal I grew up having with my family. All the dishes are also made without MSG, which can be considered a key ingredient in most Vietnamese dishes, resulting in a healthier yet just as flavorful dish. Le Bambou is also known for having great ambiance and
amazing service. The small restaurant is owned by Andrew Do and his wife Cuc Nguyen, they opened over 30 years ago and Nguyen prepares every dish herself from scratch.
OB Noodle House (yelp)
Located in Ocean Beach, OB Noodle House serves up asian fusion shareable plates ranging from wings and grilled meats to various noodle and rice dishes, with an amazing beachside ambiance. With over four thousand reviews on yelp, this place has a ton of hype and is easily one of the most popular bar and grill spots in San Diego. According to these reviews the must-trys are the wings(literally all of the flavors), pho, Korean short ribs, fried rice, and of course their famous peanut butter whiskey. With delicious food, fun drinks, and great ambiance, there’s not much more one could ask for. Owner Steve Yang’s family, fled war and genocide in both China and Cambodia before seeking refuge in the US. As the owner of multiple restaurants Yang expresses so much gratitude when it comes to being fortunate enough to build a new life in the US with his family after losing his grandparents in the Cambodian genocide.