So I moved late last year to San Clemente after living in Huntington Beach for a short two years. I haven't really had a ton of opportunity to sample all the ins and outs of the local places, but wanted to at least start a new thread here to capture some of the local info, since there is apparently a dearth of good San Clemente insights on Chowhound (which is a shame, because it's got a TON of local, non chain places... much better than the average OC town).
In no apparent order... some random notes:
Burgers and Diners
If San Clemente has anything, it's got an awesome overload of mom and pop burger joints and beachy diners. I've only sampled a couple of them. Lots more to do here:
*** Rider's Club Burgers. This place should be famous across the county. Heck, across the state. Some of the best burgers I've had anywhere in California. Just awesome. Tiny place, well known locally. And totally worth all the credit it gets. Absolutely fantastic burgers. If I weren't afraid of a heart attack before I'm 40, I'd eat here daily.
*** Surfin' Donuts (and the Grill at Surfin' Donuts). Both are on El Camino. The "Grill at Surfin' Donuts" is super casual and serves decent breakfasts... but the great deal is the special, which includes some really great home fries, 2 eggs, 4 pieces of bacon or sausage and toast, all for $5. Nothing really special, but all done well for a great deal. The donuts here and at the other El Camino location are about the same as most other other donuts in so cal. Too sweet, but tasty.
*** Pipes Cafe. My favorite breakfast burritos. Great place for a late-morning breakfast after a dawn surf session. :)
*** Sugar cafe. Only went once, but was really average and over priced.
[Ones I want to try soon: Surferosa, and all the burger joints that dot El Camino]
*** Los Golondrinas. Not too bad for some (mostly) authentic mexican. Al pastor was average, but the carnitas was pretty good. There's another one in San Juan. That said, I have a hunch there are better tacos to be had in SC. Tortas were the best of what I've had there so far.
*** South of Nick's. It is striving for higher-end mexican, which comes from the mini OC Nick's chain folks. It's not bad, even if a bit over priced and seems to focus more on being a scene type of place (and all that comes with it). But if you need a date type place and are willing to spend a bit more, it's not a bad contemporary mexican place. Just manage your expectations well.
*** Pedro's. This seems to be quite a favorite local place, which is cool (2 locations). Too bad it's pretty crummy food. At least you don't spend much on it. But it's kinda good just to savor in the local favorites, I guess.
*** La Tiendita. This little place is down one of the random streets that hang off of El Camino. I wanted to like it more than I did. Pretty average American-Mexican. Not bad if you are passing by. Not a destination at all.
*** Avila's El Ranchito. Avila's occupies a large corner on Del Mar. The food is a bit like El Torito... American-Mex chain like, but sometimes that's exactly what the family wants. And if so, Avila's is good for that craving, without having to feed the El Torito chain beast.
BTW, I just saw a taqueria on El Camino that I need to try. It looked promising... stay tuned]
I'll skip to the punchline. If you want great pizza... you are better heading to other parts of the county. But, if you need pizza in town here are a few options:
*** La Rocco's. It's a small NYC style slice place. And for that, it's actually quite good. Not many seats, but I saw a sign today that they'd moved across the street. Might have a bit more seating. If pinned down for one pizza in town, this is where I'd go. But don't go if you want a sit-down pizza place.
*** Pizza Port. Fun place, but the pizza isn't very good, unfortunately. However, large communal seating arrangements, two bars, two levels, and a cool atmosphere make it really fun and lively otherwise. Despite the average pizza, I confess to having gone here three times, but that's mostly because it's a place that if my kids make noise or are bouncing off the wall, it's totally cool. So the decidedly average pizza is worth it.
*** Selma's. This is down Del Mar (the main restaurant/shopping row). Great location. It's a deep dish/Chicago style pizza. I really wanted to like this place. And it's not bad... but not as good as it could be. The sauces are too sweet and the crusts aren't as crisp or savory as they ought to be. If you go, be sure to get the actual Chicago style pie. It's definitely the best they have to offer, and probably better than other versions I've had in OC. However, I can't say I've had any other good chicago style pie in OC.
*** Iva Lee's on El Camino. It's a New Orlean's/Southern kind of place. I had fantastic short ribs there, that I still think about. Done perfectly. Great sweet potato fries too. However, with only a little bit of sampling, I can't tell whether the rest is as good or not. They have live music on the weekends.
*** Thai Palace on Pico. This is tucked away in the Talega area of SC. As far as suburban American Thai restaurants go, this place is above average. Don't expect it to be Lotus of Siam or Sripraphai and you'll probably be pleased to have a not horrible thai take out place. [I want to try Mongkat Thai on Del Mar in downtown, but haven't had a chance. It could be better]
*** Rocket Fizz on Del Mar. If you want endless supplies of salt water taffy, obscure bottled sodas and vintage/retro candy, this place is a gem. And I LOVE it. How can you not like a place that has at least 15 different sarsparillas to choose from? I think this is one of a couple different locations in California.
This is already extraordinarily long, so I'll pause and add more to the comments as I find more.