I've been in SD for a while now, and since getting a lot of nice direction from Chowhound, I have learned where to eat good stuff in this town. There are things I think are great and worthy of standing on their own as "type specimens," if you will, and many other restaurants that I'll "settle for" considering the more limited options available here. I propose a paired list- a local food destination and something out-of-town (50 miles or more) serving the same type of hoosh that you drive for, or consider a much better version of the stuff at home. Forget the lower end (we are clearly masters of knowing where to find 'the best burrito')- I'm interested in the places you feel have intrinsic value, or places you'll settle for and the the place you miss when eating there.
(example-but a legit one)
Ritual Tavern burger in North Park- a very good hamburger but
The Original Apple Pan Hickory burger in West LA is what I dream about, and will cause me to pull over.
Pizzeria Arrivederci in Hillcrest- almost civilized if you sit inside right before closing with some good company and happen to have waiters with time on their hands but
Bottega Louie in downtown LA is like heaven for my Italocentric tastebuds and for the serious atmosphere, worth a trip for no other reason.
Sab e Lee- don't feel the need to leave town in this case. As it is, and I'll take visitors here but
Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas is just as amazing (though I'm pretty sure it no longer exists).
Izakaya Sakura- some very good things, but the place feels kinda dingy and dark to me. I'd rather eat at Ichiza Izakaya in Las Vegas, since Michi closed in Westwood.
The touchy category of Mexican...I have been to Super Cocina, and loved it (liked "discovering" Frutilandia even more) and am pretty sure it's a singular place in California, but forgive my charlatanism- I really like Ortega's in Hillcrest- not "comida toda madre" like SC, but they take care with their quality and service.
Mama Testa is good, but But for tacos I dig La Super-Rica Especial in Santa Barbara a lot more.
Not having been to Kaito (yet), I'll leave that matrix for others for now.
Starlite Lounge for the post-hipster, locally-sourced ingredient cocktail-and-cutlet 'lounge" category and that's it. I don't feel the need to travel for this type of food, but I am so thankful that Starlite's here and seems to be maturing well.
Dim sum in SD- can't say I like anything right now. Ding Tai Fung in Arcadia is infinitely better that anything in town. Makes Dumpling Inn look like a sad joke.
Looking back on this list, my concept may be a tad inchoate, so please elaborate if you feel you need to...cheers.