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Comic-Con 2019: Top 10 cheap eats at Comic-Con this week

Looking for a cheap meal deal during Comic-Con this week? Check out the 99-cent fish tacos at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood.
Looking for a cheap meal deal during Comic-Con this week? Check out the 99-cent fish tacos at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

There are dining deals galore for conventioneers who venture out into the surrounding neighborhood this week

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Comic-Con has arrived, and regular conventioneers know that while warm pretzels, hot dogs and oversize cookies can be found inside the San Diego Convention Center, the best eats begin across the street in the Gaslamp Quarter. But budget-hunters looking for cheap eats may need a guide to find the best dining deals for the dollar this weekend. Here are our top 10 picks.

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Panda Express Pop-Up
panda express2.jpeg
Panda Express’s new Sichuan Hot Chicken is being sampled for free in a pop-up at 6th Avenue and J Street.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Panda Express is hosting a pop-up Comic-Con dining activation event through July 20 where visitors can sample the chain’s new Sichuan Hot Chicken dish, available for just two months in stores nationwide. Visitors to Pep-Pep’s Sichuan Hot Stop will get a free skewer of the spiced-to-order fried chicken, choice of free water or soft drink, a fortune cookie and a chance to pose with a panda cosplayer. Families can also take part in the mobile app game where they can swipe left to help Pep-Pep, the chain’s new flying peppercorn mascot, travel from China to California. Corporate chef Jimmy Wang said the new dish, in development for three years, is a blend of Nashville hot chicken and the spicy street food he sampled in Chengdu, China, the city where the country’s famous pandas are bred. The activation is being presented through July 20 in the former The Dive bar space at 551 J St., San Diego. pandaexpress.com

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Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
A 99-cent fish taco at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood in San Diego’s East Village.
A 99-cent fish taco at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood in San Diego’s East Village.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

If this is your first time visiting San Diego, you shouldn’t leave without sampling one of the region’s famous fish tacos. One of the best, both for flavor and pricing, is at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood. During Comic-Con weekend, its Baja-style fish tacos are just 99 cents all day at the East Village location near Petco Park. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. Batter-fried fresh fish is served on a street-style corn tortilla with fresh cabbage, red onions, cilantro and chopped tomatoes. Be sure to squeeze on some fresh lime juice and a squirt of Oscar’s special sauce, available at the chilled condiments bar. 927 J St., San Diego, (619) 564-6007. oscarsmexicanseafood.com

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Mattarello Cooking Lab, Gaslamp Quarter
Mattarello Cooking Lab in the Gaslamp Quarter is owned by two young Italian expatriates.
Mattarello Cooking Lab in the Gaslamp Quarter is owned by two young Italian expatriates.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The charming Italian restaurant Mattarello Cooking Lab was opened in November by Lucia Celi and Francesco Guardini, a Milanese married couple who moved to San Diego from Italy last summer. The restaurant is known for its housemade pastas and pastries, quality imported Italian ingredients and its affordable prices. Francesco is a comics fanatic, so in honor of Comic-Con, he’s serving a trio of specials themed to the Italian-themed retro video game Super Mario Bros. Two “Power Up” sandwich deals with be offered this weekend only. One sandwich has bacon, turkey, lettuce and imported caciocavallo cheese. The other has imported porchetta sliced meat with truffled primo sale cheese, basil and tomatoes. A sandwich and drink will cost $10. Francesco also bakes some Nutella-filled Italian shortbread cookies decorated to look like the magic mushrooms that Luigi and Mario pursue in the game. 518 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (650) 534-8019. mattarellocooking.com

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Tacos El Cabron
A carne asada taco at Tacos El Cabron in the Gaslamp Quarter.
A carne asada taco at Tacos El Cabron in the Gaslamp Quarter.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

You can pay a lot for authentic Tijuana-style street tacos, or you can pay a little. Downtown workers say the best on the “little” side in the Gaslamp Quarter can be found at Tacos El Cabron. The quick-service taco shop’s top-selling taco is the carne asada, made with steak grilled over mesquite wood. It’s priced at $3.75. In true street style, it’s a relatively small taco on a mini corn tortilla, but the tender and juicy meat and generous topping of guacamole are satisfying. One taco is good, but two are better. And it’s open late when the munchies hit. 532 Fourth Ave., San Diego, (619) 501-7752. elcabron.net

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Cafe de L’Opera
A fresh-baked blood orange croissant at Cafe de L’Opera in the Gaslamp Quarter.
A fresh-baked blood orange croissant at Cafe de L’Opera in the Gaslamp Quarter.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This homey 6-year-old French bistro offers some of the best croissants in San Diego. They’re baked in-house all day, every day in varieties that include almond, blood orange, fig jam, matcha tea and chocolate. Open for breakfast and lunch, the menu includes tartines (open-face sandwiches), house soups, paninis, wraps and salads priced from $5 to $9. During Comic-Con, the owner is offering two $8 breakfast specials. One is a breakfast sandwich with eggs, bacon and cheddar cheese on a baguette with a cup of coffee. The other is a fresh-baked croissant with a small juice and coffee. The doors open at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on the weekend. Some lunch specials are also planned this weekend. 910 J St., San Diego, (619) 647-9676. cafedelopera.com

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Lazy Hippo
The Lazy Hippo cafe in the Chinatown area of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
The Lazy Hippo cafe in the Chinatown area of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Lines are usually long at most of the Gaslamp Quarter breakfast spots, but head a few blocks west to the Chinatown area for the Lazy Hippo, a spot locals love. Lazy Hippo is known for its healthy portions and friendly service. The staff’s favorite dish is the Enfrijolades Loaded, a gigantic Mexican-style breakfast plate with three rolled tacos, eggs, black beans, salsa and more. Diners also rave about the Banana Peanut Butter Caramel French Toast. These dishes will set you back $13-$14, which isn’t “cheap,” but it will fill you up for half the day, so it’s still a deal. For Comic-Con weekend, the owner is planning to serve a special menu of quick-service sandwiches and burgers for lunch to manage the crowds. 416 Third Ave., San Diego, (619) 550-1071. lazyhippobreakfast.com

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Larry’s Deli
The Reuben at Larry’s Deli.
The Reuben at Larry’s Deli.
(Lyudmila Zotova)

Larry’s Deli near Petco Park isn’t the closest sandwich shop to the convention center, but it is one of the best. Its overstuffed sandwiches include a half-pound of organic or grass-fed meat with fine cheeses, Bread & Cie breads and house-made sauces and dressings. Top-sellers are the hot pastrami, tuna melt, turkey club and Italian sandwiches. For $12, diners can get a sandwich with chips and pickle. For $5 more, they can double the meat to a full pound. 323 Seventh Ave., San Diego, (619) 795-7100. hungrylarrys.com

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Lolita’s at the Ballpark
Carne asada fries at Lolita’s Mexican Restaurant, located near Petco Park in San Diego’s East Village.
Carne asada fries at Lolita’s Mexican Restaurant, located near Petco Park in San Diego’s East Village.
(U-T File)

Chula Vista-born Lolita’s Mexican Restaurants opened this quick-service location near Petco Park eight years ago, and it’s still going strong. The shop’s famous carne asada fries are the ultimate in decadent munchie food. But Comic-Con conventioneers have been stopping at Lolita’s for years to order one of their $6 breakfast burritos to stuff in their backpacks for the long lines for Hall H. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, order the day’s burrito, quesadilla or taco selection with rice, beans and a medium drink for just $7.75. Yes, you may encounter a line at Lolita’s, but once you’ve tried the food you’ll know why. Doors open at 8 a.m. daily. 202 Park Blvd., San Diego, (619) 269-6055. lolitasmexicanfood.com

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Basic Pizza
Basic pizza in East Village
One of the most popular spots in East Village for no-frills pizza and beer is Basic Pizza.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hands-down, Basic Pizza in East Village is one of the most popular spots downtown for beer and New Haven-style pizza. The no-frills warehouse, open until 2 a.m. nightly, serves Connecticut-style coal-fired thin-crust pizza. Happy hour runs from 3-7 p.m. daily with $4 to $8 drink specials and free samples of the restaurant’s pizzas. 410 10th Ave., San Diego, (619) 531-8869. barbasic.com

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Burger Lounge
Burger Lounge in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Burger Lounge in the Gaslamp Quarter.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

For my money, Burger Lounge offers one of the best burgers in Southern California. The chain’s hand-pressed, grass-fed beef burgers beat out independent restaurant burgers in local diner and blind-tasting burger contest polls all the time. Go for the Lounge Burger, priced at $9.95, or $16.95 for the full meal deal. Other Burger Lounge locations may offer lower prices, but this location is a short walk from the convention center. 528 Fifth Ave., San Diego, (619) 555-5727. burgerlounge.com


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Pam Kragen is a feature writer who specializes in writing human interest, dining, theater and opera stories. She joined The San Diego Union-Tribune staff in October 2012 after 27 years at the North County Times, where she served as the Arts & Features Editor, as well as the paper’s longtime arts writer and theater/opera critic. She is the president and co-founder of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in journalism from San Diego State University and completed fellowships in theater criticism at the University of Southern California and opera/classical music criticism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She reports from the U-T’s North County office in San Marcos.
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