best bites

How this San Diego chef went from nursing student to James Beard nominee

Animae executive chef Tara Monsod. Photo by Matt Furman
Animae executive chef Tara Monsod. Photo by Matt Furman.

At 25 years old, Tara Monsod was on the brink of a nursing career.

Having completed the necessary coursework, all she needed to do was take the final licensure exam. Instead, with the encouragement of family and friends who saw her potential, Monsod shifted gears and attended culinary school, embracing a passion for food and cooking that had been part of her DNA since childhood.

Today, at age 39, she’s the executive chef at Animae, one of San Diego’s most notable fine dining restaurants and a leading force in the city’s culinary scene.

From making pizzas to working at an Albertsons grocery store, each job cultivated Monsod’s leadership skills, and upon moving to San Diego, a whole new world of opportunities opened up, along with exposure to the city’s deep culinary roots.

Farm-fresh multicultural cuisine in every neighborhood

Two women eat al fresco in San Diego.
Award-winning chefs, locally sourced ingredients, and gorgeous views make San Diego one of the country’s top culinary destinations. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

Monsod discovered that San Diego’s food scene is as rich as the city’s history. Diverse cultures, the city’s proximity to Mexico, and an abundance of local farms and food purveyors all contribute to the unique culinary landscape. 

Monsod has lived in several of San Diego’s diverse neighborhoods, each offering opportunities for the chef — in her limited downtime — to explore the culinary identities of its residents. As she’s built community, Monsod has also seized the chance for more creativity in the kitchen.

“There are always pop-ups happening around the city,” Monsod tells GayCities. “Chefs bring in other chefs and plan special menus for annual events like Filipino American History Month.”

Such celebrations are part of the city’s historical legacy.

Over the centuries, San Diego has seen an influx of immigrants. “What turned San Diego from this sleepy Navy town into the diverse, dynamic metropolitan area that it has become has been that period of great inclusion that brought so many to San Diego and provided them welcome as opposed to persecuting them,” Rubén Rumbaut, a sociology professor at UC Irvine told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Along the way, food traditions converged, creating unique opportunities for self-expression. Some of San Diego’s oldest restaurants and bars offer a window into this history. Located in the Gaslamp Quarter, Tivoli Bar & Grill, opened by Italian immigrants Angelo and Giovanni “John” Della Maggiora, dates back to 1855 and still draws a lively crowd. In Barrio Logan, Las Cuatro Milpas has served homestyle Mexican cuisine since 1933. The same year, the Waterfront Bar & Grill opened in Little Italy as a hangout for local fishermen. And in the Convoy District, a range of Asian cuisines can be found, from Chinese dim sum and Japanese ramen to late-night Korean barbecue.

Quintessential San Diego eats have also emerged, from fish tacos and California burritos (stuffed with carne asada, guacamole, cheese, and  French fries) to over 150 independent craft breweries.

A fresh take on fine dining

Signature dishes and the dining experience at Animae.
Signature dishes and the dining experience at Animae. Photos by James Tran.

Monsod joined the team at Animae, Top Chef alum Brian Malarkey’s San Diego hot spot, towards the end of 2020 during a challenging time for the restaurant industry. However, the resilient chef witnessed a positive outcome. “People started cooking out of passion again,” Monsod tells GayCities. “Those who really loved the industry came back.”

By the summer of 2021, Monsod had been promoted to executive chef and seized the opportunity to continue the restaurant’s vision of a world-class steakhouse serving high-quality Japanese A5 Wagyu beef (known for its unique marbling and complex flavor profile) while also adding touches of her Filipina heritage. 

“Filipinos are a big part of our American history, and it’s time that the food gets a little love. At Animae, we’re taking those flavors and presenting them in a new way,” says Monsod. Her riff on tuna kinilaw (similar to ceviche) uses vinegar and calamansi juice, indigenous to the Philippines. Presented with a bit of flair, Monsod says the dish is plated with time, effort, and intention, “but when you eat it, it’s still very much the dish that a lot of us grew up with.”

In addition to her leadership role at the restaurant, Monsod is visible in the community, recently appearing at the inaugural Del Mar Wine + Food Festival and collaborating with other chefs throughout San Diego. But after a long day in the kitchen, she’s ready to explore San Diego’s more casual side.

Tara Monsod’s favorite picks for San Diego’s best bites

Hillcrest San Diego
San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood features a range of restaurants, a weekly farmers market, and dessert cafes for hungry travelers. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

Monsod now lives in North Park, which she describes as a “younger, hipster kind of area with lots of walkable places and next to Hillcrest,” the center of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ community. Despite the long hours, Monsod manages to make her way around town to check out what her fellow chefs are doing, take in the sunshine, and spend time at some of the pet-friendly restaurants and breweries with her dog, Mya. 

“San Diegans love their dogs,” says Monsod, “and since the weather’s good, there’s a lot of outdoor spaces.” With Mya in tow, Monsod enjoys her precious time off at the beach, along a boardwalk, or in other LGBTQ+-friendly outdoor locales.

Bica (“little café” in Portuguese) in Normal Heights has become a favorite spot since opening in July 2023. The daytime café by local favorites Charles Knowles and Manny da Luz offers tartines, coffee, and homemade pastel de nata, Portuguese custard tarts. 

Close to home, Monsod is a regular at Tribute Pizza, which serves up innovative pies with a catch-all of toppings like Medina Smokehouse’s Kalua pulled pork, Wise Ox’s Texas-style smoked barbecue beef brisket — crusts available as Neopolitan, “Grandma-style” sheet pan or New York hand-tossed.
For a chef working long hours, sometimes grab-and-go is the best option, and for Monsod, that means embracing San Diego’s rich Mexican food culture, from those overstuffed California burritos to taco shops.

San Diego farmers market
Dog-friendly farmers markets — including popular locations in Hillcrest and Little Italy — offer a wide variety of culinary options. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

“The taco shop game out here is very high,” says Monsod, but after a late night (or early morning), she heads to Colimas Mexican Grill in North Park, a 24/7 spot serving homestyle dishes since 1997. 

Despite the long hours, Monsod says San Diego chefs are known for their collaborative spirit, with pop-ups offering one-of-a-kind experiences year-round. In October, to celebrate Filipino American History Month (which also coincides with the San Diego Filipino Film Festival), Monsod is planning a kamayan dinner — a communal feast, typically served on banana leaves and eaten without utensils. 

Monsod always has her eyes out for the freshest ingredients available, sourcing when she can from Chino Farm, northeast of the city. But for visitors, exploring San Diego’s farmers markets offers the same thrill of discovery. She recommends the Hillcrest Certified Farmers Market on Sundays. The weekly market includes plenty of local vendors with prepared foods for hungry travelers and a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables for an impromptu picnic at one of San Diego’s many parks and gardens

Queer all year

The Lafayette San Diego
The Lafayette Hotel has been reimagined as a gorgeous multi-venue gathering spot, featuring a 14-hour diner, Mexican restaurant, and retro game room. Photo by Kimberly Motos.

While Monsod identifies as a chef first, she also recognizes the impact and importance of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ community. “I’ve gone to Pride, get invited to events, and spent plenty of time in Hillcrest, but our community is spreading out much more than that,” says Monsod of the city’s expansive queer culture. 

Gossip Grill, self-described as a “woman-forward restaurant and nightclub,” is one of 13 remaining lesbian bars in the country and has been featured as part of the Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary series highlighting the importance of spaces by and for women. Opened in 2009, Gossip Grill has become a thriving community gathering spot for queer women and allies, with a monthly line-up that includes drag kings, cabaret drag brunch, and VIP bottle service for those looking to celebrate in style.

Monsod has also rediscovered The Rail, considered San Diego’s oldest gay bar, which recently started a ladies’ night on the third Saturday of each month, where some of the chef’s DJ friends spin the night away. 

But at the end of the day, Tara Monsod is a chef’s chef and always on the lookout for San Diego’s next best bite. She’s been wowed by the reimagining at the Lafayette Hotel & Club, which includes eight new bars and restaurants, including Beginners Diner, Quixote (a Oaxacan restaurant), and The Gutter, featuring a two-lane bowling alley and craft cocktails. 

But she’s just as inclined to cozy up at smaller venues like Wolf in the Woods in Mission Hills, a tapas and wine bar led by San Diego-born restaurateur Johnny Rivera and executive chef Carmine Lopez. 

Can Tara Monsod’s palate keep up with what San Diego has to offer? Unequivocally yes. As she puts it, plain and simple: “I’ll eat anything.”

Interview edited for length and clarity.
Funded in part with City of San Diego Tourism Marketing District assessment funds.

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