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Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins
Courtesy of James Tran


The San Diego chef shares her Southern California favorites, from beaches to pastries

Growing up in the San Diego area, Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins spent a lot of time with her aunt who was a restaurateur in Tijuana. By the time she become a chef herself, Zepeda-Wilkins knew a lot about the diversity of cuisine in Mexico, and the culinary traditions that straddle the border. It made her a natural as the chef de cuisine at Javier Plascencia’s celebrated Bracero in San Diego’s Little Italy (which has since turned into a different restaurant), before she went on to open El Jardín, a regional Mexican restaurant at Liberty Station in Point Loma. We asked the former Top Chef contestant for some of her favorite spots in California, around San Diego and beyond.

Where do you live? I live with my husband, daughter, and son in Chula Vista.

Why there? It’s where we found a dream house with land—we felt so lucky to find it in California as it is challenging to find that kind of turf—and we bought our first house.

Who or what is your greatest California love? My kids! And the Pacific Ocean: I feel more myself when I am near any body of water.

What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we are flighty or always carefree.

What is the stereotype that most holds true? You can’t shovel sunshine.

What is your favorite Golden State splurge? Driving to the snow in the winter and eating pie in Julian before ending the day eating an ice cream cone while walking on the sand in Coronado.

Time for a road trip—where are you going? I’d go north to Big Sur and camp on the beach with my kids. I’d make them get up early with me so I can get a coffee at Big Sur Bakery. During the day, we can hike and explore the cliffs, and get inspired by the ocean. There’s such happiness in cooking on the beach for meals, so we would have all we need at and around our little campsite.

If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? Well, I imagine a lot of people would say In-N-Out here, but I would have to say Stardust Doughnuts in Imperial Beach, which is a small beach town next to Coronado where I grew up. Their glorious cinnamon rolls are probably my favorite pastry.

How do you define California style? Light and deceivingly simple (sometimes the most simple-appearing things take the most amount of work). Function over fashion on all accounts. Where you can go into a restaurant with flip flops and sand in your hair and no one judges you.

Best California song? I have to say “California Love” by Tupac. I grew up in the ’90s and rap and hip hop played a huge role in my adolescence. They don’t make them like Tupac anymore, but he was educated and calculated in delivering his bars. When he gives San Diego a shout out, it makes me cry to this day.

How would your California dream day unfold? I’d wake up at Hotel Del Coronado (I’m on a staycation) and I’d take some time lying in bed, just hearing the waves crash a bit, before going on a run with the morning mist filling my lungs. I’d go all the way out to the Navy SEAL base and then run back.

I’d head over to El Jardín early and take my time harvesting the vegetables and herbs from the garden to play with for specials. There’s a real magic to being able to light up my Santa Maria Grill and smell the fire, and seemingly the restaurant too, come to life before my eyes. The aroma of smoke has always been a favorite of mine, second to freshly baked bread. And then service: I legitimately love cooking for other people and can’t wait to welcome more people to our El Jardín home.

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Carol Highsmith

Southern California

Discover San Diego County

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Average (°F)
Mar - May
June - Aug
Sept - Nov
Dec - Feb

Imagine 70 miles of sun-drenched coast, an inviting ocean, and a year-round daily forecast of 70°F, and you’ll understand why this southernmost stretch of the state is all about outdoor fun. Discover top theme parks and attractions like SeaWorld San Diego, San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and LEGOLAND California.

The first European explorer to land in California, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, came ashore in San Diego in 1542.

Relax at legendary retreats like Hotel del Coronado, find art and culture in San Diego and surrounding cities like luxurious La Jolla, and enjoy world-class golf at Torrey Pines, and enjoy culture and diversity, all at the edge of a sparkling blue sea.

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Courtesy of Cross Border Xpress

Cross Border Xpress

Cross the world’s first bi-national skybridge and speed through the Mexico-United States border

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L’Auberge Del Mar

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L’Auberge Del Mar creates the illusion that you’re staying at your personal seaside villa, but it has all the amenities of a...

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This family-friendly coastal town has feel-good appeal

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Encinitas isn’t just a city; it’s a vibe. Visit the coastal community 25 miles north of downtown San Diego and you’ll instantly get a sense of ...

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This San Diego County beach town is home to blissful ocean views—but it also knows how to throw a party

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Chula Vista

San Diego County’s second largest city boasts authentic Mexican food, a burgeoning craft beer scene, and outdoor activities galore

About seven miles from downtown San Diego in one direction and the Mexican border in another, Chula Vista is quickly developing its own strong...

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About 30 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, Escondido is the best little...

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California Questionnaire: Annie Lawless

The Suja Juice co-founder, yoga instructor, and wellness aficionado is passionate about her Southern California home

As one of the founders of the nation’s leading organic juice brand, Annie Lawless knows a thing or two about living a healthy lifestyle. She...

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Book a table at this San Diego waterfront knockout

Got a boat? That’s the only way you’ll get a better view of San Diego’s waterfront skyline...

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Want to nail your sunset shot? Our expert has six sensational recommendations to match any mood

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Stretching 1,942 feet, the historic Oceanside Pier is the longest wooden pier on the Pacific Ocean.
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Take one part water, one part sand, one part sun-soaked coastal charm, and you’ve got the recipe for some of the Golden State’s most appealing destinations....

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With its endless sun and oceanfront location, as well as strong influences from Mexico, San Diego offers plenty of dining options—from flaky fish...

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Check these amazing experiences off your bucket list

Kiss a beluga, see cool movie props, and learn about Walt’s secret hideaway on exclusive and behind-the-scenes tours at California’s theme parks and attractions. Here’s a roundup of worth-the-...

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Unleash the kid within at California’s ultimate playgrounds

From Disneyland classics to beachfront carousels, the Golden State’s best-in-class theme parks deliver something for everyone. Take a tram ride to tour movie back lots at Universal Studios...

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The historic 101 Café in Oceanside is the oldest continuously-operating restaurant on historic Highway 101.
A lion cub at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
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San Diego Zoo Safari Park

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins vca_maps_sandiego
Find out where the wild things are

Like a journey to Africa, a day at this spectacular park lets you see some of the world’s most magnificent—and endangered—animals at close range...

Farm-fresh produce, culinary adventures

Juicy heirloom tomatoes and just-picked strawberries. Super-sweet peaches shaped like mini UFOs. Artisanal cheeses, golden-green olive oils, local wildflower honey—California’s farmers markets are...

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Make memories at some of California's family-favorite beaches

Sand, water, and kids—it’s a natural combination for easy family fun. This sandy dozen offers appealing, family-friendly features, such as calm water for new swimmers, tide pools for intrepid...

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World-class accommodations in world-class locations

Head to the heart of California’s cities for luxurious stays at world-class accommodations. From San Francisco’s historic hotels to celebrity hot spots in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, California’s...

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From a candy-colored pastry shop to Michelin-starred dining rooms, top restaurants run by celebrity chefs dot the Golden State. And even if you don’t know these chefs from the TV...

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Get your daily dose of greens at oceanfront courses

Perfect weather, challenging course, and incredible settings make San Diego County a golfer’s dream destination. It’s not surprising that many of...

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Poised between the desert and the coast, a little more than an hour’s drive east of San Diego, this surprising mountain town makes a great day...

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