My obsession with cupcakes has forced me to embark on an extensive journey through San Diego’s cupcake landscape. I’ve traveled through this city seeking out the “Holy Grail of cupcakes,” the knocks-me-off-my-feet, takes-my-breath-away, leaves-me-speechless kind of cupcake, that I’m constantly seeking. I just have two conditions when it comes to finding this perfect cupcake: Number One-It must be vanilla. Call me boring, but there’s nothing that compares to the subtle yet deliciously sweet taste I’ve known my whole life and, thus, have never felt compelled to diverge from. Number Two-I must also have a giant glass of ice cold milk. Yes, I know I’m like a five year-old, but take my word for it, there really is no better way to enjoy a cupcake. I also kind of have a thing for rainbow sprinkles… They’re so cute and tasty, I can’t resist a cupcake delicately covered with those little guys! So I’ve scoured San Diego, venturing everywhere from Solana Beach to the Gaslamp, tasting the signature vanilla cupcake at each venue. Below I have compiled and manicured this list of my faves, along with a few extra pounds I really didn’t need..
Top standouts :)
7857 Girard Avenue
La Jolla, CA 92037
Although it’s the sweet new face in the San Diego cupcake scene, Cups has already made a name for itself. This rapidly rising star seems to be leading the way for the rest in the field with the vibrant atmosphere, impeccable flavor, and its renowned eco-friendly practices. Opening just this past January in the heart of Downtown La Jolla, Cups is a real treat for those like me who keep to a strict vanilla cupcake diet because they offer three different options, including a vegan choice.
The day I visited, Vanilla Vixen and Old School Vanilla were the only two available, so I indulged. The Vanilla Vixen is a vanilla cup topped with a French vanilla bean buttercream. As much as I hate to admit it because I’m a wanna-be mademoiselle française, it seemed almost too rich and vanilla-y for me, as it has a vanilla cream center that made this cupcake and its flavor quite strong. Next came the Old School Vanilla which did just that; kickin’ it old school, this classic vanilla cup is accented just perfectly with CUPS’own American vanilla buttercream frosting. Without overwhelming the palate with flavor, this delicately refined vanilla confectionery is simply just a delish dessert.
To all vanilla lovers, Cups is a must for the ultimate luxury in vanilla cupcakes.
*** For more gushing about our love for CUPS check out our feature we did on them not too long ago!
518 Sixth Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
You definitely can’t miss Heavenly Cupcake on a trip downtown–not because it’s the Gaslamp‘s only cupcake joint, but also because on most days, they have a giant cupcake outside working the corner, hustling the masses into their retro shop. At least that’s how I happen to first stumble upon this lovely place which is themed in blues, oranges, and browns, and known for their signature, colorful ring dragees that sit atop the fluffy frosting on each individual cupcake. And with a name like Heavenly, Downtown’s top bakery has chosen quite a fitting name for their decadent desserts…
So I’ve become a pretty regular customer here, making a visit at least once a week. I always order my usual — one vanilla cupcake with a milk, and each time, I am left completely satisfied with the sweet treat. But don’t be misled by their unassuming size! Their luscious vanilla cake, which I will admit is a little on the heavy side, and which I sometimes struggle to finish, is topped with their vanilla bean buttercream icing and my favorite — fun rainbow crystal sprinkles. Rich is is the only way to accurately describe these little guys. I would recommend stopping by on an empty stomach, because after finishing one of Heavenly’s cupcakes, I honestly feel like I’ve eaten an entire meal. Not necessarily a bad thing when you’re someone who thinks of cupcakes as one of their own main food groups–or is that just me?!
437 S. Highway 101, Suite 106
Solana Beach, CA 92075
Stepping into Cupcake Love carried me away and took me back in time to a little girl’s dream land that was full of princesses, sparkles, and of course, the color pink. The walls were covered with murals of cupcakes, encapsulating this dessert-lovers Mecca that I spent an entire afternoon falling in love with. With their precious little cakes sprawled out over Victorian-esque stands, the whimsical world inside Cupcake Love was impressive, and I had no choice but to give in.
Picking out my usual vanilla cupcake was a bit more difficult here than my usual routine, only because all the cupcakes, especially the Party Girl — with its purple Italian buttercream frosting — were like magnets, pulling me in with their temptingselections.My willpower obviously isn’t very strong because I came out with TWO cupcakes, snatching up their super cute Vanilla Bliss, along with a mini-Party Girl… Because doesn’t everyone deserve to be the life of the party once in a while?!
But this guide is strictly about the vanilla cupcake, so that is what I devoured first. One bite in and I was completely lovestruck; in Cupcake Love. The vanilla buttercream frosting was perfectly sweet, with its rich flavor, and topped with, you guessed it, rainbow sprinkles! And then the cake, which is actually a vanilla-flavored cake, complete with pure vanilla beans, had an amazing, yet not-too-overpowering taste. The combination of the two created absolute perfection. And now my mouth waters every time I think about that little delicacy…
And the not-so-stellar ones…
3766 Fifth Avenue
San Diego, CA 92103
A trip to Hillcrest always leads me to some pretty fun/unique/random experiences, and my visit to Babycakes was no exception. The atmosphere here was hands-down the most welcoming and sociable of any other cupcake shop I’ve visited. The super-friendly staff was waiting behind glass cases containing divine cupcakes, ranging from Piña Colada to Strawberry Shortcake flavors, while all the customers were sitting on the quaint patio, chatting and enjoying their sugary goodies. A unique feature that Babycakes has over the others is that they also happen to run a bar next door; so if having a nice, cold glass of milk to go with your cupcake just isn’t your cup of tea, hop over to their bar and grab a glass of wine or a beer! A new way to cupcake??
Just based off my first impressions and the delightful disposition of all facets of Babycakes, when it came time to taste one of their cupcakes, I had high hopes for the adorable treats. My little cupcake seemed so promising when it came out, covered with lovely lavender and baby blue sprinkles, on a plate drizzled with cute caramel swirls. High marks for impeccable presentation! However, one bite into it, and I was left a bit… crushed. While the frosting held up to my expectations for cupcake perfection, the cake itself was too dry for my liking. It wasn’t moist, nor was it rich in flavor like I’d expect to find at a specialty cupcake store, but instead, it tasted more like the average cupcake you would find at the supermarket. Yes, I’m mean the ones with the creepy plastic clown decorations stuck into them.I am a strong believer that quality over quantity is the best route. Thus, I really feel that if Babycakes were to cut their options in half and really focus on serving simply six or seven flavors daily instead of the unnecessarily diverse selection of about 16-20, they could be serious contenders in the divine world of San Diego’s cupcake domain.
3772 Voltaire Street
San Diego, CA 92107
After spending over an hour on multiple city buses, I finally made it out to Ocean Beachfor the last and final stop on my confectionery tour. Cupcakes Squared, voted San Diego’s number one cupcake bakery in 2009, was intentionally made my final destination and I obviously went in with high expectations, saving myself for what I speculated was going to be that “best for last” experience. These guys are known for their peculiar-shaped cupcakes because just as the name says, they serve square cupcakes instead of the normal, spherical ones I’ve grown to love. So these little cubes of cake make Cupcakes Squared stand out visually among its pastry peers. Their actual store, however, does not. It’s pretty clear that it isn’t meant to be a lounge where customers should feel comfortable enough to stick around and chill out, enjoying cupcakes and drinks among a welcoming atmosphere. No, Cupcakes Squared is more a place where you come in, get what you need, and get on with your life. However, it is worth mentioning that this was the cheapest of all five places I visited — with some cupcakes priced under $3.
I’m just gonna be real with you about the cupcake: This was not my favorite. Perhaps it would be more fair to say that this cupcake was my least favorite of the San Diego cupcake collection. Rest assured, I also had three other people try my cupcake as well to justify my conclusion. It didn’t have that dainty whimsy that one would come to expect when eating a tiny cake. Or at least not one that I like to experience in my cupcake. No, Cupcakes Squared’s cake instead had a spongier and heavier consistency -- not at all typical of these pleasing pastries. The “rubberiness” of the cupcake was an instant turn-off for all of us and while the flavor may have been good overall, that consistency was too much for us to handle. On a more positive note, I will give them this: Their housemade Hawaiin vanilla buttercream frosting was amazing. After a few bites, I decided to just eat the yummy frosting and leave the sad rubber cube behind.
My personal recommendation would be (and remember, this is only pertaining to vanilla): Avoid Cupcakes Squared and check out one of the other pâtisseries previously mentioned above because there are some pretty rockin’ vanilla cupcakes to be found in San Diego.
**MIX TIP: Brace yourselves for this big news!! Be on the lookout for Sprinkles Cupcakes which is coming to La Jolla this fall! Perhaps the company known throughout the country for its awesome baked goods will be the new top competitor in my little challenge.
By: Lauren Lewis