May 14, 2020 § 2 Comments
I’ve been going back and forth about whether to post about my first—and what has turned out to be only—visit to Nam Vietnamese Brasserie in Redwood City. Initially, I had planned to write a short post about the restaurant’s February 25 opening-night dinner service—not the usual deep dive, just a quick look at the opening-night experience of this new and much-anticipated, fast-casual Vietnamese restaurant from Anne Le Ziblatt, former owner of Tamarine in Palo Alto and Bong Su in San Francisco.
Generally, I prefer to visit a restaurant a couple of times before writing about it. You never know when a server or the kitchen might have an off night, so I think it’s only fair to average the experiences. And opening night, while exciting, can be rife with kinks that need to be worked out. Nam’s opening night was frenetic but appeared successful: a line out the door, a packed house, and runners doing their best to drop dishes at the right tables. The noise level was crazy. Things got so busy that runners stopped delivering a special amuse-bouche an hour or so after service started.
The space, formerly occupied by The Striped Pig, is small—seating about 40 people—and at the center are two communal dining tables that seat 14 people each. A dining bar fronts the kitchen, separated by glass, so that diners can watch the action. Two-tops along the front window and adjacent wall round out the seating. I arrived 45 minutes into service, and diners ahead of me were hanging out, waiting for space to open up.
In its incarnation as The Striped Pig, this space on Main Street was dark and cozy, with a linger-awhile vibe. Nam’s decor is bright and modern, blending elements of clean-lined mid-century modern with Southeast Asian touches, such as the woven-basket light fixtures above the communal tables. Eye-catching murals fill wall space in the dining area and near the restrooms.
My friend Kye, who joined me for dinner that night, and I each ordered a dish from the three menu categories—Soup, Grill, Sides—so that we could try as many dishes as possible. At the time, the menu offered five soups in two sizes; most of the soups on the menu were gluten-free, and one was also vegetarian. The small size was a substantial bowl, especially if you’re ordering other dishes.
My soup choice was South (Nam Noodle), which had a pork and chicken bone broth with rice noodles, prawns, and slices of pork.
Kye opted for the Udon, which had the same broth, but with rock crab and nicely chewy tapioca noodles. Additional condiments customized the flavor of each soup, giving the Udon a spicier, richer flavor and the South a lighter, slightly saltier flavor. Both were memorable, and each would be a satisfying standalone meal.
The Grill section of the menu had four options (tofu, chicken, pork, beef) which could be paired with one of three bases: rice, vermicelli, or greens. The tofu and pork options were gluten-free. We ordered the crispy chili-lemongrass tofu over greens and the Hanoi pork with rice. Portion sizes were main-course sized and could be shared family-style.
We rounded out our tastings with the Spring Rolls and Imperial Rolls from the Sides section of the menu. Both contain pork and shrimp, but could be made vegetarian on request. Only the fresh spring roll is gluten-free.
At the end of the meal, I decided to hold the post until I could make a visit in March to take additional photos and try a couple of dishes again. I was curious about how the menu and clientele would settle out in the coming weeks. I think you know what happened next. We were starting to see the effects of COVID19 at the end of February, and during the next couple of weeks, things changed rapidly. I wasn’t able to get back to Nam before the Bay Area’s Shelter-in-Place (SIP) order came down.
With the uncertainty that followed, it didn’t make sense to post about the dine-in experience at a restaurant that could be closed indefinitely. I backburned the post. Also, like a lot of people, I was just trying to find my groove with the SIP. There were adjustments to make to life as we knew it, and the first couple of weeks were a bit of a daze. Since then, like a number of other Bay Area restaurants, Nam moved to a delivery/pickup model. The online menu has evolved from the opening-night menu I saw back in February, and dining in isn’t an option (obviously).
As I was reviewing my notes and photos from that night in February, I was struck by what we’ll likely now refer to as “the old normal”—sitting elbow-to-elbow at a community dining table, standing in line without being six feet apart, sharing tastes with friends without hesitation. No masks or gloves. Employees and diners alike, leaning in close to hear each other talk above the din.
Yesterday, I was working on a Spanish assignment with a classmate on Zoom. We were practicing a new verb tense by asking each other questions and coming up with answers. Her question to me: what I would do right now if COVID19 didn’t exist? I didn’t really need to think about it. I told her I would go to a restaurant and have dinner with a friend. For her, it would be having a coffee with a friend—at a coffeeshop. Almost nine weeks into sheltering, the Bay Area is slowly moving into Phase 2 of reopening, but dining in restaurants is not yet an option. At this point, it’s hard to imagine getting back to that place. In the meantime, we might just have to rely on memories.
What: Nam Vietnamese Brasserie
Where: 917 Main Street, Redwood City, CA 94062
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 4:30–8:30 p.m.
May 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
Weather-wise, things have been just a bit too Seattlesque for my taste this spring. Now that we’ve (hopefully) seen an end to the seemingly endless rainy, grey days, it’s time to get outside and enjoy our fine Bay Area weather.
May is one of my favorite months in the 650, not only because our usually fine weather settles in and days are longer and sunnier — but also because all of our neighborhood farmers’ markets are back in full swing. While we don’t lack for year-round markets in the 650, some neighborhood markets, such as Los Altos, Palo Alto Downtown, and Half Moon Bay close during fall and winter. For those of you who might have been missing your local market, the wait is over!
Here’s the list of markets re-opening in May.
|Market||Opening Date||Market Day|
|Half Moon Bay||May 6, 2017||Saturdays|
|Los Altos, Downtown||May 4, 2017||Thursdays|
|Palo Alto, Downtown||May 13, 2017||Saturdays|
|Pacifica, Rockaway Beach||May 3, 2017||Wednesdays|
|San Mateo, W. 25th Avenue||May 2, 2017||Tuesdays|
|South San Francisco||May 6, 2017||Saturdays|
April and May are a transitional time at the market as we’re seeing the last of “winter” produce, such as root vegetables and citrus, and the arrival of beans, peas, and stone fruit.
If grocery shopping isn’t on your agenda, farmers’ markets are a fun place to grab a meal and enjoy the sunshine while people watching. Just a few examples from my recent visit to the Palo Alto Sunday market on California Avenue: dim sum, grilled meat sandwiches, bahn mi, sushi, and homestyle Mexican dishes with handmade tortillas. There’s something interesting to taste whatever your food preferences.
Need to know which market is when? Following is handy-dandy list of all farmers’ markets in the 650, with 2017 opening dates. Click the market link for more info, such as location, parking, and vendors.
|Belmont||Sunday, 9am – 1pm||Year-Round|
|Daly City, Serramonte Ctr.||Thursday & Sunday,
9am – 1pm
|Half Moon Bay, Shoreline Station||Saturday, 9am – 1pm||May 6 – Dec 21|
|Los Altos, Downtown||Thursday, 4 – 8pm||May 4 – Sep 30|
|Menlo Park||Sunday, 9am – 1pm||Year-Round|
|Millbrae||Saturday, 8am – 1pm||Year-Round|
|Mountain View||Sunday, 9am – 1pm||Year-Round|
|Pacifica, Rockaway Beach||Saturday, 9am – 1pm||May 6 – Dec 21|
|Palo Alto, California Ave.||Sunday, 9am – 1pm||Year-Round|
|Palo Alto, Downtown||Saturday, 9am – 1pm||May 13 –|
|Palo Alto, VA||Wednesday, 10am – 2pm||Apr 12 – Oct 25|
|Redwood City, Kaiser||Wednesday, 10am – 2pm||Apr 5 – Nov 22|
|Redwood City, Downtown||Saturday, 8am – 12pm||April 15 – Nov|
|San Carlos, Laurel Street||Sunday, 10am – 2pm||Year-Round|
|San Mateo, College of SM||Saturday, 9am – 1pm||Year-Round|
|San Mateo, W. 25th Ave.||Tuesday, 4 – 7:30pm||May 2 – Oct 10|
Now get out and support your local food system; meet the people who grow your food and nourish our communities!
Tell me: what is/are your favorite farmers’ market(s) in the 650?
February 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
If you live in The 650, then you know that citrus does very well here. Lemons, limes, grapefruits, all kinds of oranges… you see them in front yards, back yards, side yards, and along driveways throughout my neighborhood. The high point for the citrus harvest is usually December through February. However, with the “weird weather” (as my father calls it) we’ve had lately, my little back yard lemon tree has been producing non-stop since November. You know what that means: I’m up to my ass in lemons. To date I’ve probably harvested about 40 pounds of fruit.
In past years I’ve experimented with a variety of lemon-based recipes, here are just a few of my favorites:
However, with all of the travelling I’ve been doing, I haven’t had time for much cooking or food preservation projects, so I’ve been limited to juicing and zesting. Upside is that I can freeze both (juice and zest) for use later. I have a Cambro container in my freezer, filled with lemon juice cubes that I can just grab whenever I need lemon juice on the fly. A quick turn in the microwave on “Melt,” et voila!
As for the zest, I make little parchment-paper packets of approximately a teaspoon of zest, wrap them in plastic wrap, then store in a freezer bag. Again, when I need zest, all I have to do is reach into the freezer. The guts that are left over after juicing and zesting are destined for the compost bin, but it would be nice if I had another option for using the whole fruit.
I’m always on the lookout for “root-to-stem” recipes when it comes to produce, and recently I came across a keeper for Whole Lemon Bars from one of my favorite pastry chef/cookbook authors, David Lebovitz. Lebovitz earned his chops at Chez Panisse and other Bay Area restaurants before relocating to France to focus on writing cookbooks. I’ve been a fan since purchasing his first two books — Room for Dessert and Ripe for Dessert — both of which are still favorites in my collection. His techniques are easy to follow, and the recipes just work.
I’m reluctant to use the term “genius recipe,” for anything, but I think Lebovitz has nailed it with the Whole Lemon Bars. What’s so genius? You use a whole lemon, plus some added juice, minimizing waste. Using a whole lemon results in a sweet-tart bar that is very lemony. I made a minor modification to the crust (described below), but nothing that warrants an “adapted from” version here, so just follow the link above to view the recipe on David Lebovitz’ site.
If you’re following a gluten-free diet, you can easily make the crust gluten-free by substituting a “cup-for-cup,” gluten-free flour. I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free 1-to-1 Baking Flour, but feel free to use whatever works for you. I also baked the crust for 27 minutes (longer than Lebovitz’ suggestion of 25 minutes), but that might just be my oven. The result was a golden-brown, crispy crust that had the same taste and texture as the wheat-flour version.
A few additional observations and suggestions that I’d like to share:
- For same-size squares, use a ruler to measure and a long, thin-blade knife to cut. I keep a metal ruler in my kitchen for just this sort of thing.
- Store the cut bars in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature for service. Lebovitz says you can store the bars in an at room temperature in an airtight container for up to three days, but I found that they got a bit weepy on the second day (maybe my kitchen is too warm).
- You can freeze these bars without worrying about texture change. Thaw frozen bars in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature before serving.
- Too much pith will add a bitter note to the bars, so use a lemon that has moderate rind (less than 1/2″).
Have you made Whole Lemon Bars?
February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
A few weeks ago, a travel blogger I know sent me an email. He was planning to put together a round-up of “awesome food bloggers” and wanted to include 650Food (nice, right?), but then he got to the point: “I was going to include you but 650food seems to have cobwebs.” Cobwebs? Things might be a little dusty around here, but…cobwebs?! Huh.
It’s true that I haven’t posted in a while — in fact, we’re coming up on a year. So what happened? Simply: life happened. The upside to being The Boss of Me is that I can decide when and how to do this thing called Work (pros and cons, people…pros and cons). And 650Food, while a labor of love certainly, is quite a project. I spend an average of eight hours putting together a single post. Recipes can take closer to 16 hours, as I’ll test a recipe multiple times. For a non-recipe post, the process includes researching the topic at hand, visiting a food business (sometimes multiple times) or interviewing a maker, taking and editing photographs, writing and editing the post, creating keywords, and sharing the post to multiple social media channels. Don’t get me wrong; I love it. But 650Food happens in addition to all of the other things in my life. And this time last year, I needed a reset.
I decided to take a break, practice some necessary self-care to manage health issues, and catch up on long-overdue vacations. In fact, I planned a “year of travel” for myself that included local getaways (BottleRock Napa) and international trips (Spain, Jordan). It was my intention to keep posting to 650Food in between trips and “from the road.” I imagined myself writing posts on planes, in airports, or while drinking tea in some exotic cafe. I set up my laptop and iPad with Boingo, Gogoinflight, and VPN accounts.
Before heading off to Bottleneck Napa for Memorial Day weekend, I thought about hanging a “Gone Fishing” sign on 650Food for the summer. But then summer turned into fall. I went to Spain, then Jordan (both amazing food cultures, by the way) and came home with a some wonderful memories, great photographs, and flu that lasted into October. The remainder of 2016 was: more travel, more flu (seriously, planes and hotels are just petri dishes), and well, here we are. And yes, there’s still another big trip on the horizon.
By the time fall rolled around, I realized a couple of things:
- It’s not so easy to write regular posts for a local food blog when you’re not home and therefore not cooking or eating much local food.
- The type of posts that are the foundation of 650Food — deep-dive, information-rich — required more time and resources than I could assemble while traveling, preparing to travel, or recovering from traveling.
What I can tell you after a year of travel, is that there are few places in the world quite like what we have here when it comes to food. We’re blessed with a climate that allows year-round growing, which means access to fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables. (If you’ve been to a grocery store in Ohio in the middle of winter, you know what I mean.)
We have community-supported small farms that practice organic growing methods that are better for the health of people and the environment, ranches that believe in grass-fed and humanely raised animals, local apiaries providing some of the best honey you’ll ever taste, and an ocean of fresh seafood, not more than 20 miles from my home. And then there’s the variety of local restaurants that offer just about any style of food you might crave. I’ve got my sushi spot, my Latin spots (can’t have just one), my gluten-free/allergy-aware/earthy-crunchy spot, my craft cocktail spot. I could go on, and I’m sure you’ve got your favorites. And by the way, I’m just talking about what we have here in The 650. Add in the South Bay, the city, Marin, Napa — and the Bay Area is pretty special when it comes to food culture.
So, clearing out the cobwebs and (slowly) getting back on track, I’ll remind you that it’s Waste-Less Wednesday. Waste-Less Wednesday is all about finding and sharing ways to reduce food waste at home and in our community. If you need a refresher, just type waste-less wednesday in the search box to view previous posts.
This week I have to share a fun thing I learned from my friend Amy’s mom, Fran: did you know that you can regrow scallions, aka, green onions? I find that scallions are a lot like herbs in that you always end up with more than you can use. You buy a bunch because you need to chop up a tablespoon or two out of the bunch for a recipe, and then are left wondering what to do with the rest. I have ended up with bunches of slimy yellow-green, used-to-be scallions in my crisper drawer more times than I care to remember.
So, how to get better and longer life out of your scallions, while reducing waste? Put the white root-end in a glass of water. Place the glass near or on a windowsill. You’ll see the green part at the top sprout and “regrow” within a couple of days. (Make sure to change the water as it starts to get cloudy.) Fran said her scallions almost doubled in length over the course of five days. It’s almost like getting a second bunch for free! Continue to snip the green part as necessary for your cooking needs.
Yep, there’s more than one way to keep growing and get back on track.
Have you tried regrowing scallions? How long did you keep them going?
(P.S. Thanks Fran!)
March 23, 2016 § 2 Comments
It’s been awhile since I’ve fed my craving for Asian Box, but finding myself in the heart of Palo Alto with a growly belly yesterday, I headed to Town & Country for a fix. Expecting less of a crowd than the out-the-door lunch-time insanity, I was surprised to find the place not only quiet, but closed when I rocked up mid-afternoon. What the what?!
Turns out that the closure was temporary, as the Asian Box folks were in the final stages of a refresh on their primary location, which is now five years old. Fortunately one of the Guys in Charge saw me standing in front of the door looking bewildered and informed me that the takeaway window around the corner was open for business. Phew!
I was a bit disappointed to find that I wouldn’t be able to order my usual (one of the great things about Asian Box is being able to customize your order). With the construction going on, the kitchen was indeed open, but limited the menu to four “special boxes of the day” that didn’t allow much customizing. Upside? The special boxes had a special price of $7 each for the same hearty quantity of food. I went with the Garden Box: brown rice, extra tofu, fresh vegetable mix, coconut curry sauce (yum!) all toppers except jalapeno, and the Asian Street Dust.
So what can customers expect to see when grand re-opening/unveiling happens today? (That’s right — today! It’s business as usual, but with a fresh twist.) The interior and exterior are getting new look, there’s new signage that includes the “farm to box” tagline, and the menu will offer a few new items in addition to old favorites. I’m loving the coconut curry sauce from the special Garden Box, so I hope that’s an option on the new menu. (Ah, Asian Box, I see what you’re up to … )
Kudos to Asian Box for their committment to keep things fresh across the board! I’m looking forward to checking out Palo Alto’s Asian Box 2.0. Did you happen to visit Asian Box during the remodel? What was your experience?
What: Asian Box
Where: Town & Country Shopping Center, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Hours: 11am–9pm daily
Parking: Free lot
December 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
I don’t know about you, but I am freezing this winter! (And here’s a sobering thought: we’re only 10 days into the season, which means El Nino likely has more extremes in store for us.) I keep telling my friends and family on the East Coast that they need to send our weather back. Hard to believe that just a few short months ago, we were having 100-degree days in the 650.
Back on August 15, a friend and I made the drive down Highway 1 to Pescadero for Fifth Crow Farm’s Field Day — a day of berry picking, farm touring, and meeting the folks who run the farm. It was a gorgeous, hot, sunny day (temperatures topped 90 degrees, and yes, I got a sunburn). The event was open to CSA subscribers and gave us an opportunity to get up-close and personal with the farmers and the food they grow. (For more about how Fifth Crow Farm manages sustainability and food waste on the farm, read Wasteless Wednesday: Down on the Farm.)
If you have an opportunity for a local farm tour, I highly recommend it. There’s no better way to understand where your food comes from and how it’s produced. Here’s the photo tour of my day out on the farm — and reminder of what we have to look forward to when summer comes back around.
We too late to join the first farm tour, but that left us time for berry picking before lunch! I opted for blackberries, with a plan to make jam, while my friend Allen went for a mix of strawberries and blackberries.
Despite my intense picking efforts, I ended up with just enough to make four quarter-pint jars of blackberry jam… which I am hoarding until spring.
Lunch consisted of a buffet line of dishes produced using produce and beans from the farm, as well as chicken and beef from Fifth Crow’s partners, Root Down Farm and Markegard Family Grass-Fed. Talk about eating local!
Partner-farmer Teresa Kurtak welcomed us and made a few announcements while we all enjoyed our lunches.
After finishing lunch and bussing our dishes, we were ready for the walking farm tour with farmer-partner, John Vars.
John led us from the flower fields, to the plant-start tables for organic greens, past the strawberry and blackberry fields, and on to the chicken area. During the tour he discussed the history of now seven-year-old Fifth Crow Farm from its creation, while answering questions about crops and food waste.
As 2015 draws to a close, I look back and realize that it’s been a year of abundance, and my pleasure to share local food experiences with you. It’s no secret that this little corner of the world where I live is pretty special and has an amazing food system that flourishes with the support of the community. Here’s to more food adventures in 2016!
November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season in the US this week, and for many of us that means the start of the eating season. Thanksgiving dinners this week will give way to December’s holiday parties, cookie exchanges, dinners out, and family gatherings. We’ll cook lots, eat lots, and yes, waste lots, too.
Who hasn’t prepared a holiday meal or hosted a holiday party and ended up with too much food? We fear running out or not having enough options for our guests, and so we overcompensate. Or maybe we make extra so that we don’t have to cook for a few days following the feast. And yet, inevitably, some of that food ends up in the garbage. When it comes to the T-Day bird, for example, the USDA estimates that we’ll toss out about one-third of it. Dollar-wise, that’s a collective $282 million going into the garbage this holiday season (despite our best efforts at eating turkey everything this coming weekend). Hard to swallow when there are so many food-insecure families who might be challenged to put even a small meal on the table this holiday season.
What if you had a handy-dandy kitchen reference to help you with portion planning for parties and holidays? Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders can help you not only plan better for your holiday meals this year, but also provides guidance on how to get the most of what’s in your refrigerator year-round. Author Gunders, who is a staff scientist with the National Resources Defense Council, brought the food waste issue into the mainstream several years ago when the NRDC published her insightful report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Gunders knows food waste, and now she’s helping the rest of us do something about it.
Waste Free Kitchen Handbook is a colorful, easy-to-read, 200-page kitchen reference. Following a brief introduction, in which Gunders gives an overview of the food waste problem and contributing factors, the body of the guide is divided into three parts: Strategies for Everyday Life, Recipes, and Directory.
The first part — Strategies for Everyday Life — is comprised of six chapters that focus on how we can reduce food waste on a daily basis, from a grocery shopping strategy to meal planning to best practices for food storage. The book even includes sample meal-planning templates that you can copy and tape to your fridge! And there’s no expectation of perfection here, in fact, Gunders recommends scheduling a “lazy night” or two into weekly meal planning to accommodate those evenings when you just don’t want to cook dinner.
The “Smarter Storage” chapter provides some colorful, useful graphics for effective food storage in your refrigerator and freezer — including demystification of the wilter crisper drawers. Yes, finally, a guide to what you should be storing in the crisper drawers and how those things really work! The “Kitchen Setup” chapter provides practical tips on how to organize your kitchen for efficient food storage, as well as giving a list of essential kitchen equipment. Regardless of whether you’re an experienced cook or a newbie to the kitchen, you’ll find useful information here.
Portion planning is something many of us struggle with, and Gunders covers that topic in two helpful charts: “How Much Should I Make?” for daily meal planning (adult and child portion sizes) and a larger “Party Portion Planning” chart that tells you how much to make for one person, 25 people, and a crowd of 50. And when it comes to leftovers, you’ll learn what’s safe to eat, how long can to keep it, and even a list of what you can share with your canine family members.
Part two, Recipes, is a collection of 20 “use it up” recipes for salvaging food on the brink. The recipe collection is nothing fancy, but rather focuses on practical, easy-to-manage, dinner-at-home dishes, such as chilaquiles, soups, and salads. Each recipe contains a brief summary of the ingredients you’ll use up, making the recipe section easily scannable and functional. If, for example, you know you need to use up vegetables, your options include the Free-for-All Frittata, Fried Rice, or Light Chicken Salad, to name a few.
On first read, I thought this section was a bit simple and was hoping for more recipes (although the Sour Milk Pancakes have piqued my interest!). However, after a second read, I realized that Gunders has provided some solid recipes that can also provide the foundation for those who have the time or creativity to get fancier. More important, for the time-pressed, these recipes will get dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time while reducing food waste. Win-win.
The final part, Directory, is my favorite. It’s an inclusive guide that answers those nagging questions about how to optimize the lifespan of the fresh ingredients and pantry staples that you buy regularly, including produce, proteins, dairy, and oils and condiments. For each item, Gunders summarizes optimal freshness details, where and how to store an item, and whether or not it can (or should) be frozen. No more wondering “can I freeze this?” “how long is it good?” or “should I store on the counter or in the refrigerator?” (Yes, Virginia, you can freeze herbs!) Even if you’ve got years of kitchen experience, this handy section collects all of this essential food info in one place.
Throughout the book, Gunders’ tone is knowledgable, yet reassuring. Her expertise comes through, and it’s clear that she’s done her research (see the Notes section for sources), but she also admits she’s as challenged as anyone when it comes to managing food waste at home. Gunders speaks of managing food waste as a journey and encourages the reader to think differently about what goes to waste and why.
Waste Free Kitchen Handbook is a guide for eaters and should be in every kitchen. It’s filled with useful information about food waste and what we can all do to reduce the problem in our own homes.
November 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
This is the final of a three-part series covering my food adventures during a roadtrip to California’s Central Coast this past summer. Need to catch up? Check out #TBT: Central Coast Food Tour, Going SLO and #TBT: A Walking Food Tour of San Luis Obispo.
Generally I don’t like to bring my personal stuff to the blog, but hey, this is a food blog and that means writing about food issues. So, true confession time: what I’ve been a bit cagey about in these trip reports is the fact that prior to hitting the road back in July, I was retooling my personal diet to deal with a slew of moderate food allergies and sensitivities.
By “moderate,” I mean that none of my food allergies are of the must-carry-Epi-Pen kind (although I do own one), but they’re enough to be uncomfortable, and in some cases, require a Benadryl stat. Dealing with this sort of thing as a culinary professional and someone who loves food has been, well, a pain in the ass. I’m fortunate, though, in that my reactions are manageable and not life-threatening (so far).
This past summer I decided to see what life was like when I 86-ed the biggest offenders: nuts, uncooked stone fruit, avocados, as well as wheat, barley, and rye-based products. Of course, how to manage those choices on the road became an interesting project, but I like a good food challenge. I’m always keeping an eye out for dietary options that extend beyond the basic meat-and-potatoes or fast-food approach.
San Luis Obispo had been a sweet surprise in terms of food options — from the meatiest of meat options for omnivores to the variety of alterna-diet-conscious restaurants for pescetarians, vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free folks. I’d had a couple of big days out food-wise, already, and as I left SLO and headed to the coast, I was looking for more casual, walk-in fresh food options. Here’s what I found along the way. (Important to know for gluten-free diets: I didn’t ask these restaurants how they’re managing potential gluten cross-contamination, so if you have celiac disease or are allergic to gluten, be sure to contact them directly for more information.)
Mon Ami Creperie Cafe, Pismo Beach
Through some interwebs searching, I found this small cafe, which offers savory and dessert crepes, as well as paninis, smoothies, and coffee drinks. The space has a casual, coffee-shop hangout feel, and the staff is super friendly and accommodating. Crepes and sandwiches are made fresh to order, and there are gluten-free options!
I went with the gluten-free crepes filled with spinach, mushrooms, and cheese (a variation of the vegetarian panini filling).
The crepe was cooked perfectly, and while I was concerned that a gluten-free crepe might have a gummy texture, this was absolutely not the case. The crepe itself was thin and light. The filling had an equal balance of sauteed vegetables and melty mozzarella cheese. The dish was light, yet filling, so I had no room to try the dessert crepes (wom wom), but that’s just another reason to plan a future visit.
Duckie’s Chowder House, Cayucos
For a small town, Cayucos has a good variety of food choices, from upscale dining to gas-station tacos. I spent two nights in Cayucos, which wasn’t nearly enough to try all the places I discovered in town. Sticking to my plan for budget-oriented, casual meals, Duckie’s Chowder House was my first stop.
Duckies is a family-friendly seafood-focused spot where you line up to place your order and staff members deliver it to your table. Touristy? Yep, a bit, but it’s also a solid seafood-based restaurant located across from Cayucos Beach. If you’re looking for a beach-town experience, this is it. The restaurant packs out during warm summer evenings, so if you can’t find a spot to sit, or don’t want to wait for a table, you can always take your order to go.
The menu is broad, American-style and has options for most diets: salads, fried or grilled seafood options, as well as sandwiches. Vegetarian and vegan options include salads and the ubiquitous Gardenburger, as well most of the sides. If you’re a DIY type, you could easily assemble a gluten-free, vegetarian dinner by ordering sides of rice, black beans, steamed veggies, and corn tortillas.
Of course, if you’re pescetarian, Duckie’s is a no-brainer. There are plenty of fried seafood options, but if you’re eating clean or gluten-free, choose the shrimp cocktail, fish tacos, or Duckie’s Bowl. Duckie’s Bowl includes your choice of protein — shrimp or blackened, sautéed or grilled fish — served over rice pilaf and steamed vegetables.
Sebastian’s Store, San Simeon
If you’re visiting Hearst Castle, you’re a captive market when it comes to dining choices, and my primary recommendation is to take your own food and picnic in the parking lot. However, if you’re feeling peckish after touring the castle and didn’t BYO, skip the high-priced options at the visitor center and head down to Sebastian’s Store on Highway 1.
The historic building sits in a quiet, pastoral spot on the ocean side of Highway 1, about a mile north of the Hearst Castle Road entrance. (Note that Sebastian’s cafe also shares space with the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting bar, so you can always opt for the liquid snack, if nothing on the food menu suits you.)
The blackboard cafe menu includes an assortment of sandwiches and salads, and is definitely meat-heavy, with a focus on burgers made with Hearst Ranch beef. Vegetarian options include the Greek salad, Black Bean Veggie Cheeseburger, and possibly a special request to make one of the sandwiches (turkey, perhaps) vegetarian style.
Pescetarian options are limited to the Swordfish Sandwich and Grilled Fish Tacos. I went with the fish tacos, which are served on corn tortillas with a slaw and creamy sauce. Everything is made to order and tastes fresh. The staff is friendly and service is brisk, and this cafe comes with a good serving of history, not to mention a lovely view.
Ruddell’s Smokehouse, Cayucos
There’s no lack of fish tacos in Cayucos, but Ruddell’s Smokehouse serves some of the best on the Central Coast. This tiny, lunch-only place serves sandwiches, salads, and soft tacos. The kicker? They do their own in-house hot smoking of the meat and fish used in their dishes.
Meat and fish lovers will be happy with the variety of deliciousness, with the taco category providing the largest range of options: choose from shrimp, albacore, ahi, salmon, pork, or chicken (yes, all smoked in-house) for your tacos. Vegetarians get an option in each category, too: taco, sandwich, and salad. Pickin’s are slimmer for gluten-free folks and vegans, as you’re limited to a salad. However, if fish is part of your diet, you must try the house-smoked salmon in some form or another — it’s that good.
I went with the Smoked Salmon Tacos. They’re dressed with a creamy sauce and a “salad” of apple, carrot, celery, lettuce and tomatoes that provides crunch, sweetness, and a bit of acidity that offsets the complex, rich flavor of the smoked salmon. As I mentioned, Ruddell’s is tiny, with only a couple of tables out front for seating, so most people take their food to go. I found a nice spot across the street at Cayucos Beach where I could people watch and enjoy the warm sunny day along my new favorite fish tacos.
All in all, my roadtrip to the Central Coast and back was a great getaway: perfect weather, a good dose of California history and landmarks, and some memorable food. A couple of towns in particular have captured my heart, and I’m looking forward to future visits (and more fish tacos!).
Have you visited California’s Central Coast? Share your food experiences in the comments below.
November 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
When I’m looking for a peaceful getaway beyond the 650, I head north to West Marin county. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and turning onto Highway 1 brings a sigh of relief as you’re forced to slow down and enjoy the scenery — from the rugged coastal areas as you wind your way down to Stinson Beach, to the glassy beauty of Tomales Bay as you head north to Marshall, and finally to the peaceful, pastoral lands as you make your way east toward Petaluma.
If the natural beauty isn’t enough to entice you, West Marin is rife with history and a rich heritage when it comes to food production. Dairy and cattle ranches have populated Marin county since the 1860’s. Most of these are family-run farms (not “big ag” operations) that have passed from one generation to the next, or between families, as they keep Marin County’s agrarian heritage growing. Traditional, organic, and sustainable have become a way of life among West Marin’s food producers.
From grower to producer to chef, the local food system is thriving. Marin’s farmers provide the organic, sustainable, raw ingredients — dairy, produce, meat — that today’s artisan food crafters and chefs rely on to make their products.
The past two decades have seen the rise of award-winning cheese producers, with Cowgirl Creamery leading the way. (See also Tomales Farmstead Creamery and Point Reyes Farmstead Creamery, among others.) Farming isn’t limited to the land; shellfish is also a top local “crop.” Tomales Bay produces some of the finest west coast oysters you’ll ever try — not to mention mussels and clams. Restaurants like Stinson Beach’s Parkside Cafe and Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station rely on local ingredients to create satisfying, delicious dishes.
Unique among West Marin’s artisan producers are Jan Lee and her husband Lou, owners and farmers of AppleGarden Farm orchard in Tomales and makers of handcrafted AppleGarden Farm Hard Cider. A two-person operation, they have spent the past eight years planting, growing, and harvesting 40 varieties of apples on their 20-acre property in order to create Marin county’s only organic farmstead hard cider. Jan calls it their “retirement project.” (And if that weren’t enough, there’s also the AppleGarden Cottage bed and breakfast, which Jan started up while waiting for the apple trees to mature enough for the first bottling of cider.)
Hard cider, which seems to be on trend lately, isn’t new. In fact, hard cider was the colonists’ original tipple. Cider apples — which are more tart and tannic than the apples we see in the market today — were cultivated by English settlers, and the drink enjoyed popularity until Prohibition. The Volstead Act not only outlawed alcoholic cider, but it also limited the production of cider apple orchards and even sweet cider, also known as apple juice. As a result of Prohibition, orchards of cider apple trees were replaced with trees producing the sweeter eating apples we know now. But Jan Lee is doing something about that.
After leaving behind stress-filled careers managing commercial construction projects up and down the West Coast, Jan and Lou purchased their property in Tomales in fall 2007. Their plan: grow their own apples and make a flavorful, traditional English-style cider using a natural fermentation process that required only fresh juice and yeast. Together they built a barn, which they lived in until their residence on the property was complete, and planted the first apple trees. The first harvest produced enough apples for Jan to make “lots of applesauce.” Harvesting for making cider started in 2010, with the first bottling in 2011.
Eight years on, Jan and Lou have a two-acre orchard of over 300 apple trees that provide the apples for their hard cider. In addition, the farm is home to approximately 30 pastured chickens (who Jan calls “the girls”).
In previous years, when the drought wasn’t as severe, Lou has also indulged his passion for “growing things,” including Cinderella pumpkins, summer squashes, and strawberries. Aside from the apples for cider, whatever Jan and Lou don’t eat or put into cold storage goes to feed the chickens and livestock on neighboring properties.
Biodiversity and sustainability were built into the plan for AppleGarden Farm. With a variety of 40 apples, some types, such as the crabapples, attract pollinators and add a tannic (dry) component to the cider blend. (In fact, Jan and Lou keep bee boxes on their property, although a beekeeper manages the bees.) Cider apples contribute tannins and tartness, while the sweeter apples, such as Elstar, Stayman Winesap, and Freedom allow Jan to play with the sweetness and flavor profile when blending the cider. The diversity of apples means a ripening season from late August through early November. Lou harvests the apples by hand when they’re ready, and nothing goes to waste or is left lingering on the tree. Fruit that falls from the tree on its own is left on the ground to become food for the chickens, who in turn, provide nitrogen-rich fertilizer (manure) throughout the orchard.
Jan and Lou specifically chose trees that would thrive in their coastal region, accounting for foggy mornings and less-sunny summers than inland locations in Sonoma county, for example. Young trees, which take several years to produce apples, receive a small amount of drip irrigation as needed during the summer. Mature trees are dry farmed. Jan and Lou also use large amounts of local organic mulch to keep the soil moist following winter rains.
Apples are allowed to rest in picking boxes until Jan and Lou are ready to start pressing.
Using a new press that Lou built this year, they’re able to extract the maximum amount of juice from the apples. Leftover apple “smoosh” from the pressings becomes feed for neighbors’ livestock. Juice is combined with yeast and left to ferment in large barrels at room temperature for several weeks.
Jan uses commercial yeast for consistent results, but nothing else is added to the cider — no sugar, no flavorings, and no additional carbonation. She tests the cider for percentage of alcohol (maximum 7%) and sugar, acidity, and flavor. Adjustments are made by adding juice — more juice to reduce the percentage of alcohol, tannic juice to balance sweetness and so on. This is the art of blending, and Jan is very good at it.
Two more stages of fermentation, which take the better part of a year in cold storage, happen before the cider can be bottled. Jan and Lou do the bottling on site themselves, using bottling equipment that Lou built. Labels are applied by hand, and Jan delivers the orders herself, driving up and down Marin county to deliver orders to wholesale accounts, of which there are now a dozen.
AppleGarden Farm’s Hard Cider has a moderate amount of alcohol, balance of tannins and sweetness, slight effervescence and sweet-tart apple flavor. Jan calls it a “casual drink, a picnic cider.”
The flavor profile makes it a perfect pairing with Marin county-produced foods — especially full-flavored cheeses such as Cowgirl Creamery’s Mount Tam. Goat cheeses are also a good pairing, and I’m looking forward to trying the cider with Pescadero’s own Harley Goat Farms cheeses.
Another excellent cider pairing? Tomales Bay oysters! In fact, it’s my new go-to choice of beverage to enjoy with our regional oysters, emphasizing the creaminess and balancing the briny notes.
Unfortunately AppleGarden Farm Hard Cider is not yet available in the 650. If you want to try this handmade, sustainable cider for yourself, you’ll have to head to points north and get some from these restaurants and specialty stores:
- San Francisco: Upcider
- Larkspur: Left Bank Brasserie
- Fairfax: Taste Kitchen
- Olema: Sir & Star Restaurant
- Petaluma: Marin French Cheese Company
- Point Reyes Station: Osteria Stellina, Tomales Bay Foods/Cowgirl Creamery
- Inverness Park: Perry’s Deli
- Inverness: Saltwater Oyster Depot
- Marshall: Marshall Store and Oyster Bar, Nick’s Cove
- Valley Ford: Rocker Oysterfeller’s
Better yet, plan a trip to West Marin when the farm is open and purchase some directly from Jan. Check the farm’s Facebook page for open days and times.
October 22, 2015 § 1 Comment
How do you decide where to eat when you’re on vacation in a new locale? Deep research via the interwebs? Friends’ recommendations? Advice from the concierge or innkeeper at your place of lodging? For many of us, what and where we eat while traveling becomes part of the story. We experience a sense of place through local food. Food stories influence our experiences and shape our memories.
Figuring out where to eat is a huge part of trip planning for me. In fact, I probably spend more time compiling a list of restaurants, bakeries, markets, and artisan food shops to visit than I do actually making travel plans. With only a few days to spend in San Luis Obispo this past summer, I was quickly caught up in the best way to fully experience the local food scene while seeing the town and learning its history. (Visiting the Thursday night market was a good start.)
Fortunately, a quick Google search for “food tours” led me to Central Coast Food tours, which offers — yasssss! — a Downtown San Luis Obispo Tour that they call “a food tasting, cultural and historical walking tour all in one!” You had me at hello.
Central Coast Food Tours
Central Coast Food Tours is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team, Laura and Yule Gurreau. The Gurreaus are long-time Central Coast residents and passionate supporters of the area’s evolving food and wine scene. In addition to the San Luis Obispo walking tour, they also offer several walking tours in the town of Paso Robles — which has seen amazing growth in its local dining scene in recent years. You can experience “Paso” through a daytime downtown tour (similar to the SLO walking tour), a Sunday brunch and wine walk, and an evening “haunted hotel” dinner tour.
If you want to experience wine and food in other parts of the county, the Gurreaus can organize a private wine tour of the SLO/Edna Valley area, a sip and sail tour on the coast, or a sip and zip-line tour at Margharita Ranch. (Note: You can book walking tours through Central Coast Food Tours’ website, but will need to call or email to inquire about other tours.)
The SLO walking tour is an afternoon event, starting at 1pm and running 3½ – 4 hours, which leaves you plenty of time to sleep in, grab a leisurely breakfast, and maybe even do a little wandering around town on your own. Or, if you’re one of those early risers, you could take a short drive down to the tiny town of Avila Beach beforehand, explore a bit, and be back in time for the tour. (Oh, and FYI, you’ll be tasting at 5 or 6 locations during the tour, so grabbing a snack beforehand is recommended, but skip the full meal. You’ll be plenty full by the end of the day.)
Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates
Our meeting place and first tour stop was Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates (1491 Monterey Street), a leisurely 15-minute walk from my bed and breakfast. I was the first to arrive and chatted with Yule, who would be leading the tour, while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. (Laura was leading her own tour in Paso Robles that afternoon.) In all there were six of us: myself, Yule, a couple from Paso Robles, and a couple from Los Angeles. Keeping the group size small gives the tour a relaxed feel and makes it easier to get to know everyone.
Mama Ganache is a small, cute shop that produces a variety of handmade chocolate treats with an emphasis on truffles, bars, and molded chocolates. In addition to a variety of chocolate confections, including vegan and gluten-free options, they also offer an assortment of hot chocolates, coffee drinks, and milkshakes.
After our group had assembled, we settled into the comfy couches at the front of the shop. While we enjoyed our first taste — a refreshing, creamy, peppermint-accented, milk-chocolate milkshake served in an espresso cup — Yule gave us a lesson in chocolate processing, as well as the back story on Mama Ganache. Created and owned by Cal Poly professor of Food Science and Nutrition, Tom Neuhaus, and his sister Joanne, Mama Ganache is a values-based business. They specialize in using fair-trade, organic chocolate and emphasize chocolate education and sustainable cocao farming.
After the milkshake palate cleanser, we were ready to taste two of the shop’s unique truffles. The first was a white-chocolate zabaglione-inspired truffle that had just enough marsala to keep it interesting without being too boozy. The second taste was a dark chocolate cherry-chipotle truffle. After the tasting, there was time to chat with the store employees about products, check out the various chocolate-themed gifts for sale, and of course, purchase an assortment of truffles.
Leaving Mama Ganache, we headed west on Monterey Street, toward downtown, stopping in at Jaffa Café (1308 Monterey Street). Serving casual, classic Mediterranean-style cuisine to eat in or take out, Jaffa Café has four locations throughout San Luis Obispo county. The SLO location, however, was the first, and continues to be very popular with locals. Jaffa Café has been a local readers’ poll winner for “Best of SLO County – Best Mediterranean Food” seven years running.
Menu choices for meat eaters include kabob plates, shwarma plates, pita wraps, and fatoush salads. Vegetarians and vegans are not left out by any means. Non-meat options range from pita wraps and salads to a “make your own combo” plate with choices that include stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ganoush, and grilled veggie salad. By the way, now would be a good time to mention that the tour is vegetarian/vegan-friendly, so make sure you share any dietary restrictions when you book. Yule had noted that I’d requested non-meat dishes when I signed up, and he made sure that my sampler plate came with falafel, instead of gyro meat.
Our walk from Jaffa Café to gourmet food and olive oil purveyor We Olive (958 Higuera Street) took us back into the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo. Along the way, Yule shared his knowledge of local history while pointing out historical buildings.
At We Olive, we sampled just a few of the shop’s more than 40 varieties of olive oils and vinegars. My favorite was the organic Meyer lemon olive oil, which turned out to be the perfect summer salad dressing.
Some of the more popular oils and vinegars are sold by the ounce, allowing customers to buy just what they need. You can bring your own bottle to fill or purchase one of We Olive’s reusable glass bottles. Return a bottle for a refill and save $5 – 7.50, depending on the bottle size.
We Olive takes a local/regional approach to olive oil tasting and sales, with locations throughout the Central Coast and Bay Area. (Note that We Olive is a franchise-based business, so not all stores will be the same.) Olive oils sold at We Olive in SLO are California-grown and Certified Extra Virgin by the California Olive Oil Council. According to We Olive’s website: “[m]any of our oils are grown and pressed right here in the Central Coast, providing nutrient-rich products that support local producers.” You can also purchase olives, mustards, and other savory condiments.
Our next tour stop took us to Fromagerie Sophie, a French-inspired cheese shop on Garden Street, just a couple of blocks west of We Olive. The famous Bubblegum Alley is just around the corner, and Yule offered to take us through before heading into Fromage Sophie for cheese tasting, but everyone in our group had already seen it, so we passed — which left more time for cheese!
Fromage Sophie stocks and sells a large assortment of cheeses from around the world (with an emphasis on French cheeses, of course), including some unique and small-batch cheeses that Sophie orders directly from the makers. In addition to sales, the shop also offers classes and participates in local food and wine events.
Our group was led through the small shop, past the refrigerated glass cases stocked with cheeses, and out the back door to a private patio area accented with string lights and olive trees.
An umbrella-shaded table was set and waiting for us; perfect for a mid-afternoon respite and cheese tasting. It’s the kind of spot, where you might, after a glass or two of wine, forget that you’re in Central California, and imagine yourself in the Rhone valley or a Tuscan hill town.
After we had settled in, shop assistants brought beautifully arranged platters of cheese samples, dried fruit, honey, bread, and charcuterie. (Remember what I said about not eating too much before the tour?) As we tasted, we compared notes on the different cheeses — which we preferred, which tasted better with a slice of dried apricot or pear versus a drizzle of honey (or both), and whether wine or scotch whiskey is a better pairing for rich, creamy cheeses.
While Fromagerie Sophie would have been a lovely ending to our afternoon tour, there were a few more stops to make. We had an opportunity to walk off our cheese tasting and learn a bit of California history with a visit to the heart of downtown’s historic district: Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
The fifth of 21 missions founded by Franciscan fathers along California’s mission trail from San Diego to Sonoma, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa remains among the top five to visit. The buildings have been updated and restored and include a museum and gift shop. The mission church is open to the public when not holding Catholic services. Make sure you check out the beautiful hand-painted walls and ceiling inside the church and then take a stroll through the gardens. The plaza next to the mission is home to a variety of local cultural events, including a summer concert series and a Dia de los Muertos celebration.
Backtracking a bit, we crossed the Mission Plaza and headed two blocks up Monterey Street for a taste of Italy at Palazzo Guiseppe. The restaurant sits at the Monterey end of Court Street, a block-long pedestrian mall of shops and restaurants that connects to Higuera on the other end. The restaurant’s casual outdoor seating puts you right along the pedestrian mall and lets you enjoy the warm San Luis Obispo summer evenings while watching the world go by.
The interior of the restaurant is upscale and contemporary without being stuffy. With a menu that focuses on southern Italian-influenced cuisine, Guiseppe’s is committed to using local, seasonal ingredients. In fact, this family-run restaurant — one of two opened by founder Giuseppe “Joe” DiFronzo (the other is in Pismo Beach) — sources produce from the family’s own organic farm.
Our group was seated at a pre-set table at the front of the interior of the restaurant and served one of their most popular dishes: an appetizer-sized version of their housemade Ravioli di Zucca.
Guiseppe’s makes their own dough for this rich dish of demilune-shaped pasta filled with butternut squash purée and sage, complemented with a parmigiana cream sauce and finished with a drizzle of olive oil. Tasty, but perhaps a bit heavy for a fifth tasting (especially after the cheese and charcuterie tasting earlier). The hospitality at Guiseppe’s was gracious and attentive. When one of our group requested a substitution, it was handled quickly and in a friendly manner. I think we were all starting to wind down at this point, but there was one last stop to make. We thanked our hostess at Guiseppe’s and headed down the street to our final destination: Luna Red.
If you read Part Un of my SLO food trip, you’ll recall that I’d dined at Luna Red the previous evening. Not to worry, though, as there were plenty of dishes on the menu that I didn’t get to taste (including dessert). Our SLO food tour came to a sweet end with Luna Red’s rich, brownie-like chocolate cake with crème anglais and a glass of wine.
Yule left us as we finished dessert, but with no schedule to keep, the rest of us stayed on for another glass of wine and more conversation. It turns out that one of our group, Miranda, is the owner of the local Powell’s Sweet Shoppe on Court Street, right next to Palazzo Guiseppe. She offered to show us the shop and let us sample their gelato! (Post-dessert, anyone?) It was fun to see the business that she’d so passionately spoken about during our tour.
Bonus Stop: Powell’s Sweet Shoppe
Powell’s was nothing short of a candy lover’s dream. Every confection you could imagine is stocked in the store — in addition to the delicious, creamy gelato.
As much as I enjoyed tasting SLO, meeting a fun group of food lovers and getting to know them made the tour a richer experience. I took the long way home to my bed and breakfast, exploring the downtown streets and the nearby residential area. The night was warm, the downtown crowd lively, and there was no need to hurry back. When I returned to my bed and breakfast later that evening, I found that Yule had left a little thank you gift of truffles from Mama Ganache and baklava from Jaffa Café. It was a sweet ending to an enjoyable and educational day in SLO. I’d tasted my way through some of SLO’s best-loved food spots and met a nice group of people.
Walking food tours are a fun way to get an overview of the local food scene. Not only can you meet and connect with other like-minded travelers, but your guide can provide access and insight to the local food scene that you might not discover on your own. Have you taken a food tour? Share your experience in the comments below.