#TBT: SLO to the Coast

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).

Gluten-free crepe at Mon Ami Creperie Cafe in Pismo Beach: sauteed spinach, mushrooms, and cheesy goodness

Gluten-free crepe at Mon Ami Creperie Cafe in Pismo Beach: sauteed spinach, mushrooms, and cheesy deliciousness

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.

Duckie's Bowl to go, with a view of the beach in the background

Duckie’s Bowl to go, with a view of the beach in the background

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.)

Historic Sebastian's Store in San Simeon houses a cafe and wine tasting bar

Historic Sebastian’s Store in San Simeon houses a cafe and wine tasting bar

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.ruddells-collage

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.

My-my-my-my Paloma!*

May 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

Cinco de Mayo, your annual excuse to drink too many margaritas, is coming up on Monday — although some of you over-achievers might be getting a head start this weekend (in that case: rock on witcha bad selves). You know I love my margaritas, but this year I’m celebrating by shaking things up with another classic Mexican cocktail: the Paloma.

Paloma cocktail

Paloma cocktail

What is a Paloma? And Why, might you ask, am I breaking tradition from my beloved hand-made margarita? It’s a story that’s part inspiration and part economic practicality.

As the New York times informed us back in March, there is indeed a lime shortage. If you’ve started shopping for limes for your Cinco de Mayo celebration, you might have noticed that they’re teeny and pricier than usual. NYT writer David Karp broke it down to trio of problems: “[t]he culprits are weather, disease and even Mexican criminals.” The US relies on Mexico for much of its year-round lime supply, so with multiple issues reducing the availability of limes and sending prices higher, the effects have trickled down to our local markets.

During recent trips to Sigona’s and Whole Foods markets, I saw a paltry selection of Mexican limes that were the size of Key limes and almost as expensive. And yet, there’s still an abundance of other citrus varieties grown right here in California, some of it even within 100 miles of the 650 (Meyer lemons and mandarin oranges are just a couple of examples). Among this plethora of pretty citrus are California ruby grapefruits.

Fresh California ruby grapefruit

Fresh California ruby grapefruit

Although we’re nearing the end of the season, rubies are sweeter now than earlier in the season, readily available in the market, and they’re a good value (more fruit per pound and at a better price than the teeny-tiny Mexican limes.) Yes, I love my margaritas, but when life gives you not-limes, you gotta get creative.

So what about that inspiration part I mentioned? Coincidentally, a few weeks ago, I had my first-ever Paloma at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. According to the bar menu, the ingredients are: Herradura Silver Tequila (as you might recall, my go-to tequila for margaritas), fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, soda, and lime juice. Grapefruit juice?! Not quite the Margarita I was craving, but eh, close enough. Never a fan of grapefruit, I was dubious, but figured why not? And this is why it’s good to try something new: the cocktail was delish — nicely balanced and refreshing! If I didn’t have to drive back to the 650 after dinner, I absolutely would have ordered another.

Flash forward a couple of weeks, and guess what turns up in my CSA box? Grapefruit — two of ’em (er, that would be grapefruits, then). As always, part of the fun of the CSA box is the “what am I going to do with that/those?!” game. But I’d been thinking about that Paloma I’d had at One Market, so the grapefruit question was easily answered: I have tequila, I have lime… hello, Paloma! All I needed was a recipe.

As it turns out, the classic Paloma recipe is basically grapefruit soda and tequila. Seriously. I prefer my cocktails sans bubbles, so this discovery was not making me happy. I was craving the fresh-juice Paloma I had at One Market, but with a few tweaks that would make it my own. The bubbles had to go — no soda, soda water, tonic or mineral water in my Paloma. A small amount of lime juice would add some tartness and balance the grapefruit, so the lime juice would be necessary, but not the star of the show. (Bonus, because, well, I didn’t want to be juicing bags of tiny limes all day long.) Finally, adding a little sweetness in the form of agave syrup would pull the whole drink together, smoothing out the tartness of the citrus. The only unknown was which tequila to use.

In my initial Paloma testing I went with a reposado because I wanted an added layer of flavor and complexity beyond a blanco tequila. But then I’d been thinking about a recent mezcal tasting at Loló Restaurant in the Mission and how that the sweet smokiness of a good mezcal might be an interesting pairing with the grapefruit.

If the word “mezcal” brings to mind something-like-tequila, but with a creepy-looking worm at the bottom, stop. There’s so much more to mezcal than a dead worm in the bottom of the bottle (and by the way, most quality mezcals do not contain a worm). I had my first taste of small-batch mezcal years ago when my friend Monica gave me an unlabelled, hand-painted bottle of the Oaxaca-produced spirit. The mezcal was smoky and sweet with herbal notes and that characteristic mezcal “burn” as it went down. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Mezcal is distilled from the cooked heart — the piña — of the maguey agave plant. It’s the cooking process, which involves fire roasting the piña for several days, that gives mezcal its characteristic smoky flavor. While a quarter of Mexico’s states are allowed to produce mezcal, most mezcal production takes place in Oaxaca. Recent years have seen a rise in the production of artisan/hyper-local versions of mezcal that focus on using agave plants from specific areas (for example, mountain vs. valley) and different methods of cooking the piña (steam roasted vs. fire roasted). Unaged mezcals are called “joven” (juvenile) and, like a blanco tequila, are clear spirits. The amount of smoky flavor in the mezcal will determine whether you want to sip it or use it for cocktails.

After what we like to call “serious research” around here (read: multiple cocktail and mezcal tastings), Mina Real Silver mezcal turned out to be the best choice for my Paloma.

Mina Real Silver Mezcal

Mina Real Silver Mezcal

Rather than the traditional in-ground fire roasting, Mina Real Silver is steam-roasted, which results in less smoke than mezcals produced by fire roasting the piña. On the nose, this mezcal is equal parts smoke, floral notes, and agave sweetness. It’s a nice pairing with the bright citrus combination of ruby grapefruit and lime. This drink is best served martini-style, rather than over ice, to fully enjoy the flavors. Give it a try!drink-side-view

Happy Cinco de Mayo! How are you celebrating this year?

Recipe: My Paloma

You’ll need a martini glass, cocktail shaker, shot glass with measurement markings or measuring spoons, and ice.

Ingredients:

2 oz freshly squeezed ruby grapefruit juice
½ oz freshly squeezed lime juice
2 oz Mina Real Mezcal
½ teaspoon agave syrup

For the glass:

Wedge of grapefruit
3-4  Tbs Kosher salt

Note that I’ve given the ingredients in ounces. If you’re using measuring spoons,
2 oz = 4 tablespoons, ½ oz = 1 tablespoon

How To:

  1. Pour salt on to a saucer. Run a wedge of grapefruit around the rim of the glass, then turn the glass upside down and dip into the salt. (You’re trying to get the salt to adhere to the outer rim of the glass). Set aside.
  2. Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with four or five cubes of fresh ice.
  3. Shake 4-5 times (not vigorously) to combine and pour into a prepared glass.
  4. Garnish with half a grapefruit wheel.

Tequila version: As I mentioned in an earlier post, I happen to be a fan of San Francisco-based Tres Agaves Tequila. If you want to try a tequila-based Paloma, substitute Tres Agaves Reposado for the Mina Real Silver mezcal.

(*To the tune of “My Sharona,” by The Knack.)

Field Trip: Taylor’s — er, Gott’s Roadside

April 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

The first time I walked into Taylor’s, Gott’s Roadside in Palo Alto’s Town & Country shopping center last fall, I was super excited to order my all-time-favorite Ahi burger. Maybe I’d even splurge and order a side of sweet potato fries!

Gott's Roadside in Palo Alto, CA

Gott’s Roadside in Palo Alto, CA

From the time construction started and the “Coming Summer 2013” sign appeared in the window, I was counting the weeks. Even after the opening date slipped into fall — and seemed like it might slip into winter — I kept the faith. So on that cloudy, grey fall day when I saw the front door wide open, my stomach did the happy dance. Yes, finally!

I walked right in and up to the counter, ignoring the wall-sized menu and legal-sheet-sized paper versions in a galvanized metal pail. Nope. I knew exactly what I wanted. How disappointed was I to find out that the restaurant wasn’t quite open yet — and that I’d actually walked in on a staff training session! Oops. Opening Day was still about three weeks away. The thought of jumping in the car and fighting afternoon traffic and city parking to get my fix at the Ferry Building started an internal tug-of-war that lasted the rest of the day. I decided to bide my time and wait for the Town & Country location to open. It was a loooong three weeks.

THE Ahi burger

THE Ahi burger: seared Ahi with ginger-wasabi mayo and Asian slaw on an egg bun

I’ll be honest: I just can’t get used to calling it Gott’s. To me, it will always be Taylor’s Refresher. The Palo Alto location, now open about six months, is the fourth in the growing Gott’s empire. The original location is in St. Helena, on Main Street, right before you cross the bridge into downtown. (Other locations are at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Oxbow Market in Napa.)

Taylor’s Automatic Refresher was opened by Gott brothers Joel and Duncan in St. Helena in 1999. The concept was a classic 50’s style drive-in with upscale Napa Valley burgers, thick milkshakes made with Double Rainbow ice cream, and a decent wine-by-the-glass selection. (Not to mention a pricey corkage fee that brought criticism from the locals.) On a hot summer weekend afternoon, the line of cars waiting to get into the parking lot was long and slow. The wait was always worth it — especially if you could score a picnic table in the back, away from the road. For me it became a must-stop location during any trip to the Wine Country.

When I moved up to St. Helena to attend the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone a few years later, Taylor’s would turn out to be a saving grace. Despite a hefty tuition at one of the nation’s finer culinary schools, student meals left something to be desired. Let’s just say the student-meal program had some major kinks that needed to be beaten worked out. On the days we couldn’t take the third re-run of walk-in leftovers that had seen better days, someone would stand up and announce a Taylor’s run. Lifesaver!

The weekends that I stayed in town, I’d treat myself to an Ahi burger and — if they hadn’t run out yet — the sweet potato fries. That was the thing then: the sweet potato fries weren’t on the regular menu. They were only available on weekends, and when they ran out, well, you were S.O.L. As a “local,” I learned to call ahead for my order and skip the line, gliding over to the pickup window, while hot, hangry tourists waited in the ordering line for up to 30 minutes. (Trust me: been there, done that.)

Sweet potato fries

Sweet potato fries

So how did Taylor’s get to be Gott’s? The Taylor family owned the original burger spot, which opened in 1954 with the name Taylor’s Refresher. When the Gotts leased the place from the Taylor family so many years later to open their version, they did so with the agreement that the Taylor name would stay in place. Which it did — until 2010 when, after a disagreement between the Gotts and Taylors over trademarking resulted in legal action on both sides. So, in 2010, Taylor’s was renamed Gott’s. (Want to know more about the dispute? Check out this article from the Napa Valley Register.)

What else has changed in 15 years? Burgers are still the heart of the menu, but there are some additions — salads and fish tacos — that provide more options for the non-meat eaters. Sweet potato fries are available all the time now, and there are seasonal menu specials as well. What hasn’t changed? You still get a pager to let you know when your order is ready. Orders are still delivered on stainless steel quarter sheet pans and “napkins” are actually paper towels. The quality of the food is still excellent. You can still find parking near the restaurant (although you might have to wait a bit to get a good spot). The Ahi burger is still my favorite. And without fail every guy I know loves the Western Bacon Blue Ring burger. (No idea why. I’ve just learned to accept it as a fact of life.)

Western Bacon Blue Ring: Niman Ranch beef patty, onion ring, Pt. Reyes, blue cheese, bacon, pickles, red onion, BBQ sauce, all on an egg bun

Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger: Niman Ranch beef patty, onion ring,
Pt. Reyes blue cheese, bacon, pickles, red onion, BBQ sauce — all on an egg bun

What will you love about Gott’s Roadside in Palo Alto? Lots! The restaurant sources high-quality, local-ish ingredients — Niman Ranch beef and Mary’s Free-Range Chicken, for example — and the results are simple, yet delicious, fresh, and craveable. With a family-friendly environment and something for every taste (yes, vegetarians, too!), you can keep the kids and the grownups happy. Let the kids choose what they want from the Kid’s Menu and enjoy a milkshake on the side. Grownups can indulge in burgers (beef, turkey, or veggie), chicken sandwiches, and salads (if you must).

True to its Napa Valley roots, Gott’s is not just a basic beer-and-burger place. Wine lovers will find a thoughtful, reasonably priced assortment of wines by the glass, half bottle, and full bottle. Some of my favorites: St. Supery Sauvignon ($8/glass) and Merryvale Starmont Chardonnay ($12/half bottle).

Ahi Burger, Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger, Sweet Potato Fries, Starmont Chardonnay

Ahi Burger, Western Bacon Blue Ring Burger, Sweet Potato Fries, Starmont Chardonnay

Wanna get fancy? There’s also Rombauer Chardonnay ($24/half bottle) and Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon ($50/half bottle). For you beer drinkers, Gott’s offers a good selection of draft, bottled, and canned beers. Craving that PBR or a Lagunitas IPA with your Double Cheeseburger? Either way, Gott’s has you covered.

Got room for something sweet after the burgers and fries? Head back to the counter and order a classic Black-and-White (chocolate and vanilla, so good!) or seasonal milkshake, ice cream in a cup, root beer float, or fountain soda.

I have to admit that the original Taylor’s Automatic Refresher will always hold a place in my heart. And yet, Gott’s Roadside in Palo Alto brings a bit of the Wine Country to the 650. Whatever you want to call it, it’s still the home of one of my favorite dining experiences. Good food and good times. So, if I ask you to meet me at Taylor’s, you’ll know what I mean.

Have you been to the newest Gott’s Roadside location? What did you eat?

Details
What: Gott’s Roadside
Where:  Town & Country, 855 El Camino Real #65, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Parking: Lot
Phone: 650-326-1000
Hours: Sun-Sat: Breakfast 7am-11am; Main Menu 10:30am-9pm
Price: $$
Bar: Wine, beer

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