#TBT: A Walking Food Tour of San Luis Obispo

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.

Sit and sip awhile: the drinks menu at Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates in San Luis Obispo

Sit and sip awhile: the drinks menu at Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates in San Luis Obispo

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.

Perfect for a hot, sunny, summer day: Mini peppermint-chocolate milkshake

Perfect for a hot, sunny, summer day: Mini peppermint-chocolate milkshake

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.

Truffle samples at Mama Ganache

Truffle samples at Mama Ganache

Jaffa Café
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.

Vegetarian sampler plate at Jaffa Café

Vegetarian sampler plate at Jaffa Café

We Olive
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.

Sampling olive oils and vinegars at We Olive

Sampling olive oils and vinegars at We Olive

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.

Some oils and vinegars are sold in bulk; buy as much as you need

Some oils and vinegars are sold in bulk; buy as much as you need

Fromagerie Sophie
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.

Just one of the cheese cases at Fromagerie Sophie

Just one of the cheese cases at Fromagerie Sophie

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.

Sampling the goods at Fromagerie Sophie

Sampling the goods at Fromagerie Sophie

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.

Clockwise from upper-left: Interior of the church at Mission San Luis Obispo Tolosa; mission bells, Yule explains how the walls are structured to withstand earthquakes, mission gardens, stars on the church ceiling, handpainted flowers cover the walls

Clockwise from upper-left: Interior of the church at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa; mission bells; Yule explains how the walls are structured to withstand earthquakes; mission gardens; stars on the church ceiling; hand-painted flowers cover the walls

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.

Palazzo Guiseppe
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.

Palazzo Guiseppe's Ravioli di Zucca

Palazzo Guiseppe’s 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.

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.

Dessert at Luna Red

Dessert at Luna Red

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.

Just a fraction of the confections at Powell's Sweet Shoppe

Just a fraction of the confections at Powell’s Sweet Shoppe

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.

#TBT: Central Coast Food Tour, Going SLO

October 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

I’d been harboring summer road trip fantasies for years. Nothing crazy, mind you — no cross-country, hit-every-state, live-out-of-an-RV trip for me. Nope, I just wanted to see more of the Golden State, at a leisurely pace.  I’d go easy on the packing (shorts, sandals, cute tops — it is summer, after all), pop open the sunroof, and head off down the road, stereo cranked. Maybe drive Highway 1 from Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara or LA. Or take 101 north through Sonoma county, crossing over to Anderson Valley and ending up in Mendocino. I’d linger in small towns, taste wines in the middle of the afternoon, sample the products of local food makers, and take in the local history. sigh

Just so you know, I didn’t end up taking either of those trips — in part because I’ve done them in the past, and I wanted to go someplace that was new to me. (Although both are on the road trip bucket list for next year.) Instead, I decided to focus on visiting the Central Coast, which has been getting more press for its rising food and wine scene during the past few years. With five days all to myself and Little Cat’s petsitting needs taken care of, I made a plan head south down 101 right after the 4th of July. I’d land in San Luis Obispo for a few days, then head to the coast to finish up the trip before heading home via Highway 1. It was going to be my own personal food tour, with a bit of California history on the side.

The Salad Bowl of the World
The beginning of my trip included short tours through Soledad and Salinas, two cities that are central to California’s agriculture industry. The Salinas Valley is an amazing sight in mid-summer — enough to make you want to pull over from the speedy raceway that is 101 South and just take it all in. Beautiful, bright green fields (despite the drought and daily temps in the high-90’s) full of workers, picking, pulling, and loading. Awe-inspiring, and yet quite humbling when you realize that you’re in the heart of “the Salad Bowl of the World,” an area that produces approximately 80% of the world’s salad greens. Even more so that so much of that hard work is still done manually, in 90-plus-degree temperatures.

Road Food, Day 1
Heading out of Salinas, I was hankering for my first road food snack. It was a little too early in the trip to go right off the rails with heavy, greasy, processed fast food. (And who am I kidding? I don’t eat that way even on a bad day. My idea of comfort food is roasted vegetables and steamed broccoli.) Given my own dietary choices, it gave me the perfect opportunity to think about what’s out there for non-standard, non-meat-based diets. Erm, not much. You need to get creative (and bring your own snacks). Much as I’m a fan of local and family-owned over corporate food choices, Starbucks’ snack boxes came in for the win. Passing by pizza joints and burger spots on my way out of Salinas I popped into Starbucks for a bottle of water and came across their new Omega-3 Bistro Box. While being on-trend, it’s also vegetarian and gluten-free (but not vegan).

Starbucks' Omega 3 Bistro Box

Starbucks’ Omega-3 Bistro Box

Eating My Way Through SLO
I arrived in San Luis Obispo just in time to get check in to my bed and breakfast before heading out to experience the Thursday Night Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market. More than a market, it’s a family-friendly evening event with farm-fresh produce, local food stalls (including award-winning barbeque), handmade products, and a variety of entertainment. The market, which runs 6 – 9pm, covers five city blocks of Higuera Street, between Osos and Nipomo.

Thursday Night Farmers' Market in San Luis Obispo

Thursday Night Farmers’ Market in San Luis Obispo

Much of the produce I saw came from areas around SLO, and far south as Santa Barbara. While it was all beautiful, fresh, and local, I was surprised that there were so few organic vendors at this market. Another surprise? SLO is a meaty town — there’s a real love of  barbeque here. That award-winning barbeque stall I mentioned? Locals were already lining up at 5:30, well before the market opened!

That must be some GOOD barbeque!

That must be some GOOD barbeque!

Downtown shops, restaurants, and bars along Higuera stay open during the market, which means that you can wander, shop, dine, and cocktail, as well. Or just hang out. The weather was just gorgeous — warm enough for summer clothing without a jacket — and the streets were full of happy people. I wandered, sampled, and chatted with vendors for about an hour, and then headed over to Luna Red to sample a craft cocktail or two and check out their small plate menu.

Seeing Red… Luna Red
Thursday night seems to be THE night to be at Luna Red, a tapas-style restaurant located just a block north of Higuera on Chorro Street. With perfect summer weather and almost two more hours of daylight coming, the outdoor seating area was packed when I arrived at 7pm.

No tiny patio, Luna Red’s outdoor seating area could pass for a small restaurant all on its own. The variety of seating includes high-top and regular tables, a fire pit with “couches,” and outdoor bar. It’s casual and fun, with a relaxed vibe. Inside, the restaurant pairs a contemporary design with a mission-style building that consists of a front room, long (red-lit) bar, and a back room with windows that look over the nearby creek. The interior of the restaurant is quieter, but also darker.

Peaceful view from my table at Luna Red (the San Luis Obispo mission is just off to the right, out of the pic)

Peaceful view from my table at Luna Red (the San Luis Obispo mission is just off to the right, out of the pic)

My server, Thomas, was friendly and knowledgeable, answering all of my questions about the cocktail and food menus. The craft cocktail staples, whiskey and gin, figure heavily into the cocktail menu, but there’s a little sumpin’ sumpin’ for every palate. You know I’m a tequila and mezcal kinda girl, so the Smoke and Mirrors (mezcal, benedictine, dry vermouth, grapefruit bitters, rosemary, lemon twist) was just what I needed. The bar gets creative with non-alcoholic drinks, as well, with options like Blackberry Stonefruit (blackberries, stonefruit shrub, lemon juice, soda) and Fig and Thyme (thyme, fig shrub, lime, soda).

The food menu is what I’d call globally inspired, but with a Latin-fusion focus. The restaurant emphasizes supporting local food producers, as well as sustainable farming and fishing techniques. (Note: Dishes reflect the season, so keep that in mind if you visit during the non-summer months. Some of the dishes I’ve mentioned here might not be available.) Luna Red is also very conscious of alternative diets; every dish on the menu has a small abbreviation next to it that indicates whether it’s gluten-free (gf), dairy-free (df), vegan (v), or contains nuts (n).

At Luna Red: Smoke and Mirrors cocktail, Bacon-Wrapped Dates, Sangria, Rockfish Ceviche (clockwise from upper-left)

At Luna Red: Smoke and Mirrors cocktail, Bacon-Wrapped Dates, Sangria, Rockfish Ceviche (clockwise from upper-left)

With five categories — Raw, Small Plates, Paellas, Flatbreads, and Sweets — you’re bound to find a dish or two that calls to you, and everything is meant to be shared. (And GF and DF folks, rejoice! There are approximately a dozen menu items that will suit your diet.) Paellas are the largest dishes and definitely meant to be shared. Even in the Paella category, gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan folks get a vote. Three of the four paellas are GF/DF, and the fourth is vegan.

If you’re choosing amongst Small Plates (the largest menu category), the restaurant suggests 2 – 3 dishes per person and 3 – 5 dishes per couple. The four-top across from me ordered a half dozen dishes to share. Some examples of Luna Red’s small plates: Goat & Berries salad (summer berries, red quinoa tabbouleh, grilled stonefruit, honeyed chevre), Gambas Al Ajillo (sustainable shrimp, paprika olive oil, garlic confit, chili flake, citrus bread), and Pork Short Ribs (honey-chimichurri, garlic green beans).

I was eying the Gambas and a salad, but here’s where my dietary choices went off the rails a bit. I opted for the Pacific Rockfish Ceviche (citrus juice, honey, cilantro, jalapeno) from the Raw section, and while I don’t usually eat meat, the Bacon-Wrapped Dates (stuffed with House-Made Chorizo) were calling to me from the Small Plate section. (Hey, it was a road trip, after all! Why not try something new?) The ceviche was perfect for a warm summer evening: fresh, tangy, and delish. The dates were a bit heavy for the warm weather (for me), although they were a nice balance of sweet, salty, and rich. Still, I enjoyed every bite and decided that dish was a stand-in for dessert.

A satisfying first day of my road trip completed, I headed back to my bed and breakfast for a good night’s sleep so that I would be ready for a full-on food tour of SLO on Day Two.

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