The second half of my SoCal report, though they might call it Central Coast.
Had the pleasure of spending three weeks in Summerland, a tiny community that was formerly a combo hippy/religious haven and is now the poorer southern suburb of Oprah's Montecito. My kind of place - small, friendly and idiosyncratic as hell. The primary joy in getting out of Chicago in November/December and heading to SoCal is that it is like returning to the height of farmers market season, and it did not disappoint. Perfect tomatoes and lettuce, vegetables, nuts, artisanal meats, fresh seafood. Santa Barbara County has Farmers Markets at different locations (and of different sizes) six days a week. Bliss.
There is a place called Sugar and Salt Creamery that specializes in almond milk, mostly used in sorbets. They make what they call a sprouted almond milk that is rich, tasty and entirely decadent. Ran across them at my first Farmers Market, and then could never find them again despite trying repeatedly (I was told that they can be a little flaky...). So many other delicious discoveries like that - cheeses, exotic produce, and more. As I said, bliss.
And we did eat out a few times.
I did a casual study of Santa Maria barbecue, of course. Started with a tourist destination, up in the pass above Santa Barbara, Cold Spring Tavern. It is up in the middle of nowhere, a couple of miles off the highway. They serve meals and have a full bar, too, but on the weekends they do tri-tip and do it very, very well. Served on an excellent, lightly grilled roll with salsa and creamy horseradish dressing it is very tasty. Not really barbecue since it is only marinated and then grilled over red oak, but definitely worth enjoying. The crowd is a fun mix of bikers, tourists, locals, etc, and they have good beer on tap and music in the afternoon and evening.
Two places in Summerland also do Santa Maria barbecue. The owner of Tinkers, just off the highway, Joe, recently (like last month) built himself a portable barbecue outfit, and on Monday he does tri-tip, beef ribs and pork ribs. Condiments just include salsa and a pretty sweet and mediocre barbecue sauce, so stick with the salsa. He had been doing this for less than a month when I visited with him (on two different Mondays) and admitted it was still a work in process. Tri-tip was solid, but no better and nowhere near as good as Cold Spring's. Pork ribs were interesting, chewy and fatty in a way smoked ribs are not really. Nice flavor, but just okay. The beef ribs, however, were delightful - very much like chewing on the savory, crispy ribs from a roast, only crispier, more spicy, but still with that great, beefy flavor. Tinkers is a burger/hot dog joint otherwise, and while the Bride enjoyed their fish and chips twice, I do not see the point - pretty it all came out of a bag in the freezer before going into the fryer. Cantwell's market, at the other end of downtown Summerland, does tri-tip on the weekends, but I never made it so I cannot give any advice. Further study is surely required.
Mac's Fish and Chips on Main in Santa Barbara does the English thing pretty well, and delivers the goods. Freshly battered big filets of fish, stubby, browned chips, malted vinegar and good quality tartar sauce. Damned good. Respectable (NE) clam chowder, too. Nothing fancy, but they always have soccer on the telly.
Up in wine country we had a great Thanksgiving dinner at Root 246 in Solvang, a (Danish) town that is so cute it makes your teeth hurt. Seasonal, fresh cuisine. Started with arctic char, smoked in house with greens and a house horseradish cream, moved on to gigantic seared scallops and finished with persimmon ice cream. Many good, local wine choices. They gave me a tour of the kitchen where the chef proudly showed me his Santa Maria barbecue setup, which he had brought with him from Las Vegas. The restaurant is led by, and the chef is a protege of Bradley Ogden. We hoped to make it back for a second, non-holiday meal, but never did. However, given how good the special occasion meal was (and they were busy), I feel pretty confident a regular meal service will be even better. Excellent ingredients cooked with great technique and seasoned with confident restraint. I like his work.
I did make it to the Wine Merchant Cafe is Los Olivos twice, because I enjoyed my first meal so much. The first time I had the BBQ brisket with cole slaw and onion strings. It is supposed to come as a sandwich on facaccia, but I asked them to hold the bread so I got a big, beautiful, crazy brisket salad. The brisket was more like little chunks of sauced, burnt ends and with the vinegary slaw and crispy onion strings it was both beautiful and delicious. Unfortunately my second meal was nowhere near as good on a very busy Saturday afternoon. Cream of broccoli soup had some herbal flavor that did not please me, and my buttermilk fried wings had an interesting Asian zing to the sauce with a touch of sweetness, but did not have the underlying crispness I would expect from the buttermilk breading, and the blue cheese dressing was bland. Too bad.
Finally made it to Super Rica and it was very solid. Definitely lots of California-Mexican touches, like the chorizo that was more like an unsmoked polish than any chorizo I have had before. Sauces were mild overall, salsas had a bit more bite. Meat was well prepared, good quality, and there was nothing wrong with my meal. I can give you a list of 10 places in Chicago I would go first, from Cemitas Puebla to Xoco, but I would not be at all unhappy to go back there either. Cannot say the same for Los Agaves. Carnitas tacos were uninspired, the beans could almost have been Heinz pork and beans, as the Bride said, and the rice seemed like a fluffy white rice with a nice quality frozen vegetable mix added in. I had trouble finding anything interesting, or hot, at the salsa bar. The horchata was okay, but otherwise it was a waste for me.
And then we had a couple of Italian meals that were much better. Cafe Luna in Summerland is a coffee, sandwich and baked goods place most of the day, but they switch over to Italian dinners when the sun goes down. Little, casual place, very, very friendly. They make pizzas and the Bride's bruschetta turned out to be on one of the crusts. The garlicky topping was better than the crust, which I suspect might have been frozen. The cream of artichoke soup and caesar salad were much better. The Bride then moved on to the Capellini Pomodoro which seemed to me to be topped with exactly the same mix as the bruschetta - not a bad thing for her. My roasted chicken with mushrooms was overcooked and a bit stringy. A pleasant place, but hit and miss on the food.
Giannfranco's Trattoria in Carpenteria was much better. The greens and vinaigrette came together perfectly to start, and the strozzapreti guancile in a spicy basil sauce was rich and complex. Desserts were solid, but not very interesting. The menu seemed worth exploring more, but we did not make it back. Our companions also recommended Clementines Steak House as a deliciously retro place. Old school salads, relish platters, house cocktails and the only choice is small or large, and how do you want it cooked. We did not make it.
We ate well. We also drank well. The best wineries for me were Lama Rosa
, a little place up in the hills past Buellton that belongs to Richard Sanford, founder of Sanford, who really turned me on to California Pinot Noir. He makes delightful, lighter Pinots and the prices are good. Not so sure business is good, so get them while you can. And I have always loved Foxen
. They make a great variety, prices are reasonable and the wines are reliably good. In recent years I have found their Pinots and Syrahs to be a bit overbearing in some years, and my favorites this time were some of the Bordeaux varietals and blends, along with their Chardonnay which is lightly oaked and seems to be on a nice upward trajectory for my taste in recent years.
[url]Sugar and Salt Creamery[/url]Santa Barbara Farmer's Market
Cold Spring Tavern 5995 Stagecoach Road http://sugarandsaltcreamery.com/Santa
Barbara, CA 93105
Tinkers Burgers 2275 Ortega Hill Road Summerland, CA 93067
Cantwell's Market Summerland 2580 Lillie Ave, Summerland, CA
Mac's Fish & Chip Shop 503 State Street Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Root 246 420 Alisal Road Solvang, CA 93463
Los Olivos Cafe and Wine Merchant 2879 Grand Avenue Los Olivos, CA 93441
La Super-Rica Taqueria 622 North Milpas Street Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Los Agaves 600 North Milpas Street Santa Barbara, CA 93103
Cafe Luna 2354 Lillie Ave Summerland, CA 93067
Giannfranco's Trattoria 666 Linden Avenue, Carpinteria, California 93013
Clementine's Steak House 4631 Carpinteria Avenue Carpinteria, CA 93013