April 27, 2006
Sometimes you just have to get out of town and taste something different. Last week being spring break (at least for the school where my wife Amy works), we packed the station wagon and hit the road south, destination Santa Cruz, where my son is about to finish his college education at the university.
Since we started with a reasonable breakfast at home (a salmon/cream cheese-filled omelet), we did not need to stop for re-fueling until Hopland, where we found a parking place right in front of the Blue Bird Café, a classic breakfast/lunch stop that was jam-packed with locals -- guys in logger garb and multi-generational family groups -- and lots of travelers. In fact every table was occupied, so we sat at the counter and ordered Twin Peaks-style: coffee and pie -- an excellent slice of blackberry pie, to be exact, although with the crumb crust it was more like a cobbler. Our seats gave us a view through the pass-through to the kitchen, which emitted a constant flow of over-sized plates heaped with specialty burgers and piles of fries, more than enough to eat. As we departed, there were more at the door waiting for tables; it's that kind of place.
By the time we arrived in Santa Cruz (a longer-than-planned journey, thanks to a detour around Devil's Slide on Highway 1), we were famished. A walk up and down the main drag, Pacific Avenue, brought a plethora of choices, mostly tending toward pizza and taco joints aimed at students. We settled on Aqua Bleu, a new place with a trendy décor: imagine Hurricane Kate's crossed with The Pearl Lounge, but with an Asian twist, lots of giant paper globes hanging from the high ceiling.
The food was equally trendy and quite good, with a choice of a wide array of sushi, or seafood done "Pacific fusion" style, including a choice of five kinds of fish, steamed or grilled, served with a choice of half a dozen sauces ranging from creamy caper, to salsa, to spicy Southeast Asian. I went with the grilled mahi mahi with two sauces: a very hot chili/lime/lemongrass sauce balanced by a cool, sweet mango salsa. Grilled squash and rice completed the meal. (Baked potato or yam, fries or Asian slaw were other optional sides.) Portions were plentiful, and the bill was not excessive. I recommended it to my son, Spencer, but his dismissive response was something to the effect of, "I'd never think of eating at that yuppie bar."
After dropping him off for a class on campus the next morning we followed his advice and drove back down the hill to Café Brasil on Mission Street. He warned us that it's quite popular and we might have to wait, but even though the parking lot was full we were seated almost immediately. Owners João Luiz and Claudia Frota seem to have carved out a little bit of their homeland in this little house turned breakfast/lunch restaurant, painted green and yellow with a bright blue door.
Faced with a choice of classic breakfasts, from Eggs Benedict and Florentine to omelets galore to Brazilian dishes, Amy ordered a "Pingado" -- a pot of strong Brazilian coffee and a pot of hot milk -- with fruit and a very fresh sliced baguette. I had something from the lunch menu that I knew I would not find back home: Feijoada (pictured above), a traditional Brazilian specialty with a black bean/sausage stew, white rice, slices of peeled orange, sautéed greens, and farofa, a dish I mistook for corn meal that's actually toasted manioc meal. Excellent!
We let Spencer choose dinner that night, but rejected his suggestion that we have burritos. His second choice was The Malabar, an Indian/Sri Lankan place in a storefront on Soquel Avenue, that turned out to be strictly vegetarian, with a gracious staff, a mix of hippies and what I assume were Sri Lankans. We ordered a succession of small plates, beginning with a wonderful Sri Lanka Spring Roll (left), a tasty, crispy concoction filled with sprouts, nuts and veggies I could not identify, served with sweet dipping sauce in an elegant presentation stacked high with sprouts and shredded carrots. Pakoras, Indian veggie fritters, came with coconut and fruit chutneys. A Sri Lanka Platter, with assorted curries made from garbanzo beans, various veggies and "soy nuggets," was more than we could finish. And the ginger soda, made in-house, surpassed Stewart's (and contained no high fructose corn syrup). Again, it was a fine meal of exotic food you won't find in Humboldt County.
I'm guessing that I caught up with whatever HFCS I missed the next day when we took a stroll down the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. After a breathtaking ride on the 82-year-old roller coaster, I just had to have a deep-fried Twinkie (pictured at top of page), even though I knew it wasn't exactly good for me. With the look of an over-sized corn dog sprinkled with powdered sugar, it was hot, sweet, gooey inside -- and chock full of fat, sugar, carbos and all sort of other unknown ingredients that may or may not be hazardous to my health. But you know what? It tasted pretty darn good.
There were other good meals before we headed home (and a particularly boring one in Ukiah), and we made the requisite stop at a Trader Joe's, where we spent too much money on a myriad of good deals. Driving home to Humboldt, where there are many fine restaurants but no Brazilian or Sri Lankan food, I couldn't help but think about what other exotic cuisines we may sample when we return to Santa Cruz for graduation weekend. Any suggestions?
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