Sunday, September 14, 2008

Eating Our Way Through the Central Coast

For the past few summers, we’ve taken a short but restful vacation on California’s central coast. We usually rent a house in Shell Beach, go antiquing in Cayucos, and generally hang-out in San Luis Obispo (SLO) and Pismo Beach. But mostly we like to just relax and eat. This year Karen came along with us.

We always go up on Thursday so we can partake in SLO’s enormous farmer’s market—the single best farmer’s market we’ve ever seen, primarily because half the vendors sell barbecued food cooked right there on the street. It is a meat-lover’s paradise.

Even though the farmer’s market doesn’t open until 6PM, we always arrive early to survey our food options. Parking in our secret spot behind the Well’s Fargo bank, we started at the southernmost end of Higuera Street and began walking slowly north, lured by the various smells of sizzling meat. At exactly 6PM (vendors aren’t allowed to sell anything until the market officially opens), we ran over to our favorite pie booth and bought two freshly-baked pies—apple and olallieberry—before they sold-out. We all agreed later that the pies were among the best we’d ever eaten (yum!).

Selecting dessert was easy. But the main course? Not so much. After scrutinizing every barbecue stand along the way, Tim and I finally went back to our usual spot, Mother’s Tavern, for chicken and sausage sandwiches, while Karen continued in search of the perfect pork rib. She was so successful that Tim got ribs, too, as soon as he finished his sausage.

We then went to Bel Frites, a hole-in-the-wall joint that sells Belgian fries, which we followed by going over to Giordano’s for an Italian ice chaser (“bomberry” and limon—yum!). Waddling back to the car, we picked up two loaves of bread, two pounds of tomatoes, a jar of olallieberry jam, and, oh yes, an “Obama for President” bumper sticker. After all, one can never be too prepared in case, say, a nuclear explosion precluded us from returning to L.A.!

Believe it or not, I was actually hungry the next morning and so the three of us strolled up to the Seaside Cafe, a small bakery/coffee shop two blocks from our rental. I ate a berry scone (yum!) while they drank coffee. Back at the house, we broke into one of the loaves of bread and devoured leftover pastries that Tim had brought from breakfast the day before. Funny how the sea air opens one’s appetite!

With nothing much else to do, we drove back to SLO to shop and ogle the town’s famous Bubble Gum Alley, an odd bit of local color recommended by one of my students. Located just off Higuera Street, the alley consists of two walls completely and utterly covered in chewing gum. Although thoroughly disgusting, the sight was also strangely compelling . . . well, for a few minutes at least.

To clear our mental palettes, we headed over to Big Sky, a healthy food cafe started by the chef of the now defunct Kokomo’s, our favorite restaurant when we lived in Park Labrea ten years ago. Anticipating a meat-filled evening ahead, we unanimously opted for vegetarian dishes for lunch (fresh gazpacho soup—yum!) and then returned to Giordano’s for dessert. From there, we drove to a Pismo multiplex, where we saw “Bottle Shock,” a quirky little movie about Napa Valley wine, and counted the hours till dinner.

Every time we vacation on the central coast, people always ask us afterward if we ate at McClintock’s, perhaps the best-known restaurant in the area. We never had, so we decided to give it a try this time.

With five locations, McClintock’s is something of a local institution. I can imagine young couples eating there on prom night or families going there to celebrate landmark events, like 50-year wedding anniversaries or 75th birthdays. We, on the other hand, had no idea what to expect. Turns out, the main dining house, across the freeway from Shell Beach, is similar to Buca di Beppo or any number of “family style” restaurants where quantity is favored over quality. Before we even ordered, a young man brought a basket of onion rings to the table—it was downhill from there. The food was prepared and served in massive quantities and all for a massively big price. Needless to say, we were disappointed, but brought home leftover ribs and potatoes anyway!

I returned to the Seaside Cafe the next morning for one last berry scone (yum!) and then suggested we all walk over to see the ocean once more before leaving town. Just when I thought it was safe to move about the neighborhood, the three of us spied what appeared to be a small farmer’s market at a nearby park. Sure enough, more food galore! I resisted all temptation, but Tim and Karen were immediately drawn to The Eatery, yet another barbecue stand.

“How about a sample?” the female proprietor teased.

“We’re still full from dinner,” Tim answered, holding his stomach. “We ate at McClintock’s last night.”

“McClintock’s? Pfft!” she scoffed. “Let me show you what real tri-tip tastes like!”

And with that, she sliced off samples for both Tim and Karen. (I had already fled). Like playground kids tempted by the school junkie, they were quickly hooked and decided to split a tri-tip sandwich before we hit the road. We also purchased corn chips, strawberries and locally-produced olive oil.

How my poor little Honda Fit managed to carry us, plus all our bootie, back to Los Angeles, I’ll never know. But we piled everything into the car and were back home in plenty of time for dinner.

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