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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Want to take the Santa Cruz Food Tour?

You can! Last weekend I did, and without my foodie friend Carl. You may be thinking "How could she?" or "Poor Carl!" but have no fear, Carl was on his own adventure attending a friend's birthday party and literally hanging out with his friends Dan and Jean in Sacramento.

I know because he emailed me this picture he took with his iPhone. The subject line read:

"From Dan's Hammock"

So no need to feel bad for Carl. He survived just fine without me. LOL

On to the food tour! Last weekend I headed to Santa Cruz for a 3.5 hour long excursion that involved eating a lot of great food, drinking three new beverages, walking approximately 1.8 miles, and learning all about the history of Santa Cruz.

Our Santa Cruz Food Tour began at 2:00 PM. If you live over the hill in San Jose like I do and you sign up for a weekend tour during the summer, be sure to leave early as the traffic situation can clog up with beach-goers on HWY 17 from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz. Seriously. What is normally a 30 minute drive on a weekday (between commute times) can become an hour+ drive on the weekends. And you don't want to be late!

And don't forget, once you make it off the HWY you still have to find parking. That day the pay-garage at Cedar and Locust was full. So, using a tip I received in my Food Tour instructions email I was able to find a better (and free) alternative parking solution I never knew about right off Pacific Street!

Our first food stop included two kinds of pizza. Half of each pie was for meat eaters and half for vegetarians.

The vegetarian option included carmalized onions and spinach. The meat lovers side included beautifully browned bits of applewood smoked bacon, carmalized onions and fresh spinach. The crust was thin, crisp and tasty. It was nice and firm so you didn't have to use a fork and knife to eat it, you could lift it right up and it held its shape just fine. I would definitely go back and order this pizza again.

But even more than the pizza, I LOVED this salad. The toasted sesame dressing was so tasty and delicious! It's the kind of dressing you want to pour over everything on your plate! With peanuts and an assortment of fresh cucumbers, carrot and thinly sliced cabbage the salad was nice and crisp and the rice noodles only added to a great texture experience.

Yum X 10

After our first stop we took the scenic route to our second destination. Our guide Brion was very personable and crazy knowledgeable when it comes to the history of Santa Cruz. From the 1500's, to the rebuilding of the city and its businesses post Loma Prieta earthquake, to the present day his stories were interesting and engaging.

From the first mission to this South Pacific Coast Railroad tunnel I realized that in my ignorance I'd driven past many historically significant sights over the years without ever realizing how special they were. We now know where we can see one of the original trains that used this tunnel decades ago. It's on display in a national museum along with a picture taken at this location.

The walk itself is all flat except for one short but steep block up and a flight of stairs back down. If you get tired and don't want to walk the entire route there is an alternative route you can take later to meet back up with the group.

We also learned about this ancient conifer. The needles are quite unusual compared to most pine trees you've ever seen. I'll have to remember to take my mom by to see this tree when she comes to visit again. She loves plants.

And this isn't a picture of clover. This is a picture of quite literally, where the city of Santa Cruz was founded in the 1700's by a Spanish explorer. As Brion described how Monterey Bay was first discovered in the 1500' it made me want to learn even more about the history of this region.

We also learned about architecture. I learned quite a bit about the differences between Stick-Eastlake, Queen Anne, and Victorian architecture from Brion. I always thought I wanted to live in a Victorian someday. Now I know I've actually wanted to live in a Queen Anne.

And we didn't just see the outsides. We were a minute or two ahead of schedule so we stepped inside one of these classic homes for just a minute. That's Brion showing us the first electric light ever installed in Santa Cruz. And it still works! As he stood on the staircase landing I snuck behind him to get the picture of the stained glass window on the right. It was at the top of the stairs behind him. And the front door framed the stained glass window on the lower left.

And then it was time to move on to a scoop of buttery, toffee filled, artisan ice cream nested into a freshly baked waffle cone. I've been to this ice cream shop before but learned so much more that day. The thing I found the most interesting is the shop uses 2000 eggs each week! What do they do with all of those egg whites? They use them in their waffle cone recipe so they don't go to waste :)

And the other great thing? The tour is timed to the minute so the food is prepared and ready to be served the moment you walk through the door. Which means you don't have to wait in lines or for a table. That alone makes the tour experience an extra treat!

Our next stop was the one I found the most odd when I saw our itinerary for the day. We were going to sample olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Um. OK. As it turns out it was one of my favorite stops the entire day!

At The True Olive Connection I tried the three balsamic vinegars. I fell in love with the center bowl: Fig Balsamic. We were also able to sample many other flavors of both infused balsamics and even an 18 year old balsamic. One sip and I told Brion I could totally see myself enjoying a glass of the vinegar the way others drink wine. LOL. It was delicious! Sweet with a bit of tanginess.

Brion explained to us the differences between the olive oils you see in your local supermarkets and the estate grown oils that are of higher quality like the ones we were sampling that day.

But there was more. There were olive oils that would blow your mind. And the shop had combined pairings of infused balsamic vinegars and infused olive oils that complemented each other. WOW they were great! My favorite combinations were the Blood Orange Olive Oil with the Dark Chocolate Balsamic, the Lemon Olive Oil with Espresso Vinegar, and the Chipotle Olive Oil with Tangerine Balsamic.

Balsamic Vinegar Soda Recipe

And then came something that literally blew my mind. I noticed some dixie cups on a table and thought they were water. Wrong! They were a combination of Perrier and Black Cherry Balsamic Vinegar. it was SO GOOD! It tasted like Cherry Coke but not too sweet and with a little tangy kick. I pretty much gave up soda years ago but this, this is a healthier soda option. You can use any flavor of balsamic and the infused flavors just make it even better! When I asked, Brion said the mix is approximately five parts Perrier to 1 part balsamic. The recipe comes from The True Olive Connection. When I made it at home the next day I used:

  • 7 parts perrier - Which equaled out to one small 8.45 oz bottle (250ml) and a shot glass of balsamic.
  • 1 part infused (I used fig) balsamic vinegar
  • Stir
  • Pour into cute glasses to serve
It's so easy! Great on a hot day and I can't wait to have it with a pasta dinner :D

I couldn't leave without purchasing a bottle of the fig balsamic but want to also get a few more flavors for soda including the Black Cherry and Apricot. Here's the link to their online shop in case you'd like to try it too :) They also offer a Sampler Pack in case you'd like to try several oils and vinegars.

Our next stop was a fun beach themed cafe. While most of the other diners enjoyed angus sliders, as a vegetarian I received two large, breaded, and french fried fresh avocado slices. OMAF (Oh My Avocado Fries)! They were so delicious. Just looking at this pictures makes my mouth water! I will definitely go back to have them again. It's a good thing I don't live in Santa Cruz because I'd want to go have them every day :) And even though the lettuce was a garnish so there was no fork, I dipped each piece in the dip and ate them because the dipping sauce was so yummy I couldn't stop myself. Well, not that I tried very hard, or at all, to stop myself. LOL

And while everyone else enjoyed a flight of beer that included locally brewed selections. . .

As a non-beer drinker I was treated to this very cute and summery Acai Lemonade Freeze. I loved it too! Not too sweet and very refreshing. This stop was a win-win for me.

I have to say I thought it was wonderful to have my non-alcohol and meat requests attended to with so much consideration. The substitutions offered weren't second best options. The restaurant went all out to give me an equal experience to everyone else. Which is really nice because there have been times in the past when the attitude has been, "Oh you don't eat meat? Well there's nothing for you here then." The Santa Cruz Food Tour arranging accommodations like this definitely scored them extra points in my book :D

Our final destination was a cuisine I've never had before: Sri Lanken food.

The first course was a Banana Lassi with delicate saffron petals.

As they absorbed the moisture from the lassi the petals released the vivid yellow color saffron is known for. We were instructed to stir the petals into the drink and enjoy! And it was a very generously sized drink.

The first plates arrived and were set between each pair of diners. We shared the vegetable rotis, which were also very generous portions, that came with extra curry and a sriracha chili sauce.

The vegetable roti is another dish I will go back to enjoy again.

And our final dish was a crisp and refreshing Banana Blossom Salad. I noticed the restaurant plated a special serving for the diner sitting beside me because he was allergic to peanuts.

I really learned a lot on this tour. Not only where to dine but the rich history of the city of Santa Cruz and that not everyone is cut out to be a tour guide. It definitely takes a certain type of sociable, organized, punctual and energized personality to do this and do it well. Brion was great! He was easy going, friendly and knowledgable. He made the afternoon an absolute pleasure and I'd like to thank him for inviting me on the tour.

If you're a local or out-of-towner looking for a fun and tasty experience, and the pictures in this post have your stomach growling and your mouth watering, I would highly recommend experiencing a Santa Cruz Food Tour for yourself. They also offer gift certificates which would be a really neat gift idea for the foodie in your life :)

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