Friday, November 6, 2015

Raptors Poetic – Of Ojai, Eagles and Owls

Birds of Prey. Sounds pretty cool. But what does it actually mean?
“Raptors” is a word given wider accessibility because of Jurassic Park when the clever thinking raptor dinosaurs decided to attack the humans killing that Australian dude. That notwithstanding, raptors are actually birds of prey, meaning they eat meat. Yes, some birds are vegetarians, but for raptors, meat is what’s for dinner. The official definition: A raptor is a bird of prey that uses its sharp talons to catch and kill live animals. The word raptor comes from the Latin word rapere which means “to snatch or grab.” According to the Ojai Raptor Center people often group Vultures into this category but they are not genetically related (the birds, not the people), and do not hunt live prey.

The Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) opens their doors to the public twice yearly and it is a fantastic chance to see these rehabilitated birds up close, within a few feet actually, and marvel at the stunning grace, agility, beauty and all around wonder of these birds. I recently visited, and the next time they open up, you should too.

The fee is a mere $5 per person, about the cost of a lame Starbucks coffee drink – and you get way more. The ORC is housed in what used to be an honor farm – a place for juvenile delinquents - and now is home to multiple non-profits, of which ORC holds a great place with open aviaries, a small theatre, a Kids Corner and a stage. There are bird pelts (which you can touch), live birds, and eggs on display and this is meant to be a place of wonder, a place to connect with the best of nature and remind ourselves that we as humans, though probably smarter and more able to use logic, pale in comparison to the sheer beauty and jaw dropping efficient design of these birds who actually have to hunt for their food, not sit at a drive-thru. 
All of the birds at ORC are birds that have suffered some injury and are being rehabilitated in Ojai, given new life and a reimagined purpose. What’s great is that each bird has a name and the caretaker for that bird, perched on their gloved hand, knows virtually everything about their bird. No, you can’t pet them (again, the birds, not the people), but you can get closer than you ever could in the wild.
You’ll see owls, falcons, eagles, vultures and other very cool birds. It’s a great place for kids though many of the adults were as transfixed as the kids were. So remind yourself that we share this planet with other species and that we have an obligation, since we sit atop the food chain, to protect, safeguard and treat well all other species. In doing so we become better animals ourselves. A visit is not an all day occurrence, and it’s a 10-minute drive to Ojai, and you’re right near Casitas Lake for fishing or boating, so fly up to Ojai and prepare to be amazed. 
The wingspans on some birds is bigger than me!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Found It. Discovering Eureka!

I’m typically not a fan of chain restaurants because as food writer for the last decade (Santa Barbara News Press, there are plenty of individual restaurants that are worthy of your dollars. Also typically, chain restaurants are either so homogenized, bland and tedious or, like the Planet Hollywood concept, it’s all about a barrage of stimulation, a perfect place to eat if you have ADHD. But Eureka! elevates food and drink creating a more local experience while still crafting creative, consistent food. The Santa Barbara location uses reclaimed wood walls to encompass the interior, and the indoor and outdoor seating and open windows expand the look and casual vibe. One of Eureka’s selling points is that they feature American made craft beers and whiskies, not mainstream ones like Jack Daniels or Sam Adams, but small batch stuff. In fact they carry 58 whiskies at their brown spirits bar and 30 craft beers, which are constantly rotating. And each restaurant utilizes local ingredients and, if possible as is the case here in Santa Barbara, offers local brews and whiskies – we have AscendantSpirits in Buellton and Eureka carries some of their very good spirits.
Fried Chicken Sliders and Scarves and Yoga Pants
I stopped in recently (I’ve been several times) to sample a new seasonal dish - Fried Chicken Sliders ($11.50), and cocktail - Scarves and Yoga Pants ($12, see recipe below). The two sliders served with hand cut fries is crispy pieces of chicken, herb mashed potatoes, what they call confetti slaw and their spicy reaper chili sauce with plenty of heat and spice. The lightly toasted but is a counterpoint to the crisp chicken and crunchy slaw and the reaper, while not deadly, is a spicy-hot concoction. The cocktail (you need not wear lululemon to drink this) uses rye whiskey, a pumpkin spiced simple syrup and cream among other ingredients to make a near milk shake-like drink which is mild on the rye, offering that coveted pumpkin note with a creamy viscosity –perfect to warm you up and the fall temperatures drop. 
Pearl Street Blues Burger
Of course Eureka! has a terrific menu including a Jalapeño Egg Burger ($12) that uses a fried egg atop a burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, and a spicy chipotle sauce. Rich and moist, sloppy and spicy this meets every expectation. The egg gives a creamy gooiness to the burger and the spiciness from the jalapeno is potent but not overwhelming.
There are small plates, and appetizers like the Lollipop Corn Dogs ($7.50) which are five small round Polish sausages breaded in sweet corn batter, deep fried and served with three dipping sauces including a porter mustard sauce, a house made ketchup, and a cheddar cheese IPA dip which, for my tastes is delightfully rich and savory and the better sauce. The Bruschetta ($7) is five toasted baguette slices topped with ripe diced tomato, basil goat cheese, lemon zest and balsamic vinaigrette. This is fairly typical of bruschetta however the spreadable goat cheese adds a savory element and creamy texture.
The Cobb Salad ($12) is a mix of grilled chicken, crumbled blue cheese, hardboiled egg, avocado, bacon, onion and a spicy ranch dressing. There is spicy heat on the dressing and the ingredients are fresh and clean with definable flavors. It's the totality of the various components which make this work. The dressing too, minimally applied, provides an extra dimension of flavor. If you haven’t tried Eureka! Yet, now is the time.

601 Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara
(805) 618-3388,

Scarves and Yoga Pants
1 1/2 oz Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey
1 oz Pumpkin Spiced Simple Syrup
1/2 oz Orange Juice
1/2 oz Lemon Juice
1/4 oz Heavy Cream
3/4 oz Egg Whites
2 dash Herbal Bitters

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Santa Barbara’s Best Sandwich Shop

The sandwich is the workhorse of lunch no matter where you go: quick, portable and inexpensive, estimates say that Americans eat 300 million each day. The sandwich as we know it was popularized in England in 1762 by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich; yes as goofy as it sounds it’s true. Sure, meat between bread was around long before the 1700s no doubt, but regardless of the historical particulars, we all want meat between bread. So here in Santa Barbara, and since 1991, South Coast Deli still reigns as the best sandwich shop in town. There are multiple South Coast Delis scattered around Santa Barbara and Goleta and inside any SCD at lunchtime it’s a bustling place; lots of hungry people and infectious music regulating the environment. There is a semi-industrial feel to the interiors, practical really, and there is free wireless to keep you occupied. You might consider calling in your lunch order ahead of time as waits can be about 20 minutes if you order at the counter. What has always impressed me at the various locations I’ve been to over the years is the consistent level of service and quality.

I love the Phatty!
Sandwiches, both hot and cold varieties are the focus here and bread choices include sourdough, rye, wheat, Italian roll, wheat roll, and croissant. I’m very partial to the Phatty - chicken salad with bacon, avocado and a basil-mayo and the Toasted Sweet and Savory Pork - roasted pork loin, mayo, red onions, arugula, and red pepper-horseradish jelly on a lightly toasted Italian roll. There are 3 dozen sandwiches to choose from. But there are also salads like the Asian Greens with Chicken which is a huge salad including Napa cabbage, regular cabbage, bok choy, carrots, green onions, cilantro, a smattering of black sesame seeds, and crispy won ton strips, with a sweet and spicy sesame dressing.

There are a handful of vegetarian options and you might consider the Caprese, which is a grilled and pressed sandwich with mayo, lots of tomato, pesto and mozzarella cheese on sourdough bread. Breakfasts include the spicy Max’s Breakfast Sammie, which is scrambled eggs, bacon, tomato, pepper jack cheese with a garlic-Tabasco mayonnaise on grilled sourdough bread. For a spicy morning wake up this sandwich will fit that bill. The success of South Coast Deli is that they are not afraid of bold flavors and in this world of benign foods, flavor is king. So if you’re visiting Santa Barbara, or you live here but haven’t tried SOUTHCOAST DELI, do check it out. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls: California’s El Camino Real

As you drive Highway 101 from Ventura up through Paso Robles and beyond you will notice a re-occurring sign on the side of the road. It looks like a shepherd’s crook with a bell on it and a brown sign that only says El Camino Real, “The Kings Highway.” They are peppered along a nearly 600-mile route in California. Why?

At the same time that our early forefathers, the American colonists, were rebelling against England on the East Coast, here on the West Coast a handful of Spaniards and Mexicans established a series of churches (missions) and forts (presidios) up the California coast which was at that time part of Spain. The first was in 1769 at San Diego where they established a fort and the very first California mission – though there were many others already in New Mexico and Texas. A footpath, called the El Camino Real was created to connect each of the subsequent missions as they were constructed. Each mission was situated in areas where large populations of native Indians lived and where the soil was fertile enough to sustain crops, typically near water sources. As time progressed and more missions were built the footpath became a roadway wide enough to accommodate horses and wagons. It was not, however, until the last mission in Sonoma was completed in 1823, that this little pathway became a real route. Each mission was designed to be a day’s travel from the next, well at least in theory, all linked by El Camino Real. Ultimately El Camino Real linked all of California’s 21 missions, pueblos and four presidios from San Diego to Sonoma.

Installing one of the early bells
So when California was just 52 years old (it became a state in 1850) a plan to mark the original route was developed in 1902 by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles – I guess they had some free time. The design, chosen by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, used a mission bell supported by a staff in the shape of a Franciscan walking stick. In 1904 the El Camino Real Association was formed in order to preserve and maintain California’s historic road. The first bell was placed in 1906 in front of the Old Plaza Church in downtown Los Angeles and it was made of cast iron, weighed 100 pounds and stood 11 feet off the ground by iron tubing. Eventually, there were approximately 158 bells installed along the Camino Real by 1915. As I mentioned, the bells were made of cast iron but all that did was encourage theft and the number of original bells plummeted to about 75, therefore new bells of concrete were made and installed and frankly who wants to steal a hunk of concrete? 
Mrs. Forbes
At any rate, Highway 101 loosely follows this original footpath so as you make your way to Santa Barbara, Ventura, Monterey or any place else along the Central Coast, you’re driving a piece of history. You may not remember the King of Spain for whom the road was named, or Mrs. Forbes who designed the bells, and certainly you have no idea of the names of all the volunteers who cast, created and installed the bells, but you are nonetheless a continuum of the historical chronicle of people using the King’s Highway. For more stuff on California and the Central Coast check out either of my travel books, Moon California Wine Country, and California Road Trip.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reaching for the Peak- Figueroa Mountain Brewery Continues to Climb

If you're ever in the Santa Ynez Valley the dominating feature against the lithe blue skyline is always Figueroa Mountain, peaking at 4,500 feet. It was under the shadow of this geographical landmark that the father and son team of Jim and Jamie Dietenhofer decided it would be a good idea to start a brewery and in 2010 the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. (or just Fig Mountain as we locals call it) was born. For years of the dominant brewery on the Central Coast has been the powerhouse Firestone-Walker. Sure there have been smaller microbrews popping up here and there including Telegraph Brewing, Island Brewing, and a handful of others but really that was like comparing apple to oranges, or hops to grapes. You had the really big guy, and the many smaller guys. And you now have Fig Mountain. 
What’s impressive about Figueroa Mountain Brewery is not only their selection of beers, obviously, but also that they have doubled in size every year since their inception and kept the quality level high. Craft beer is nothing new, but what Fig Mountain has done is to create a huge step up from mass marketed beer (like Bud and Coors) and found a sweet spot for true local craft beer lovers on the Central Coast. They have multiple taprooms in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties and I recently visited the newest taproom with an attached restaurant in Arroyo Grande (locals call it “AG”), just south of San Luis Obispo. They have a solid selection of their core beers including personal favorites of mine the Danish Red Lager, and Lizards Mouth IPA - so named for a great hiking place on the San Marcos Pass. In fact all of their core of beers have names and hand-drawn labels that are reflective of Santa Barbara. What's great about their core, seasonal and specialty beers is not only the clean fresh crisp nature of them, but they are wonderfully balanced and work ideally with food.
The Fish Tacos!
The AG taproom food is a mix of full entrées and more traditional bar pub food like salads, soup and burgers. I was partial on my visit to the fish tacos with crispy cod, cabbage and a cilantro cream, the surprisingly crispy baked beer pretzel, and the earthy and spicy carnitas nachos. The food side of this particular partnership in Arroyo Grande is with a family who started in the restaurant business in 1954 and wisely the Dietenhofer’s turned that portion over to people who know what they're doing so they could focus on what they are doing. Smart move. The AG spot also has live music, both indoor and outdoor seating and is ideal for families even though it will run loud inside. 
And for those who want to explore more beers, from micro-micobreweries to Fig Mountain and Firestone Walker there’s a service called Hop On Beer Tours, which hits up breweries from Paso Robles to Buellton. Owner Brant Myers is, shall we say, obsessed with beer always on the lookout for seasonal, short-term and specialty offerings, whatever may be of interest and unique. “I go geocaching for beers,” he tells me.

So if you're a visitor to the Central Coast, or if you're local, and you haven't tried Figueroa Mountain Brewery you need to do yourself a favor and check out one of their locations in Santa Barbera (the Funk Zone), Buellton, Santa Maria, the newest addition in Arroyo Grande and coming soon will be Westlake Village and San Luis Obispo. The Central Coast has a long history with wine, but the beers are coming on strong. And check out my Moon Travel Book California Road Trip for all sorts of wines and beer up and down the state.