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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August Food Excursion: Pescadero – Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

This trip was not my first rodeo in Pescadero. I often cycle through these hills enjoying the cool coastal breezes and ocean views. In fact I organized an ride with other wedding industry peers and blogged about that trip in 2008. We often dine in Pescadero while we ride but this time my focus was all about food.

We quickly learned that most of everything in this tiny coastal enclave is located on the main drag called Stage Road. Stage Road intersects Highway 1 exactly two straight miles up Pescadero Road from the ocean. Pescadero is about a mid point on this coast highway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. It is sometimes confused with another California coastal town called Atascadero which is much further south on Highway 101 on the Central Coast.

Our first stop was to try some of the famous baked goods of the Arcangeli Grocery Company also known as Norm's Market.

I have had many great sandwiches from the deli at Norm's Market. Most cyclists know the drill. You order from their menu loaded with extensively tempting choices of ingredients and then enjoy your food in their inviting picnic area behind the store.

Picnic Area located directly behind Norm's Market

The only problem with being a cyclist is you cannot do your grocery shopping at Norm's. There's  just no way to carry any of their amazing products on a bike. This time I got to shop and the only problem I had was making up my mind as to which of the scratch made goodies were coming home with me. I grabbed Cinnamon English Muffins ($4.99), Artichoke Garlic Herb bread ($5.49), Almond Caramel Corn ($4.99) and a Carrot Cake Muffin ($2.00).

Our picnic table was suddenly feast worthy

Norm's Market baked goods are available for shipping anywhere.

Their signature bread that is most often raved about on-line is Artichoke Garlic Herb so it was our first taste of the town and the very first of many surprises that day. It was as delicious as I expected but no way did I envision a loaf of bread stuffed with artichokes. As in most artisan breads with olives, cheeses or other specialty ingredients you expect bits and pieces. We quickly tore it open to reveal the artichoke epicenter. Really it was more like a calzone than just a loaf of bread. We are talking a complete meal in a loaf here. We could have easily devoured the whole thing but our day of eating had only just begun.

Fully Baked Artichoke Garlic Herb Bread from Arcangeli Grocery Company

Our next stop was probably the most famous eatery in Pescadero called Durarte's Tavern. They have even been featured on the wildly popular Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Not too many eating establishments can tout "Since 1894" so obviously they must be doing something right.

Originally just a bar Duarte's added food later. (Photo by Stacie Tamaki)

Duarte's is well known for their Artichoke Soup. That fact was not the surprise to us. We opted to try both the Artichoke Soup and Green Chile Soups which were each $8.75. Although we liked both creamy soups a friend of Stacie's suggested mixing them together which was another delightful surprise. We both agreed that the flavors became more complex and the texture was more enjoyable from the combination. When I return to Pescadero I am going to bring the Artichoke Garlic Herb bread from Norm's Market here to dip in the soup for the ultimate artichoke overdose. I will gladly pay any "Loafage Fees" that Duarte's would require to bring in my own bread.

 Carefully combined soups with a special menu side of Mexican Slaw ($3.50)

Combined Artichoke and Green Chile Soups were best when whisked together

Our next surprise came directly across the street from Duarte's Tavern. From the adjacent corner this non-descript Alliance Gas Station sits at Stage Road and Pescadero Road. Inside a station like this one you would just expect a mini mart with all of the typical grab and go candy, sodas and snacks.

Alliance Gas Station in Pescadero

However, from the building's other side you are lucky to catch a glimpse of the sign revealing the hidden treasure inside called Taqueria de Amigos. Notice that it is almost directly across Stage Road from Duarte's Tavern.

Alliance Gas Station is also home to Taqueria de Amigos

Stacie had mentioned she ran inside this station to grab a water recently and said they had a "deli" inside. But when I walked in my jaw about dropped when I saw the beautiful taqueria with an immaculate open kitchen and seating. It was a small version of a complete Mexican restaurant.

Not exactly what you'd expect to find inside a small self service gas station

Immaculate Open Kitchen at Taqueria de Amigos Pescadero

They even have groceries and fresh produce too!

I knew we just had to try something from their impressive menu so I ordered a Vegetarian Tostada. It was only $2.99 but full of flavor. It came with smooth guacamole, sour cream, rice, crisp lettuce and some of the tastiest beans I have ever had at a taqueria.

Taqueria de Amigos' Veggie Tostada at a gas station is CRAZY GOOD!

So just when we thought we had seen all of the surprises that this little town had to offer we ran into the Pescadero Country Store. From the outside we were sure this place was going to be just the town's general store. After all, the sign says "Sodas, Snacks, Gifts, Sandwich, Wine, Beer etc. Right?

Pescadero Country Store Front

WRONG! Inside this cleverly-disguised-as-just-a-general-store are actually four separate businesses like a food court in a modern shopping mall. First up is a cocktail lounge on your left that is every bit as hip as a San Francisco night club. You could easily enjoy a drink here before a nice pizza dinner. It would feel like you had a night on the town and you could still grab a quart of milk for breakfast without ever leaving the same building. :-)

"The Lounge" at Pescadero Country Store (Photo by Stacie Tamaki)

Next your eyes focus on the giant pizza oven and beautiful wood crafted horseshoe shaped bar in the center of the store. It's immediately obvious that someone has put a lot of effort in making this place special. There is additional table seating for families and larger groups. The back of the room is yet another style of deli counter with a retro feel and where you can order all kinds of great food.

Bar seating around pizza oven at the Pescadero Country Store

Obviously, there was no way we were not going to try the pizza and the recommendation from the staff was for the Basil Pesto version. It was a nice size for two and priced at $16.00.

Zooming in for a detail shot the crust was super thin and crispy. The toppings included artichoke hearts and the combination of basil pesto with fresh basil chiffonade (ribbons) was just perfect.

Finally, you find the actual "store" in a separate section which nicely keeps the dining areas comfortable and pleasant for eating. This little store is simply packed with everything you could need and nothing you don't. The more I visit these little old fashioned markets the more I realize how much space and stuff is wasted in giant supermarkets not to mention the time I spend trying to navigate them. These little stores are not only cute but super efficient. Of course, you won't find thirty-two varieties of pickles here but who really needs them?

As if the Pescadero Country Store was not already impressive enough I peaked through the window to see their giant outdoor area adjacent to their building. This space is sprawling and just begs for huge gatherings or special events.

We were thoroughly surprised and satisfied with our one street tour of Pescadero. Stage Road has something for everyone yet one more surprise awaited us because of a recommendation from another customer at Taqueria de Amigos. She strongly suggested we visit Costanoa. I had passed the entrance to Costanoa many times on my way to Half Moon Bay but never stopped. It is about 12 miles south of Pescadero and directly on our way back to Santa Cruz so we knew it was a must stop for this excursion. Costanoa has a lot of things including a lodge, store, campgrounds and cabins but our sights were set on the Cascade Bar & Grille for a final dessert course to finish our excursion.

Everything about Costanoa reflects the message of their slogan "Discover The Pace Of Nature." The road up their front entrance is lined with towering Eucalyptus trees and their entire footprint is very eco-friendly.

Although we just came to eat the beautiful grounds, campsites and cabins available had us thinking our next visit here could very well be an extended stay. It is only twenty minutes from Santa Cruz and yet feels like a world away.

Cozy cabin living at Costanoa

We reached the Cascade Bar & Grille restaurant at about 3:00 so we were definitely in between lunch and dinner time. It was Stacie's turn to choose so she opted for the Chocolate Lava Cake ($9.00). It was a full plate garnished with vanilla bean ice cream, whipping cream and fresh strawberries.

It was quickly apparent that this restaurant might be in the middle (and pace) of nature but there was nothing funky about it. The lava cake was house made from scratch and the best according to Stacie that she has ever tasted. I was just content at that point for a few small bites. I WILL be returning to try more of their menu offerings when I have an empty stomach.

Stacie often likes to try a new beverage as we go tasting. On our June Food Excursion to Palo Alto she took her own dare and tried a more adult mocha drink. This time she reverted to her childhood and opted for the ultimate drink that kids have in a bar, a Shirley Temple ($2.00) Her smile basically says it all. She remains a kid at heart. See Stacie's story of our trip to Pescadero at The Flirty Blog.

My parting shot is of a lone windsurfer off one of the many picturesque beaches along Highway 1. This stretch of rugged coastline never ceases to leave me in awe. The dramatic scenery was expected. The numerous incredible food surprises were certainly not. I highly recommend you visit Pescadero.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Martinis & Marilyn Madness Celebrate Duncan's Day

Even Duncan was caught off guard by the surprise visitor

We returned to Vessel for the first time in four years for a special birthday edition of Duncan Reyes legendary gathering of the industry known as Martini Madness. No networking event says summer more than this celebration of Duncan's birthday every August. Here's a few photos I took of the fun.

Duncan's Master DJ, Jason Mitchell's mix provided the evening's soundtrack

The "408/831 Gang" ham it up for me. From the left: Alma Estrada of Stonepine Estate, Lisa Whalen, Orbie Pullen, Andy Mark and Rebecca Meredith Pullen made for a strong showing from the South Bay, Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay areas.

I met a new photographer to the world of Madness by Martinis named Jasmine Lee on the right and she posed here with her friends, Manuel and Evelyn.

Quick to strike a pose was photographer Jay Kelly and flanked by Kathleen and Lilly

Stacie Tamaki is describing the deliciousness of Jen's Cakes cupcake to Andy Mark

From left to right Martini Madness was all smiles for Michelle, Mark and Rick

I was quick to catch a rare pose from Stacie Tamaki and DJ Jason Mitchell

Happy Birthday Duncan!