I’ve got to say, the California coastline is pretty damn spectacular. Long stretches of sandy beaches, grassy dunes and rugged mountains plunging into simmering surf. It’s sunny, it’s windy and it truly is one of the world’s great drives. Here we are on the final stretch, making our way from Pebble Beach to LA.
It was very much a non-stop drive down Highway 1, stopping here and there to take in the incredible vista’s, at the Big Sur Inn & Restaurant for a coffee, through pockets of amazing redwood forest and to check out a seal colony at Point Piedras Blancas. We didn’t actually know it was a seal colony as it was the cluster of parked cars and staring people that caught our attention first.
There weren’t many hours of daylight left so we decided to shack up at Pismo Beach, a small city with a real small-town vibe about it. A beach-side hotel was found, bags were dropped and off we went exploring the waterfront boardwalk and pier just in time for sunset.
When someone mentions California don’t you just get this kind of image in your mind? Talk about a photogenic pier. The food scene in Pismo Beach was looking a little, er, ordinary so as we sat in Tastes of the Valleys enjoying a couple of vino’s we asked the lovely girl where was good to eat. The Cracked Crab, she said, Giuseppe’s Italian or Thai Talay. The Thai sounded good enough.
Oh man, almost a year after eating at Thai Talay I still vividly remember how ordinary the food was. The Thai mango shrimp (9.95) looks innocent enough; nicely grilled shrimp, peanuts, carrot, shredded mango and the sweetest dressing that has ever entered my mouth consumed the whole dish. This was like sugar syrup. No noticeable chilli, fish sauce or lime to balance out the flavours, just sugar and god-knows what the liquid was that carried it. I swear my eye was twitching in reaction to the extreme level of sugar.
Gai yang is always nice when it’s done right but the Thai bbq chicken (18.95) we got far from resembled even a western version of it. You can see a bit of colour from turmeric but the only flavour was regular bbq chicken. An iceberg lettuce salad sits to the side with red cabbage, some carrot and tomato wedges and a good drenching of that dreadfully sweet dressing the shrimp were swimming in. Oh good lord, is this for real?
The Thai food fun continued on to the spicy herb salmon (18.95). It’s topped with “Thai herbs”, that same iceberg salad and a slightly different sweet dressing on the side. The fish is arid and over-cooked and to put it honestly, the best part was the pile of potato chips taking up a third of the plate. Yup, potato chips in a Thai restaurant. If people come here and actually think they’re having a Thai meal, they really need to get out more. A complete waste of stomach space.
Thai Talay Restaurant – 601 Price Street, Pismo Beach
Leaving Pismo Beach bright and bushy-tailed the following morning the drive down Highway 101 & 104 cut inland a bit and as I sat in the passenger seat I noticed a cute little town to the right, suggesting we stop for a nosey. Los Olivos is nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley and is made up of gorgeous Victorian buildings housing many wine tasting rooms, several restaurants and shops. It was literally a ten-minute stop so we departed as quickly as we arrived. Apologies for your mere 10-second tour.
We may have been pressed for time but I insisted we veer off the highway a bit and check out a place I’d just read about, not all that far from Los Olivos. Also in wine country is Solvang, a Danish town set up a century ago by Danes, of course, in search of a warmer place to settle.
It’s got to be the most colourful town I’ve seen and if you can ignore the theme park feel of the place, it’s interesting enough to explore. Many Danish bakeries line the streets, boutiques, a windmill, even horse-drawn carriages. No time to linger, however, we needed to get down to Santa Barbara.
Santa Barbara. What can I say other than it’s pretty and beautifully manicured? It’s just so, er, perfect-looking. Even the weather was strangely perfect. I guess it’s true when they say Santa Barbara has its own micro-climate thanks to the geographic location. Ideal temperature, clean streets, swaying palm trees, deep blue sky, well-heeled old ladies with faces stretched to the back of their heads … man I just wanted to mess it up a tad. There are no high-rise buildings at all and the bulk of the city is built in a Mission style of architecture; pastel colours, arches, cast iron balconies.
As any tourist probably does, we wandered down to the waterfront and sussed out Stearns Wharf and its uninspiring cluster of attractions gracing the boardwalk. Ok, maybe the aquarium is worth looking at and a couple of the nicer restaurants but one thing for sure is Char West Fast Food is a little challenged in the espresso machine department.
The other half spotted the espresso machine and, with ambitious hopes, thought he’d give it a go. The chirpy lady did the extraction and proceeded to steam the milk. And steam it. And steam it more. A minute later she produced some lovely burnt milk and poured it over the espresso. Voila. Scorched crap in a paper cup.
I’d done some prior research on eating in Santa Barbara and found this family-run restaurant. Simply named Jane, it’s a comfy little place that almost feels like someones lounge room thanks to many old photo’s of Jane dotted about. She happens to be the grandmother of the family.
The lunch menu looks and sounds a bit Californian home-style and to begin we crunched on a generous plate of firestone red rings (9). Battered red onion rings fried to a crisp with homemade ranch dressing. Nothing outstanding, but hey, they’re just fried onion rings.
A rather large Idaho trout salad (15) is a simple bowl of butter lettuce, cucumber, tomato, avocado and dill dressing. Nice piece of grilled fish; simple and satisfying. I went down the seafood route as well with a very good New Brunswick salmon (22) fillet grilled on a piece of cedar. The aroma and flavour was just beautiful, slightly sweetened with a creamy mango salsa and a few steamed vegetables and rice to the side. A nice and relatively light lunch.
Jane – 1311 State Street, Santa Barbara
Walking back down State Street we were both distracted by somebody’s cup of coffee sitting on an outdoor table at this cafe, The French Press. Well hello there nice-looking coffee! A few steps inside and we’re greeted with a cute little space, a handsome espresso machine and a couple of dudes pulling coffees.
Is this it, our last great coffees in the US? One cappuccino and macchiato are ordered and received and as soon as my lips hit the little red cup I knew we were in for a treat. The milk level in the macchiato wasn’t quite text book but I was willing to ignore that and just savour its virtual perfection. So good we did another round before hitting the Ventura Freeway and carrying on to LA.
The French Press – 1101 State Street, Santa Barbara
With a mere five hours remaining in the country we decided to park the car in Santa Monica and have our final meal somewhere around Wilshire Boulevard. I’d already done extensive research online and decided Musha was the place to be. Our flight was at 10pm and it opens at 6pm so considering we were a little early I declared it wine-o’clock and found nearby Fraîche a good spot to have a pre-dinner vino.
As soon as Musha opened its doors we were in there ordering a parade of izakaya delights. Ponzu-marinated seared duck breast ($6.8), daikon oroshi, Tokyo leek and ponzu sauce. Great stuff. The Manilla clams (9.45) sautéed in butter and garlic with mixed mushrooms weren’t all that overpowered in garlic as I expected. Nice subtle flavours and added bits of crispy bamboo shoots. Loved the hot, crunchy and soft tofu French fries (5.95) with sweet chilli and wasabi mayo.
The yuba shinjo (6.95) is a great little tofu skin-wrapped dumpling loaded with a whole shrimp encased in shrimp paste. Great crunch! My least favourite dish was the ebimayo (7.95) – shrimp tempura drizzled with Musha’s original spicy mayonnaise. The batter was too thick and aside from the sauce not having any spice it was just like cocktail sauce. My favourite dish had to be this one. Aburi saba (11.95). I mean aburi anything always wins hands down in my books. A sliced fillet of vinegar-marinated mackerel is splayed across the plate before being torched by the giggly waitress. Not cooked through, just seared on the skin-side. Freaking delicious!
Musha – 424 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica
Well that’s it folks. You can all collectively sigh as that was my final American post, until of course we return in a few years …