Good times rolled for a good cause at a packed ballroom of the Embassy Suites on Thursday night, February 27, in San Luis Obispo.
Good times rolled for a good cause at the packed ballroom of the Embassy Suites on Thursday night, February 27, in San Luis Obispo.
The 6th Annual Culinary Carnival benefiting the Prado Day Center attracted about 450 guests paying $60 a ticket to support the county’s only day center for the homeless and working poor — and sample gourmet appetizers from a dozen local restaurants including Bon Temps Creole Cafe, Ventana Grill, Cafe Roma, Splash Cafe, Novo, Jaffa Cafe and Blackhorse Expresso & Bakery, as well as beverages from a dozen premium wine and beer vendors.
The event was mc’d by San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gessell, and following several rounds of food-and-drink free-for-all set to the blaring tones of the Cajun-flavored, Dixieland-bent Crustacea Jazz Band, 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill introduced the evening’s program. Kicking things off was a Mardi Gras-inspired New Orleans’ “Second Line” featuring volunteers, staff and guests, including Supervisor Hill and CAPSLO Homeless Services Director Dee Torres, dancing and weaving under festive umbrellas through the crowd. A live auction, led by auctioneer J. Scott Vernon, offered an eye-popping selection of unique global and local vacations and weekends and first-class dining experiences, and the bidding contributed to Prado. Remarks of gratitude and remembrance for the homeless delivered by Friends of Prado Board President Roy Rawlings closed the evening.
The Prado Day Center in SLO provides an array of essential daily services for the homeless and working poor, and the Carnival, produced by Friends of Prado Day Center, is the chief annual fundraiser for the Center.
After 30 years of dwindling popularity, bingo is back, and places like STAX Wine Bar in Morro Bay are inviting everyone young and old to the party. Bingo, a game that randomly draws numbers that players match against numbers that are printed on five-by-five cards, has experienced a resurgence in popularity. A game that was once associated with retirement homes and church group events is now a thrill-seeking source of entertainment for an increasingly young, hipster crowd.
On the occasional Wednesday night at 6 p.m., players sit around STAX’s tables and purchase $20 of bingo cards. Three cards appear on one paper sheet per game. The wine bar hotspot aggressively promotes the event through Facebook. The rise of social media is credited as a reason why bingo is being appreciated by a younger audience.
A customer, 23, from Los Osos brought a couple of friends to Bingo Night. “I totally forced them to come,” she said. “They don’t realize bingo is ridiculously addicting. I told them, ‘It’s not grandma’s game anymore.'”
It’s truly sight to behold: players holding onto their ink dabblers with anticipation while using their free hand to sip fine sauvignon blanc and dine on black truffle-seasoned filet mignon crostinis.
Players can order food and drinks between and during games.
The image of elegance and prestige of fine dining on the waterfront quickly turns upside down when the crowd suddenly erupts into cheers and gleeful squeals. The first bingo number was called.
Bingo master Scott Crabtree announced the first number of the night. Immediately, half of the wine bar cheered and the other half booed. STAX Wine Bar owner Giovanni DeGarimore happily joined the choir of boos.
“I see we got a heckler in here,” said Crabtree, who glared at his mischievous friend. DeGarimore grinned and shrugged his shoulders as if he made no noise at all.
“You’re too slow, Crabtree! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” shouted DeGarimore as soon as the bingo master turned away from him.
The audience began to chant Scott’s name, affectionately referring to him as “Scottie.” The bingo master would have none of it. He stood with a microphone in his hand, snarling at the crowd before flashing a smile and continuing the game as if nothing happened. Then Crabtree inundated the crowd with rapid-fire number calls, leaving no room for any tension to simmer.
Make no mistake: it was all in good fun.
Customers enjoyed the Abbott-Costello routines between DeGarimore and Crabtree throughout the evening.
At places STAX, bingo is more than an old-school favorite. It’s an attitude and an experience that keeps people on their toes for two hours. Yet time quickly flies as players wait eagerly for their desired number to be called.
While the sun slowly set over Morro Rock and the last remaining rays of sunlight shined brightly through STAX’s windows, the players turned silent. But as people’s bingo cards started looking like a giant ink blot, the crowd went wild.
Then suddenly, “BINGO!” A winner stepped forward with the winning card in her hand. She won the jackpot.
Many young people come to Bingo Night. Some attend because of the sheer adrenaline while others play for the prizes. At STAX, prizes range from gift cards to cash. The prize increases in value after each game. By the sixth and last game (“Blackout”), the cash prize is $100. But by the last game, players are too involved in matching the last missing number on their card.
When STAX had bingo night for the first time, the wine bar was packed. There was a rush to find a free table to sit at. Owner DeGarimore, a self-proclaimed novice at the game, sat and played the game with everyone else. He bought his own bingo cards and quickly mastered the game with a little help from his friends.
“Yeah, I’m feeling it,” he admitted. “It’s old-school, kinda, but not really. It feels new.”
STAX Wine Bar has Bingo Night on Wednesday nights from 6-9 pm. Bingo Night does not happen every Wednesday, so check their Facebook page for dates. For the best experience, call STAX Wine Bar 805-772-5055 to reserve a table, and purchase six games worth of bingo cards for $20. STAX is located at 1099 Embarcadero, Morro Bay.
HEALTHFARE-FRIENDLY RESTAURANTS Restaurants that serve all vegan/organic/raw dishes, or offer a number of options of vegan/organic dishes on their menu, sourced with local, organic ingredients when possible.
At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.
At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.
At first glance, one might think Robin’s was a lovely, vine-laced old home in Cambria’s historic East Village, and it once was – and still is. Robin’s continues to radiate that warm feeling because it was a home a long time before it became a restaurant, and owner Shanny Covey has cultivated that ambiance while also offering airy, contemporary, heated indoor and outdoor patio and garden dining.
But what truly sets Robin’s apart is the inspiring menu graced with intricate dishes that bring the world to little hidden Cambia. To trace the global influences and diverse flavors that illuminate Robin’s menu, one has to first understand that Robin’s is the sparkling reflection of the sophistication of its longtime owner and co-founder.
Raised in Singapore, one of the great food hubs of the world, Shanny moved to the US when she was 17. While studying at LSU she took the Greyhound west to meet a friend who was living and working in Cambria for the summer. Captivated by the beach and beauty of the area, she moved out to Cambria in the mid ’70s and met her former husband, Robin.
“He’s the reason we started Robin’s. The restaurant was named after him,” Shanny says. “He loved to cook and he loved to cook international food. He would learn how to make curries and different things like that.”
That international sensibility permeates all their dishes in one way or another. Curries are still a vital part of the menu. In fact, Robin’s menu hasn’t changed much over the years because people return for their favorites, and the menu is basically a collection of favorites.
“There’s a few things on the menu that have been there from day one, like a couple of the curries, the lamb curry, the curried chicken, the chows, and at lunch time the Mexican chopped chicken tacos – they’ve been on there for a long, long time. They’re very popular.
“We always have to have some staples on there that people come back time and time again for, like our salmon bisque. And then we have room to be creative and change other things out also. So it’s a nice balance.”
That’s why specialties like the salmon bisque (8 oz. $5/16 oz. $8), Crispy Vietnamese Spring Rolls vegetarian-style with tofu, kim-chee salad, chili oil and sweet chili sauce ($8) and Singapore Chicken Sate with pickled cucumber salad and spicy peanut sauce ($10) are carved in stone on the menu. At the same time you can also find an outrageously flavorful 100% natural angus-beef burger with tomato, grilled sweet onion, white cheddar, house sweet pickles and aioli, served with herb garlic fries ($13).
The dinner menu dazzles with an Ahi Tuna Poke with pineapple, chiles, coconut, sesame seaweed and siracha ($13), an All Natural Flat Iron Steak with garlic smashed potatoes, organic asparagus, crispy onions, cabernet peppercorn butter ($26); Slipper-Tail Lobster Enchiladas with lime crèma, avocado, white cheddar, tomatillo salsa verde, cumin black beans and brown basmati rice and cilantro-mint chutney ($21), Tofu Pad Thai Noodles & Prawns with cabbage, bok choy, green onions, cilantro, egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, spicy tamarind soy sauce ($20), and four different curries: Roghan Josh, Indian lamb curry ($21); Tempeh Korma, Indian coconut curry with vegetables ($18); Thai Green Chicken in mild coconut curry ($19); and Malaysian Chicken in spicy coconut curry ($19).
A quick survey of some of the wealth of robust ingredients that go into their designer dishes, side dishes, salads , sauces, dressings, preserves, chutneys, butters and aiolis – all made from scratch – hints at the excellence of Robin’s. For example: the piquillo almond tapenade (with the Meze Plate); kim-chee (with the Spring Rolls); sambal aioli (with the Crusted Calimari); louie sauce (with the Crispy Crab Cake); ricotta salata (with the Grilled Tuna Asparagus Salad); house sweet pickles (with the Angus Burger); mango salsa (with the Halibut Tacos); candied pecans (with the Bloomsdale Spinach Salad); citrus pepita basmati rice (with the Grilled Sea Bass); saffron & dried fruit couscous with the Morrocan Duck Breast); sweet corn polenta (with the All Natural Pork Chop); and lemon thyme jus (with the Roasted Chicken).
Once the depth and richness of all the tastes and flavors blended into their “homecrafted global cuisine” are absorbed, the brilliance of Robin’s really hits home.
Shanny has set a high standard in both substance and style that has been refined over time and invigorated under Chef Michael Wood. But even in the beginning, before opening Robin’s, Shanny and Robin had established the direction they were headed in food quality.
“Before we opened the restaurant we owned a health food store, so eating fresh, healthy foods was always a priority for my husband, and it continues to be a priority, not just for myself but also for my guests,” she says. “I want to feel good about what I’m serving my guests.”
The health food store was located on Main Street, where Indigo Moon is today.
“We had a little café. People could take food out in the garden or to go. Then at one point we held once-a-month sit-down dinners, community, family-style in one of the rooms there. That was probably the birth of the restaurant per se. We developed a following of people who would sign up ahead of time and come to dinner. It was a really great experience.”
When they first opened the restaurant in 1985 it was on Bridge Street. Then they moved to Burton Drive to an adobe home built in the ’30s by a former concrete construction foreman who worked for W. R. Hearst. The original living room, foyer and fireplace are still there.
So from health food store to café, from Bridge Street to Burton Drive, Robin’s has always been committed to home and healthy food, and now with “farm to table” more popular than ever, the restaurant is riding the new wave.
“It’s definitely become more and more popular over the last five to 10 years, and as far as we’re concerned at Robin’s, we’ve always been farm to table. We’ve always gone to market from the health-food-store days and from when we started the restaurant,” Shanny says.
Robin’s has always been ahead of its time, and now almost 30 years later the world is catching up with them. Now, more and more people want to eat as organic or natural and fresh as they can get.
“We’ve always tried to source local as much as possible, especially with our produce, going to the markets. And when we go to the markets we always search out unsprayed and organic first.”
Robin’s goal is to create an enjoyable living room/patio dining experience and service for their special guests that match the quality of the food.
“We’re very dedicated to providing hospitality to our guests from the heart. Our purpose is to deliver warm hospitality and delicious global cuisine,” Shanny says. “I get excited, my staff gets excited, when we can make people get excited and enthused about the things that they taste here, the international flavors, and we want to make them feel warm and welcome.”
Shanny and her staff have made the restaurant a home away from home. “The ambiance fits what we do here because we want people to feel at home, the home that they come to when they join us for a meal.”
And it will be a meal with global roots, made with a world of goodness in the ingredients, prepared with an elegance, flair and attention to detail found in the finest restaurants in America.
“I feel that’s what makes us unique,” Shanny says. “We’ve gone from our tag line of ‘home cooking from around the world’ to ‘international fare,’ ‘farmer’s market fresh’ – it’s all about providing an eclectic experience to our guests. We can have a group of four people come in and they can all have some different dish from around the world, and I’ll be excited about it.”
Every Sunday in the summer Robin’s presents live music as part of their “Summer Nights in the Garden” series. They prepare a tapas menu, feature a local winery, and alternately offer mellow vocals, jazz, violin, and the flamenco-style guitar of LA-based Robert Longley.
“They’re magical evenings in the beauty of the garden,” she says. The luxurious gardens have also attracted local artists, and now Robin’s hosts Wednesday morning art sessions for those with paint, brush, canvas and easel.
The drive is a big part of the fun, one of the most scenic in the country, and well worth it from any point in the county. And it’s fun when you get there. Evergreen Cambria is an important, star-crossed California coastal town because of its central location – halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on spellbinding Highway 1 between Morro Rock in Morro Bay, miles of ocean and beaches, and Hearst Castle, just south of Big Sur. It’s also important because of its unique land and ocean resources. Moonstone Beach in Cambria is a great place to view migrating whales, sea otters, elephant seals, and glorious California sunsets.
Entering Cambria Village for the first time is like stumbling into a western town from a bygone era – it’s even got a Main Street, a general store, antique shopping and local shops, but there’s much more to it. Take a look around and you will discover that Cambria is a contemporary oasis for excellent, high-quality restaurants, paced by Robin’s, a rich California-Asian garden of fusion delights in full bloom where the wide ocean meets the tall pines. Robin’s Restaurant, 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, California 93428. Hours: Open daily. Lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 3:50 p.m.; Early Dinner 4:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m.; Dinner Nightly 5:00 p.m. – 9ish p.m.; Sunday Brunch 11:00 a.m . – 3:20 p.m. Telephone: (805) 927-5007. Web: http://www.robinsrestaurant.com, www.facebook.com/RobinsRestaurant, https://twitter.com/RobinsCambria
Tourists traveling Morro Bay’s Embarcadero north of Beach Street toward Morro Rock are often surprised to see a large white fishing boat in the parking lot with its raised bow pointing south, going nowhere.
Now the surprise inside of a surprise for tourists and locals alike is what’s become of the historical boat-shaped building, and how it’s been reconnected it with its origins while setting a fresh course in Morro Bay fish dining.
Originally a fish market in the ’70s, then a series of fish shacks, and most recently home of Thai Bounty, the landlocked two-story with a colorful history on the waterfront is now sailing under a new flag. It’s been remodeled and rechristened Dockside 3, joining the mini fleet of Dockside seafood restaurants owned by the seafaring Tognazzini clan – Mark, Bonnie, Leah and Marc.
What is this phenomenon, though, three Dockside restaurants within earshot of each other? There’s the original Tognazzini’s Dockside, one of the premier high-end seafood restaurants on the Embarcadero since 2004; Dockside Too, the scaled-down, outdoor fish-market hang-out with live music, since 2006; and now Dockside 3 since January — almost next door to each other. What does Dockside 3 offer that other Docksides don’t?
That’s the next surprise. Dockside 3 is a combination smokehouse, pub and oyster bar, and the eye-opening menu is welcome news to all diners and drinkers seeking exciting new fusions on the changing, contemporary Embarcadero.
“Our mainstay is our smoked product,” says Mark Tognazzini, who was born and raised in Morro Bay and has been an active commercial fisherman for 43 years. “We’re smokin’ five or six different fish — salmon, swordfish, albacore, scallops and shrimp. We’re also smokin’ tri-tip and chicken now, and they’re all ingredients in our tacos and wraps.
“So if you have a shrimp taco here it’s going to be a smoked shrimp taco. If you have an albacore taco it’s going to be a smoked albacore smoked taco, and if you have scallop ceviche it’s going to be smoked scallops. We’re also doing fresh clams, mussels and oysters.”
Captain Mark and Dockside 3’s head chef Edgar studied the art and craft of smoking with “Smoker Jim” Ruddell, the owner of Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos, and widely recognized as the rock star of smoking fish on the Central Coast.
“Jim Ruddell was absolutely instrumental in helping us get up to speed quickly on smoking,” says Mark. “He said, ‘here’s the machine to buy, here’s what to do, come on up to my place.’ Edgar and I went up there on three different occasions and spent hours with him, and he said, ‘The only thing you can’t have is my shrimp recipe.’”
They can’t give Jim enough credit for their smoking and what he’s done for them, although they do things a little differently, of course.
“Jim was an inspiration, a wealth of knowledge, and just so generous in sharing with us so we didn’t have to make some of the mistakes we could have made,” says Mark.
Friendship easily trumps competition with Mark and Jim. They both remember a time when “every port used to have a smokehouse,” says Mark, and they’d both like to see that time come back. “He was excited for us.”
Though there are some menu items in common with the other Docksides, Mark says “75% of what we do here is new menu, 25% old menu – we do our chowder here at Dockside 3. There’s certain things we do over here that emulate what we do over there.”
But where Dockside 3 undocks from its parental moorings is where it really takes off. Dockside 3 offers items that seafood gourmets won’t find anywhere else on the waterfront, rarely found treasures that are suddenly easily accessible, which means not having to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy them, just drive up and walk in to people-friendly Dockside 3.
“We do clams casino here,” says Mark. “I don’t think anybody else on the waterfront does it, and it’s a home run. We’re doing some oysters with the mignonette sauce, which is a vinegar, peppery sauce, and different things you just don’t see very much.
“We have a pretty full menu at our other two facilities, but we always wanted to do something different.”
In Morro Bay, different is good. At Dockside 3, different is steamed clams in wine sauce ($11.95), oysters Rockefeller ($6.95 for three/$12.95 for six); clams casino ($6.95 for three/$12.95 for six); steamed mussels ($11.95); shrimp ($8.95) or scallop ceviche tostadas ($9.95); smoked tri-tip wrap ($9.95); and swordfish kabob ($5.95), to name just a few dishes of distinction.
Dockside 3’s most popular item is the tacos ($2.95 – $3.95 each) – smoked scallops, smoked shrimp, smoked swordfish, smoked albacore, smoked salmon, as well as smoked tri-tip and smoked chicken. Choices of sauces include chipotle, shrimp aoli, fish aoli and spicy hot. The sauces also dress the wraps ($8.95 – $12.95), which come in a choice of tomato, spinach or white tortilla.
Oysters on the half shell prepared different ways with different sauces – traditional cocktail-horseradish sauce, maisonette, ginger and champagne – are also popular. Along with the array of fresh smoked fish, the raw oysters and cherrystone clams (each $5.95 for three/$10.95 for six) are the corner shells of Dockside 3’s versatile menu.
“With our oysters you can have them raw, barbecued, smoked, Rockefeller or casino,” Mark says. “With our clams you can have them raw, barbecue, Rockefeller or casino.”
It’s this wide selection of tasty combinations that sets Dockside 3 apart from its established elders and everybody else on the waterfront – or off. That and the unexpected rewards of the smoked tri-tip, scallops and swordfish, and after seeing how good the smoked tri-tip turned out they’re now trying out smoked turkey for sandwiches served in the main Dockside.
“It has its own little personality,” says Bonnie Tognazzini about the cozy quarters of Dockside 3. “We’re just about three months old, and so it’s still developing, which is why the menu is not set in stone yet. We’re finding the things that are working. We’re still playing with it and having fun with it.”
The Tognazzinis have renovated the inside of the restaurant, always a tiny space, and brought it up to date while retaining its original character. Six classic black bar stools pull up to a sparkling new oak-veneer bar top where diners can watch their dishes prepared in an open kitchen in a rather novel environment.
“I like really like to sit here and watch the guys cook,” says Bonnie. There’s something about watching them cooking your meal that I find quite entertaining, like watching a cooking show.”
The kitchen is miniaturized and efficient, and they’ve definitely made the most of limited space; it required specialty equipment that had to fit or was made to fit. Packed into a very small area are a smoker and standard grill. The smoker, custom built out of Wisconsin, is identical to Smoker Jim’s but about two-thirds the size because a full-size unit wouldn’t fit.
With the intimacy and activity of an American sushi bar, Dockside 3’s fish-market-to-your-plate experience is magnified by the cheerful pub atmosphere. There’s the bar stools and bar top. There’s a TV for that sports-bar effect for those following the big game. Their huge selection of draft beers on tap ($2.50 a glass, domestic) has helped make Dockside an irresistible destination for seafood specialties and endless brew.
“We’re not pretentious here,” Mark says. “We’re a pub, and our most expensive beer is $3.95. We have 16 on draft and another 35 in the bottle – 50 beers in all.”
Marc Tognazzini, Captain Mark’s son and partner, helped upgrade the interior woodwork and created valuable outside dining space by building several tables and chairs. At night they light the outdoor fire pit to chase away the chill.
Dockside 3, 1245 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, California 93442. Telephone: (805) 772-8130. Hours: Open daily 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. or earlier depending on season and reason.
Texas-native Greg Barnard, 35, was a negative five years old when Sunshine Health Foods opened 40 years ago on Morro Bay Blvd. in Morro Bay. Mr. Barnard is the third owner. He bought it from the second owner for whom he worked about three years. He bought the store in 2006, and in six years he’s taken it to the next level – becoming the best health food store and restaurant on the coast.
Now, not only is Sunshine the top destination on the coastline for fresh, organic produce, it is also boasts a new jewel, the best – and healthiest — restaurant on the street, the Shine Café, which opened last July.
Barnard had been no stranger to the industry before buying Sunshine. His previous jobs in college had been working in health food stores. He noticed when he moved to the area in 2000 that Sunshine was for sale and he filed it away.
“I had come out to help some friends from Colorado open a business,” says Barnard. “I’d worked at two other health food stores before, but I didn’t necessarily have the intention to stay in the industry. I liked it but I had actually a better opportunity, and that’s what brought me out to the coast.”
He attended Texas State University for business, but he also participated in recreational activities there, and worked at the school’s recreation center running outdoor educational programs such as kayaking, rafting and mountain-biking trips. His friends on the coast were opening a European-style youth hostel and needed someone to run their outdoor activities. They called him up about a year and a half after he’d finished his degree and told him to move out.
“I didn’t have a whole lot going on,” he says. “I was working at a health food store in Austin, and it sounded great. So I came out here and I was helping those guys, and living with them, and I realized the project that they were starting to work on was going to take a lot longer than anticipated, so I started working at New Frontiers because that was the kind of the experience I had.” He worked for New Frontiers on and off for close to three years.
“I’d been trying to work here because I like the small model, but they didn’t have the money to hire anyone and they were kind of doing it themselves,” he says. “So then I went to South America and came back, and at that point they’d grown enough take me on nine hours a week. They gave me three shifts three hours apiece, and then it just started snowballing from there and I started working a lot more.
“I knew in the back of my head that at one point they’d tried to sell, and you know if they tried to sell at one point, that’s always probably going to be an option later on down the road. So I kind of took that job knowing that they had tried to sell in the past, and that might be, at least around here, the only way it could happen (for me). The only option was for someone willing to sell to me. And I didn’t have a ton of money.”
For some, relationships are just as important, or even more important, than money, and that human connection paid off for Barnard. “Because I had developed a great relationship with Bill (Nicholson) who’s the old owner here — he’s kind of like a dad to me out here — he took the little tiny bit of money that I had down and he carried the note over five years. Otherwise I would have never been able to make a move like that. So that was great. I just paid him off last January.”
The Rise of Shine
Last July, after investing a lot of work and considerable expense, the Shine Café opened next door to their shipping and receiving office and store. They originally had the café in the back of the store. The room that became the new café was essentially behind the old café.
”When I bought this store, we would just sublease the café,” he explains. “It wasn’t part of what I purchased. It was operating independently in the back, and, to be honest, I feel like that’s what makes it so unique, and (what) makes it have so much character now is that it’s the culmination of (many years of store history).
“I can remember as far back as eight different owners of the café. I mean, it was just a little juice bar kind of place that made crackers for the longest time. And so it took all of those people. Everyone made a little contribution and had a couple good recipes and then the best of the best stuck and it just kind of kept rumbling. The recipes are kind of the greatest hits of all the people that came along.”
Shine also runs weekly specials. “Someone will have an idea for a special,” he says, “and if it’s just great then we’ll try to keep it around. We would have a lot more, but space has always been our issue, even over in the new place. That’s why we’ll rotate the specials and try to bring the popular ones back, but we don’t really have the space or capacity to add all of our favorite things on to the menu.”
Barnard didn’t own the café for a long time and didn’t intend to be in the restaurant business, but, he says, “I was tired of subleasing this little tiny spot that was in the back of our business that no one really understood that it was a different dynamic. No one understood that it was a separate owner. For all anyone cared it was just under one roof.
“So when that last gal hit the wall and was ready to sell, then we just bought it from her in essence to simplify things, and we were all of a sudden in the food service industry, and never really had a huge desire to be. But I felt like it was such an important part of what I was trying to do. The food service goes so hand in hand with what we’re trying to do in fresh food.”
As busy as it is, the café is not a big money-maker, says Barnard, “because we’re not willing to compromise our ingredients. There are a couple of things we’re not willing to do in order to make profit because we feel like the service that we’re providing is far more important…”
The Sunshine commitment begins with the ingredients, he says.
“We source as much of our organic ingredients as possible. Even the spices that we use are organic, all of our cooking oils, 90% of our produce. We could get a lot of this produce for half the price that we’re buying it for, if we were willing to go straight conventional. We weren’t willing to do that, and we weren’t willing to raise our prices to the point at which we were making what a normal restaurant margin would be because then all of a sudden we’re chasing off half of our clientele.
“We wanted it to be a place where you just don’t come on your birthday because our dinners are $22, or you come when you have a friend in town. We want it to be a place where the people who live here can come to eat every day and not break the bank. We want it to be comparable to anywhere else you can eat besides really, really expensive fast food. We want to be able to feed people for $9, $10, $11.”
Not willing to compromise on quality and price points “put us into a little bit of a quandary when it comes to profit,” he adds, “because the simple thing would be to just raise the prices.”
But there is a synergy between the café and the store, and, he says, “I make my living in the store. That’s why I’m always willing to just write off a potential loss over there because it’s just one number, just part of a larger, more important number.”
The trend toward eating fresh, organic foods delivered from the farms where they were grown to the dinner table has skyrocketed over the past several years, soaring in popularity across the demographic board.
Former owner Bill Nicholson taught Barnard “about the different varieties that could be grown when you’re not growing for shelf life or distribution life – it’s a whole different animal. And the vitality of the nutrients intact, the enzymes intact, and all these things that are still intact when it’s consumed a day, two or even three days after it’s been picked, just that freshness is amazing, and the taste, and you get the nutritional benefit.
“The reason why people are saying our food (at Shine) is good is because of the core ingredients that we start with; that’s 80% of the battle. Yes, there’s some creativity but the fact that we start with really high quality, really fresh ingredients makes it a lot easier to make it taste good.”
Sunshine is deeply into organic practices and buys produce from three farmer’s markets a week: the Monday afternoon market in Baywood, which is the favorite; Thursday in North Morro Bay; and Saturday morning in San Luis. The store enjoys great relationships with local farmers. Sunshine also receives deliveries twice a week from an organic distributor, Veritable Vegetable, out of San Francisco.
“They don’t carry a single item that’s not certified organic and, to me, you’re not trusting the word of somebody, you’re just getting what you know that it was a certified organic farm and you know exactly what went into that,” says Barnard.
“They felt as strongly as we do about it, for them to go through that process, and it’s been difficult to bridge that gap because we do still feel that it’s just as important to get it fresh and local, maybe even more important than it being certified organic, but it puts us in a quandary where we have to use our best judgment in order to get the highest quality food.”
The high quality of the produce in the store becomes palpable when dining at the café and tasting those same quality ingredients in the cooking. Everything is made from scratch and crackles with vitality. While the fresh quality permeates the café’s entire menu, the flair with which the visually stunning dishes are presented lies closer to the presentation you might find in a fine sushi restaurant than a typical health food café. The taste and quality leave no doubt that you are eating gourmet health food at its life-affirming best, a charge of instant health.
The café’s menu categories are Breakfast (weekends only), Smoothies, Soup & Salad and Entrees. Highlights include Buckwheat Pancakes with any two toppings from bananas, blueberries, walnuts, carob chips or strawberries ($8.50/two pancakes, $4.25/one); Mudslide Smoothie made with bananas, peanut butter, carob, dates and almond milk ($6); Hearty Vegetable or Sweet Potato Tortilla Soup when available ($3 cup/$5 bowl); Tempeh Salad with seasoned tempeh, fresh vegetables, avocado and choice of dressing ($8.50 small/$10.50 large); Black Bean Tostada with seasoned black beans, brown rice, spring mix, fresh veggies, avocado, sesame seeds, on a crispy tortilla, served with salsa and spicy chipotle dressing ($9.50); Tempeh Reuben of seared strips of seasoned tempeh served on sprouted grain bread with cilantro dressing and stoneground mustard – topped with sauerkraut, tomato, lettuce and avocado and served with a side salad ($10); and Vegetable Spring Roll, a rice-paper roll filled with fresh veggies, avocado and seasoned tempeh served with sesame ginger dressing ($4). Customers can try the weekly special, or create their own special dish (starting at $8).
“The most popular items in the café are definitely the spring rolls and the tostada,” he says, “and with the tostada it’s the sauce in combination with the crunchy shell that people like. They still get that kind of feel-good comfort food, but accompanied by that salad. The soups do pretty well, too. Everything does pretty well since we can’t afford to keep it on there if it doesn’t do well.
The 1500-square-foot store offers the same high quality organic produce that energizes the smaller café — as well as an array of nutritional supplements and natural body care products, and a wealth of specialty bulk items like yogurt and carob-covered sweet treats, dried fruit, dates, grains, organic spices, and many hard-to-find healthy alternatives, boxed, bottled and refrigerated, for everyday recipes and dishes.
“In the store, our fresh produce is probably does the highest volume,” he says. “We do a lot of bulk, the bulk food in the back. We have a nice balance because of the fact that we weren’t here in ’73 and there was just a vitamin shop for a lot of years. That’s how it started. It didn’t start transitioning into more of a grocery store until Bill took it over. He had it for about 11 years, and I bought it six years ago, and about 18-19 years ago started bringing more of the food element in. So from the early ‘70s on through the ‘80s it was more of just a vitamin shop, and he was able to establish a pretty good core vitamin-supplement business. We’ve been able to maintain that, and we do sell a fair amount of that.”
A Bright Future
“It’s taken six years to get to this point,” Barnard says. “Finally I feel like our head’s above water and we’ve got the café set. We’re about a freezer or a refrigerator, some new flooring and a couple of light fixtures away from being completely done with the original vision of the whole thing.”
Within the next year Barnard hopes to further integrate new systems “that are allowing us to do more volume and spend more time with customer service, allowing us to spend more time doing the things that we haven’t had the time to do up until now.” Sunshine now has close to 20 “committed” employees.
Barnard had a son a year and a half ago, and hopes those systems will make life easier at the store and allow him to spend more time at home.
“No industry garners this kind of growth without garnering the same attention from competition,” he says. “We’ve been so fortunate to get to the growth that we have in this town, being the size that it is. We don’t yet have a Trader Joe’s, we don’t yet have a Whole Foods. We have that in San Luis and they’re slugging it out there, but we’re the only thing here.
“There’s nothing in Los Osos, there’s nothing in Cambria, so we’ve pulled this whole coastal region. We’re pulling people from Ragged Point because there’s nothing there. So I feel like we’ve got this little niche that we’ve been really fortunate to carve out, and we’ve been able to kind of go under the radar without this competition. That may change in the future…”
Regardless of any future competition, Sunshine won’t be changing its no-compromise formula for success. More and more people are realizing that what you eat has a direct impact on one’s physical and mental state. Basically, everything that we do is dictated by what we eat, and Sunshine is finely tuned into that knowledge.
“I think a lot of people wonder why we went with the vegan café. You have tourists in town that will come in and want to give our food a try because they’re looking for a turkey sandwich or a tuna fish sandwich, and there’s not a whole lot of really strict vegans that work here or live in Morro Bay.”
So why vegan then? Is Sunshine harboring secret hate against meat?
“Meat is not necessarily the evil,” says Barnard, “but we feel like you should eat more vegetables, so if we provide a restaurant with only vegetables then people are going to inadvertently have to eat more vegetables if they eat here. If we get people to get off of their meat and potato diet once a week, twice a week, then we feel like we’ve accomplished that.
“We’re not claiming that everything in here is perfectly great for you, but compared to the option, compared to the standard American diet, compared to the standard American grocery system, we’re just trying to provide a viable alternative to that system, and I feel like we’re accomplishing that. We’re giving people a chance to make better decisions.”
If you are fortunate to be motoring one of the most breathtaking stretches of scenic Highway 1 on the Central Coast, you must exit in Cayucos and drive through this quaint old beach town to the edge of the Pacific.
If you happen to drive by the exit, distracted by the panoramic ocean view, you’ll have to turn around. If you don’t, you’ll regret it until you come this way again.
Because right there, at the corner of D Street and Ocean Front in seaside, sun-drenched Cayucos, you will find one of the smallest but most sought-after food lover’s destinations in all California, Ruddell’s Smokehouse.
Have you ever tasted fine smoked food? If you have then you know it’s the King of BBQ. The aroma alone is enough to awaken you from a long spell of bland dining. What hot smoking does to tenderize and enhance fresh, quality fish, meat and cheese elevates them to a new dimension of taste that gives every bite a rich, burnished flavor not easily forgotten.
In recent years, the smoked fish and meat tacos and sandwiches that pour out of “Smoker Jim” Ruddell’s 250-square-foot euphoria factory have become as magnetic an attraction in Cayucos as the beach, surf and sunsets. They are that good – and Jim knows it, and he’s just grateful that things worked out that way.
You see, Jim feels he’s the caretaker of a recipe for happiness he’s glad to share, a recipe that has changed his life and brought the awesomeness of Cajun-smoked shrimp, albacore, salmon, chicken and pork loin – as well as smoked oysters and cheddar cheese on the side – to pilgrims of the palate from near and far.
Jim sells his signature albacore and other smoked specialties by the pound, but it’s his tacos that sell by the ton – the shrimp taco ($6), smoked albacore taco ($5.50), smoked salmon taco ($5.50), smoked chicken taco ($4.50) and smoked pork loin taco ($4.50) are what people wend their way to Ruddell’s for – that and the lure of beach and roar of the waves.
Each taco begins with a full salad of greens, chopped red leaf, sliced tomatoes, shredded carrots, chopped celery and apples inside a hot flour tortilla. When your fish, chicken or pork hits the salad and tortilla – after being smoked southern-style in Jim’s savory blend of gourmet herbs, sugars and spices over alder wood or apple wood – it’s transformed into something boldly unique, a bursting California Cajun taco that doesn’t just stand out in a crowd, it creates a crowd.
Ruddell’s large, robust sandwiches – smoked pork loin ($10), smoked chicken ($10), smoked salmon ($11.50) and “The Ultimate Tuna” with smoked, glazed albacore ($11.50) – are all served on a fresh baked roll with spicy mustard, mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes and fresh salad greens.
Salads and vegan are also in the mix – with smoked albacore or salmon ($12.50), smoked chicken ($11) or a tossed green ($7.50); or veggie taco ($3.50) or veggie sandwich ($7.50). The fish menu is seasonal and based on availability, and sometimes also features ahi and ono.
Wrapped and ready for take-home in the deli case are slabs of smoked salmon ($19.99 lb.), smoked albacore ($18.99 lb.), a whole smoked chicken ($8.50 each), smoked pork loin ($10 lb.), smoked oysters ($2 each/$24 dozen), and smoked cheddar, mild and sharp ($11.50 lb.). You might want to call ahead and place an order.
Ruddell’s is take-out only and offers a few patio tables and chairs for local consumption. However, the beach and ocean are only steps from Jim’s front door, and they’re free. To those who know the true value of things, it’s a rare California experience to be missed at your peril because this one’s got a boomerang attached to it, and you’ll be back. Bottled water and Calypso Natural Lemonade are the regular beverages. Note: If you find a table, sit on your napkins or put them in your pocket or the wind will blow them away and you’ll be running down D Street after them.
“Smoker Jim” Ruddell and the Sweet Smell of Success
As Jim Ruddell sees it, he has one of the best jobs in the world, and what Jim sees up close every day is a sight for sore eyes for everybody else in the world. How many people’s front door opens to the beach and Pacific Ocean, the coastline, open sky and a face full of sun? And because he’s so good at what he does, he knows that this is the way it’s going to be for him as long as he wants, and that’s why he’s one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet on the street in Cayucos.
Jim couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams that he would be as successful as he is at something he loves doing. His life has been a journey to salvation, searching for a better life for his family, struggling to stay afloat, and finally hitting the bright side of the moon. You read about such success stories; you dream, work hard and pray, but don’t think it will happen to you. So Jim Ruddell lives in a constant state of disbelief, stunned and humbled at the same time. Because it’s happened to him.
“When I started here on a day like today, you could have rolled a tumbleweed down that road and not hit anything.”
That’s what Cayucos was like when Jim opened for business in December 2001.
“For those first several years there wasn’t a whole lot of business here. Since then Cayucos has very much become a destination, and there’s so little of the Cayucos kind of experience left to be found that people are really digging it, they’re really gravitating towards it,” he says.
“Up till about three years ago – I meet a lot of people here,” he pauses to add a little weight to his words, “people would come in here and I started hearing, ‘Wow, this is such a cool town. We know real estate’s going up and it’s getting kind of pricey but that’s OK. We really like it here. This a great place. We’d love to come and live here.’
“About three years ago it did this 180 degrees and turned into, ‘This is such a great town, it’s got so much potential.’”
Jim, who has surfed all his life, looks out at the ocean.
“It’s the last beach town on the coast,” he says, explaining the attraction that brings more and more people to the cozy oceanfront community. “When I grew up in Southern California, all the beach towns were like this, every one of them, and a good portion of them had a smokehouse right by the pier, and they would service the fishermen and the hunters. They’ve all been exploited now, and those who recognize that are the people that are saying Cayucos has so much potential.”
New Road Ahead
Jim’s journey up the coast began with major changes in his life and career.
“My wife and I are refugees from Los Angeles,” he says. “My daughter was born on April 27, 1992, and the Rodney King riots started on the 29th.” That was the beginning of the end of the Ruddell family’s life in LA. Jim was running the service department at Sheridan Toyota in Santa Monica at the time. “Because of the curfew I was the only car on the Santa Monica Freeway at 6:30 p.m. going home. I had a two-day-old baby in the hospital, and I went, ‘We’re done, finished.’ It took us a year…”
It helped that he had some idea where his next stop would be. But he also knew it wasn’t going to be easy starting over after years in LA and making it work in a very different economic environment.
“My brother has lived here since the ’70s, and we looked at this area for many years, but you have to have something to do when you come here; you don’t just move here.”
So Jim took the big leap, transitioning for awhile by working for the Toyota dealership in San Luis Obispo. He was involved in building the new Toyota dealership on Los Osos Valley Rd. But the move had its scary realities. The serious downshift in pay from LA to SLO wasn’t working. He had been in the car business a long time, and he was burned out on it before he moved up to the Coast. He knew he had to get out and that it would be risky. And he knew he had a future; it just wasn’t in the car business.
He didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
“My whole family on my father’s side is from the south, Louisiana, we’re Cajun people, so I’ve been around the fire all my life, I’ve been around smoke,” he says. “So when I came up here I looked around. I’d heard about the Santa Maria barbecue. It’s rural, agricultural, and I thought there’s a bunch of people that are barbecuing and smoking up here, doing some really cool stuff. So I started looking around, and by and large it’s very ordinary. There’s absolutely nothing here that’s particularly good.
“I built a smoker in my backyard after work, and I made a deal with a guy up on a ranch up here on 41. He gave me an old barn and I built myself a smokehouse. At that time there were a lot of fish coming into the harbor and it was very affordable, so I started smokin’ fish and selling it out of the back of my truck by the side of the road. I’d pull up and put my signs out — when I wasn’t getting run out by the cops and busted by the health department…”
Stepping into Greatness
Driven by his need to get out of the car grind and build his own business, and guided by his ability to make things happen when he sets his mind to it, Jim took the plunge.
“I started my business in 1996, and I quit working several times because I ran out of money,” he says. “One day I was working at GMC up in Paso, and Kathy called me and said, ‘Honey, how would you like to wake up in Morro Bay every day and drive all the way to Cayucos to sell your smoked fish every day of your life?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ She said, ‘No, no, when you come home tonight. Let’s go for a ride, I want to show you something.” Kathy took him to the corner of D Street and Ocean Front in Cayucos and showed him the location. “This used to be the Taco Temple. This is where they started.’”
Taco Temple needed a dining room. They had outgrown the tiny 250-square-foot space, and so they opened their business a few miles down the highway in North Morro Bay by Spencer’s market and kept the lease on the Cayucos property. Says Jim,”I looked at this and thought, ‘I can do this, I can make that happen.’
“I had no idea what the configuration of it was going to be, only that I was going to sell more fish.”
That 250 square feet, by the way, includes bathroom and storage, and a smoker about the size of an old refrigerator.
“I have a 3,000 square foot business in 250 square feet, and it works,” he says. “And it continues to grow and we continue to accommodate that. What’s really cool about it is we’re below the radar, kind of, we’re off the grid in a way. Like I don’t get visits from famous chefs going, ‘How do you do that out of that little hole in the wall?’ If they knew the kind of groceries I was putting out here… I do a lot of business out of 250 square feet. So I made a deal with Adam and Dawnelle, the people who own the Taco Temple… and voila, here we are.
“I have never put the key in that lock and not wanted to be here,” says Jim about his job. “Is that just wonderful? It’s impossible to put words to it. It’s surreal. And it’s just continues to grow. It has its own energy. There’s these bywords like synergy, but it’s true.”
In 2005 the Food Network’s “BBQ with Bobby Flay” show sent a crew to Ruddell’s and taped an episode. “That thing still has legs,” he says, amazed. “They did this episode and it came out on a Friday before President’s Day weekend of 2005. I was totally unprepared. We were impacted to the point where we could not get the food out the door. The next morning we were just inundated. They ran that show once a month for three years and then they said they would continue to run it once a month for four years, which they did, and when that ran out a new food kitchen channel came along and they co-opted it, and they started showing it.”
That set off a pure-gold chain reaction. Sunset magazine, Coastal Living magazine, even The New York Times, have, with a boost from the internet, sent smoke signals nationwide and worldwide. Ruddell’s is the most looked-at feature in the history of The New York Times Travel Magazine, says Jim. “They did a taco tour of the California Coast, and when they told me The New York Times, I said, ‘New York Times? Who reads The New York Times?’ Boy, do I know about The New York Times now! When people are planning their itineraries they go to The New York Times. It’s a pretty cool deal.”
Now social media has discovered Ruddell’s, and it’s eating up his tacos like the smoked candy they are.
“I wouldn’t know a tweet if it was swimming in my soup,” he says, simply incredulous over it all, his Smoker Jim’s cap pulled down almost over his eyes. “There’s still so much I don’t get.”
Becoming Smoker Jim
What Jim does get very well now is that no matter what happens, no matter what tomorrow brings, he has something that people want. “That’s what makes this thing happen, and the ambiance, the whole thing, I have found that my base time here at the store is highly productive – because I’m Smoker Jim,” he laughs. “This persona kind of happened, this Smoker Jim thing.”
Now he’s recognized in a bookstore at the San Francisco Airport, and walking around Sacramento he’s approached by a guy who goes, ‘Dude! You are the dude, you are the taco dude! My father-in-law loves you!” It happens all the time, says Jim.
“So I’m just riding this thing along, having a ball, and just fascinated by it.”
With the kind of success he’s had it’s natural to think about how far he could parlay the business. But Jim has resisted the temptation to multiply his success by opening up more smokehouses. He knows it could be a real money-maker, “but,” he quickly adds, “that is not what this is for…
“I don’t take credit for any of this,” he says, acknowledging the Man Upstairs. “I’m just participating and I’m kind of a custodian in a way. I don’t own it… He’s the boss, I just run the thing. It’s a gift. I’ve got five complete business plans all ready to go. But when I realized what it is I put all those plans in a drawer.
“I have been effectively saved. My life has been incredible. You know, you read interesting stories. Well, this is mine and it’s real. It’s real and it works every day.”
For all his success, Jim remains modest, down to earth and appreciative. “If I started taking myself too seriously I would have nowhere near as much fun, and probably it wouldn’t work. The whole idea is when people walk in that door they know this thing is what it is – it is what it is, and there isn’t another one of these anywhere and there’s not going to be.”
Right now, business “stays at a level where it’s manageable and I don’t have a bull’s-eye on me.” He has three employees and says, “I’m going to bring a fourth guy on because there’s not enough of me to do what I gotta do…”
To be exact, there’s only one of Jim, and he’s got a routine that would fry any man. “By the time I get here it’s about 20 minutes to 3 [in the a.m.] and I work until about 10, and when I get done smoking and doing some of the stuff I have to do, I prep a little bit for the guys, and they come in at 10 and prep to open at 11 o’clock. So theoretically I am done at about 11 o’clock, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. It’s almost a constant adaption because the business just keeps getting bigger…”
And the reason it keeps getting bigger is staggeringly simple: People talk. Word of mouth. They don’t stop talking about the food.
“It’s incredible smoked food,” says Jim sincerely. “It’s really, really good! I mean, you bite into one of them tacos…”
Some say the secret is in the sweet, pungent smoke of the fruity woods that fuel his electric smoker. “I use primarily alder for the albacore and the salmon. I use the apple wood on my jerky and my shrimp. It’s lighter. It has a little more punch than the alder does to give it a bit more body. We don’t have a lot of it around here. There is some. It’s from the northwest. There are a lot of alder trees up there. Some of the Indians have been using alder to smoke their salmon for probably thousands of years.”
Some say it’s the apples. “The apples are my wife’s deal,” he says. “They’re See Canyon Fujis. I buy a bunch of them and I put them away. That, and what really makes that thing happen is we have a flour tortilla, we put some olive oil on it and put it on the grill. Then we flip it over and put some cumin on it, and then the sauce, which is whole mayonnaise and a little Gulden’s Spicy Mustard. When it all hits that hot oil, the cumin, that’ll send you off in to spasms! It really works.”
Rise of the Taco
“When I opened up,” says Jim, “I thought I’m not going to sell enough fish to pay the bills and make some money so I’ll make some tacos, maybe make some sandwiches. I figured maybe 30% of my business would be out of the kitchen, 70% would be out of the deli case. It’s exactly opposite, 180 degrees off. I sell a lot of fish out of the case but I sell a lot of tacos.”
How many tacos is a lot? “On the 4th of July I sell 1,000 tacos in one day,” he says. “I put up a little tent out here, and we close it off. Nobody can go in. Because there’s 50,000 people in town on the 4th of July. It’s a hoot. It’s Americana at its absolute best.”
Preparations begin early that morning. “The crew comes in a 7 to start making tacos so by 11 o’clock we’ve prepped and we have 400 tacos ready and we just phase them. These things have really good legs. Cal Poly kids during finals will buy a dozen of them, stick them in the refrigerator and eat them for several days. So they hold up.”
Jim has also developed a business providing tacos for local marriages, which, because of its idyllic location, Cayucos is known for.
“A lot of people get married here at the Vet’s Hall and various venues. They call me up and they want 200 tacos for their party, so I make them before work, before we start our day, and everyone of those people have called me back and said ‘you made our wedding.’ Most of them said, ‘I didn’t even get one, I couldn’t even get to them.’ I took 250 tacos a day down to the Sea Glass Festival two weekends ago and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon that taco was as good as at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
Now, the only questions left to debate among smoked fish aficionados involve splitting the hairs of superlatives: Are Jim’s tacos the best in the west? Based on the sheer flavor explosion to the senses, many people believe it’s a fact. And so they keep coming. Every day. Like the waves rolling up on the beach almost up to Jim’s doorstep.
Today, Ruddell’s Smokehouse enjoys one of the highest ratings ever on Yelp, and is featured on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. And one night you’ll be up late channel-cruising and run into that episode of “BBQ with Bobby Flay” from 2005, and you’ll recognize the Smokehouse and recall that taste, of tender, tangy smoked fish, alder wood and apples, and the next day you’ll drive the magnificent Highway 1 to Cayucos, one of the most beautiful highways in the world, and you’ll walk into Jim Ruddell’s smokin’ knothole by the ocean, step up to the counter and say: “One smoked albacore taco for here – and one to go!”
The Embarcadero in Morro Bay has a new restaurant that revolutionizes seafood dining on the Central Coast and adds a smooth, subtle Asian flair to classic dishes. Seafood lovers searching for something different and compelling in Morro Bay need look no further.
George Leage, who brought The Harbor Hut to prominence on the north end of the Embarcadero, and recently turned it over to his son, Tony, could have rested on his laurels. Instead he did the opposite, took a giant leap and opened Off The Hook Seafood Grill & Sushi Bar, the most exciting new restaurant to open on the waterfront since Giovanni DeGarimore flipped on the lights at his colorful, sophisticated Euro wine-and-bistro STAX in 2010.
Off The Hook serves fish & chips, so what makes them different? If it’s the classics you crave, OTH’s fish & chips is a half pound of tempura-battered Pacific Red Snapper fillet with shoestring fries ($12); the Prawns & Chips is six massive tempura-fried prawns with the fries ($14); and the Combination—snapper, scallops and prawns—with fries ($14). OFT serves the biggest, juiciest, crispiest shrimp on the waterfront. And you can’t have a seafood house without crab cakes. OTH offers its homemade panko-crusted Dungeness & Lump crab cakes served over a chipotle soy aioli sauce ($11).
OTH takes the Embarcadero’s fried-only philosophy and lightens and brightens it with a fresh Asian flavor twist that turns classic seafood dishes into mouth-watering original treats. This is where Off The Hook takes off.
Fish entrees include the thick, premium fillets of Pacific Snapper, Pacific Salmon and Alaskan Halibut prepared in a unique-to-the-Embarcadero style one can only call “Off The Hook.” The snapper is pan-seared in a sauce verge with Pomme McAire potato cake, Aubergne caviar and root vegetable battons ($19). The halibut is pan-seared in a rich seafood broth with roasted bok choy, baby corn and shumai dumplings ($24). The house Cioppino is off the hook in quality and selection: crab (fresh), prawns (fat), scallops (large), clams (Manila), black mussel and Pacific Red Snapper in a rich sambal and ginger-infused seafood and vegetable broth ($25). Happen to be in the mood for a nice steak tonight? The New York steak is served charbroiled in a rich unagi sauce ($24), and Filet Mignon of charbroiled medallions and seared diver scallops served on crispy jasmine rice with an Asian sauce.
Off The Hook is something unique on the strip because it is also features a sushi bar manned by top area chefs, Jeff and Nogi. Of course, OTH offers all the classic rolls and sushi with several special fusion rolls designed to grab eyeballs and tastebuds. The Louisiana Love Roll is fried oyster and avocado inside, scallops and tobiko with ponzu outside (8 pcs./$9); the Georgia Peach Roll is tempura shrimp, unagi and cream cheese on the inside with peach, tempura flakes and avocado with eel sauce outside (8 pcs./$10); the Texas Gulf Roll is tempura prawn and asparagus on the inside and Cajun New York steak and spicy mayo outside (8 pcs./$11); the New York New York Roll has gourmet smoked salmon, cream cheese and apples on the inside and sliced onion on the outside (8 pieces/$12); and the Alaskan King Roll is spicy krab, salmon and asparagus on the inside with King Salmon, ikura, avocado and spicy mayo (8 pcs./$12). If spicy tuna roll is your thing, ask for the Spicy Tuna Roll “Giovanni style” with spicy mayo and spring onion (8 pieces/$8). The rolls are affordable, and of course, the chef will make anything you ask for any way you like it, and you can gaze at the bay from the sushi bar while the sushi melts in your mouth.
Make no mistake, Off The Hook has something for everyone. For the lunch crowd there are burgers and sandwiches. For the nibblers and dabblers the appetizers are a great way to sample the great shrimp; for example, the Tempura shrimp with sweet aioli, (3 pcs./$8); BBQ Baby Back Ribs ($10); and panko-fried crab cakes with aioli sauce ($11). The house soups include New England clam chowder, miso and wonton. Desserts as rich and colorful as the sushi find their equal in the chocolate duo of Chocolate Ganache on a sable and a chocolate brownie with a Greek caramel sauce, shochu sabayon and black pepper grilled peach ($8 each).
Diners shouldn’t confuse Off The Hook for a sushi bar restaurant or, for that matter, a Japanese restaurant. In fact it is neither. At heart, OTH is exclusive fine dining, particularly its fresh fish elegantly, smartly prepared in many number of rather tantalizing ways. It offers a wide range of lunch and dinner options with fresh, healthy Asian accents that make OTH anything but your stereotypical sushi or Japanese restaurant. The sushi rolls are reasonably priced while the taste and quality are unexpectedly high. The risk to be different wouldn’t mean much at all if Off The Hook didn’t offer the quality it does.
Off The Hook isn’t the best Asian-American fusion restaurant on the Central just because it’s the only Asian-American fusion restaurant on the coast, rather because the ocean-to-you-fresh seafood is superior, the Thai prawn a shrimp lover’s fulfillment, and because the details that make a great restaurant great are all there. They are found right away in the touch and texture of the batter and fry that define a seafood grill, as well as in the quality ingredients used in the preparation of sauces, broths and marinades. Off The Hook is the best new restaurant to open on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero in 2012.
Off The Hook, 833 Embarcadero, Morro Bay (across from Sun ‘N Buns Bakery). Open for sushi, lunch and dinner Tues. – Thurs. 11:00 am – 9:00 pm; Fri. – Sat. 11:00 am – 10:00 pm and Sunday from 11:00 am – 9:00 pm Telephone: (805) 772-1048. Visit OTH for special deals and daily specials on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/OffTheHookSeafoodGrillSushiBar?ref=stream
Desserts are hard to come by sometimes, especially in Morro Bay and Los Osos. You’re looking for that nice fix, but you don’t know where to go. The ROCK saves you the trouble and finds the best grab-and-go desserts on the San Luis Obispo County coastline.
Crill’s Salt Water Taffy 1247 Embarcadero
This modest family owned and operated business on Morro Bay’s waterfront offers fresh salt water taffy. If you appreciate taffy, you’ll love Crill’s. When you bite into their taffy — which comes in a wide assortment of flavors — you immediately taste its soft, creamy and fluffy texture. Every flavorful morsel of taffy melts into your mouth, and encourages you to savor every moment. Their soft-serve ice cream offers the same richness as their taffy. They offer other items like cotton candy, caramel and candy apples, which are perfect desserts to enjoy during one of Morro Bay’s special events. Their homemade fudge is thick, plentiful, and freshly made. The freshness of their desserts give our taste palate a spontaneous kick of fun for affordable prices.
Crills II 903 Embarcadero
Located just a short walking distance from the original Crill’s, Crills II is a nifty little bakery that offers chocolates, turtles, truffles, cookies and refreshing drinks like espresso and smoothies. But their cinnamon rolls are what they’re known for. Around Crills II, there is a strong, lingering scent of syrupy cinnamon. Once you purchase it with a side of cream cheese frosting — which is a definite must-have — prepare for an extremely satisfying and sometimes overwhelming dessert. The cinnamon roll is noticeably thicker and more chewy than your typical Cinnabon, so it’s best to take your time. It is a meal in itself. Crill’s cinnamon rolls are also an ideal breakfast for locals and tourists who want to enjoy something sweet while looking out to the peaceful bay and its stoical guardian, Morro Rock.
La Parisienne 1140 Front St.
The sign above their business says “Bakery,” but La Parisienne is more than that. It’s the French bakery experience. Once walking inside La Parisienne, you feel like you’re caught between two worlds: dining on the Embarcadero and the finesse of one of Paris’ finest cafes. There is a sense of elegance with their nice selection of pastries, fruit tarts, muffins, danishes and cookies. There’s something for everyone. Chef and Owner Debra Moret offers a very spirited array of buttery, rich-tasting delicious sweets, including the strawberry and raspberry danishes with a thick dollop of cream cheese. Their dessert is best enjoyed when you have it after eating one of their irresistible breakfast sandwiches — there’s more than a dozen kinds to choose from!
The Joycup Co. Baywood Farmers Market every Monday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Cambria Farmers Market Every Friday 2:30-5:30 p.m. (1000 Main Street)
Templeton Farmers Market (September – May only) thejoycupco.com
The Joycup Co. takes the chocolate peanut butter cup and adds a very unique, delicious twist that stands on its own. People who enjoy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups will really love Joycup’s chocolate peanut butter cups with a variety of different sea salts, including espresso, olallieberry/raspberry with a hint of merlot, blueberry/lemon, local raw honey and vanilla bean. The sea salts add to the cup’s richness. All of owner Danna Dykstra-Coy’s chocolate peanut butter cups are made with organic, fair trade and locally grown ingredients. Joycup’s booth is very popular at the Farmers Markets in Los Osos-Baywood Park, Cambria and Templeton. Kids will love these healthy, tasty treats. They are the perfect grab-and-go dessert for the family.
Taco Temple 2680 Main St.
Known for their “California Fusion” Mexican cuisine, Taco Temple has also built a reputation for having some of the most eclectic desserts on the Central Coast, including Dawnelle’s Famous Carrot Cake, which sells out constantly. They offer very tall, thick slices of carrot cake, which is loaded with cinnamon and two layers of addicting cream cheese frosting. The dessert menu changes daily, but you will never be disappointed with the selection they offer. Occasionally, Taco Temple will offer desserts like their warm chocolate bread pudding, mango cheesecake and their tres leche cake. Their overwhelmingly sweet desserts compliment their spicy, but generously portioned food. There is always a waiting line outside of Chef Adam Pollard’s Taco Temple — and for good reason.
Deep in the warm heart of Los Osos, on 2nd Street in Baywood Park, across the street from the scenic back bay, glows the “Open” sign of Good Tides, a gourmet health-food outpost hidden in the misty morn of the estuary.
Formerly a coffee shop located by the entrance to the Back Bay Inn, aptly-named Good Tides was a landmark fueling spot for early-rising bay watchers, strollers and tourists taking in the dawn bayscape with hot coffee, muffins, scones or breakfast. About a year and a half ago, Good Tides moved across the street and elevated its game. The coffee shop morphed into a high quality “organic bistro” featuring a deceptively rich and varied menu of healthy and tasty vegan and non-vegan dishes, establishing itself anew as one of the best small restaurants on the bay.
A tilted sign on the street points the way to Good Tides behind The Sculptured Egg, where patio-only dining begs for nice weather and low wind for maximum comfort; at the same time, the outdoor-dining/take-out orientation helps owner/head chef Alyx Gille keep overhead down and prices reasonable for both locals and visitors.
To the locals, every day is a nice day in Los Osos, rain or shine, so it’s easy to understand why they continue to start their day at Good Tides with coffee, lattes, oven-fresh-no-sugar-added-dairy-free bran muffins made with fresh fruit ($2.40); stuffed croissants ($2.71); crispy-fluffy Irish Scones ($2.60); oatmeal craisin/raisin cookies ($1.80); and vegan/non-gluten treats ($2.50).
It becomes even clearer why Good Tides has found a home by the bay when you discover that breakfast is served all day – and what a fine breakfast it is!
Ringing the breakfast bell with a variety and flavor too rarely found in health-food eateries, the Huevos Rancheros arrives with three large eggs, home-cooked potatoes, black beans, three corn tortillas, accented with guacamole, sour cream and salsa ($7.50). The Tri-Tip Wrap comes with grilled tri-tip, three eggs, black beans, potatoes, red onion and cheese wrapped in a large tortilla ($6.50). The Bacon or Ham & Cheese Breakfast Wrap comes with three eggs and a side of salsa ($5). The Sweet Potato Waffle is light and crispy and served with real maple syrup ($5). The veggie, ham or bacon three-egg Ultimate Scramble is topped with cheese and served with toast, bagel or potatoes ($9). These and other breakfasts are, again, served all day.
Lunch soups, salads and sandwiches are equally dynamic in their originality, execution and wholesomeness. Home-cooked vegan soups ($4.50/add $1 for grilled Italian sausage) and weekend stews ($4.50) are tasty basic hunger-chasers. The BBQ or Roast Garlic Chicken Quesadilla is a large tortilla stuffed with chicken and cheese, and accented with a small side salad and salsa ($6.50). The All the Veg Hummus Sammie is “all the veggies in the shop” on a large roll with home-made hummus ($6.95). The Grilled Eggplant Sandwich is a grilled eggplant steak on a roll flavored with home-made basil oil and served with lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber and cheese ($7.95). The Curry Mahi Mahi Sandwich is served on a roll with cole slaw ($9.25). Also available is a Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich ($8.50) and the Garden Burger with grilled onions and pickled cucumbers ($7.95).
Salad highlights are the Curry Mahi Mahi Salad ($9.95), Chopped Tri-Tip Salad with guacamole and corn tortillas ($10.55), BBQ or Roast Garlic Chicken ($9.25), and Spinach & Feta with candied walnuts and Kalamata olives.
After 5 p.m. creative dinner entrees include organic Vegan Layered Polenta with tomato gravy ($9.50), Broccoli & Bacon Mac & Cheese ($6), Lobster Mac & Cheese ($10), Seared Mahi Mahi with soba noodles and stir-fried veggies ($11.95), and Hearst Ranch Grass Fed Meat Loaf with grass-fed beef, veg and mashed potatoes ($11.95). Also popular is the half organic free-range chicken with veggies and red potatoes ($11.95). Meals are cooked to perfection, presented with pride, and generous in their portions.
Ms. Gille is a talented chef with local roots, a European culinary sensibility, and the ability to make healthy foods taste special. She grills in basil oil and deftly uses herb and spices to their full ability to bring out the flavor in farm-fresh organic veggies, chicken, fish and tri-tip. Though the menu appears modest at first glance, it’s smartly planned to appeal to veggie and non-veggie diners, and satisfy every taste you would expect from a gourmet restaurant. Healthy home-cooked goodness is her specialty, but that doesn’t mean diet-bland or added sugar. Ms. Gille doesn’t make muffins with dairy or add extra sugar. To sweeten, she uses fresh fruit, natural maple syrup, honey and coconut plam.
The personable owner/chef and assistant Emily prepare each meal both for the eye as well as the palate, a clear sign they love what they do. The meals are accented by guacamole, salsa and/or sour cream, enhanced with their own cole slaw and roast garlic dressing “for extra zip,” and they also make their own lemon curd, hummus and basil oil — and pounds of their popular sauerkraut for Saturday’s SLO farmer’s market. When you get down to it, by the time Alyx and Emily finish cooking something they bake or make from scratch with local produce and ingredients – which is how they prepare everything – the result becomes very much their own. That’s home cooking at its best, or as Alyx puts it, “the way your great-great-grandmother made it.”
Keep an eye peeled for daily specials like Wednesday’s Indian food take-away dinner-in-a-box ($6) and Friday’s BBQ tri-tip or salmon dinner. Their tropical ice tea is cloudy, strong and pungent ($2).
Good Tides is the perfect place for folks from Cayucos, Cambria or Atascadero to stop on their way to spend an afternoon at Montana de Oro — and take away a lunch as natural and appealing as the seals playing in the tidal pools and waves crashing on the rocks below.
For the locals it’s always a nice day by the bay in Los Osos, whether the tide is in or out, rain or shine. Visitors in Baywood looking for a friendly haven and natural treasures can do no wrong stumbling onto Good Tides. A beautiful day in Baywood will fill the patio at Good Tides as take-out orders flow from the kitchen.
Good Tides Organic Bistro, 1326 2nd Street, Los Osos 93402. Hours: Monday-Sunday 6 a.m. – 8 p.m., closed Thursday. Tel: (805) 528-6000. Website: http://www.goodtides.com. Delivery and catering available. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.