You thought you could make it through an entire trip report series without a post about food? Think again! Especially considering said trip was through California, a hotbed of culinary excellence. Food choices on this road trip would be a little more challenging than normal, though. My mom is vegetarian, so we needed to stick with places where she could eat something. While that’s easy in L.A. or San Francisco, it can be more of a challenge in the one stoplight towns that dot redwood country.
I’ll run this food review running from south to north and then back south again, basically following the path of our road trip. Our food story was literally all over the map, from SoCal chic to the most unasuming of side-of-the-highway diners. Since we’re starting down south, we’ll start off with trendy at…
Cora’s Coffee Shoppe
- Location: Downtown Santa Monica
- Price: $20-30 per person
When those of us aren’t from California think of stereotypical Cali cuisine, it’s likely to be a menu like Cora’s, featuring items like organic grass-fed beef, organic O.J., free-range turkey, and buckwheat pancakes. And, of course, prices to match your exercise in social responsibility, such as $6.50 for that glass of organic orange juice or $18.50 for steak & eggs. Not the type of place I’d usually go, but it was next to our hotel, and we all needed coffee. I kept things simple with a glass of orange juice, a mocha, and a bagel with cream cheese. My wife had some of the fancy orange & blueberry pancakes, and some bacon.
Homemade bagels are almost always awesome, and this was no exception – nicely toasted and crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and the burratta cream cheese was quite rich. But you may notice one oddity – where’s the hole in the middle? I appear to have gotten a deformed bagel, though it clearly didn’t adversely affected the taste. As for the beverages, the $6.50 glass of orange juice was indeed fresh squeezed, but was also noticeably on the sour side, as if the oranges needed another day or so to fully ripen. The mocha was great, though. I’m not a big coffee afficionado, but like a good, strong espresso drink once in a while, and this one was definitely strong enough to wake you up.
Verdict: not bad, though a mocha, bagel, and orange juice was a whopping $16.50. That’s too rich for my tastes, though then again, you don’t come to this part of town for cheap anything.
Moving up the coast on our way out of L.A…
Location: Grover Beach (15 miles south of San Luis Obispo/18 miles north of Santa Maria)
Price: $10-25 for two pizzas, depending on size and toppings
We broke our first leg from L.A. to San Francisco into two pieces to facilitate a drive up Highway 1 the next day, with Pismo Beach our stopping point for the night. We made the decision to push through the entire way rather than stopping for dinner on the way, and given that we didn’t arrive until nearly 8:45, options were rather limited in this small town on a Sunday night. Pizza’s always a safe bet for mom, and so we found Fatte’s about a mile from our hotel. It’s about as “hole in the wall” as you can get, with a menu above the counter, and an old-fashioned arcade game to play with. It reminded me of a pizza parlor back in Tyler, Texas we used to visit when I was a kid.
As for the pizza?
It was good, though something of a tweener between a wafer-thin New York-style pizza and a deep dish. Most importantly, though, the ingredients were clearly fresh, and it was quite tasty right out of the oven. We were starving, so it hit the spot perfectly.
They do have an odd pricing system. All pizzas are “2 for 1”, but how that worked wasn’t exactly clear. The sign says you order one at full price and get another of equal or lesser value free, which to me implies you could order, say, a large and a medium if you wanted to. But the cashier said both have to be the same size. Which isn’t really an issue, but in our case, two mediums would have been too much, but two smalls not enough. That meant some wasted food at the end. Anyway, two pizzas for $16 is a great price, so I really shouldn’t complain.
Verdict: worth the stop if you’re on the road in this area and in the mood for pizza (they also deliver to several of the nearby hotels if you’re feeling especially lazy).
Our next stop won’t get a full write-up, as I wasn’t able to actually get any useable pictures (more on that in a second), but I’d be remiss without mentioning the Big Sur General Store & Deli on the south side of Big Sur. There are no tables or chairs to eat inside, so we wound up taking our food up the road to the Big Sur Ranger Station for an impromptu tailgate picnic. Hence, why I couldn’t get any pictures. But if you’re driving up the PCH, I highly recommned stopping there if you’re in Big Sur around mealtime. I got a ginormous BLT on freshly-baked bread for a whopping $6.25. Perfect spot to pick up a sandwich or two for a picnic if you’re planning a hike in the area.
We took a break from restaurant food while we were in the Bay Area to enjoy my cousin’s delicious home cooking, so our next restaurant stop was up in redwood country.
Calico’s Deli & Pasta
Location: Garberville, on US 101 about 65 miles south of Eureka and 65 miles north of Willits
Price: $10-15 per person
Given the remoteness of the area, and our long, winding drive to Shelter Cove on tap, I did quite a bit of advance research to pick a spot to stop for lunch. The town of Garberville seemed like the safest bet, which as a common pit stop for tourists heading up to the Avenue of the Giants, had quite a few restaurants in its historic downtown. Italian food is always a safe bet for mom, so we decided to try Calico’s.
The menu contains both Italian favorites, along with traditional “bar & grill” food like burgers. I went with a meatball sub.
It was OK. The meatballs were moist and tasty, but the marinara sauce had an unusual flavor that I couldn’t quite place, almost like too many bell peppers ground into the sauce. Hindsight being 20/20, I should have been skeptical, as most restaurants with too busy a menu tend to do lots of things adequately but nothing particularly well. In fairness, mom enjoyed her spaghetti with tomato sauce quite a bit.
Verdict: average food, though it’s served quickly. There’s probably a dozen restaurants in Garberville; I’d try one of the other ones first.
We stopped for the night about 15 miles outside of Eureka, and got there early enough that we could thoroughly look for a dinner stop before leaving our hotel. We hadn’t tried Mexican food on this trip yet, so we decided to seek that out, and fortunately, there was a well-regarded spot in the town we were staying in.
La Costa Mexican Restaurant
Location: Fortuna, about 15 miles south of Eureka
Price: $10-20 per person
In the interest of full disclosure, I am duty bound to mention that as a native Texan, Mexican food is usually either Tex-Mex or bust. If you’re a fan of Tex-Mex, chances are you consider Cali-Mex blasphemy, and vice versa. So take any Texan’s review of Mexican food outside of Texas with a grain of salt.
First good sign – it was about 7:30 P.M. on a Wednesday when we walked in, and the place was jam-packed with locals. We only had to wait about 5 minutes for a table, though.
I ordered a combo plate consisting of a chicken taco, a cheese enchilada, and a bean and cheese burrito. Let’s just say, my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw just how much food this was…
And I also have to say, I liked it, quite a bit. The burrito was probably the most interesting item on the plate. It was lightly grilled, and tasted practically identical to a roti, a wheat bread you typically eat with Indian curries. I can’t say I’ve ever encountered a tortilla that tasted exactly like a roti, but it was really good. The taco was also quite tasty, albeit with a “flash fried” texture I’m not used to seeing, sort of halfway between a hard and soft taco. The enchilada was probably my least favorite item, mainly because of the red sauce. It had an odd flavor that I couldn’t quite place.
I should also note, mom accidentally ordered a dish containing meat without realizing it (really, my bad for not asking, though I was pretty tired). The server replaced it with something else without a fuss, and even didn’t charge us for the dish, something she didn’t have to do given that it was our mistake. That’s a great commitment to keeping their customers happy, even three tourists they’ll probably never see again.
Verdict: great food, great service. Ditch the fast food and stop here instead. Just be prepared for a food coma afterwards.
Our next stop, for lunch the next day, was probably our biggest surprise of the trip, in a good way.
Palm Cafe & Motel
Location: Orick, about 40 miles north of Eureka and 40 miles south of Crescent City.
Price: $10-15 per person
Orick is so small, it’s not even a one stoplight town. Truly a speck on the map that you’ll miss if you blink long enough. However, given its location halfway between Eureka and Crescent City, in the heart of Redwood National Park, there are a couple of restaurants and a motel here, catering mainly to park visitors. From the outside, the Palm Cafe is really divey looking. Your first instinct might be to keep on driving. But you really should stop here.
Inside, the first thing you’ll notice is the eclectic collection of flags hanging from the ceiling.
A bunch of state flags, with – a Swiss flag right in the middle. I asked the waitress/manager/owner what the flags were about. She said visitors like to bring them and hang them up. Guess it’s a kitsch-y tradition that’s built up over time. I’d made a passing mention of the Texas flag, at which point she mentioned she’s a Texas native, from Temple. Small world, and a detail that would become important later. Anyway, I figured burger and fries would be good at a place like this, so I chose that All-American road trip staple, the patty melt.
Though heavy on the grease, the patty melt was indeed delicious, served on proper rye bread with nicely melted Swiss cheese and grilled onions. The fries were good, too, cooked just right to where they maintained their crispness even after sitting for 10 minutes. If you’re wondering about veggie options – the pickins’ are a little slim, but they do have a salad bar (a good one, I might add), and they’ll serve breakfast all day if you ask. But back to the Texas thing. The owner also told us the cafe is famous for her homemade pies, one of which was pecan pie. I figured pecan pie from a fellow Texan would be a good one.
Oh. My. Let’s just say it didn’t disappoint. The homemade caramel, with a purely delightful hint of vanilla, was the proverbial icing on the cake. Luckily we had plenty of hiking planned for the afternoon to work it all off…
Verdict: if you’re visiting Redwood National Park or the Humboldt Lagoons, don’t overlook the Palm Cafe. It’s way better than it looks. At the least, stop in and get a piece of pecan pie.
Our next overnight stay was at the Historic Requa Inn on the Klamath River, an area so remote there aren’t any real dining options in the immediate vicinity. That meant a schlep up to Crescent City for dinner. Our choice for the evening…
Marlo’s Greek and Italian Restaurant
Location: Crescent City
Price: $25-35 per person (dinner)
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a combo Greek and Italian restaurant, but I like both, so this seemed like a win-win.
For dinner, the Greek choices seem to outnumber the Italian ones, so I ordered the moussaka.
This was too much food when you don’t have the option of taking the leftovers with you, but the food itself was good. The layers of spiced ground beef and eggplant made a nice combo. Think of a cross between lasagna and eggplant parmagiana, though with bechamel sauce instead of marinara. Too bad about the uninspired roasted vegetables that came with it. The bechamel sauce, though a good combination with the meat and eggplant, didn’t mesh well with the vegetables. A little spice would have gone a long way.
Verdict: pretty good food, though not awe-inspiring. The main issue is, it’s quite pricey, with main courses approaching $20 each, thus the value proposition is lacking. I might have felt better if we’d been able to munch on the leftovers the next day.
Needing to get to Great Cats World Park in time before they closed, we stuck to fast food for lunch the next day, but had time for a better dinner in the evening. Italian looked like our best bet again…
Strings Italian Cafe
Location: Yreka, the first sizeable town on I-5 heading south from Oregon.
Price: $15-25 per person
Of the various Italian-ish restaurants we visited on this road trip, Strings had the most traditional Italian menu, with an extensive selection of both pastas and main courses like shrimp scampi and chicken parmagiana. I ordered the tortellini alla panna, which was cheese tortellini in an alfredo sauce, with bits of prosciutto mixed in.
The pasta was cooked nicely, and the cheese filing of the tortellini was nice. But overall, I wasn’t a fan of this dish. The prosciutto cubes were rubbery, but my main issue was with the sauce. The consistency of the alfredo was good, but too much sage made it too harsh for my taste. On the other hand, Prita ordered the appetizer portion of the shrimp scampi, which had a delicious garlic-butter combo going on. Also on tap are homemade Italian creme sodas, which was simply delightful.
Verdict: I didn’t like my pasta selection too much, but other items were good. I’d probably return to try something else. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Strings is a Northern California chain based in Sacramento. So if what you see impresses you, you don’t have to drive all the way to Yreka to try it. (Though this part of California is gorgeous, so maybe you want to drive up there anyway…)
Our last full day of vacation was also our longest single drive of the trip. Yreka to San Francisco, which clocks in at about 325 miles. We were kind of ready to just get the drive done so we could rest up before our flight home, so we stuck with fast food for lunch. However, you could say we saved the best for last once we reached SFO…
New England Lobster Market & Eatery
Location: just south of SFO, on Old Bayshore Highway in Burlingame
Price: $25-45 per person
It was Saturday evening, I had just dropped off the rental car, and had a dinner conundrum. Mom was really tired and didn’t want to go out, so that gave Prita and I the night out to ourselves. Prita really wanted to head to Fisherman’s Wharf for seafood, since we hadn’t been able to go to a real seafood place yet. Meanwhile, as the only driver comfortable with navigating the narrow, winding roads along our route, I hadn’t had the opportunity for a good glass of wine or craft beer. It would have been a real bummer to have spent 10 days in California without having some. Fisherman’s Wharf would have fit the bill, but that mean an hour plus schlep on the BART to and fro. And on a gorgeous Saturday evening, likely an hour wait to get a table somewhere.
So imagine my relief when I discovered this place right next to our hotel. As the name implies, the store is primarily a fresh seafood market, but they also have a counter to order food. And since we were next door to our hotel, even if there was an overflow crowd (there wasn’t), we could just get it in a to-go bag and take it back to the room. My wife and I both ordered the same thing – a half lobster roll and a cup of lobster corn chowder, served with chips, buttered toast, and cole slaw, and a bottle of that San Francisco institution, Anchor Steam.
While perhaps slightly less awesome than the lobster roll at The Lobster Shanty in Salem, Massachusetts, it was still pretty darned awesome. Big chunks of fresh, sweet lobster meat, nicely dressed with mayo, salt, and pepper on a buttered roll. The lobster chowder was also impressive, with a thick, hearty base and a good hint of sweetness from both the lobster and the corn. Most importantly, it satisfied my wife’s seafood craving perfectly.
Verdict: if you’re staying close to the airport, this place is a must visit for great food without the hassle of getting to the city. But it’s very pricey. $21.50 for a half lobster roll and soup is a big chunk of change.
Next week, I’ll wrap up my California trip report series with a review of the Westin San Francisco Airport. My first experience with a Starwood hotel in nearly 10 years, believe it or not.
Note: this is part of my trip report series about our trip to California in May. Click here for the trip report index and introductory post.