Thursday, February 7, 2013
By the time this Weekly is in your hands I will be long gone, having exchanged Big Sur for the Big Apple, West Coast taquerías for East Coast pizzerias, the beaten Pontiac and Highway 1 for a fistful of quarters and a MetroCard. As I began to make my peace with Monterey County, I finalized a list of places and things that had to be revisited. My few days of edible hasta luegos went something like this:
With my apartment reduced to boxes, the cupboards bare, my morning starts with pastry and coffee from Pavel’s Bäckerei (643-2636) in Pacific Grove, which, for my dollar, is the best bakery nobody seems to have heard of, where the spotless display case is filled with sugar-glistening sweets and a small-but-solid set of savories. I’ve eaten at Pavel’s enough to know that everything baked there is delicious, but the chocolate croissants ($3) are its claim to fame. Every houseguest I’ve ever taken for said croissant has demanded to be taken back before leaving town to get another one (or more) for the road.
Later, a quick happy hour at Hula’s Island Grill (655-4852), where strong $5 drinks and discounted small bites like shrimp rolls, jalepeño bacon mac and cheese and abalone style calamari ($6-$7, Tuesday-Saturday 2pm-6pm; Sunday and Monday 4pm-6pm) provide a good buzz and enough food to hold me over for dinner at Cannery Row Brewing Company (643-2722), where there happened to be a brewer’s dinner featuring San Diego’s Lost Abbey brewery. My beer-loving neighbor and I drink our way through five courses of Chef Mark Ayer’s pairings with the Abbey ales, all of which went remarkably well. And for the record, the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten came from CRBC as well. Ayer’s Cowboy Burger ($14.75) is a succulent and savory blending of house-ground beefs, Tilamook cheddar, bacon, barbecue sauce and an onion ring, a relatively common combination of toppings that he’s amplified to damn near life-changing levels.
My neighbor came through again by procuring for me a forearm-sized Papa Chevo’s (372-7298) supreme burrito ($5.59) – loaded with carne asada, guacamole, beans and rice – that reheated well for breakfast the next day. The Mexican theme continued in Pacific Grove with lunch at Michael’s Grill & Taqueria (647-8654), with a Victoria beer ($3.50 for a brew I don’t plan on finding anywhere east of Arizona) and taco salad with expertly seasoned grilled shrimp ($12).
One last drive down Highway 1 to Big Sur to watch the sun sink into the Pacific while waves break explosively on the rocks and gray whales blow plumes of water in the blue distance, oblivious to me and my goodbyes. This last series of meals was mostly final stops at my favorite places, but on the drive home I visited a restaurant on my list of “always-been-meaning-to-try” places: Allegro Gourmet Pizzeria (626-5454) in The Barnyard Shopping Center. There the high quality of the ingredients, $5 local wine flights, crispy-good thin crust pizza – like the simple veggie and cheese, $17.29/12-inch, or inventive chicken Thai pie with spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and sweet chili sauce, $21.49 – plus Moretti beer on draught ($6.99) made a great first and last impression.
In-N-Out (786-1000) is a point of pride for many Californians, and while I’m not native to these lands, I can respect a custom, especially one that involves a not-so-secret “secret” menu that allows me to use the term “animal-style” with seriousness. One animal-style cheeseburger and another with grilled onions gave a much needed energy boost after hauling 250 pounds of boxes into the Salinas Amtrak station to be shipped cross-country.
My final night in town fell on a Tuesday and – after checking in to Casa Munras Hotel & Spa hours before a 3:45am airport shuttle – I was off on one last stroll down Alvarado Street, where the Tuesday farmers market was in full swing.
I hoped to score a Ricky Ricardo from the most-excellent Babaloo Cuban Food Truck (262-4150), but its usual spot sat vacant.
A welcome sight was the stall from Restaurant 1833 (643-1833), which sold both varieties of their artisan biscuits and spread for an agreeable $2 each. Buttery, earthy, beautiful.
I also embrace my last California taco – a few quick bites of blissfully spicy chicken on a corn tortilla with a bit of finely diced onion and chopped cilantro ($2), a simple delight made possible by the folks manning the Lopez Taqueria (655-3222) booth.
The bar at Montrio Bistro (648-8880) is usually crowded and this night was no exception as star barkeep Anthony Vitacca makes drinks with violent artistry, hurling the carcasses of pressed limes into the wastebin behind him without looking – and shaking and stirring and muddling with equal vigor. I feel a little guilty ordering an involved drink like hot buttered rum ($10.50) when the one-man bar is so busy, but I want one last taste of one of my favorite drinks in town.
Back at the hotel, I sit for the last last supper at Estéban (375-0176), where Chef Tom Snyder and his right-hand man Wayne Weeks do bold things in the restaurant’s two kitchens, my favorite of which is a bacon-wrapped, blue cheese-stuffed medjool date ($2).
We all have our favorite spots – the trusty cafes, the go-to restaurants, and the places reserved for occasions to make a special day that much tastier. I have eaten my way through this land and now I’ve made peace with my gems. Monterey County is no easy place to leave. But if you’re like me and one day you must go, I hope favorite spots help provide you some peace. And a satisfied stomach.