Monday, October 10, 2005

Munching Down California Highway One

I've just got back from a week traveling from San Francisco down to Los Angeles on California Highway One, the Pacific Coast Highway.

As usual, a big part of the adventure was trying to find food that I could eat, that was also tasty. On the whole, I succeeded and had some fine fare during the journey.

I won't bore you with the complete details of the journey, but I'll highlight a few of the places that we ate and give you my impressions of the places.

Before starting the journey from San Francisco, we spent a couple of nights in Las Vegas where we met with some friends to celebrate a 40th birthday. As part of the celebrations we all went out for a slap-up meal. Of a party of seven, four were vegetarian so finding a place that catered for veggies was reasonably important and we'd found a Mexican restaurant called Viva Mercado's just off the strip.

Viva Mercado's
6182 W Flamingo Rd, Las Vegas
Tel: 702.871.8826

Viva Mercado's seems to be reasonably vegetarian savvy. When they were contacted about our party having several veggies in it, they told us to make sure that we let them know on the night as their refried beans were usually boiled in chicken stock, and they would make sure that there would be a separate batch that was prepared using vegetable stock. And they did, and there was plenty of it.

Viva Mercado's have a vegetarian section on their menu and I chose the Enchiladas de Verduras - corn tortillas filled with a mix of fresh veggies simmered in a salsa espanola topped with melted cheese, diced onion and sour cream. There was plenty of it (as is the case with most American restaurants) and it was pretty tasty. The other veggies ordered different dishes from the section and pronounced that they were also tasty. I guess the evening will be remembered most, though, for the many different coloured margheritas that we drank - and these were after the bright blue Romulan Ales that we had consumed at the Hilton's Star Trek Experience (the after effects of which are probably best left to your imagination) and a fine time was had by all.

We then spent a day in San Francisco. We ate in Chinatown in the evening at a place called the Empress of China.

Empress of China
838 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
Tel: (415) 434-1345

This restaurant is on the sixth floor of a building in the middle of Chinatown. If you manage to get a table in the right place you get a great view of the bay. We picked several mixed vegetable dishes from the menu and I was expecting them to be roughly the same only with noodles in the chow mein. I'm pleased to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The mixed veg chow mein tasted different to the plain mixed veg - and had a different selection of vegetables. These in turn had a different selection to the vegetable pancake wraps. And the vegetable pancakes with chilli sauce were great.

From San Francisco we made our way down Highway One stopping at the small town of Pescadero for elevenses.

Duarte's Tavern
Duarte's Tavern, 202 Stage Road, Pescadero, CA 94060

Try the pecan pie - it's fabulous! And so, I have it on good authority, is the apricot pie.

For lunch we ended up in Santa Cruz at the Saturn Cafe.

Saturn Cafe
145 Laurel Street, Santa Cruz, CA
Tel: 831-429-8505

We came across this place more by accident than design, although later I found it was in my Happy cow list of veggie restaurants that I had taken with me.

The Saturn Cafe is a totally vegetarian restaurant and the menu is fab. The decor is not quite so - it does nothing to dispel the "weirdo veggie" myth - but, hey, its fun. The same can't be said of the toilets - the less said, the better.

As for the food though - very tasty and plenty of it. The menu consists mostly of salads, pasta and burgers - the burgers are available as either vegetable patties, soy 'meaty' burgers or 'chix' a chicken like burger. I had the Space cowboy burger, which came with onion rings, bar-b-que sauce, cheese, salad, fakin bacon and a choice of skinny or fat fries. There was tons of it - sometimes I wish I could master the 'Scooby Doo' way of eating huge sandwiches, rather than have it all spilling out everywhere - and it was incredibly tasty. The ravioli that someone on a table nearby had looked really good too. Unfortunately I was too full to try the Chocolate Tofu pie, I would've liked to as it sounds most interesting.

In the evening we ended up in Monterey and found a little Thai Restaurant to eat at.

Amarin Thai Cuisine
807 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940-1044
Tel:(831) 373-8811

To be honest, we probably didn't need to eat on this particular evening, given the guzzling that we had been doing all day. But my duty to you, the reader, meant that I felt duty bound to stretch my poor old stomach muscles one more time...

The Amarin Thai had a tofu version of just about everything on the menu. Red curries, green, yellow - whatever colour takes your fancy, nestling at the bottom of the list was a tofu version. I had to try this place out.

I started with a Thom Kah soup which consisted of tofu (of course) and veggies in a lemongrass and coconut milk soup. It was nice, but by the end the, originally fresh, spicy lemongrass and coconut flavour had begun to wear on me and I was glad to finish it. For my main course I chose Pra Ram, which was the inevitable tofu with a spicy peanut sauce. Tasty it was, but boy was there a lot of it. I managed to eat about half of it before I finally gave up. But, as I said - it was really nice, right down the the last mouthful I could manage.

And so the drive continued along highway One to Cambria and a little place called Robin's Restaurant.

Robin's Restaurant
4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, CA 93428
Tel: 805 927 5007

Robin's was, quite simply, the best meal I had during my time in California. Robin's is a lovely little restaurant with a covered 'garden' seating area - I imagine that during warm summer nights the covers come off.

I started with mushroom gratin - mushrooms in a chardonnay sauce, with cheese and fried parmesan bread. For mains I had Robin's Chow, which is a dish of stir fried fresh vegetables with noodles, garlic, ginger, soy and either chicken or tofu. I opted for the tofu. It was yummy. If I had any criticism it is that they used a soft tofu where I think a firmer, marinated or maybe smoked tofu would compliment the dish better. Even so, the tofu had managed to absorb a lot of the flavours and wasn't at all bland.

This was the first meal that I had had in the US where I was able to eat dessert. That's not to say that the portions were small - they were just right. For dessert, I had to have the creme brulee - I give it about 7.5 on my scale. The creme could have been that little smoother, but it tasted fine and was made with real vanilla.

And so the drive took us to Santa Barbara where we dined at Aldo's.

Aldo's Restaurant
1031 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Tel: (805) 963-6687

The service here was very good - the waiter made a special effort to get our order in ahead of a very large party that had arrived just before us and the food was lovely and there was tons of it.

The main courses came with a selection of soup or salad (just as well we hadn't already ordered starters) and I chose sun-dried tomato and basil soup. It was very tasty. For mains I had a smoked cheese stuffed ravioli in a sun-dried tomato and artichoke sauce. It was really tasty, although I did feel that I'd overdosed somewhat on sun-dried tomatoes by the end. And I was stuffed. Uncomfortably full. The veggie selection on the menu here is quite good, and the setting is nice as it lays back a little bit from the main street allowing you to watch the world go by without necessarily being part of it.

The next day we drove to Solvang, a small Danish town about 30 minutes drive from Santa Barbara. If you're into pancakes this is the place to go. May I recommend Paula's Pancake House. I'm not going to write a review of the pancakes except to say that they were big. And very good.

The Solvang Restaurant was featured in the film Sideways and we ended up there for lunch.

Solvang Restaurant
1672 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang, CA, 93463
Tel: (805) 688-4645

We didn't have much to eat here, but I thought it was worth a mention. Originally, my sweet tooth had decided that I would try the aebleskiver, a Danish pancake, but I decided not to after the excesses of the previous day. So I had their sourdough sandwich with eggplant, onion, pepper, mozzarella and pesto. It was very tasty and surprisingly filling.

In the evening we were back in Santa Barbara having toured several wineries during the afternoon. For our evening meal we went to the Natural Cafe.

Natural Cafe
508 State St, Santa Barbara
Tel: (805) 962-9494

The Natural Cafe prides itself on good, natural ingredients and good healthy food. You order and pay at the till and the food is delivered to your table. I'm not sure if its the norm, but our starter and main turned up together, so we had a huge plate of hummus and pitta bread to eat at the same time as the pasta with pesto and feta cheese that I had ordered for mains. Once again, there was plenty of it and I was glad that we had ordered one hummus between the two of us, as there was far too much for one person to eat. Even so, we still left some. The pasta I had was okay, but not as special as I'd hoped, it was all a bit dry but I enjoyed it none the less.

And so my travels in Las Vegas and along the California coast came to an end. I can't really recommend the airport food, although I was pleasantly surprised to see that Burger King do a veggie burger and Subway is always a life saver.

We flew with Virgin Atlantic, and the veggie meals were some of the best I've had. They were certainly miles ahead of the soap-like block of tofu that QANTAS served me once on a journey between Singapore and Australia.

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