All of Santa Cruz seemed to be converging on the outdoor terrace of Abbott Square last Thursday. What’s going on, we wondered as we headed for the Octagon. By the time we came back to our table with our orders from the brand new, barely open Vamonos Comida Mexicana (brainchild of the cuisinartists who gave us Belly Goat Craft Burgers), it all became clear. We’d accidentally entered one of those only-in-Santa Cruz time warps, a feel-good gathering of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, and before you could say “Blowing in the Wind,” a quartet of gentlemen of a certain age, (ukuleles in hand) started things off. I unwrapped my huge Chile Verde Burrito (the evening special at Vamonos), and surrendered to the retro charm of countless ukuleles, and voices, singing along to vintage folk songs.
Showcasing the handiwork of chef Eduardo Valentin, the shiny new home of authentic Mexican dishes is tucked inside one half (opposite Daisuki Sushi) of the beautiful Octagon, still going through many renovations in its decline from glory. Tourists, sweethearts and diehard old-timers filled the plaza behind MAH—a true multigenerational crowd, people from eight to eighty, all drinking, eating, faces glowing, strumming their ukuleles.
It was a sweet moment, made sweeter by the earthy flavors of expertly prepared pinto beans, rice, tomatillo sauce, sour cream and succulent braised pork that filled my enormous burrito ($9.50). I swilled some of my sweet/tangy electric orange, mandarin flavored Jarritos ($2.50) and munched on an order of tortilla chips ($2.75, with a side of guacamole ($3) while listening to a medley of Kingston Trio hits and wondering whether it was too late for me to take up the four-stringed love child of the guitar.
My companion had a hard time choosing from the short list of chef’s signature tacos ($6.50/each). Barbacoa with barbequed short ribs with smoked tomatillo salsa and black bean puree? Or fried chicken with Vamonos slaw? In the end, he went with his favorite, taco de pescado. I loved the feather-light, very crisp fried cod topped with ranch chipotle dressing, pico de gallo and strands of purple cabbage. The pickled pepper rings on top, also inside my burrito, added nice zest to the creation. The tacos seemed a bit pricey, but the enormous, bargain-priced burrito more than made up for it.
And the ambience outdoors, in the soft summer evening, surrounded by at least a hundred folks singing and playing ukes—priceless. Hard not to love that guy in the leopard-skin hat and jacket, playing his ukulele in the lengthening shadow of the former jail. We look forward to another visit to the new Vamonos. That Barbacoa taco has my name on it. Perhaps paired with a margarita from the Front & Cooper bar inside. Tucked inside the Octagon, at the corner of Front and Cooper Streets in downtown Santa Cruz, Vamonos is open from Tuesday-Saturday, 4-8pm.
My jaw dropped, it actually dropped, when I saw coffee prices jump $3 overnight. I can live without arugula, or craft bread, but not coffee. Specifically, a 10.5 oz. bag of Peet’s French Roast had gone from an already astronomical $11.95 to a whopping $14.95 in only 24 hours at Shopper’s. My hand moved away from that package of coffee beans as though it had gone radioactive. I considered the future. Will tea drinking suddenly soar? After all, I can make an entire pot of tea with just one spoonful of loose black tea. What will happen at our favorite coffee houses? Obviously there’s some field work to be done, but I have a very uneasy feeling about this.