.Best of Santa Cruz County 2023: EDITOR’S PICKS

Honoring the county's greatest people, places and things


santa cruz county Good Times Best Of
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Best Place to Switch Up Your Coffee Order


Mariposa Coffee Bar feels unique within Santa Cruz. Brightly colored velvet couches and pillows pop out from a dark interior, and the smell of peppers and onions mingles with the sweetness of condensed milk and coffee. Located at Cathcart Street and Pacific Avenue, Mariposa serves Cuban and Vietnamese-inspired coffee alongside vegetarian pastries, spring rolls and Cubanos. Owners Chelsea Cabrera and Tram Vu envision the bar as a social space fit for everything from casual mid-morning conversation to late-night dance parties. You won’t find run-of-the-mill drip coffee on the menu. Instead, the bar focuses on specialized drinks like strong phin coffee steeped with fresh mint over condensed milk and ice and the Bella Bon Bon, a creamy double espresso with whipped sugar and a splash of condensed milk. Other popular items include the guava and cheese puff pastry and a vegetarian Cubano with roast pork-style jackfruit. ERIN MALSBURY

Best Winter Dish


It’s been a long, cold winter. A minor comfort is a hearty, flavorful meal that is served hot. Felton’s Humble Sea Tavern’s chicken mushroom risotto fits this bill. While the citrus-brined chicken and mushroom risotto will work wonders on the soul, the fried Brussels sprouts take the dish to the next level. Pair with one of Humble Sea’s fine brews, and you might think you can survive another few winter months. STUART THORNTON

Best Place to Scout Music Talent


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Let me paint you a picture of the first time I tried to do karaoke at Coasters. It was a Friday night. I walked past the bowling lanes, the shattering sound of bowling balls hitting pins and triumphant cheers fading into the background as I walked into Coasters. Tables faced the stage where a woman belted out Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, her throaty voice hitting every high note, blue and yellow lights illuminating her face. I had never witnessed talented singers perform at a karaoke bar, and I quickly erased my name from the list. Of course, there were the usual off-tune performances, but Coasters is, surprisingly for me, the place to find it if you want free entertainment from talented singers. AIYANA MOYA

Best Sounding Horn


You know you’re in for a wild ride when you hear the unmistakable hoot of the Giant Dipper’s horn. The iconic blast has been dispatching trains on the classic wooden roller coaster for decades and also reminds you that there is no turning back just as you plunge into the darkness. The Giant Dipper received a new coat of shining red and white paint this year as it prepares for its centennial anniversary in 2024. I want this horn to be my phone’s ringtone. ERIK CHALHOUB

Best Addams Family Dive Bar


Do you love things that are creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky? Look no further than Santa Cruz’s favorite goth/gay/metal/disco/punk sports bar, The Blue Lagoon. See the tattooed barkeeps, and stay for the weekly dance, bands, comedy, side shows and special events. If there is a bar in the middle of a black hole, where every molecule of your body is disassembled and reorganized every night, it’s The Blue Lagoon. A notorious “No Hate Zone,” the vibe at The Blue allows everyone (over 21) to be their strangest self. Want to dress like Wednesday and do the “dance”? The Blue Lagoon welcomes your dark, creative spirit. DNA

Best Meal By The Sea


Most meals by the sea are enjoyable, but there’s something about eating warm, fried fish on the cliffside as waves crash on the beach below you that, as the kids say, hits differently. I can eat fried fish most days of the week, rain or shine, but it feels like a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy, rainy winter to stop by the Scrumptious food truck on Saturdays at Seacliff State Park. I claim one of the benches along the cliff, buy the fish and chips and a Guinness and pretend I’m on the Cliffs of Moher. What better way to spend your Saturday afternoon? AIYANA MOYA

Best Natural, Historical Wonder

freemont tree henry cowell state park editors picks


One of the many highlights of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Parks’ Redwood Grove Trail, the Fremont Tree sits at the far end of the loop. Its base is wide, and a little triangle of darkness at ground level reveals that the interior of the tree is hollow. Crawl inside with a flashlight to see the surprisingly roomy interior, where it is said that early California rabble-rouser and famed explorer John C. Fremont spent an evening in 1846. Did Fremont, who garnered the nickname “The Pathfinder” during his life, really sleep in the tree? “It makes a great story,” he later said. “Let it stand.” STUART THORNTON

Best Place to Get a Cannoli—You Can’t Refuse


Have you ever felt like traveling to Italy without leaving Santa Cruz County? The La Placa Family Bakery is nestled in the towering redwoods of Ben Lomond. Every morning, two generations of La Placas make dozens of varieties of pastries and calzones. Specializing in the flavors of Southern Italy, the Sicilian bakers create a daily parade of the most tongue-twisting tantalizing flavors you’ve ever tasted. Once you take that first bite of an authentic cannoli, you are part of the La Placa family. Like Italy, it’s a little tricky to get to. Hwy 9 is closed, so you’ll have to do some tricky navigation, but it’s worth it. DNA

Best Town Tree


You’ll know it when you see it. A huge, gnarled trunk bends at the perfect angle, beckoning you to sit. If you accept the offer and look up, you might get lost tracing dozens of branches that squiggle through the air in all directions, draped with California lace lichen. All the paths at Twin Lakes seem to lead to this old coast live oak. It stands alone near the edge of a meadow, within earshot of the waves and the occasional sea lion. Climbing one of the many twisting branches reveals a view of Schwan Lagoon and a peak at the sea. It’s the kind of tree that can pull you out of the bustle of modern life for a moment. That is until you look down and see all the cigarette butts lining cracks in the bark. ERIN MALSBURY

Best Place Where Strawberries Kill Fascists


Take a short trip back in time, North on Highway One, to Swanton Berry Farm. Time travel is quirky; just a brief moment ago, you could buy a one-dollar cup of coffee, and the register was a box filled with cash that you make your own change out of. Now coffee is a bit more, and payment is more regulated, but the shelves are still stocked with the county’s most delicious pies and jams. Founded in 1983, Swanton Berry was the first farm in California to grow organic strawberries. The business is run with a Union mindset, where workers are as valuable as the product. Swanton Berry Farm became the first organic farm to contract with the United Farm Workers. Strawberry shortcake lovers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your berries. DNA

Best Place to Ponder


It’s a stunning juxtaposition: a square koi pond stocked with colorful fish tucked under a giant redwood in Santa Cruz’s Pogonip Open Space area. How did these fish get here? Who had the inspired idea to transform a spring box into a fishpond? Who feeds these fish? Why don’t local critters eat them? There’s much to consider as you take in this traditional Japanese garden feature in a forest of the world’s largest, tallest trees. To reach this place of contemplation, take the Spring Street Entrance into Pogonip, then follow the Spring Trail for 1.6 miles before heading uphill on the Spring Box Trail. Take a path to the right before its intersection with the Lime Kiln Trail to find this site of wonder. STUART THORNTON

Best Bodega Man 


Walking into Pleasure Point Wine and Spirits initially feels like walking into most liquor stores. Pretty quickly, you realize it’s not: the mere selection of wines, liquors, beers and every mixer ingredient you need is enough to distinguish the store from its competitors. But what sets this store apart is its owner, Felix Blanco. Blanco will quickly remember you, as he does all of his regulars. Nearly every customer who walks in greets him by name, and he returns the favor. Aside from this sense of community Blanco brings to his store, he’s a walking encyclopedia of all things alcohol. He knows which French wine would be best to pair with your seafood dish or what Aperitif will impress your significant other’s parents; he knows which tequila can stand alone and which one to buy for mixed drinks. Next time you need any spirit, stop by and chat with him, it won’t take much prompting and you’ll walk away with more than just a bottle. AIYANA MOYA

Best Comeback Story


I’ve been tempted to write an obituary for Cowell’s in the past. Between gross water and a lack of rideable waves, Santa Cruz’s famous, beginner-friendly surf spot has seemed dead for the last few years. But long-term cleanup efforts from the Cowell’s Working Group got the beach removed from Heal the Bay’s annual “Beach Bummer” list of dirtiest water in California, and this year the waves are back. Winter storms pushed so much sand into the area between the Indicators and Cowell’s stairs that there’s a new beach accessible at low tides. Getting in the water after heavy rains is still a health gamble, but as things dry out, the new sandbar just might revive this classic spot. ERIN MALSBURY

Best Hike to Become a Docent


Down a steep driveway in Felton—east of Ben Lomond—is a low-key set of trails and a working horse ranch that might be the quiet hike you didn’t know you needed. Buffered up against 300 acres is a seasonal wetland, dwarf Redwoods and the tallest Red Willow in California. The historic ranch house, drilled with thousands of Woodpecker holes, used to be the location of Sunset Magazine and now is a menagerie of taxidermied animals. The uplifting talk with a docent will illuminate why we need to see these critters close up. You can become a docent if you love history, nature and star gazing. Note: you cannot bring Fido on the 5 miles of trails that lead up from this idyllic spot. But for a short walk around the property, it’s very mellow. DNA

Best Nostalgic Trip for Millennials


As ’90s kids, my brother and I were glued to our Sega Genesis, playing endless rounds of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and failing just as often to get to the Death Egg Zone. When we were gifted a Nintendo 64 in 1996, it was game over for the Genesis, as Super Mario 64 and, later, Zelda: Ocarina of Time dominated our 18-inch CRTV. Many millennials, such as I, yearn for those simpler days of gaming before DLC and gigabytes of daily updates made turning on a console a chore. Luckily in Santa Cruz, we are graced with fantastic stores that allow us to revisit our childhood pasts. Level Up Video Games downtown constantly updates its inventory, featuring everything from Atari 2600 cartridges to PlayStation 5 downloads. The Capitola Mall is quickly becoming a haven for nerds, thanks to the recently opened Game Vault and its neighbor Hadbro Toys/Retro Attack. My wallet hates me. ERIK CHALHOUB


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