On April 13, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article by Carolyn Jung on the state of the Santa Cruz culinary scene, and her lackluster assertions rubbed me the wrong way. The article, headlined “Santa Cruz Dining Scene Shakes Off Its College Town Image,” leaned heavily on the input of local cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, but didn’t accurately reflect the dining scene or its history, and neglected many of the major players.
Jung began by claiming that in Santa Cruz, “the dining landscape was dominated by the frozen, the fried and far too flabby clam chowders”—a frustratingly narrow vantage point from which to frame the rest of the article. Santa Cruz County boasts a $1.5 billion agriculture industry, and at least one farmers market is available every day of the week during the summer months. Those ingredients aren’t just going into home kitchens; I frequently run into chefs while grabbing my own groceries.
Nguyen credits Kendra Baker and the opening of the Penny Ice Creamery in 2010 for “invigorating the area.” Not to dismiss Baker’s positive influence, but featuring her alone glosses over a long history of restaurants and chefs. India Joze, La Posta, Soif, Oswald, the now-closed Theo’s, Gabriella Cafe, Ristorante Avanti and Lillian’s are just a few of the restaurants that celebrate our local bounty with flair. More recently, the wave of pop-up restaurants represents the type of adventurous risk-taking that is a sign of a thriving culinary scene.
For Nguyen and Jung, “the breadth of dining” in Santa Cruz is showcased through Earth Belly, Mutari, Shun Feng, East End Gastropub, Jaguar and Home. These are indeed some of the area’s best, but it’s an oddly incomplete list at best, and it’s perplexing that after crediting Baker with advancing the scene they fail to include her and business partner Zach Davis’ fine-dining establishment, Assembly.
There’s no mention of Santa Cruz County’s dozens of fine wineries, high-caliber craft breweries or hundreds of excellent local food and beverage artisans. Santa Cruz-based traveling dinner series Outstanding in the Field, for example, was a leader in the farm-to-table movement more than a decade ago, and still is today.
It’s not easy to capture what makes a dining scene special in a single article—I struggle to be able to cover everything here even with this column—and in the end, Jung sold our culinary community short. Misrepresenting what’s available in Santa Cruz to millions of readers throughout the Bay Area benefits no one, and especially not local restaurants that rely on having a slice of our $700 million tourism pie.
Sorry, but your self-righteous indignation is as funny as it is misplaced because if anything, Carolyn Jung was absurdly generous in her take on our abysmal local food scene, which could perhaps best be summed up as doing LESS with an abundance of more available resources than just about any place around. While it’s true that Santa Cruz does boast a robust agricultural sector, it’s NOT a $1.5 billion industry. The total value of all agriculture products produced in Santa Cruz in 2015 was only $625,438,000 and the lion’s share of that revenue is derived from our massive berry EXPORT market. The fact that the industry does contribute closer to $1.5 billion to the economy is both misleading and irrelevant to the message you have attempted to convey, since additional economic output in the form of expenditures by agriculture companies such as the purchase of pesticide/fungicide/rodent fumigants/chemical fertilizers/etc, farm equipment, water and electricity, and employee salaries and such don’t exactly speak the “brilliance” of our local food scene. “Farm to Table” has become one of the most over-used, least original, meaningless and hopelessly banal monikers period. Few of the far too many to name establishments currently boasting of their Farm to Table philosophy actually work with and buy anything directly from a farmer. Most claiming to be FTT get their orders from the same wholesalers that every other establishment does. And at the end of the day, it makes little difference since most of the chefs have little clue what to do with the ingredients once they get them anyway.
Furthermore, the $700 million tourism pie that you cite is a figure placed in a vacuum wholly lacking any sort of meaningful context, because the fact is that if Santa Cruz actually had a decent food scene, decent lodging, an attractive downtown landscape, a scenic riverfront, effective traffic control, etc. the pie would be a hell of a lot larger. For all your outrage over the supposed slights of our “rich food scene” you have so “thoughtfully” expressed, you appear to be entirely oblivious to just how bad, completely lacking in vision, innovation, knowledge, skill, execution and purpose the Santa Cruz food scene actually is. And that’s just the food, don’t even get me started on the dearth of professional service. And this town’s love affair with anything Kendra Baker puts her name on is utterly perplexing because the main thing that Penny Creamery, Assembly and The Picnic Basket all have in common is that they aren’t very good. Penny Creamery has some of the worst ice cream I have ever had. Never mind the fact that it is going for upscale. Assembly’s menu is full of dishes that DON’T sound that great on paper and show up at the table with few surprises in terms of exceeding the expectations of the menu descriptions. The Picnic Basket is slow (go figure with a bunch of stoned teenagers working in back), overpriced and fails to deliver.
Our craft breweries are “high caliber” compared to what? There is nothing unique about having craft breweries in town. Every town has them and many have better ones than we do.
I will concede that we do produce some decent local wine.
Let’s start of off with Jung’s take. Earth Belly offers very ho-hum eats for far more money than it warrants. Shun Feng is passable Chinese food. Mutari has interesting hot chocolate offerings, but seriously, how many of us are drinking overpriced boutique hot chocolate on an even remotely regular basis? East End Gastropub is quite simply just not very good. Home’s menu is clumsy, ill-conceived, and poorly executed. Individually, the vast majority of restaurants in Santa Cruz simply aren’t very good, and taken as a whole, it adds up to an embarrassingly bad food scene – and this is across the board from the simplest to the most upscale attempts. To summarize: not only is there no good sushi anywhere in Santa Cruz, most of it is among the worst I have ever experienced anywhere on earth. There is no good Mediterranean food and some of the most bizarrely bad attempts at producing a basic falafel. In place of good pizza, we have cornered the market on crappy expensive pies. Lillians, while decent, is a very basic homestyle Italian restaurant that can be found in just about any town minus the long waits and limited menu. Theos? I mean seriously, there have been three restaurants in that location since it closed, the latest awful incarnation being Home. We live on the coast, yet it’s hard to find decent seafood. My last couple times ordering oysters at restaurants on the Wharf I received plates of East Coast oysters, which while not bad, are a perplexing choice to serve at restaurant with oyster farms just up the coast from us. You can bet your ass that restaurants in East Coast seaside towns aren’t serving California oysters. There is no good BBQ, There is a dearth of decent vegetarian food. There is no good Indian food. There is no good innovative cuisine. Hardly anywhere that serves decent breakfast food (regardless of the wait). What we have are a ton of edible but not great Mexican food and some really bad, some legitimately good Thai options, and a whole bunch of other stuff that ranges from okay to worse. On the whole, like most things in Santa Cruz, the local food season is simply put, a missed opportunity.
spot on Mike! Its not the best mexican food ive had but the El Palomar has been a raging success for over 30 years.. In the early to late 90’s EP sold more Jose Cuervo gold than any restaurant west of the Mississippi(probably a bad thing), what im getting at is how come when a publication wants a quote about the DT food scene they go to KB? How bout the EP owner Jose ESpinosa who actually owns a bustling DT restaurant?
I agree with Mike’s response way more than I agree with this article. The Glass Jar’s food is highly overrated — I’ve been to Assembly three times and have been disappointed by the mediocrity each time. I won’t go back again. However, I will say that the thing that they get right is they’ve created a great dining atmosphere, which is severely lacking in Santa Cruz. Bantam is one of the few restaurants that has succeeded in creating an excellent dining atmosphere AND has amazing, seasonal food. I’ve tried Home and have found it to be excellent, too (atmosphere and food). I also agree with Mike in that there are no good sushi places or budget pizza (Bantam has the best pizza in my opinion, but a little pricy because of the amazing ingredients, and when you feel like ordering out, where to go?! It’s all cheap, bready, tasteless college pizza.) As much as I like India Joze as a funky local institution with an eclectic and unique menu, I can’t laud the quality of the food — they use basa as the fish in all their dishes!
I think one of the problems of this town’s food scene is that a large majority of the population will go for low price and big portions over quality and imaginativeness over food. When restaurants use high-quality ingredients, it ends up being as expensive if not more expensive than it would be in San Francisco because the cost of real estate and local produce is not cheap. Cheap is what seems to keep restaurants in business here. Is it because the population is mostly made up of people struggling with the high cost of rent or mortgage? That’s my guess.
When I think of all the restaurants I’ve loved when I’ve lived in or visited other cities, there are a few qualities that make them stand out from others:
— Good quality (tasty overall; clearly not canned ingredients) for the price, whether it’s budget or fine dining.
— The menu offerings are unique. I think that’s why places like Palomar are discounted in articles about the SC food scene; their food is great, but the menu is pretty undistinguishable from other Mexican sit-down restaurants. It just happens to be a place that does average Mexican dishes well. Cafe Campesino is a different story – unique takes on traditional dishes. I have not tried Jaguar yet.
— A positive dining atmosphere. This doesn’t mean it has to be upscale; it can also be funky and low-budget but fun.
In my opinion, The Jerk House, Charlie Hong Kong, Bantam, East End Gastropub and Home get all these three things right and are on different areas of the price spectrum. It’s hard for me to come up with a low low budget place that gets these things right.
You forgot to mention Persephone’s on Soquel near State Park… wonderful seasonal specialties, great wine list! I’ve never been disappointed ðŸ˜Š
I appreciate this more than you know.
Why whenever the GT or the other publications have this love affair with Kendra Baker?? Her restaurant Assembly is failing, walk by the place on a weekend night and its half full to empty, there is no way they are paying the bills on that huge building with the mediocre food that is being served.. Check out the palomar on a weekend and the lines are out the door and it has been that way for 30 plus years yet why dont you go to El Palomar or Oswalds or Laili for quotes. All Kendra has is a overpriced small scoops icecream shop, Hell Mission hill creamery is way better, cheaper and bigger portions… I dont get the love affair with her businesses.