It’s melting toward midnight on a recent Friday at Red Room Cocktail Lounge when the barkeep with the hoop earrings yells out a challenge: “Sing along with this song or we’re shutting this sucker down.”
Fortunately the song in question belongs to one Whitney Houston. Moments later a couple of dozen strangers are shout-singing, “So when the night falls / My lonely heart calls / Oh, I wanna dance with somebody!”
The Red Room was not a planned part of this after-hours action, but it’s not a bad place to end up. And while it might not seem to qualify as an eatery, that’s where the surprises begin.
Surprise #1: The Red Room serves food (!). OK, the one-item menu—on my latest visit the item being a turkey-harvarti-pesto panini made in the adjoining kitchen—isn’t extensive, but it’s not nothing.
Surprise #2: A tall, bearded man by the door is carrying a hot bag like you’d see with an Uber Eats driver, only built for walking around. Turns out it’s loaded with stromboli and other handmade Italian treats he makes at his food trailer and then hand delivers.
“It’s a gray area,” he says. “Street vendors and food trucks are deprioritized by [local lawmakers] in favor of McDonald’s and Jack in the Box.”
He did add this: “Check out the people by the Catalyst.”
Cue the next surprise: The options there include not one but two good-vibe family operations with well-above-average food—staying open as late as 2am on the regular. Hallelujah.
El Buen Taco has been dropping anchor in the Catalyst parking lot for five months. Friendly owner-operator Jerry Velasco, a Scotts Valley High School alum and father of four, slings quesadillas, street tacos and a best-selling surf-and-turf burrito with carne asada and shrimp. I tried the other top seller, the Baja fish taco, and it proved spot on.
They’re there 6-11pm Tuesday-Thursday, until 2am Friday (and also hold it down in the Costco parking lot daily 9am-5pm).
Velasco learned to cook in the home kitchen with his mom, to wash dishes in a restaurant kitchen with his dad and knows why he remains in the game.
“I love making people’s day,” he says. “It’s a good feeling that keeps me motivated to do what I do.”
The other truck is Evil Wings, which dishes a prodigious amount of munchie-friendly fare: wings a la mango habanero, Buffalo, Asian chili, lemon pepper and beyond, burgers (Impossible included), Philly cheesesteaks, specials like quesabirria, crazy fries and onion rings, hard shell tacos, choco churros and zanier desserts and the Diablo Challenge, a dare to take down four muy picante wings in two minutes to earn six free wings, any flavor.
The operation is all Irene Lopez, her mom Irma Tapia, and her boyfriend Gerardo Rojo, a career restaurant chef — and each has a “regular job” to boot. (Irene is a nurse.)
On top of that, Lopez and her mom sell breakfast sandwiches, wings, burritos, tacos, tortas, fries, and nachos at Kitchen 831 (2890 Soquel Ave.) 6:30am-3pm weekdays.
Lopez loves the combo of character-rich guests and the chance to help the unhoused.
“You get a lot of different clients,” she says. “And we give the homeless food—we never throw anything away.”
I love that this up-and-down late night mission ends on a high note.
A buffet of nourishing nuggets:
1) Santa Cruz Restaurant Week cometh Oct. 18-25 with bargain three-course set menus;
2) Santa Cruz’s own Pescavore tuna jerky—perhaps the perfect protein snack—is now on the shelves at Wal-Mart;
3) The Pizza Series has a new logo from Jim Phillips of Santa Cruz Skateboards fame and a grand opening target of early November, mbcrfg.org;
4) Wilder Ranch State Park hosts an heirloom apple tasting Oct. 14—70 varieties, $5. Tasty.