Before attending culinary school in San Francisco and then moving to Santa Cruz, Steve Elb cooked on tanker and freighter merchant marine ships. In Santa Cruz, Elb spent several years as head chef at the wharfside Sea Cloud Restaurant before taking it over two decades ago. Although French-trained and influenced, the Olitas Cantina and Grille owner and chef went in a different direction, which he dubs “Cali-Mex”—California’s Tex-Mex.
Olitas’ second-story ocean view pairs perfectly with a menu featuring fusion favorites like the lobster quesadilla loaded with Maine lobster and a bursting-with-flavor sauce made from its shells. The tacos, enchiladas and seasonal farmers market specials are equally good. Olita’s is open every day except Mondays from noon-9pm (opens 4pm on Wednesdays). Elb recently spoke about his love for Mexican food and what it was like cooking on the open seas.
What inspires you about Mexican food?
STEVE ELB: Robust flavors and just the simplicity of the ingredients. It’s peasant food, just like the Italian food I grew up eating. I rarely cook food that I don’t personally enjoy, and I’ve always loved Mexican food. And cooking is cooking; once you understand proper technique, it’s easy to switch gears and get creative. Passion is important too, and Mexican food really excites and inspires me. Whereas with French food, one spends a lot of time manipulating ingredients and the flavors are more subtle, Mexican food is more straight up, and the flavors jump off the plate.
What was it like to cook on a boat?
It’s homestyle cooking for about 30-40 people, breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. I was a young knucklehead in my 20s, enjoying traveling and making money. We called it a “floating jail,” it was all men and no women, and we couldn’t go anywhere. I enjoyed it, though, because it was foot-loose and fancy-free. But it’s tough and rough out there, and I knew that as long as no one complained about my food and threw me overboard, I was doing a good job.
Olitas Cantina and Grille, 49B Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, 831-458-9393; olitassantacruz.com.