When I first came to Isla Vista on a visit back in 1986 for a skateboard contest, the choices of eateries were limited, or so it seemed. But everywhere we went, the food was good and we eventually got the hang of the place. It was amazing how many good restaurants could fit in such a small area, but there they were, ready to feed the hungry masses of students and out-of-towners alike.
After moving up here in 1987 I definitely made my choices based on the quality of the food and the price. Many of those eateries are now gone, but some have survived the test of time. The fact remains that I.V. has some of the best grub in the tri-county area.
So here’s a little history question for you Isla Vista natives: Where was Sam’s To Go originally located? The clock is ticking … If you said on Trigo where Hempwise used to be, you win the prize. Yes, Sam’s used to be located there, and next to it was the Kabuki Gardens “spa” with the hot tubs.
My good friend John Chen used to live upstairs from Sam’s and our usual weekend routine was go to International Food Market for some good beer, get a couple of sandwiches at Sam’s, wait for Kabuki to close for the night, put a plank from John’s balcony over the fence and enjoy a good sandwich and beer in the hot tubs. Of course, we’d clean up after ourselves when done so nobody would be the wiser. Across from Sam’s was Serranito’s, a Mexican restaurant with the best shrimp flautas on the planet.
All I can say is that restaurant is sorely missed by yours truly.
Alright, here’s the next question: On the corner of Trigo, what did that shop space use to be before it became The Bagel Cafe? I’ll give you a clue: Hold the anchovies! Yes, it was a pizza joint called Pizza Express.
On the nights that we weren’t trespassing into Kabuki Gardens with beer and sandwiches, Pizza Express was our choice of food. Besides, when you had a bunch of friends that worked there : Well, let’s just say getting pizza deals was no problem. This fact made the square mile known as Isla Vista a four-pizza town: Woodstock’s, Domino’s, Pizza Express, and Pizza Bob’s. The last of those mentioned is what’s now Dublin’s and actually used to have bands play there on certain nights. It closed down and became Time Out Pizza then Noah’s Bagels.
Go to where the Embarcaderos meet and you got Super Cuca’s, but before that it was Cervante’s and one of the first Mexican restaurants I ever ate at upon my first arrival in Isla Vista. It was the “classier” of the Mexican restaurants in this town and the tradition of good food has carried on.
Go around the bend and then there’s Javan’s across from the Embarcadero Hall. What was there before Javan’s? The correct answer is Borsodi’s Coffee House, which was another one of those rocking Isla Vista places with an interesting atmosphere. I even got to see Sonic Youth play there in 1987 for $5. Around the corner, where Little Asia now sits was Potstickers Express, which had the best potstickers in town. It’s drool-inducing just thinking about them!
Embarcadero Hall, aside from being the over-talked about Bank of America that was burned down in the riots - it was not a revolution, it was a riot - would later become The Graduate (booze, booze, booze), then an awesome music venue called The Anaconda and finally the Isla Vista Brewing Company, which then changed its name to the Isla Vista Billiards Club to promote it as a place with more than just beer. They had some pretty good food - standard burgers and fries, but good. Lots of time was spent there with my friends and bandmates and I have to say, the pounds packed on.
As you can see, we’re taking a little stroll around the Embarcadero loop. So going from Embarcadero Hall and what it once was, we go over to the MC Master’s Steak And Hoagie next to the tattoo parlor next to Dublin’s and across from the I.V. Drip ice cream parlor.
So what was there before the short-lived Jerusalem Cafe? I can say with all honesty that it was my eatery of choice for the longest time and when it changed hands I was simply heartbroken. We’re talking about the one and only Blue Dolphin Restaurant, which had pancakes to die for. Many Saturday and Sunday mornings were spent there and my table was always crowded with friends who ate like horses. I think we kept that place afloat.
Turn the corner on Pardall toward campus and you’ll see an empty business behind where Dublin’s sits. It was what was known as Espresso Roma, which was originally located where Starbucks is now, but before the artsy coffee crowd took that spot over that was the infamous McBurley’s, with its Wednesday night dollar burgers and 25-cent beer bash. I can remember the trouble I had getting up on many Thursday mornings after a night there.
Across the street where Eclectic I.V. used to be until a recent shutdown was the other eatery of choice, Moo Shi Express. Our usual ritual after a good, long mountain bike ride was egg rolls and a pitcher of beer on the patio with the occasional order of potstickers on the side.
So have any of you ever wondered why the apartments behind Starbucks are called the “Taco Towers” by longtime locals? That’s because there used to be a Taco Bell where Subway currently is. Look at the architecture of the building front and it is a dead giveaway as to what used to be there.
Across the street from the “Fish Bowl,” as many locals often refer to the eating patio outside Starbucks and Subway, stands the iconic Isla Vista eatery known as Freebirds.
When I moved to the apartment I currently live in on Sueno, my neighbor Robert Parr was one of the founding fathers of Freebirds. Back then Freebirds was located in the shop space behind SOS Liquors where the awesome Pasta 101 got its start. Freebirds is the Isla Vista institution and a standard for many Mexican eateries to follow.
If you head down the block toward Sam’s To Go you’ll see everybody’s favorite coffee fillup station, Java Jones. Remember that the Isla Vista Foot Patrol station was up the street from there toward campus - though, originally, the Foot Patrol station used to be located across the street where Emerald Video is - and this hint should serve as a clue as to what used to be where Java Jones is now. Can you guess what it is? (Come on, I know many of you live by this stereotype.)
What stood on that spot before Java Jones was a Winchell’s Doughnuts and even though I don’t have a badge, one of those custard-filled lard bombs was always a treat after midterms or finals!
Across the street above Silvergreens used to be the other breakfast spot known as The Egghead. I can remember lines going around the upstairs corridor for breakfast. They eventually moved up the street above The Six Pack Shop for a while, but the clientele dropped and they eventually closed. It was a sad day when that happened.
Next to Silvergreens used to be the New York Hero House and the specialty was the Melvin - a true New York hoagie that would give you a real Bronx accent after you ate one of those monsters. Always a good pre-party stop to fill the gut with good, warm food.
Let’s go back around the corner. Where the building housing Giovanni’s is where the Mexican restaurant La Jicora used to be. As an athlete. protein is a necessity and, lately, I’ve taken a fancy to the sushi restaurant Suhiya Express. But what used to be there before?
Well, the history there is quite convoluted. In 1988 it was a Chinese restaurant known as Jenny’s Express and then it became Tacos Acapulco which was also one of the fine Mexican eateries in this little town. Allegedly, somebody got upset that they were “using the T.A.’s name” and that was the end of that. By the way, the tattoo shop next to the sushi place, well, that used to be Spinnaker’s, a beer and wine bar that served fish and chips.
Go across the street and you have Rosarito’s, Dej vu, Naan Stop, and The Cantina. Which of those four restaurants used to be originally a restaurant before the other three? Yes, it was The Cantina and what stood in its place before was Grandma Gurdy’s, makers of the best breakfast egg sandwich in town.
So now we’re back around the corner from where Sam’s To Go used to be. You can say that Isla Vista has seen a lot of food joints come and go, possibly more than most places in the United States. The one thing that has remained consistent is the quality of the food and the ease of getting to any of the places in town. They’re all just a walk from your pad. So grab your significant other or a group of friends and take a walk to downtown Isla Vista. Whatever you choose to eat, it is going to be good and you can’t beat the atmosphere. After all, it’s I.V. and casual attire is a must, in case you’re wondering.