This is The Santa Barbara Independent’s third year of presenting the Foodie Awards, yet it’s still hard to wrangle the list of awardees to a manageable level. Once again, we received nearly 75 nominations for people and places that deserve special recognition for epicurean excellence in 2012, and we were only able to cull that down to 10 winners after much strategic slicing and dicing.
The results show that, when it comes to food, Santa Barbara is nothing if not diverse. If you go out and visit our class of 2012, you’ll encounter eyeball tacos, grilled octopus, fine wine under majestic oaks, dry martinis proudly stuck in the 1950s, gelato to make you drool, and much more. And then there’s the winner of this year’s Lifetime “Izzy” Award (named after the first lifetime award winner, Isidoro Gonzalez, owner of La Super-Rica Tacquería): the Hitching Post II — a film star, a mecca for pinot noir, and a place for steaks oak-grilled to pith helmet–wearing perfection.
So read on, get hungry, and go forth and eat.
The Foodie Awards and SOL Food Festival are a kickoff to epicure.sb, the monthlong celebration of food and drink in Santa Barbara held every October. As part of the festivities, some of the Foodie Award winners will be offering deals or hosting events that coincide with their awards, so check the end of each write-up for those details. For all of the October events, see epicuresb.com.
Upping the Antojitos Award: Cielito Restaurant & Taqueria
What Mexican food meant in Santa Barbara changed the day Cielito opened. The La Arcada restaurant introduced us to antojitos — which translates as “small cravings” — and left us craving everything Chef Ramon Velazquez prepared. After years of making sushi at Arigato Sushi, he, not surprisingly, has a way with seafood, and Cielito’s ceviches are both gorgeous and delicious, accompanied with everything from plantain chips to purple potato. With food this spectacular, they didn’t really need to spend all the money refurbishing the space, but it’s got the looks of something very exciting and urban, and then there’s a cocktail program ever eager to experiment and please. Even better, you can go to the taco bar for lunch, too, making this a spot with two different and very worthy faces for the world. Velazquez says he doesn’t feel far removed from his family’s fonda (food stand) in Mexico — if that’s the case, then we’re all lucky to be part of his neighborhood. (1114 State St. in La Arcada 225-4488, cielitorestaurant.com.)
epicure.sb offer: Cielito is extending happy hour to 7 p.m. and will be serving half-price antojitos throughout October.
A Walk in the Woods Award: Santa Barbara Wine Festival
It’s hard to pop a cork without hitting a wine festival on the Central Coast. Then there’s the Santa Barbara Wine Festival, which was Santa Barbara’s first and just celebrated its 25th vintage. Meridith Moore, events manager for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, has only made the event better in the past few years, to the point she actually turns wineries away to provide enough room underneath the oaks along Mission Creek. Of course, everyone from Alma Rosa to Zaca Mesa is there, often with the winemakers themselves pouring and pontificating, but food is no afterthought. Moore tries to place fitting pairings along the trail — that’s Cold Heaven viognier next to Ca’ Dario’s Foodie Award–winning sage-butter ravioli — and she keeps finding wonderful new purveyors, too, from DRY Soda (the cucumber is the perfect tonic sub for your next summery gin drink) to FreezerMonkeys, ice pops for adults with flavors like raspberry Thai chili. (Every June at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; sbnature.org/winefestival.)
epicure.sb offer: The S.B. Museum of Natural History is offering discounted $45 tickets to the Sensational Seafood dinner on October 18. Plus, it will be giving away two tickets to the event via The Santa Barbara Independent’s Facebook page on Friday, September 28.
Mad Men Award: Tee-Off Restaurant & Lounge
There’s a time machine on upper State Street, powered by naugahyde booths, juicy steaks, and massive martinis. That’s the formula that the Tee-Off was working way before retro TV shows like Mad Men made it cool again, and it has kept the restaurant a stable community staple since it opened in 1956. It also doesn’t hurt that most of the servers have been there for more than 15 years. “People appreciate the way things were, and coming here gives you a piece of that but with the same quality of the way things were back then,” explained manager Suellen Clark, who agrees that it never hurts to offer bang for your buck. “Our martinis are like triples here.” Of course, the emergence of Mad Men didn’t hurt either. “Let’s face it,” admitted Clark, “the show has helped us out, too.” (3627 State St.; 687-1616; teeoffsb.com.)
Friendly Faces on State Street Award: Pace food+drink
Comfort can be criminally underrated in the restaurant scene, or perhaps it’s just too hard to achieve. The Snyder family opened Pace on lower State Street in February and instantly won over the town because dining there is like being welcomed into someone’s home. Pace offers a laid-back vibe; ever-changing, craft-oriented beer taps; and food much better than the price suggests. Never say no to the scallops special, and occasionally Chef Jeff Snyder even slices up the freshest for a sashimi dish that will make you think you’re eating them straight off the boat. If you’re a more carnivorous sort, there’s the Papa Burger that will become a glorious mess on your plate by the end, but that’s why God made forks. “Our philosophy is the daily celebration of life, and that’s what we’re all about,” said Snyder. “People stay a little longer than at most restaurants, and that’s okay.” (413 State St.; 845-8388; pacefoodanddrink.com.)
epicure.sb offer: Pace food+drink will be serving the Scallop Carpaccio with Seaweed Salad and Yuzu Dressing throughout October.
Grateful Brunch Award: Scarlett Begonia
You could gain weight just by looking at Scarlett Begonia’s tempting menu: lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry compôte, shrimp and grits with soft-poached eggs, and so on. But a fine breakfast is a worthy indulgence, as those who have been coming to Crista Fooks’s place this past year have deliciously learned. Things are only going to get better at Begonia, too, now that Fooks hired Joel Huff, who has worked with José Andrés, and at Beverly Hill’s Saam at The Bazaar and Azul in Miami. “I could go on and on about this guy; he is so creative and talented, and his résumé is utterly inspiring, and right now he is cooking breakfast for me, wow,” gushed Fooks. “Of course, I have no intention of using Joel just for breakfast, and we plan to go into dinner service in the next month or so.” Check Begonia’s pop-up dinners for epicure.sb as a place to begin to get a hint of the grand food on the way; there are even rumors that Huff’s culinary compadre Michael Voltaggio might do a guest chef spot someday. Now that would really be putting Santa Barbara on the foodie map. (11 W. Victoria St., #10; 770-2143; scarlettbegonia.net.)
epicure.sb offer: Every Friday in October, Scarlett Begonia is hosting tail-to-snout dinners that feature dishes made from whole animals for $95, including wine.
Steady Service Award: Zacc Young @ the Brewhouse
Okay, so he got fired for a year, but Zacc Young has been one of the steadiest serving faces in Santa Barbara, having worked as a waiter, bartender, and manager at The Brewhouse for 15 years. Why has he stuck around so long? “They’re really good people to work for,” said Young, who is originally from Massachusetts. “They’re kind of my West Coast family.” Customers he describes as “super-cool” only make his job more enjoyable. “I just like leading people through a meal,” said Young. “I know what beers they want and what direction they want to go. People trust me, and that’s even better.” (229 W. Montecito St.; 884-4664; brewhousesb.com.)
epicure.sb offer: Zacc Young and his colleagues will be serving stein-loads of beer, polka, pretzels, and more at The Brewhouse when the Oktoberfest party returns October 5 and 6.
Frozen to Perfection Award: Here’s the Scoop
In the words of one of our Foodie nominators about this Montecito frozen-treat parlor: “This is pinch-me-I-feel-like-I’m-in-Italy, oh-so-authentic gelato. Bob and Ellie Patterson put their heart and soul into their business. They make every kid who walks in feel incredible. And did you know they have even created a special gelato flavor for dogs?” And they get those flavors often with locally grown organic Farmers’ Market fruit. “Most customers that visit us for the first time haven’t tasted freshly made sorbetto, and they always comment on how ‘It tastes just like the real fruit. How do you do that?’” explained Ellie. “The answer is simple, ‘We use real fruit.’” It’s not just fruit, though, for they serve traditional flavors like stracciatella, pistachio, and hazelnut, and then there are monthly specials. “In October, we will be making a maple syrup with bacon,” divulged Ellie, adding that there’ll also be a pumpkin flavor for October and November. “We use red kabocha squash, a Japanese pumpkin from Finley Farms, which we first roast and then add the traditional spices.” (1187 Coast Village Rd., Montecito; 969-7020; scoopsb.com.)
epicure.sb offer: Here’s the Scoop will serve maple-syrup-with-bacon ice cream all month, and on October 4, mention the “Foodies Special” to get 50 percent off scoops of strawberry/chocolate chip sorbet.
All the Meat Fit to Eat Award: Lilly’s Taqueria
If it weren’t for the tacos coming out of Lilly’s, Santa Barbara would never know that eyeballs, cheek, tongue, and brain go so well with a warm tortilla. Of course, just the regular pork and beef taste mighty fine, as well, but it is the more bizarre body parts that keep the crowds lining up at the bottom of Chapala Street. “We have all different types of meat that you don’t find anywhere else,” said proud owner José Sepulveda, who opened Lilly’s in 2005 and started serving authentic tacos at a very affordable price, quickly making the pages of Maxim magazine and the New York Times. It may be the simplest menu in town, but the exotic equation keeps attracting serious food lovers and thrill-seekers alike, all intent on eating a taco to remember. (310 Chapala St.; 966-9180; lillystacos.com.)
epicure.sb offer: On October 29, Lilly’s will serve tacos filled with cabeza — which include all the meat on the skull, including lips and cheeks — for $1 each.
Worth the Drive Award: Bell Street Farm
Two years after its neighbor Full of Life Flatbread won the first Worth the Drive Award, we brought the designation back to honor the new hot eatery in Los Alamos: Bell Street Farm, the ultra-tasty, super-fresh, and appropriately hip restaurant/market/community hub opened by Jamie Gluck in 2011. From the rotisserie pork to olive bread tartine to tamarind chicken salad, Bell Street bangs out the best and has every North County foodie and winemaker abuzz. “We’re trying hard to take the freshest food possible with the highest quality ingredients and mess with them as little as possible,” said Gluck, who also believes the happiness and excitement of his “above-and-beyond” staff impresses customers. “We have taken French food and disguised it as American and are serving it with a smile.” Plus, people love the sensation of finding the establishment amid the quirky one-street town and then sharing their secret with friends. Said Gluck, “It gives everyone an opportunity to feel like they are discovering it.” (406 Bell St., Los Alamos; 344-4609; bellstreetfarm.com.)
epicure.sb offer: Bell Street Farm is offering one small olive plate for every wine order in October.
Lifetime “Izzy” Award: The Hitching Post II
Frank Ostini will don his pith helmet and boldly go where no barbecuer has gone before, sprinkling Magic Dust (HP’s signature sensational salt-and-spice mix) and adjusting the grill over the red oak so your steak or baby-back ribs or duck (cold-smoked first) or freshest of fish will leave you sated in a way only something artfully charred can. The Hitching Post has been at it for 26 years now, and while they might even sous vide that steak first sometimes, people still come here for quality, quantity (soup, salad, shrimp cocktail, garlic bread, veggie tray!), the best French fries in the county, and a down-home feel far removed from “big city” Santa Barbara. Sideways is now an eight-year-ago blip that did nothing to make the place hip, and thank god. That god might be Bacchus, of course, as Ostini and his partner Gray Hartley are still making some of the best pinot noir in the region, with their Highliner blend from some of the most acclaimed vineyards a consistent standout. (406 E. Highway 246, Buellton; 688-0676; hitchingpost2.com.)
Foodie Awards 2012 Presentation at SOL Food Festival
The Santa Barbara Independent’s 2012 Foodie Awards will be presented to the winners at the SOL Food Festival on Saturday, September 29, 12:45 p.m., in Plaza de Vera Cruz in downtown Santa Barbara. Presenting the awards will be food editor George Yatchisin and The Restaurant Guy John Dickson. See solfoodfestival.com.