In 2010, as our region’s culinary culture started shining brighter than ever before, The Santa Barbara Independent presented the inaugural Foodie Awards to celebrate the restaurants, chefs, servers, and others on the cutting edge of this epicurean explosion. In this week’s issue—and at a casual, open-to-the-public ceremony at the Wine Cask on Monday, September 29, at 5:30 p.m.—we present our Fifth Annual Foodie Awards to one dozen of these leaders. It also kicks off epicure.sb, the series of restaurant specials and food-focused events running through October. So please enjoy, and remember to tip your waiters!
Behind-the-Scenes Baker Award: Ethnic Breads
Recipes for cooking success don’t usually start with escaping a war zone, but that was the first step on Peter Zadeh’s journey to building his Ethnic Breads brand into the largest wholesale bakery in the tri counties.
In 1980, Zadeh sneaked out of native Iran as it waged war against Iraq. Upon making it to Toronto, Canada, he learned the bakery business from his uncle and then headed south to the San Fernando Valley, where he started baking flatbreads inspired by his Persian heritage. A personal delivery to Lazy Acres in 1990 opened his eyes to life outside of Los Angeles traffic. “The first day I delivered bread to Santa Barbara, I fell in love,” said Zadeh, who realized that the bustling tourism scene provided “a good market for gourmet fancy bread.”
So he founded Future Fine Foods on lower Anacapa Street (predating the Funk Zone food boom by a couple of decades), expanded his bread offerings, and made his first delivery of the new product to Joe’s Café in a brown paper bag. He eventually bought out the Ethnic Breads brand (as well as more recipes and clients) from Sheldon Kaganoff, a Jewish man originally from New York who still works with the Muslim Zadeh, as well as the Santa Barbara Bagel Company. For 18 years, they baked around the clock on De la Vina Street between Jedlicka’s Saddlery and the credit union on the corner of Alamar Street, sometimes having to fend off drunks who’d wander out of the now-defunct Art’s Bar in search of the bready aromas.
Today, with more than 120 restaurant and hotel accounts — including retail sales from the shelves of regional Whole Foods and Vons — Zadeh estimates he does 85 percent of the commercial baking in town, with about 30 different types of products available, from the rye bread slices on deli sandwiches to dinner rolls at white-tablecloth restaurants to multiple flavors of flatbread sold at specialty food stores. In the past year, he designed a brand-new bakery in a warehouse on Aero Camino near the airport in Goleta and moved out of the De la Vina Street location about eight months ago. This month, Ethnic Breads started selling direct to consumer for the first time out of the new spot, though Zadeh doesn’t want to become a full-blown café, à la Our Daily Bread and D’Angelo’s (the two other smaller wholesalers in town).
“My passion is the wholesale operation,” said Zadeh, who modifies recipes to translate Old World traditions into New World lifestyles (which often don’t involve eating bread the day it’s bought) without the use of preservatives. “I’ve been baking for 30 years now, but there’s still so much I don’t know,” said Zadeh, who slows down fermentation to extract more flavors. “Every day, my job is to improve my recipes and take my bakery to the next level.”
He also treats people with kindness, whether you’re one of his 18 employees or a random member of the community, such as the older woman who once called asking for challah bread to serve during a Jewish holiday. Zadeh didn’t make challah at that time but knew the recipe, so he whipped up a couple of loaves and gave them to her for free. A while later, a well-known restaurant owner called to set up an account, all because Zadeh had treated his grandmother so warmly that holiday.
Despite building an impressive empire, Zadeh looks at his success with humility and humor. One time, at a fancy food show, someone asked him what was so “ethnic” about his brand. “I’m a Muslim from Iran, my partner is a Jew from Brooklyn, my kitchen staff is all from Mexico, and we make the best Italian bread around,” Zadeh responded with a chuckle. “How’s that for ethnic?” (137 Aero Camino, Goleta; 569-9244; ethnicbreads.com)
“The Izzy” Lifetime Achievement Award: Rose Café
There is no traditional Mexican diner experience more authentic than Rose Café on Haley Street, where the Guevara family has reigned over enchiladas, refried beans, and chile relleno ever since then-dishwasher Agnes Guevara (now 97 years old) took over in the late 1940s. The dynasty was expanded to the Mesa in 1980 by Guevara’s son Manuel Barajas and grandkids Lalo and David, and both locations continue attracting crowds in search of warmth and tortillas. “We’ve seen at least three generations come in and watched their kids grow up and take their kids,” said Agnes’s daughter Anna Guevara, who’s been running the one on Haley Street since the mid-1970s. “I love the customers. They’re all so nice, and they feel like they’re home. It’s such a laid-back place.” (Downtown: 424 E. Haley St., 966-3773; Mesa: 1816 Cliff Dr., 965-5513; rosecafe2.com)
Gutsy Game Changer Award: Santa Barbara Public Market
We usually wait for new establishments to be open at least one year before considering them for a Foodie Award, but that changed when 16 different purveyors of gourmet food and drink opened in April under the same roof at the Santa Barbara Public Market. “The community is really embracing us, but people are still learning how to use the market because it’s such a new concept,” said Marge Cafarelli, who developed this most ambitious food-minded move in city history and is happy to see people using grocery carts to pick up raviolis from The Pasta Shoppe, baked goods from Crazy Good Bread Company, fish from Santa Monica Seafood, and so forth. Six months in, her tenants — whom she meets with monthly — are altering their business plans to accommodate what people want, and she believes it will take at least a year for everything to “settle in.” To ensure that the market wouldn’t become just a food court, Cafarelli started three of the inside businesses herself: Wine + Beer (bar and alcohol retail), Foragers Pantry (grocery items), and Culture Counter (cheese and charcuterie). “Not only have we built this big project; we’re also invested in operating businesses, as well,” she said, admitting, “I would definitely qualify as the crazy foodie this year!” (38 W. Victoria St., 770-7702; sbpublicmarket.com)
Line Around the Corner Award: Cajun Kitchen
In 1984, a prep cook named Richard Jimenez bought a small restaurant on De la Vina Street. With barely any restaurant experience and no Southern heritage to speak of, Jimenez steadily spent the ensuing 30 years developing the Cajun Kitchen into Santa Barbara’s go-to diner, now with five locations. “It was just an opportunity that my dad stumbled upon, and it’s been awesome,” explained his son Juan Jimenez, who, along with his brother, Richard Jr., began giving the brand a bit of a “facelift” three years ago. His mom does the books, and 58-year-old dad “still makes the rounds,” said Juan, adding, “I don’t think he’ll ever fully retire.” He credits that dedication to the customers and the employees as the keys to their success. “That’s what I hear from everybody: This place is always just consistently good,” said Juan. “That was because of my dad going to work every day for however many hours was required.” (Original: 1924 De la Vina St., 687-2062; Downtown: 901 Chapala St., 965-1004; Goleta: 6831 Hollister Ave., 571-1517; Carpinteria: 865 Linden Ave., 684-6010; Ventura: 301 E. Main St., 643-7701; cajunkitchencafe.com)
The Upbeat Beans Service Award: Beth Flett @ Good Cup on the Mesa
Defusing customers’ pre-caffeine meanies with one of the most disarming smiles in Santa Barbara, Beth Flett has been serving up delicious espresso drinks in the same spot for so long that it had a different name (Mesa Coffee) when she started 13 years ago. She’s managed Good Cup for a decade and can train two newbies during a mid-morning rush without a flicker of impatience while keeping people waiting calmly due to sheer kindliness. “Along with being a lover of all things coffee, I have always been a morning person and really enjoy that I get to be a part of how people start their day,” says Flett. “We have the most amazing clientele at Good Cup, some of whom I have known for over a decade and who have gone from customers to lifelong friends. Old and new, our customers really make the place what it is. I love them!” (1819 Cliff Dr., 963-8699)
We All Scream for Ice Cream Award: McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream
While there may be no such thing as bad ice cream, some of the world’s most amazing is being made right here in Santa Barbara and has been for more than 60 years. “The responsibility we feel in carrying forward the legacy of this local, heritage brand provides for serious motivation,” explains McConnell’s co-owner Michael Palmer, who purchased the business from longtime owner Jack McCoy in 2011. It’s still headquartered in one of town’s original dairies off Milpas and uses only the finest milk and cream to make small batches with organic ingredients. “We’ll always offer a selection of the McC’s classics while we introduce seasonal flavors and limited-edition flavors throughout the year,” promises Palmer. That means Eureka lemon and marionberry as a brilliant burst of summer and some beer flavors on the horizon. There are two places to taste for yourself: the bustling flagship store on State Street or the longtime outpost on Mission Street, which is owned by a franchisee and also serves frozen yogurt. (Flagship: 728 State St., 324-4402, mcconnells.com; Franchise: 201 W. Mission St., 569-2323, mcconnellsonmission.com)
Funk Zone Epicenter Award: The Lark
The Funk Zone’s search for a center of gravity ended the August 2013 day that Sherry Villanueva and her hand-picked team opened The Lark on Anacapa Street. The expertly envisioned restaurant, which serves gourmet-minded food, family-style, in a sophisticated yet calmly casual setting, gave the emergent foodie ’hood the perfect place to chow down, and the seats have been packed ever since with diners of all ages and interests. “We’re still overwhelmed at the response, and it’s very humbling,” said Villanueva, who left a corporate marking gig to open her first eatery and develop the surrounding properties, which also include Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, the Lucky Penny Bistro, and more. “People were craving a creative dining experience with high-quality service in a fun place. We’re just now catching our breath.” Everyone else can keep trying to get a reservation. (131 Anacapa St., 284-0370; thelarksb.com)
Haute Hipster Award: Sama Sama
You’re supposed to share plates at Sama Sama, which opened in March 2013, but try getting the gado gado market salad away from a delighted vegetarian, and you might have a fight on your hands. It’s that kind of spot, where each lovely dish presents flavors Santa Barbara didn’t seem to know before Sama Sama’s delicious take on Indonesian food — long may the place goreng (nasi goreng is the fried rice, mie goreng the fried noodles). Then there’s a top-flight cocktail program, too, tilted to match the Asian-spiced menu; talk about your unique sweet-sour with an Androgynous Fizz of hibiscus-infused bourbon, lemon, ginger simple syrup, egg whites, and cardamom bitters. There’s a vibe here from a town bigger than ours, all a refreshing bit of calming urbanity. “Although we recognize this title as tongue-in-cheek, we are glad that Santa Barbara sees us as more than just young kids in thrift-bought pattern shirts,” said general manager Michael Easbey. “We still strive to educate our guests in the serving style and ingredients so each might leave feeling passionate about great food and understand our way of eating.” (1208 State St., 965-4566, samasamakitchen.com)
Old Town’s New Classic Award: Goodland Kitchen & Market
“I lived in the post-punk/pre-hipster S.F./Mission Valencia district in the ’80s and Echo Park/Sunset Junction in the early ’90s,” said Julia Crookston, owner of Goleta’s Goodland Kitchen, which opened just off Hollister Avenue in 2011. “Old Town has that same early-days vibe.” That’s key to understanding how Crookston’s business functions, respecting its place yet pushing ever forward, operating as both a commercial kitchen-for-hire space used by foodie start-ups as well as a delicious breakfast/lunch spot. Crookston tips her toque to her staff, her supportive customers, and to the many regional growers, for the Goodland is farm-to-table without fanfare or fuss. Try the ever-rotating salads that make up the mezze plate, and definitely don’t miss the daily specials that often sell out, from chicken bánh mì sandwiches to cochinita pibil tostadas. (231 S. Magnolia Ave., Goleta, 845-4300, goodlandkitchen.com)
Milpas Moves Up Award: The Shop Café
It’s not just because of the Mac on Crack — elbow noodles with gorgonzola béchamel, bacon, crushed pecans, and diced apple — but it could be. This Milpas Street menu, full of well-sourced, perfectly executed breakfast/brunch/hangover recovery yumminess, is continually playful, with lots of “in yo face” items. “If you can get people to your door, you have to let them come and have fun,” says co-owner Dudley Michael, who opened in December 2012. “It’s about the food, but it’s also about giving people an experience that they will remember.” They will, for the wide-ranging menu — from buttermilk fried chicken to fish tacos to a salad wisely dubbed the Good Day Sunshine (mixed greens, kale, roasted potatoes, parsnips, feta cheese, blood orange, poached egg) — is comfort food for a farmers’ market age. Plus there’s lots of mighty fine coffee and good beer on tap. (730 N. Milpas St., 845-1696, shopcafesb.com)
Worth the Drive Award: S.Y. Kitchen
The regular menu at this Santa Ynez hotspot is great, but prepare to be a very indecisive diner when you hear the specials. “Most of the time, the ingredients are extra seasonal,” says Verona-born chef Luca Crestanelli. “Every night there are eight, nine, 10 specials, and the waiters get mad at me, having to recite them all. You can see tables when they hear the specials; they look like, ‘Holy mother! So many specials.’” That’s what makes S.Y. Kitchen stand out in wine country, presenting Italian cooking with premium ingredients, matched with not just the surrounding wines but cocktails you might find in L.A. That makes sense, as owners Kathie and Mike Gordon — who opened S.Y. Kitchen in April 2013 — also operate Toscana and Bar Toscana in Brentwood. The food tends toward traditional, but very few of our grandmothers could whip up as good a wild mushroom pappardelle as Crestanelli. (1110 Faraday St., Santa Ynez, 691-9794, sykitchen.com)
Coastline Creativity Award: Toma Restaurant & Bar
One of the toughest reservations in town since it opened in April 2013, Toma delivers the full fantastic experience: seasoned, skillful servers; charming ambience; and perfectly pleasing, Italian-focused food. “We set out to create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable, relaxed, and, most of all, appreciated for their patronage,” says co-owner Vicki Dolan. “Every one of the staff members has a true passion and love for the business of entertaining guests, friends, and family. We think people instantly sense this caring from the time they enter, and this — combined with our truly exceptionally talented culinary staff, with Chef Nat Ely at the helm consistently creating flavorful, savory, creative, fresh, seasonal cuisine — leaves people wanting to come back.” With dishes like its cioppino and black spaghetti, Toma defeats that old saw that the closer a restaurant is to the beach, the more it merely surfs on ocean views. (324 W. Cabrillo Blvd., 962-0777, tomarestaurant.com)
The Foodie Awards on Monday, September 29, 5:30 p.m., at the Wine Cask (813 Anacapa St.) is the unofficial kickoff party for epicure.sb 2014, the 31 days of food-focused events, prix fixe menus, hotel specials, and more that Visit Santa Barbara organizes throughout October. See epicuresb.com for the full rundown!