Full Belly Files | Bring the Noi’s (and Nardonne’s and Sylvester’s and…)
Culinary Delights Along the Central San Luis Obispo Coast
As a fifth-generation — maybe sixth, if we could finally figure out the dates on my mom’s side — Californian originally from San Jose, where my family worked as shepherds back in the 1800s, I’ve always felt an affinity for the San Luis Obispo County coastline. That’s particularly true for the northern part that extends from Los Osos through Morro Bay and up past Cambria to San Simeon.
Compared to much of our state, the development impact is light, and there remain plenty of vistas that must look a lot like what they looked like centuries ago. I’ve been visiting since as long as I can remember, and I vividly recall my grandma loving to tell the story of how the entire town of Harmony was for sale every time we got near. I wish she’d bought it way back then.
Making the region all the more attractive today are the food and drink treats along the way — it’s bursting with somewhat hidden gems, often down rarely traveled, sometimes dead-end roads. I’ve written about a few of them over the years, particularly on this family trip story from early 2019 (non-food highlight: scaring everyone by humming the Jaws theme as we canoed across Morro Bay) and then this mid-pandemic, please-can-we-at-least-go-somewhere weekend from 2020 (many culinary highlights, but kelp foraging with Marley Family Seaweeds followed by seaside ramen was pretty epic).
Last weekend, as the final summer vacation before school’s start this week, we headed back up, this time with a bunch of other friends, to stay at the Sea Pines Golf Resort while eating and exploring the region yet again. The resort is affordable, casual, and offers most of what you need, including a restaurant and bar, a Jacuzzi, nine-hole golf course (with soccer and Frisbee options), plenty of room to roam, and nearby trails. The towns of Los Osos and Baywood Park are just minutes away, and 10 minutes gets you to the big city of Morro Bay, where the harbor offers hours of entertainment, from sea otters to boat-watching.
But let’s stick to the culinary highlights. Our first dinner was at Sylvester’s Burgers, where I opted for the new Kobe beef burger. No one in our group went for the five-pounder, which is free if you eat it all, à la the ole ’96er in The Great Outdoors. There’s one guy with multiple pictures on the success wall, including his record time of five minutes and 10 seconds. “He still comes around here sometimes,” the server told me. Impressive, as were the burgers (secret sauce is required), crunchy fries, sweet potato fries, clam chowder, and friendly service.
The next morning, we stumbled upon Ascendo Coffee in Los Osos (which also runs a spot in San Luis Obispo). I’d already snagged an emergency drive-through chai at the Human Bean in Morro Bay due to an early-morning excursion but needed to pick my wife up an espresso on the way back.
Ascendo smelled so good that I ordered an espresso as well, and we returned multiple times over the weekend, picking up their baked goods one morning as well. They were some of the best I’ve ever had — I’ve never experienced such buttery, cinnamon-y pockets in a morning bun — but we never confirmed who was doing the baking.
For Saturday’s dinner, we turned to Noi’s Thai food in Baywood Park, where the tiny downtown occupies just a couple blocks. Since we’d last visited, the restaurant moved across the street and is called Noi’s 2nd Street Café, while the original sits in its tiny hut and apparently now serves breakfast. Our large group allowed us to dive into the menu, from pad prik gai to a very delicious pad thai, which was also great as leftovers.
We turned to Nardonne’s La Famiglia Pizzeria for the Sunday-night wind-down dinner, ordering cheese pizza, caprese and Caesar salads, garlic bread topped with cheese and pepperoncinis, and a veggie sandwich. Serving the coastal community since 1976 — with an Atascadero location that opened four years later — this is as reliable as pizza and fast-casual Italian gets. And they delivered about 20 minutes earlier than predicted, always a bonus.
Earlier that day, we hit the harbor in Morro Bay, especially in search of oysters. I knew about the Morro Bay Oyster Company, assuming it was a full-service restaurant. We walked all the way to the north side of the docks to learn that it was not that — instead, they sell you oysters, hot sauce, caviar limes, and, if needed, an oyster knife and gloves. I’d left my backyard caviar limes at home and my oyster knife in my kitchen, so we went all in, shucking a dozen oysters while overlooking Morro Rock. It was the edible highlight of the trip.
We always start looking at real estate prices when we approach the tail end of trips to this coastline, perhaps as an investment, or vacation rental, or retirement spot, or something to call our own. Short story: Prices are steadily on the steep climb, so we aren’t the only ones in on this secret anymore.
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What I’m Cooking
Credit: Matt Kettmann
Zoodles: I got a spiralizer a couple years ago for Christmas. (Actually, I got two: one from my mom and one from my wife.) When I remember that I have it, I’ll bust out the big one from my mom: the Zlew 10-Blade Spiralizer. (Sorry for the Amazon link, but Zlew doesn’t seem to have their own website.) I did so recently, spinning zucchini grown in my yard and our neighbor’s through the spaghetti-size and then angel-hair blades. Instead of blanching it, which I’d done in the past to occasionally mushy results, I fried it up briefly with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese. It was a hit with the whole family, so much so that I had to make more right away, dusting all the squash we had.
Fried Sand Dabs: Sand dabs, which are small, flat fish with delicate white flesh, were a staple of midcentury meals in Northern California. I particularly remember my late father recalling them starring in the same culinary spotlight as abalone, once a cheap and prevalent seafood before overfishing, disease, and other pressures cut down their populations. A few years ago, I started coating sand dabs from Kanaloa Seafood Market with flour, then egg, then panko, frying them up, and serving them either as crunchy stuffing for tacos or just on their own. They’re a great dish for those who aren’t so into seafood flavors, and they even work as leftovers thanks to the firming nature of the fry. I like to top mine with a frothy green sauce, blending Mexican sour cream, cilantro, salt, lime, avocado, and serrano (or whatever chili you’ve got) into what could be called a crema verde. This time, I threw on cotija cheese and quick pickled radishes as well.
From Our Table
- Longtime contributor George Yatchisin was happy to attend the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience’s birthday celebration for Julia Child on August 15 atop the Canary Hotel. As winemakers Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton and Jill Russell of Cambria poured their juice, Finch & Fork’s new hire, Chef Craig Riker, formerly of Oliver’s in Montecito, showed that he can cook meat too. Read George’s article here.
- After many years of missing the rumbling stampedes at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, I ran into the club’s general manager, David Sigman, at a kid’s birthday party a couple months ago. He invited me out to check the scene, to eat and drink at the brand new Fieldside Grill, and to learn more about the latest offerings that are open to everyone. I’ve always liked that this über-wealthy sport is free to check out on Fridays, and now there’s a place to eat for the public as well. So that’s what I wrote about this week.
- Want to buy honey, or perhaps start your own hive? Both options are on the table at Santa Barbara Hives in Carpinteria. Plus, they’ve got vegan cheese sandwiches as well. That’s what Rebecca Horrigan reports in this article.
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