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Last weekend, I was up in the Santa Cruz area to play in and help host the Big D Memorial Golf Tournament, the sixth annual (minus last summer) event that we put on in my late father’s honor. (He died fairly suddenly in 2013 at age 63 from what was supposed to be a slow-moving type of lymphoma.)
It’s become a rather successful yet still enjoyably raucous affair, raising thousands of dollars each year for First Tee Silicon Valley thanks to the more than 100 golfers who show up each year at DeLaveaga Golf Course. The days surrounding the tournament also serve as a de facto reunion for my sprawling Irish-Catholic family, in which I’m the oldest of about two dozen cousins.
Though our roots run deep in San Jose — I’m a fifth-generation native, going back to when my ancestors were the largest shepherds in the area from the 1850s onward — my family spent as much time as possible at the beach in Capitola, just like the generations before them. In 1980, my parents purchased a tiny studio across the street from the beach. Even though my mom has since sold our East San Jose homefront and moved to nearby Aptos, the studio remains the geographic heart for so many of my relatives.
So when I posted a photo on Instagram last Friday calling the next-door Mexican joint El Toro Bravo “my favorite restaurant in the world,” I wasn’t joking. But the claim is certainly powered by my personal lore, in which I like to claim that El Toro Bravo was the first restaurant that I ever stepped foot in as a young child. (My parents have more or less shot down that claim over the years — without, mind you, corroborating evidence — but never let the truth get in the way of a more true story….)
The next day, one of my cousins — who’s eaten at some of the better restaurants in Los Angeles, sometimes with me in tow — was a bit incredulous. “Were you serious?” he asked. I replied in the affirmative, but it got me thinking about what “favorite” means when it comes to food, or really any sensory experience.
To me, El Toro Bravo’s stewed chicken meat — with mild green chili and who knows what else — is a craving, whether in the crispy tacos or a burrito, and the consistency of the dishes throughout the decades is unbelievable. A bite instantly takes me back to the lunches I’d have with my cousins — no parents nearby, even though we were like 10 years old — after boogie boarding and surfing for hours along the Capitola jetty just steps away. It’s the taste of my youth, of freedom, perhaps of innocence and naivete — but certainly a taste of a time before loved ones died.
The chips and hot red salsa do the same thing, and I’ve certainly explored much more of the menu over the years, from chimichangas and sauce-and-cheese burritos of yesteryears to just last weekend’s dives into the crab water-poached shrimp cocktail and the “Oreja de Toro,” which is the first thing on the menu yet something that we’ve never ordered. It’s a puffy fried tortilla covered in cheese and green salsa — I didn’t even know they had green salsa — that reminded me of a savory version of buñuelos that my good friend’s mom used to make in high school.
It doesn’t hurt that my affinity is backed up by many from my mom’s generation as well as younger ones, including my own children, who now demand bean-and-cheese burritos and will explore chicken tamales and other dishes every time we visit.
But my cousin’s underlying question was essentially: How can the simple fare of El Toro Bravo compete with fancier food I eat or even make at home? Are the flavors and textures layered in exquisite, mind-bending ways? Isn’t it possible that some of this food might even be coming from, gods forbid, a pre-made can? And is the service always pinpoint, the servers always pleasant, the place perfectly spick-and-span?
To my palate — which I now can see is informed as much by memory as it is by what I’m tasting — none of that matters. El Toro Bravo is exactly what I need when I need it, and for that, it’s my favorite.
I’m sure all of you Santa Barbarians have your own favorites that may not make sense to everyone. Send me some of yours with a sentence why at email@example.com, and I’ll happily share some of the best responses in an upcoming newsletter.
On the Craving Front
I’m not gonna go so far as to say that Cajun Kitchen is my favorite restaurant south of Capitola. But there are mornings when I arise — often after a night of many wines and much fun — and believe that only a meal at Cajun will set me straight.
Sometimes I will bring the family, or maybe just one of our kids. But often I go alone these days, and it’s glorious. In fact, Cajun Kitchen on Calle Real in Goleta was the last place I ate on March 15, 2020, before the quarantine shut us all down, and it was one of the first places I returned to with my daughter in tow when things began to open up earlier this year.
When I went a couple Saturdays ago, I ordered a new one for me: the John’s Scramble (spinach, onions, cream cheese) with a light andouille sausage addition, plus my usual “extra-crispy” hash browns on the side. I don’t usually do menu alterations — “as the chef makes it,” I like to say — but they nailed it, as always.
From Our Table
A rundown of our recent articles.
- George Yatchisin heads to Alessia Patisserie + Café, the new spot in the old Presidio Neighborhood where Alessia Guehr — daughter of Santa Barbara restaurant veterans Brigitte Guehr and Norbert Schulz — is wowing everyone out of the gates. “People eat first with their eyes, so everything has to be beautiful,” she tells us. “We’re always looking for a new way to do an old-school thing.”
- And our correspondent John Dickson, a k a “The Restaurant Guy,” reports on numerous newsbytes in his column, including a rash of restaurant burglaries, a new hotel coming to State Street, and new owners for Zodo’s. But will the crunchy tater tots stay the same?!?