This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on November 4, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
Have you ever had an entire motel to yourself for a night? Well, neither have I, though I was a wink away last Thursday. But hold up, I’m starting at the end of this story….
I drive through Solvang all the time, and have been doing so since taking countless NorCal to SoCal trips as a kid with my grandparents, who introduced me to the sugared joys of Æbleskiver. But last week was the first time ever that the smell of fresh pastry hit my nose upon approaching the edge of town at Alisal Road. It was sweeter and more spiced than the fried note of Æbleskiver, much more like those stroopwafels that my wife always buys from Mortensen’s.
I wasn’t in town for Danish treats, however. Mexican food was actually the first order of business on my fully stacked afternoon — not an abnormally overloaded schedule, with four back-to-back visits on the docket, but a tighter fit because I was cramming everything into the afternoon and evening rather than across a full day.
My 1 p.m. stop was Campo del Sol, the former home of the once-glorious Succulent Café that’s been turned into an ode to Mexican cuisine by the team at Coast Range just up the street. After being led to my own table on the sunny patio, I ran in to hit the bathroom, walking past a few guys at the bar.
Prior experience of seeing dudes around my age in similar dress sipping something in the middle of a weekday in the Santa Ynez Valley led me to think that I might know one of them, and when I came out of the restroom, winemaker Drake Whitcraft was extending his fist for a bump. (He was also at the bar the first time I went to Coast Range, back in June of 2021.) Another was Chef Steven Fretz, co-owner of Campo and Coast Range, so I decided to shift my meal inside to the bar. (The older Bulgarian man wasn’t with them, it turned out, but that’s a different story.)
Knowing that I had a big dinner and likely some nibbles at a winery to come before that, I conservatively ordered two dishes from the bartender: the Taco Bell–inspired Mexican pizza and the birria de res, both on Drake’s advice. But as happens when the kitchen knows you’re there to see what they’ve got, Fretz and company sent out a barrage of eats, so many that I could only eat a bite here and a bite there, and was still stuffed midway through. Thankfully, Drake was able to take most of my leftovers to his wife and kid, so they lived to feed another mouth.
I’ll be writing a story about Campo del Sol’s food soon enough, but the short report is that I was thoroughly impressed. The chicken flautas, wrapped in the flakiest, crispiest tortillas I’ve ever tasted, will be the first thing I order again. The Mexican pizza took me back to high school days, with familiarly spiced beef crammed between crunchy tostadas. The fish and lobster tacos tasted of Baja, the queso of Austin, and the octopus ceviche tostada perhaps of Sayulita (which is actually where I am while you read this).
Though the birria costs almost $40, it could easily fill two bellies, complete with cheesy tacos and a big bowl of consommé where prime-rib-tender beef chunks float. Then came the carne en su jugo, with meat and beans and herbs and broth existing somewhere between soup and chili, the direct Mexi-Spanish translation of “comfort food.” The margaritas were fun too, one with cucumber and chile, the other with mango chamoy.
I had to waddle out just before 2:30 p.m. and head to Buellton, where new owner Jimmy Loizides and renowned winemaker Steve Clifton were waiting to show me the fast-emerging hospitality hub they’ve christened as Vega Vineyard & Farm. Long the home of Mosby Winery, the property was actually known as Rancho de la Vega in the Californio days. Loizides, who also owns the Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez, Greek restaurants in Long Beach, and, until recently, Sear Steakhouse in Solvang, wants to elevate the property to hospitality glory.
I’ll write more extensively about this project soon as well, but it was enlightening to sip on Clifton’s first wines for the brand, which are some of the tastiest wines he’s crafted in years, including a zesty vermentino and juicy dolcetto. Many of the grapes hail from vineyards that he used for decades under his recently shuttered Palmina label, and 2022 marks his first crack at the 20 or so acres of vineyard on the property, which are planted largely to Italian varieties.
Vega is also home to a petting zoo, a tiny hilltop chapel, existing rental units — including the 1853 adobe currently under renovation — and plans for more cabins when the county approves new agritourism rules. The food also looked fantastic, but I could only really symbolically pick at it, being so full with dinner a couple hours away.
My bed for the night was up the road at Hotel Hygge, a brand new spot renovated from an old motel on Avenue of the Flags. In fact, Hotel Hygge was so new that it wasn’t even actually open, but they had set up a room for me to check it out anyway.
“Not often that you have an entire hotel, ur, motel to yourself,” I texted some buddies, to which one replied, almost instantly, “You do in horror movies.”
The check-in was all digital, run by an AI-powered “virtual service assistant” named Ivy, who started asking me to rate my stay on a scale from 1 to 5 — “How’s everything? :)” it wrote. But that was an hour before I arrived.
When I did pull in, there was a real human named Joanna ready to explain the situation, apologizing that the firepits were not turned on yet, among other things to do. She offered me a drink and food at the Sideways Lounge, which was a few hundred yards away inside the Sideways Inn, a sister property. I still couldn’t eat — though the Santa Ynez Sausage sandwiches they serve looked excellent — so I just sipped on a cocktail before heading to dinner.
I had a reservation for one at The Ballard Inn, the well-known, 15-room hotel with a long-beloved downstairs restaurant that came under new ownership recently. Thankfully, to stave off my solo dining awkwardness, I was joined by the inn’s new general manager Frank Kastelz, who’d already eaten dinner but was game to chat. He started at the property a few weeks ago after many years managing much larger spots, from his native Galveston, Texas, to San Diego’s waterfront to Aspen Meadows Resort, where he was most recently.
The star of that evening’s show was the cooking of Chef Brendan Collins, whom I last interviewed way back in 2018 when he was running the After Hours Pop-Up in Santa Barbara. I went from roasted beet salad to bluefin crudo in a marrow bone to fried chicken with house-made hot sauce, all paired with the restaurant’s regionally focused wine list — although the chicken met up with a Spanish cava to check that fried-food-meets-bubbles box.
After dinner, which concluded with a luscious Basque cheesecake that I couldn’t stop eating, Frank showed me around the property, revealing the large wood-fire pizza oven that they’ve built on the side yard for more casual eats. They’re also in the final stages of acquiring their liquor permit, which is sure to please the many winemaking neighbors in this quaint Santa Ynez Valley hamlet who’ll soon enjoy cocktails a few steps from their front doors.
I made it back to Hotel Hygge by about 10 p.m., loaded pics to social media, watched some TV, and got ready for bed. The room was simple and small but comfortable and clean, and the property, once fully operational, seems like it will be a lively place to stay with outdoor games and plenty of space to hang out. Hopefully it will remain on the affordable side too, as rooms across wine countries everywhere are unattainable for so many otherwise excited food and drink fans.
But as I lay there, worrying about the amount of work I had to do the next morning (including this week’s cover story) it occurred to me that I could just drive home rather than toss and turn for another half hour as the AC unit flicked off and on. There was no open bar or special breakfast on site to hold me there — really, there wasn’t much at all happening on that side of Buellton on a Thursday night.
So around 11 p.m., I got up, threw my clothes back on, and drove home, falling completely asleep in my own bed by midnight. I missed the chance to have an entire motel to myself, but the comfort of home is sometimes all you crave after a long day’s work — even when that work might seem like another man’s vacation.
Food & Drink To-Dos
Here are a few things to put on your calendar.
- Taste of the Santa Ynez Valley is in full swing as you read this and happening through the weekend all around. Learn more and buy tickets by reading this story.
- The Santa Barbara Wine Auction is back next weekend, November 11 and 12, and it’s expanded into Friday lunches to go along with the Saturday evening gala. Learn more here.
- Also on November 12, UCSB Arts & Lectures is presenting food author and television celebrity Nigella Lawson in conversation with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman at The Granada Theatre. Read George Yatchisin’s interview with her here.
From Our Table
Here’s are some recent stories on our digital and print pages that you may have missed:
- Shannon Brooks tells us about the new fizzy wine company started by L.A.-based blogger Caroline Juen. Learn about Best Coast Beverages here.
- I interviewed wine writer and tour guide Adam McHugh about his new book, Blood from a Stone. Read our Q&A here.
- It was inspiring to learn about a student’s quest to teach her peers how easy it is to make affordable, healthy food. Read about Margherita Scussat’s website CookItEasy.org here.