This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on November 11, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
For this week’s edition of Full Belly Files, I’m downloading a ton of short but informational nuggets of food, wine, and travel news from Santa Barbara all the way down to Sayulita on the Riviera Nayarit of Mexico. We might as well start there.
All-Inclusive in Playa Mita
Last Wednesday to Sunday, my wife and I joined a dozen other friends — sans children! — at the all-inclusive Iberostar resort at Playa Mita, about a half-hour north of Puerto Vallarta and 10 minutes south of Sayulita. I’ve never really done the all-inclusive thing, thinking it was some cheapo way to vacation, but I was pretty impressed with the seaside resort and its various restaurants and bars. And they all feel free, since you’ve paid by the time you arrive.
The food was decent enough — Benihana-style Japanese, French food in fake train cars, solid chilaquiles and birria at the breakfast buffet — but the region itself was very much worthy of further exploration, especially the town of Sayulita. (Many Santa Barbarans already know this.)
Best eats at Iberostar? The Baja-style fish tacos at the beach bar, fried right before your eyes, the perfect satisfaction after an hour of serious bodysurfing, with crocodiles nearby.
Best cocktail? Winnie the Pooh, a mango margarita atop a strawberry margarita, with tajín on the rim. (So much tajiín everywhere!) Although there were some consistency issues with Señor Pooh, as one of my friends (this guy) reported, “I’ve ordered it five times and got five different drinks.”
Hey, but it’s all-inclusive!
I got to try the much-awaited Augie’s on State Street this week and was thoroughly enthused. There’s a much longer report to come, but they’re treating Mexican cuisine, wine, and agave spirits with utter respect.
And no longer do we need to drive to San Diego or San Francisco or Baja to get tastes of the super-hot Mexican wine scene. Augie’s serves a number of options, by the glass and bottle.
On the food front, I’ve seen early grumblings about the prices, which is the usual complaint from digital whiners who don’t eat out much. In this case, it also reeks of ethnic-food-is-supposed-to-be-cheap racism. More to the point: a $75, four-course prix-fixe menu of full-sized dishes made by a tremendously skilled chef from fresh, unique, and creatively combined ingredients is basically nonexistent anywhere in town for that price.
So either get used to the price of restaurants and recognize a deal when you see it, or just zip it. I’ll be back, probably a lot.
Michelin Man Returns
The Michelin Guide will be announcing its California stars in December, but they gave some hints this week, adding 37 new Golden State restaurants to their “New” list.
Three of them are from Santa Barbara County: Peasants Feast in Solvang, AMA Sushi in Montecito’s Rosewood Miramar Resort, and Bar Le Côte in Los Olivos, whose sister restaurant, Bell’s in Los Alamos, was awarded a coveted Michelin star in 2021.
Joining them from the adjacent tri-county region are: The Dutchess in Ojai; Ember in Arroyo Grande; Nate’s on Marsh in San Luis Obispo; and The Hatch, In Bloom, and Les Petites Canailles, all in Paso Robles.
I’ve been to all of them except The Duchess, which has been on my list for awhile now, and Nate’s on Marsh, with which I am only vaguely familiar. Hopefully not for long! See my longer report here.
Moby Dick Oyster Bar?
I had lunch with Karl Hutterer this week, the retired director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History who is now the CEO of Moby Dick, the historic restaurant on Stearns Wharf. We talked a lot back in 2012, when he was trying to modernize the museum and was on the verge of his retirement.
Over clam chowder and seafood rolls, he explained how he went from managing a multimillion-dollar institution to taking on the restaurant business — in short, the Community Environmental Council is a partial owner of the restaurant, and Karl is a longtime volunteer for the CEC.
The restaurant is actively figuring out how to bring the locals back. One upcoming change could be the building of an oyster bar, with 240-degree ocean views from the currently underused banquet room. I’d shuck that out for sure.
McConnell’s Flavor Rant
In his endless scouring of the Internet for story ideas, our associate editor Jackson Friedman found a hilarious albeit biting rant on Reddit about the coming and going of flavors at McConnell’s Fine Ice Creams. A sampling: “Then, I walked in one day to discover that my #1, Macadamia Nut (sea-salt butterscotch base with toasted macadamia nuts) was gone. Forever. Do you know how difficult it is to find anything with macadamia nuts that hasn’t also been destroyed by adding white chocolate chips or mango, both of which suck? And it was a consistent bestseller, including in pints. Mystified and grumpy, I contained my disappointment, and told myself it was a specialty flavor, all things run in cycles, right?”
Not according to this author, who goes by “lamante.” Read the whole thing here.
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New Tasting Rooms
Two new tasting rooms are opening on the South Coast:
- The Ritz-Carlton Bacara was home to a Foley Family Wines tasting room until Bill Foley took over the Hotel Californian and developed a new space there. Now it will be a rotating showcase of Santa Barbara County wineries, from 12:30 to 7 p.m. five days a week. To start, it will feature Star Lane on Wednesdays, Samsara on Thursdays, Babcock on Fridays, Pence on Saturdays, and Sanguis on Sundays. Click here for more info.
- Montecito resident Gretchen Lieff is excited to finally open her tasting room for La Lieff Wines, which are made from grapes grown on her Alamo Creek Ranch, located along the remote and rugged southern edge of San Luis Obispo County. She’ll start pouring her rosé, sauvignon blanc, grenache, syrah, and Rhône blend — all made by three different female winemakers — on November 11 in the Funk Zone at 210 Gray Avenue. See lalieffwines.com.
Turnpike Restaurant, Anybody?
A reader named Jack reached out with this photo and a request to learn more about the Turnpike Restaurant, located on Calle Real where IHOP recently vacated and Chick-fil-A plans to go in.
“I was recently in the area on a trip up the coast from Newport Beach and stopped over at a small vintage store in Ventura. While there, I purchased a jacket that the clerk dated to the early 1960s, possibly late 1950s. Today, I found a receipt in the pocket of the jacket that is dated 4/16/1929. However, It looks like the 2 could be a quickly written 7,” he writes. “I’d love to get some more information on the restaurant, because the jacket is my new favorite, and one that I’ll probably keep for the rest of my life. If the restaurant can give me any insight into the life of my jacket, that would be even better.”
He signed off with “Cheerio,” which is always a plus in my book. Email me with answers.
Ojai Ranch House Documentary
A director named Jean Fen Yu is working on a documentary about the Ranch House restaurant in Ojai, which started as a boarding house for the followers of Krishnamurti before its farm-to-table cuisine attracted celebrities like John Lennon, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul Newman in the 1950s and ’60s. She’s hunting for footage and photos of its founder Alan Hooker and anything else that might help her film. Email me if you can help.
Wine Enthusiast Catch-Up
I’ve written quite a few Wine Enthusiast articles as of late that you may not have seen. They include:
- Profile piece on winemakers who make large-scale wines, like Cupcake, J. Lohr, and so forth.
- A profile of a renowned French truffle hunter named Pierre Sourzat.
- The magazine’s annual Wine Star Awards are coming up, and I profiled the winners with Central Coast connections, including: Nicholas Miller of Miller Family Wine Company, who was named Wine Executive of the Year; Jeff O’Neill of O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, honored as Person of the Year; and Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines, which was named the American Winery of the Year. The party is up at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco this year, which is much easier for me to attend than past events in Miami and New York City.