I first came to know California through the tiny towns that dot its northern coastline. Driving up Highway One during my first few weeks on the West Coast, I was tempted to stay in every town I passed through, until I realized that the way everyone knew everyone else's names and jobs and most recent heartbreaks was only appealing to me as an outsider, someone who was easily granted access to the town's populace without having to relinquish my own life stories. But even though I opted for a city in the end, my romanticized love for California will always be tied to buying coffee at general stores in towns like Fort Bragg, Albion, Mendocino, and Bodega Bay.
Recently, I was able to re-create that sense of friendly trespassing in a town with a population of less than 2,000 with a visit to Los Alamos. Though not technically coastal, Los Alamos is a 25-minute drive from coastal access tantamount in beauty to any of the coastline I drove through in Northern California. And it proved to be the perfect Memorial Day weekend getaway, offering a sense of foreignness from my daily life without taking my so far away that I needed days - and several paychecks - to recover upon my return.
As soon as my friend and I pulled off Highway 101 at the Los Alamos exit, we were greeted by an old wooden sign advertising coffee, art, and antiques. Naturally, we pulled over. The quaint if slightly self-conscious Cafe Quackenbush, which is adjoined to the Art Brut Gallery, was filled with baskets of homemade pastries covered in linen napkins. The owner kindly lifted each napkin one a time, offering us a visual aid to help make the difficult choice before us: "Chocolate croissants, cinnamon buns, blueberry scones, chocolate chip cookies," he listed. While we were choosing our poison, two little boys wearing bike helmets emerged through the kitchen door to pick out which of the baked goods they wanted, apparently as a treat from their parents' shop mid-bike ride.
Though the cafe also serves gourmet sandwiches and soups, I had already decided to treat this day trip as a mini-vacation, and fittingly ordered a chocolate croissant and iced coffee. Unfortunately, the croissant's devilish good looks were misleading, as it proved short on both butter and chocolate. Next time (and there will be a next time), I'll order the mini blueberry tart. The coffee, however-which the cafe owners buy locally-did not disappoint.
Motored on caffeine and sugar, we took Route 135 through the town of Los Alamos, where we planned to dine later, to check out the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. With the windows down to let in the overpowering scent of strawberries and Neko Case's appropriately twangy voice blasting, we drove past endless vineyards, fields of grazing cattle and horses, and the cottonwoods that give Los Alamos its name.
After passing through the park entrance, the landscape of rolling hills and thriving agricultural fields quite suddenly gave way to mountains of sand as starkly white as the hills were green. I was immediately reminded me of the Cape Cod National Seashore, known the world over for its endless ranges of mystical dunes. I'd driven past Guadalupe on my way to Big Sur or San Francisco numerous times, but never in a million years could have guessed that just off the main drag were 18 miles of stunning coastal landscape, the second largest dune system in California.
Within minutes of leaving the car, my friend was making sand angels while I took off down the beach barefoot, running along the line the waves left on the shore. Although the beach directly in front of the parking area was rather crowded with families fishing, a couple reading, and kids surfing, within a few minutes of running I was the only soul around. The beach itself had the waves and width I had always thought were unique to New England.
After an hour of awestruck gazing, we headed back to Los Alamos, where we'd planned to meet friends for the day's main attraction: dinner at American Flatbread, a wood-fired clay and stove oven pizzeria that uses locally grown ingredients. When I was first invited to join the group for dinner, I had to ask, "You're going to drive to Los Alamos to eat pizza?" (The group of six, themselves aware of the hypocrisy of driving 50 miles to support sustainable dining, borrowed a minivan for the occasion.)
Before dinner on Bell Street, the main business district, we took a stroll down Main Street, which is deceivingly residential. Since its founding by a pair of ranchers in 1876, the town of Los Alamos has doubled in size-from one-square mile to just over two. Walking the empty streets, I got the sense that the entire town was at this moment gathered in the same city block. "Where is everyone?" my friend asked, soon before we passed a barbecue joint that looked like a tried-and-true saloon. The smell of hamburgers and the sound of children's laughter drifted over the fence. "Maybe they're all at the barbeque," I said, imagining the young kids we had seen surfing eating hotdogs with their families before tooling around the neighborhood on their bikes until the last light disappeared from the sky. Quickly nipping my small town fantasies in the bud, I again reminded myself why it's fun to visit a place where the entire town has dinner at the same restaurant.
Back at American Flatbread, we put our name on the list-the restaurant doesn't take reservations-and settled in at the bar for pre-dinner drinks. The mirror above the bar was emblazoned with the words, "Food remembers the acts of the hands and heart," which is exactly the motto you want your food preparers to live by. And the bar snack? A giant wooden bowl of fresh sugar snaps. I understood instantly why this place was worthy of an hour's drive; this was no ordinary restaurant.
A beer lover to the end, I enjoyed a pint of Butte Creek pilsner while the others oohed and ahhed over the huge selection of local wines. The Alma Rosa was so perfect, in fact, that my fellow diehard beer drinker handed me the pint she'd ordered after trying a sip of her friend's Pino Gris. "Drink this," she said. "I can't not order that wine." The non-drinkers among us enjoyed the sarsaparilla, an all-natural soda similar to root beer.
After about 45 minutes, we were seated at an outdoor table. Despite the friendly wait staff's constant offers to turn on heat lamps, it was balmy enough that we never needed them and didn't feel at all disappointed to miss out on the lively dining room atmosphere. After a few minutes of contemplating the one-of-a-kind menus (literally: the cover of each one was illustrated with a different drawing), one of our diners piped up almost desperately, "We're going to share things, right? I just imagined having to choose just one kind of these pizzas and got really sad." So when the waitress came over, it was an ordering free-for-all, each of us calling out our pick until we'd ordered what we thought would be entirely too much food: several salads-which someone aptly described as "dynamic"-and five large pizzas. But when the traditional cheese Medicine Wheel arrived first and was gone within minutes, we all knew there'd be no leftovers.
I come from a family that likes to cook-as in, having donuts on Saturday mornings meant forming circles out of dough and dropping them in vats of oil. My dad's specialty has always been pizza, so I know what to expect from homemade dough, sauce made from fresh tomatoes and garlic, and toppings to order. Well, I hate to say it, Dad, but even your pizza didn't prepare me for the Flatbread experience. Even though it's thin crust, "bread" is an appropriate word for it because each of the ingredients was so distinct that the blanket term "pizza" really doesn't apply: this was homemade bread covered in the finest cheeses, herbs, and vegetables.
Of our five pizzas, my personal favorites were Punctuated Equilibrium (Kalamata olives, sweet peppers, feta cheese, rosemary, onions, and garlic) and Cheese and Herb, while others swooned over the Revolution (mushrooms and caramelized onions) and Pepperoni and Peppers. But the fact was, though I normally have very distinctive likes and dislikes, every bite of every pizza was heavenly.
The patio was decorated in handmade prayer flags, each with a different drawing or message. We laughed at "Make wine, not war," but partly because American Flatbread is one of those places that lets you believe in that kind of simplistic idealism. That there are bustling restaurants dedicated to that way of thinking makes it seem at least that maybe we didn't irrevocably screw up our earth.
The feeling that everything just might work out alright after all was hammered home when dessert arrived. I don't think any of us minded that they were out of the brownie sundae when the plates of fresh strawberries with melt-on-your-tongue meringues and homemade whipped cream arrived. And as for the gourmet s'mores-have you ever spent 15 minutes meticulously roasting a marshmallow to perfection? This was that marshmallow, except it was huge and drenched in dark chocolate.
At the end of the weekend, Flatbread converts the restaurant into a production bakery, from where they make frozen pizzas available at such convenient locations as Albertson's, Gelson's, and Lazy Acres.
But as long as I'm within 100 miles of Los Alamos, I don't plan to taint the Flatbread dining experience with convenience. I have a sneaking suspicion that the trip was half the taste.
Los Alamos and Guadalupe are about 25 minutes apart from each other. Los Alamos is about a 40-minute drive from Santa Barbara. Those wanting to extend their day-long vacations can find accommodations at the Skyview Motel.