My 10 Favorite Things to Eat in Santa Cruz
I've lived in Santa Cruz for more than 5 years now, and having eaten out a fair amount, thought I'd chime in on what I've found so far.
In fairness, I’ll limit myself to one item per establishment (well, sort of), as well as to Santa Cruz proper (not adjacent towns like Capitola, Aptos, etc). In no particular order.
Sweetbreads at Oswalds – not always on the menu, but it seems to be a fairly common. Exact accompaniments differ, but the sweetbreads themselves have a lovely crispy outside and creamy insides and no off-putting flavors. Their duck confit is also the best in town when available. Oswald’s closed a few weeks ago, but some reincarnation of it is almost certain to appear sometime soon.
Lamb burger at 515 – a recent discovery. Burger itself has nice char on the outside, and is terrifically juicy on the inside. Cooked to medium/well, which I was perfectly happy with (some would disagree, I know). Very messy, which I consider a good thing. I had a salad with it, which is quite decent as well, but could have had fries instead. A steal at $8. Not so sure about the other menu items, but this one’s a definite winner.
Grilled turkey sandwich with fries at Linda’s Seabreeze Café – actual name of this item escapes me at the moment. Nothing fancy, just a perfect version of what it is. But most people (including myself) go for their breakfasts, which are generally excellent. Much better than other local favorites like Zachary’s (which I find mediocre) or the Walnut Café (ditto). Love the (homemade?) salsa on the table, as well as the cinnamon buns.
Fish tacos at La Cabana – OK, the shrimp tacos are great as well. I know others rave about their desebrada, or carnitas, or chicharron. Those are all fine, IMO. But the fish and shrimp tacos are great. Fish isn’t fried, which I prefer. Shrimp comes with a slightly smoky, spicy red marinade. Both are almost always fresh, great balance of acidity and spicy with the seafood.
The fish at Soif – What’s not to like at Soif? Almost everything’s terrific. But IMO, they do fish better than anywhere else in town (with maybe the occasional exception of a whole fish special at Avanti). Always creative, interesting combinations. Try their Marcona almonds as well. Unfortunately, their website doesn’t update their weekly menu very often (I’m almost positive the one online is two or three years old), so you have to drop in to see what’s for dinner.
Oxtail ragu with gnocchi at La Posta – Sort-of sibling to Soif that recently opened. Haven’t worked my way through the whole menu, but this dish was terrific. The salumi plate is from Fra Mani, so it’s also top-notch.
Calamari at Avanti – I’ve eaten at Avanti more times than I can count, and therefore I usually order off the specials menu. But the calamari, when available, is a favorite of many, including myself. I believe they use rice flour to dredge the squid, resulting in a much lighter batter than most places. And the mignonette on the side works perfectly along side.
Scones at Hoffmann’s – You scoff. Scones? What’s the big deal? I’m no expert here, but these are far from scones at other places. Flaky and rich rather than dry and chalky. Maybe that’s not really the way they’re traditionally made, but that’s totally fine with me!
Mushroom pizza at Pizza My Heart – lots of real mushrooms, thin crisp crust (ask for it extra-crispy or you might get it rather soggy). Add red pepper flakes and you’re good to go. To be critical, it’s a bit too salty and could use a touch less sauce.
Carrot cake from the Buttery – yes, this is everyone’s favorite bakery, and deservedly so. Cakes are generally impeccable. I’m not sure what makes their carrot cake so addictive, but I suspect it’s the combination of coconut and their incredible cream cheese icing. Recently expanded for more sitting space. Some people love their sandwiches as well.
Gorditas at Campesino – it’s the tiny little kiosk on the sidewalk in front of New Leaf in downtown Santa Cruz. Not your usual Mexican offerings. Hours are a bit odd, but worth stopping for lunch, especially compared to some of the other possibilities in the area.
Almost any Asian restaurant in town – Japanese, Chinese, or Thai. A number are passable if you’ve got a craving, but none makes it to barely average in comparison to those "over the hill", i.e San Jose and environs.
Most of the Mexican places. Morenos is OK. I eat at the one on campus quite a bit, actually, but it’s not much above average. The meat rarely measures up at all of these places. Carne asada doesn’t have enough char, or if it does, is dry in the middle. Carnitas is rarely even actual carnitas.
Pearl Street Alley and Gabriella’s: about in the same price range as Avanti, and not nearly as good.