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California Road Trip Bakersfield Santa Maria Trip Report

ROAD TRIP REPORT (Long!) Santa Paula, Santa Maria, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Bakersfield, Three Rivers

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ROAD TRIP REPORT (Long!) Santa Paula, Santa Maria, Pismo Beach, Cambria, Bakersfield, Three Rivers

Mr. Taster | Jun 1, 2004 01:05 PM

Hello all, and many thanks for all the Hounds who offered advice on my Memorial Day Road Rrip posting just a few threads below. Also, thanks to all whose suggestions I culled through the Chowhound search engine.

Any suggestions or comments about the restaurants I've chosen, as well as menu choices I selected, would be highly appreciated.

For reference, my trip started in Burbank, went over the mountains to Santa Maria, then spur out to Guadalupe and the fantastic sand dunes on the beach. Then up to San Luis Obispo and San Simeon, then over the mountains to Bakersfield, up to Visalia and east into the Sequoia National Monument. Then back to Burbank. (whew!) There were many places I wanted to try but did not get the chance to (Chef Rick's, Big Sky, Woolgrowers)

First meal was per the suggestion of a Carnitas thread on the LA board, I believe. Someone suggested a little Mexican place across the street from the oil museum in Santa Paula. I tried the carnitas burrito (no rice), which was really quite good. Several complex flavors that blended together quite well. This was so much more than fried chunks of pork. My friend had the huevos con chorizo-- also quite good, but the carnitas well better-- a lot more flavorful and filling.

Next stop was Santa Maria for some authentic parking lot SM style bbq. Here's the problem though- any time I've gone for this style of SM BBQ which is twice now, (the smoke from the read oak and the aroma of the meat always draws me in) invariably I get meat that has been sitting under a heat lamp inside the trailer kitchen... you never get it fresh off the grill. Or am I just going to the wrong SM BBQ stands? I'd appreciate any recommendations for future journeys. I have had truly fantastic SM BBQ at the Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe (an extremely unlikely place, for any who have ever visited the town) and the sand dunes just west of Guadalupe make for a surrealistic and fascinating journey at best.

Next it was up the coast to Pismo Beach, where I read a thread about the Clam Chowder wars between Brad's and Splash, both very close to the pier on the main tourist drag. One person was insisting that the clam chowder at Brad's was better, so we did a taste test comparison. Brad's was ok-- not very strong on flavor, but it is a cream soup and so I gave it some slack. The pieces of clam were rather small, as were the chunks of potatoes. It was good, but nothing extraordinary. Splash (which had a much bigger line out the door) had a much more flavorful chowder-- though consistency and texture seemed similar. Overall I'd have to say that Splash was better (and cheaper) than Brad's.

Breakfast the next morning was in Grover Beach area (west of the 101, in a strip mall just next to the Von's on the main thoroughfare in Grover Beach), where we had a truly wonderful breakfast at a Mexican place called something like "Rudy and XXXX" (can't remember the second name). I was a little hesitant at first because of the sports/bud light decor (and also because there was not a single Mexican in the place) but I had a chorizo and cheese omelette which was quite tasty and generous in size without being obscene.

Now up the coast to San Luis Obispo (where we made a contribution to the disgusting but fascinating "gum alley" on Higuera street, just west of Garden). We saw Big Sky and remembered all the praise, but we simply just weren't hungry at that time. I'll make it back some day. After hearst castle we went to Linn's in Cambria to find out exactly what an Ollaliberry is (they sell ollalaberry everything). Cambria is a rather strange but quaint tourist town, imminently walkable and with too many restaurants to even fathom tackling. We paid tribute to Nit Wit Ridge before moving on to Bakersfield for some Basque.

Unfortunately the highly praised "Woolgrowers" was closed up tight. As it seemed to be in a bad neighborhood, we didn't investigate to deeply. Instead we went to the only other Basque place we could find-- "Benji's French-Basque Cuisine" the sign said. Inside the restaurant was alive with lots of old men, eating and wearing red neck scarves and black berets. Apparently we walked into the middle of the largest gathering of Basques outside of Spain-- they were celebrating the tail end of some sort of annual reunion picnic. This was my first experience at a Basque restaurant, so if any more experienced Basquers could provide input, I'd appreciate it.

The way that Benji's menu is set up is that there is a $10 per person mandatory "set up" fee. The "set up" is basically a round of appetizers. Before we knew it, they were bringing out bread and butter, warm salsa, a flavorful cabbage potato soup, and a bowl of pinto beans. The waitress (seeing the clueless look on our faces) instructed us to put the beans in the soup. (Pinto beans? Salsa? Is this really authentic? It seems more like the Santa Maria Barbecue influence, not Basque-French!)

Next round was salad, which had a light oil/vinegar dressing. Also marinated tomatoes in a tart white herbed sauce, and the basque specialty of pickled tongue (which also seemed to be marinated in the same tart sauce as the tomatoes). The tongue wasn't nearly as intimidating as you may think-- it had the flavor of sandwich meat, reigniting memories from my youth when my mom used to make me salami and tongue sandwiches...! Again at the waitress's instructions, we combined the salad, tomatoes and tongue. This "Set up" was already enough for a full meal (we still had soup, salad, tongue, tomatoes and bread left over!) But we ordered an entree (which range from about $16 - $25, but includes the "set up" in the price). It was rather hard to peg anything as being particularly different from American cuisine. Most items (lamb chops, top sirloin, etc.) would be items that appeared on any restaurant menu. My friend and I tried to pick some more exotic sounding items, so he had the Chicken in Basque Tomato Sauce (which was a slightly spicy, peppery version of a red Italian sauce) and I had the "scaloni in lemon oil sauce". (Scaloni is a combo of scallops and abalone, minced up and formed into a patty, then fried). It was not bad, and tasted as you'd expect. Though it was hard to enjoy because we were so full.

So how does this experience compare with the highly touted Woolgrowers?

Breakfast in Bakersfield was at the 1950's truck stop Zingo's, off the freeway. Waitresses with attitude and customers wearing NRA baseball caps. Big greasy omelettes, bad home fries with undercooked potatoes. Got the feeling everyone there had been going htere for 30 years. Exactly what you'd expect from a greasy spoon truckstop. Prices were pretty reasonable.

Lastly, we had a wonderful dinner in the small village of Three Rivers, just outside the Sequoia National Monument, east of Visalia. It was called the Gateway Restaurant. The tables are situated on a bluff overlooking the point where two rivers merge into one, with these giant, beautiful rocks on the side and in the middle of the river. The host/owner asked if we had resevations, even though the place was 1/2 empty, but was very accomodating and tried to get us a table next to the window even though we said it wasn't necessary. Service is a little spotty as most of the waiters are high school kids, but the food was quite good. I had top sirloin in a brown mushroom onion sauce with sauteed zucchini. My friend had a mustard crusted pork chop with mango salsa. Both were generous portions and wonderfully prepared (though I preferred mine) for about $20.

Sorry for the novel, but I am quite passionate about food (as we all are!) Thanks again for the advice, and any input you might have (places I should have visited, etc.) would be most appreciated.

Mr. Taster

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