Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Three Day Central Coast Tour

Damn, I did some good eating and drinking last weekend. Sa and I have been going to the Central Coast wine country to vacation for years now, so we've got a good working knowledge of eateries up the 101 as far as Paso Robles, and have been to a good percentage of the hundreds of wineries in the area. So when our friend Nicole wanted to celebrate her 30th (yes, 30th... just a babe) birthday with a weekend of wine-tasting, I was put in charge of the food and drink itinerary. I kinda think I outdid myself. You might want to use this as a template for your own weekend jaunt.

Here's the dish...


Left at the civilized hour of 11:00 am. I wanted to be on the road by 10:30, and this cost us a bit as you'll read in a moment.

Noon found our party of eight at Johnny's in Ventura. This is some of my favorite Mex food in the state. Just a hole-in-the wall, but a Ventura institution. I've been hearing about it for 4 decades; my brother always stopped at Johnny's when he came down to visit from NoCal. Selfish bastard never brought me a burrito, though. Everything here is good, but their masterpiece is their chile relleno burrito. A delicious fluffy chile relleno with Johnny's world class chile verde wrapped in a flour tortilla. Sa likes the verde by itself, but the C.R. burrito is still the gold standard. Be sure to chow down on their homemade flour tortilla chips, too.

This lays down a good layer for wine tasting. One o'clock, Head north toward Solvang. By all means take the San Marcos Pass shortcut by exiting at State St. in Santa Barbara and taking 154 north. This cuts 15-20 minutes off the trip.

2:00 found us at our first Santa Ynez Valley wineries. Rideau, on Alamo Pintado Road between Solvang and Los Olivos. Their wines have gotten pricy and the tastings are ten bucks (!), but the wine and the atmosphere there is excellent. They specialize in food-friendly wines that pair especially well with cajun/creole cooking. Their Viognier is my single favorite white wine, and a favorite for our holiday turkey dinners. Then Beckmen just up the road. Aside from delicious wines their tasting room is located on a gorgeous pond with a small deck over the water under a weeping willow, and a large patio on which you can picnic and enjoy the view. If we'd gotten an earlier start, we would have stopped in Los Olivos to visit the tasting rooms there, but we wanted to make it to Foxen winery before they close at four. Despite some desperate driving along Foxen Canyon Road, which parallels the 101 between Los Olivos and Santa Maria and is dotted with excellent wineries -- Firestone, Zaca Mesa, Cambria -- we arrived at 4:02 to find the tasting room shuttered up. A backup plan found us at Cottonwood Canyon, much improved since our last visit, where their delightful pinot noirs made up for the Foxen fuckup.

By now it was five-thirty, and we were hungry. Good thing, as you're now only a half hour from world-famous Jocko's in Nipomo. It's arguably the best practitioner of Santa Maria style Red Oak steak grilling, which is arguably the most delicious kind of steak in the world, period. Jocko's didn't disappoint, with gigantic cuts of perfectly prepared meat.

An hour after dinner, we were ensconced in our way-too-fun lodgings, a converted clubhouse/pet-friendly/sleeps-10 rental in a converted hangar next to the tiny Paso Robles airport.


After breakfast by Sa in the AM, it was time for serious wine tasting. We were right on Highway 46 in Paso Robles, with 50 or so excellent wineries within 10 minutes' drive. Started at EOS, then Tobin James with its amazing saloon-cum-tasting room atmosphere, and Eberle where the wine is perhaps more refined -- more Napa-ish -- than the balls to the wall, fruit forward Central Coast style, but still delicious. We had lunch at Big Bubba's Bad BBQ, which was disappointing. It's owned by the same folks as Good Ol' Burgers, currently remodeling, which used to have awesome burgers and for my money the World's Best Onion Rings. But Bubba's BBQ Tri-tip sandwiches -- ordered by most everyone at our table -- were dry and overcooked. That's Central Coast Sacrilege, folks.

After visits to Castoro Cellars (our desert island winery -- if we were stranded and could only have one winery, this would be it) and Grey Wolf, we were wined out. A little nap and it was off to Bistro Laurent in downtown Paso.

Now I'm a big fan of Central Coast food as you can tell, and was looking forward to the consensus pick for best restaurant in town. Eh... not so much. Very uneven. Prices, at 21-29 per entree were not as inexpensive as listed on their web site, where no entree is priced over 20. That's false advertising, folks. Add to that an outrageous markup on their excellent local wine list -- the same bottle selling at Grey Wolf for $23 was $62 here -- and an even more outrageous $20 corkage fee -- many local restaurants have inexpensive or free corkage on local wines -- and just opening the menu was a shocker. The food was uneven, from a friend's excellent salmon-stuffed eggroll to Sa's duck breast. But the pasta on a friend's truffle-and-mushroom papardelle was overcooked, and the sauce was bland, while my shrimp and lobster stew featured tender fresh shellfish, but a too-salty sauce. And service wasn't quick -- should dinner take 2 1/2 hours, even when you skip dessert?


The next day's dining and wining made up for any of the previous day's flaws, though. A half hour drive to the coast took us to Hoppe's in Cayucos for brunch. This is just plain some of the best food anywhere. Their $21.95 brunch includes your choice of appetizer, main course, dessert, an array of fresh baked bread, and a glass of wine or champagne. The food is California cuisine at its best. My BLT salad appetizer, with fresh shavings of reggiano cheese, whole strips of bacon, and slice-sized fresh made croutons was insanely good. So was Sa's HUGE warm goat cheese, butternut squash and bacon pizza. A friend's lamb-chanterelle mushroom pot pie was... well, what do you think? And that was literally just for starters. I didn't taste many main courses because my lemony shrimp-and-crab cake topped with perfectly poached eggs and bearnaise sauce was simply mesmerising. More than one guest at the table said they'd consider the three-hour Sunday drive up here just to eat here again. Their dinners, by the way, are just as good.

After a stop at two of our favorite Edna Valley wineries, Edna Valley and Claiborne and Churchill, we headed home. But funny, we got hungry around Buellton and stopped at Hitching Post II (as seen in Sideways), for their own take on Santa Maria BBQ. They gave Jocko's a serious run for their money, with delicious appetizers like grilled artichoke and mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Their smallest steak, a 7 ounce sirloin served with all the trimmings from shrimp cocktail to potato, was a bargain at $20, and their private house label wines are delightful.

All in all, we crammed a lot into a weekend: 3 steakhouses, 2 fine restaurants, 1 hole in the wall burrito, and 10 wineries. Okay, I'm a little bit Napoleonic and can drive the troops hard when it comes to conquering vast swaths of culinary territory. But there were no complaints about the weekend, and everyone came home with leftovers!

By the way, all the wineries mentioned here are ones we've visited many times. Their wines are terrific, and all are available online via their websites.


  1. deluxe11:45 AM

    "then to Tobin James with its amazing saloon cum-tasting room"

    This IS amazing. Do you have to pay if you are a donor, not a taster?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Now that's not fair. You re-punctuated me. There's a big difference between a saloon-cum-tasting room and a saloon cum-tasting room. Interestingly, in tracking search engine, traffic to this site, I found someone who got here by googling "cum-tasting."

  4. Anonymous12:10 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Anonymous2:11 PM

    You are totally right about the food in Paso Robles. Such great wineries up and down highway 46 yet your choices in town for dining are kinda sucky. AND - each place my boyfriend and I stopped in seemed to want to push us back out the door again! Next time, drive into Cambria and try the old-folksy charm of Brambles or Robin's, which is just up the street in an old house. Both are better than all the dang choices in Paso!


  6. Anonymous12:25 PM


    Next time you cruise up through North Santa Barbara County stop by a new winery (in the old Byron Winery) called Keneth Volk Vineyards. Absolutely great wines and why not? He started Wild Horse in the early 80s, sold it in 2003, and purchased the old Byron winery from Mondavi about two years ago, cleaned it up, started making wines, and opened the tasting room in July of 2006. It is now open seven days a week, 10:30 to 4:30.

    Then drive back just past Los Olivos to Ballard, and dine at the Ballard Inn (at Alamo Pintado and Baseline) and enjoy some of the finest food in the entire Central Coast area.


  7. Joe Dodge4:13 PM

    Jess, throughly enjoyed your postings on your travels trhough Ventura and on up to Santa Barbara wine country. Johhini's is indeed the finest Mexican food around- their chili verde is also one of the best I've ever tasted- try it next time! I'm looking forward to checking out some of your other favorite spots down in the L.A. area- thanks for the info and keep up the good foodie reviews!