Eating out in Santa Cruz, California

Or you might call it eating in. Santa Cruz is the poster child for Northern California values and attitudes. With a population composed of university students going for an environmentalism-related degree at UC Santa Cruz, tech workers commuting to Silicon Valley, and a permanent itinerant population that in another generation might have classified as Deadheads, the city is both seriously laid-back, and serious about its organic and locally grown food sources. Not only that, but people there like to eat. Case in point: the first time I ever visited Santa Cruz, for my older sister’s wedding over ten years ago, a crowd of happy and hapless homeless young hippies on the sidewalk were happy to take leftover handmade cannolli in lieu of change I did not have. Another guy used to sit on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign saying, “Why lie? I need a beer.” I like honesty.

Cafe Brasil, Santa Cruz, CaliforniaI also like to eat out — a lot, my scale tells me now I’m back home — when I visit my sisters in sunny Santa Cruz. And both they and the town are happy to accommodate. One of their favorite spots is Cafe Brasil for brunch, which serves fabulous Brazilian fare (obviously) and truly appalling Brazilian coffee. Really terrible coffee. Trust me, skip it. But don’t skimp on anything else. The most popular dish is hands-down the A├žai Bowl, a blend of the “Amazonian power fruit” with strawberries, bananas, apples, and guarana syrup, topped with granola and more strawberries and bananas. It’s a healthy, great-tasting meal in itself, but I never stop there because the vegetarian Gallo Pinto served with fried plantains is just too fabulous for words. And filling.

The thing is, though, no matter how much I like to eat out, I do actually have family in Santa Cruz, so there’s a lot of home-cooked meals. And, boy, do they make me jealous. I mean, I live in a great farming region of New York State and have access to plenty of fresh produce — in the summer, when things grow here. Santa Cruz? They’ve got one of the best farmers’ markets in the country year-round.

"Farmhouse culture sauerkraut," just one of the off-beat local offerings at the Santa Cruz farmers' market, CaliforniaThe Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market is held in a parking lot off the main drag every Wednesday from 2:30 – 6:30 p.m. And it’s not the kind of thing we get in the Hudson Valley. Fresh-baked bread, a variety of produce, yeah, we’ve got that. But fresh, sustainably harvested seafood? A variety of street musicians? Farmers foisting cherries on you at every turn? A gelato stand? Fresh sauerkraut? I don’t think so.

fresh oyster bar at the Santa Cruz farmer's market, CaliforniaThat’s not to mention the fact that I can stand around scarfing freshly shucked oysters while my sisters shop for the tastiest local organic greens and ready-to-freeze pizza dough. They’re so damn spoiled.

Wandering around Santa Cruz gives you an appetite anyway, there’s so many good-quality sushi bars and taquerias and coffee shops just hanging out waiting for your attention. And it takes a long time to traverse the main street if you’re going to listen to all the good music, stare at the inventive requests for money in the form of cardboard signs, free belly dancing, or flower-arranging skill.

Street musician in Santa Cruz, CaliforniaIt’s a strange place, and you never need to leave Pacific Ave, the main drag, to get your full complement of Santa Cruz food and lifestyle. My favorite eatery by far, however, is the River Cafe and Cheese Shop located a few blocks off of Pacific. With a variety of cheeses, breads, sandwiches, soups, and homemade canned local fruits and veggies, you’d never go hungry, but I recommend the “daily toast,” which, the day I went, featured sharp Cowgirl Creamery cheese on toast topped with marinated apricots and served with a fresh salad. And the fruit/berry crisp is to die for.

Bleu Meany sushi roll at Aqua Bleu in Santa Cruz, CaliforniaIt also leaves room for a quick stop at Aqua Bleu, which is where I always like to drop in after a long flight from the East Coast. Why? Because the Asian restaurant and sushi bar’s Long Life Soup feels like just the tonic needed after a life-force-sucking airplane ride, especially with a cranky toddler in tow. I’ve had the same post-flight ritual ever since the place first opened up and it was my younger sister’s first serious restaurant job. The Bleu Meany (pictured above) is one of their eclectic sushi dishes (you have to try it to believe it) and the Sake Bomb burger just kicks ass when what you really want is a burger and a beer. Me, I go for the Long Life Soup, some sashimi, and their fabulous horseradish-laced Bloody Marys.

Santa Cruz’s food, in the end, comes from its culture and its climate. Being part of liberal Northern California, its denizens scramble for the best local, fresh, and organic ingredients that sun and mild seasons can provide. I never go away hungry in either stomach, palate, or morals, even if my wallet is leaner. Ethical, local, sustainable, and great-tasting food, you can’t beat it.

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