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My 10 Favorite Things to Eat in Santa Cruz

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.

Honorable mention:

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.

Overrated:

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.

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  1. When I'm in SC I always stop at the cookie shop on Pacific. The fresh cookies are totally reasonably...like .75 cents, healthy size and good...but the bag of day olds is like $5 bucks for a dozen. Great stuff for camping, a group, a road trip or just getting sick on.

      1. What's that? Did I hear someone say Morenos is just OK?? Morenos is one of the best -- if not THE best -- taqueria in California. I agree that carne asada is not their best dish though. The quesadilla (actually more like a hard-shell taco with beans, cheese, cabbage, salsa) is my single favorite taqueria item in California.

        4 Replies
        1. re: mangiatore

          Best in California... you are tripping.
          Just by the fact that you judge a Mexican restaurant by its quesadilla is ridiculous. I like Morenos, but try going to East Oakland, South LA, or San Diego, and you will find countless places that are much better.

          ...sorry I like to start fights...

          1. re: ucscslug

            Sorry slug, but I LIVE in San Diego and I'm from Santa Cruz, and let me tell you, there isn't one taqueria I've tried in SD that compares to Morenos (and I've lived here a long time and tried A LOT of taquerias here). In fact, when I want good taqueria food I just go down to TJ. I agree that L.A. wins the contest, but certain things at Morenos can stack up against any taqueria. Btw, you obviously didn't read the description of their quesadilla -- it ain't a tortilla with cheese.

            1. re: mangiatore

              I lack the credentials to judge the best taqueria in California, but I second your vote for Morenos nonetheless. Their salsa is addictive!

          2. re: mangiatore

            Gotta chime in here -Morenos is KILLER - for what they do - meaty burritos - they are the freakin' bomb! I am now vegetarian and still think about those burritos - OK my A$$..

            When I lived in SC (98-2000) I loved to get the beans and rice and guac and tortillas at Taqueria Vallarta - great meal for like $3....

          3. Heya bouncepass,

            Thanks for the tip about the lamb burger at 515, just got back from an awesome lunch there!

            1. Thanks for sharing your favorite bites around town. While I've been to many of the places, I haven't necessarily tried your exact dishes, so it opens up a world of possibilities at a time when I'm feeling very "blah" on the food scene here.

              Moreno doesn't excite me anymore, and I agree that most Asian places are disappointing around here. For our Chinese comfort food craving, we've been content w/ King Chwan on Ocean. I've heard that Oswald will reopen in the Garage sports bar space on the corner of Front and Soquel. I still haven't been so look forward to finally trying them in their new digs.

              My 10 most memorable bites in SC County recently (sorry, I had to include the county to reach 10; these aren't necessarily restaurant food and in no order):

              1. Ciccioli from Severino's Butcher sold at Sat. westside market (I believe they also appear at Wed. downtown market). Their pork from TLC Ranch is incredible, and the ciccioli beats the famed Fatted Calf's in Berkeley, IMO. Have heard their blood sausage is excellent but haven't had a chance to try it yet.
              http://www.severinos.com/

              2. Al pastor taco at eastside Taqueria Santa Cruz on Soquel. Only get it during the day if I see it roasting on the spit. Carne en su jugo is pretty darn tasty too.
              http://www.menustation.com/TaqueriaSa...

              3. Ham and cheese croissant at The Buttery. Warmed up a bit in my toaster oven, this always hits the spot on a weekend late morning for me.
              http://www.butterybakery.com/

              4. Cavolo nero pizza at La Posta. Can't stop thinking about it since I had it over a month ago...

              5. Chawan mushi at Miyuki in Watsonville. Layered beautifully w/ little goodies, this is savory custard perfection.

              6. Battera sushi at Miyuki. Since this is one of my favorite restaurants in the area, I have to give them two slots.

              7. Empanadas at Fiesta Tepa-Sahuayo in Watsonville. Ask for the 3 different fillings (shrimp, huitlacoche, squash blossom) otherwise sometimes they default to all shrimp. Had them again just a couple weeks ago and they were great as always! Love the tortillas and beans there as well.

              8. Oysters from the oyster stand at the Sat. Cabrillo market. It's been a while since I've gotten them, but they've always been fresh and terrific!

              9. Live Dungeness crab from John at his boat "Gayle" anchored at the yacht harbor's T dock. Always fresh and well-priced.

              10. I feel the need to end on a sweet note and Marianne's ice cream still fills the late night cravings. I'm not currently wedded to any flavors, but the macapuno and mint chip are two of my faves. The ice cream sandwich w/ their own chocolate chip cookies is pretty sweet but appealing for that sort of thing...and it's cheap around $1.50.

              Honorable mentions:

              Soif is great for both food and wine, but I like La Posta's vibe much better. I agree that they do seafood well, although I've had excellent pork and vegetable dishes there as well.
              http://www.soifwine.com/

              Gabriella Cafe has a small menu and tiny space, but I feel like the current head and pastry chefs have their act together based on our one meal there. Only one meal but it made a lasting impression which doesn't happen as often as I'd like around here.
              http://www.gabriellacafe.com/

              9 Replies
              1. re: Carb Lover

                Thanks to you and the OP for the great SC info. I don't live in SC, but my husband and I are down there fairly often and we are usually disappointed in the food offerings. I always avoid Asian food there, never having had anything good (eg - Benten, Samurai, and a horrible Chinese place on Mission), though we went to the Japanese place in Watsonville and, while it wasn't bad, it's not the kind of place I'd be running back to. And we also like Tepa, but I am keeping this post limited to SC. I look forward to trying La Posta and have yet to make it to Ristorante Avanti. We too like Soif and did like Oswald -- good to hear that it will reopen. Also have had pleasant meals at Pearl Alley Bistro and Gabriella. Hoffman's is just okay for us and we thought we would end up there for lunch when we were in SC today but instead decided to try Chocolate, the bistro/cafe next to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Pacific Avenue. We'd been there once before, but only for a glass of wine. We were pleasantly surprised and the other couple dining with us also enjoyed their meals. I had a cup of chicken soup with the cheese and spinach torta, which was quite tasty. They have a good wine selection and some interesting organic beers. Of course, due to their name, we had to try their specialty. My husband had one of their hot chocolates, which was out of this world (they have six different kinds) and we also shared a lavender truffle, which was excellent. We will definitely return.

                1. re: Wendy_san

                  Thanks for sharing your experience at Chocolate! We've never eaten there, but it's a cozy oasis on Pacific Ave. and seems fairly popular. We did attempt to get seated there once for dinner, but the service was so chaotic and we felt ignored for too long so got annoyed and left. I tried their hot chocolate last winter (forget which one) but found it way too thick and rich for my tastes. It was also a bit gritty. The lavendar truffle is a signature though, and some of their chocolate cakes look very decadent. I believe they are into organics and good quality produce.

                  You should definitely try Avanti and La Posta for a nice evening out, but beware that La Posta only does dinner service and is closed on Sun. for now.

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    I'll reply to a bunch of the posts in one shot:

                    I once ate 4 Donnelly's chocolate bars in one evening in a small town in Japan. So, I suppose I'm guilty as charged. That was, however, $20 worth of chocolate in 2 hours. While I like chocolate, I don't like it so much that I find it worth spending that sort of coin on... but I'm sure other people will beg to differ. It's quality stuff, for sure.

                    Morenos: I won't start a religious war. I have this sneaking suspicion that people who grew up in Santa Cruz, or those who were first exposed to decent Mexican food in this town, consider Morenos to be very special. On the other hand, those who were Mexican-food educated in other parts of California (San Jose, Oakland, LA, etc) find Morenos to be OK but not what we really want. I went to Tlaquepaque #1 in San Jose the other day, and it blows anything in this town out of the water, easily... at least in my opinion. I agree that the Morenos corn "quesadilla", which isn't a quesadilla at all as pointed out, but rather a large taco with some melted cheese on the tortilla, is the best thing they offer.

                    Carb lover:

                    I'll have to check out the al pastor at Taq. SC some afternoon. I agree that the carne en su jugo is very tasty.

                    I've been meaning to try Gabriella's after it turned over (I know, that was a while ago). Maybe I'll get around to it.

                    I'm a bit embarassed at having missed putting Marianne's ice cream on the list. Not sure how that happened. My latest favorite is the 10/20, but it slowly shifts over time. A Santa Cruz institution that should not be missed!

                    About Tepa-Sahuayo: did you mean enchiladas? I'm not so sure they do empanadas with huitlacoche or squash blossoms. I agree that their enchiladas are excellent, especially shrimp. Just had them last weekend.

                    Lastly, I liked Pearl Alley a number of years ago, but I'm convinced their food has gone from very good to decent to uneven and occasionally unpalatable.

                    1. re: bouncepass

                      Hey, I grew up in Santa Cruz and I feel no need to go to Morenos... The pastor tacos at Taqueria SC on the east side are worth a try though. They are the only taco in town that will get me away from the highly addictive chicharon tacos at La Cabana that is much closer to where I live. I work in SJ so I will have to try Tlaquepaque as it has popped up on my chow radar in the past.

                      Tepa may not have the 3 kinds of empanadas on their menu but they will make them if you ask. And speaking of Tepa, there is a restaurant that a quesadilla is perfect judge of quality. I think it is one of the best items on their menu. Have you been down to try one ucscslug? Well worth the drive.

                      1. re: Nathan P

                        Tepa actually has all 3 empanadas listed on their menu (I believe it's on the bottom left hand side), but they've been doing this odd thing where they only give you shrimp if you don't specifically request the assortment. They were all good on our last visit.

                        Yes, the quesadillas that come as a side on some of the plates are excellent (are those addictive things deep fried?!). We ordered a quesadilla a la carte thinking we'd get that version and what came out was more of like a standard, boring quesadilla; it was much blonder than the other one and didn't have the same crispiness. So make sure to specify that you want the former...

                        1. re: Carb Lover

                          I haven't lived in SC for a long time, but what I miss most is the tempeh lala at Asian Rose, macapuno ice cream at Marianne's and - I don't remember the name- but there is a small turo-turo/grocery store in Watsonville that has the most amazing filipino style chicarrone. Anyone know what I'm talking about?

                          1. re: desylicious

                            Are you thinking of the Las Lomas Market on Hall Road? They have the chicarrones in a basket on top of the burrito bar in the back....

                2. re: Carb Lover

                  "Oysters from the oyster stand at the Sat. Cabrillo market. It's been a while since I've gotten them, but they've always been fresh and terrific!"

                  Alas, Bill retired last year for health reasons. I've heard they're replacing him with Rudy, who works the Felton farmers market, whose oysters are $1.50 each (a 50% increase). I think we're going to have to retire our oyster shucking knife.

                  I'll add these:

                  1. "Turkey and brie with pesto panini" at Cafe Limelight on Cedar street.
                  2. Steak sandwich with gorgonzola-cognac sauce at River Cafe & Cheese Shop, along with about thirty cheeses that make me drool.
                  3. Donnelly Chocolate: cardamom, Tahitian vanilla, and Earl Grey, all dark chocolates, of course, because milk chocolate is for babies. (I like to start fights, too!)
                  4. Soif: squid salad, and other seasonal things on the menu.
                  5. Ristorante Avanti: calamari. I could eat a truckload of them.
                  6. Eating breakfast at either of the Santa Cruz farmers markets: foccacia, cheese, pastries, etc., surrounded by live music, sunshine, and the ocean breeze. (West side market on Saturday mornings is year-round from 9-2, and Live Oak is May through October, 10-2.) We also grab a basket of strawberries from Windmill Farm or Dirty Girl, and chai or tea (Live Oak only) at the coffee shop there.
                  7. Farm fresh eggs (I get mine from Everett Famly Farm in Soquel, but TLC Ranch, Brandon Faria's, and others are just as good—the yolks are schoolbus yellow!) with Severino's Sausage Verde or breakfast sausage (with maple syrup and ginger, I think), and toast (I like Kelly's bread best). The breakfast of champions!

                  I'm looking forward to the return of Oswald.

                  1. re: soquelcalifornia

                    Thanks for adding your list. Sorry to hear about Bill; I thought one of his assistants/friends was going to keep his stand running? I've been meaning to try Cafe Limelight but always forget about it for some reason. I'm looking forward to the return of the Live Oak market, mainly for the Monterey seafood guys (Joe's?) for their mussels and clams. Moules frites and linguine w/ clams return to the Carb Lover household! I usually buy eggs from Bob Harris at the Cabrillo market. Asparagus from Hog Farm out of Hollister have been stellar too!