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$1 REAL tacos on.... Catalina Island?? Whaaaaaaaaaat?

This a public service announcement from Mr. Taster, for all Catalina-bound Chowhounds.

As most of us know, chow-worthy info on Catalina is pretty thin on the ground. In a place where Dreyers is the Official Ice Cream of Avalon and it feels like there's a margarita mill on every corner, this is a real find.

But before I begin on the food, please indulge me this one item.

Don't pay $15 a day to park at the Catalina Express terminal. The Long Beach Passport A and D shuttles, which stop directly in front of the Catalina Express terminals, run along Ocean Avenue and whisk you away to areas of Long Beach with ample free parking. (I parked near Bonito and Ocean.) There is street sweeping Tuesday mornings on the west side, and Wednesdays on the east, and there's a Passport bus stop right around the corner on Ocean. If you're really frugal and feel like skipping the $1.25 bus fare, you can even walk a few minutes down Ocean to Atlantic, and get on the bus there for a totally free ride to the terminal. (All rides east of Atlantic are charged the full fare).

I did my due Chow-ligence before my trip and discovered, not surprisingly, that the chow situation is relatively bleak. The only chow-worthy common denominator I was able to suss out based on prior threads was the Buffalo Nickel restaurant, which is sort of hidden away on a mysterious restricted road just to the left of "the mole" (the area where Catalina Express drops you off.) You're not allowed to walk past a certain point ("Dooon't doooo it" chided the local Avalonian behind the thick glass in the Catalina Express booth. "It's too far! And besides, you'll get a ticket!") Apparently there's a danger of falling rocks, and only people with metal shelled cars are allowed to drive down that road. That means no pedestrians, and no golf carts. You call the restaurant, and they send a courtesy shuttle to pick you up, where you take an extremely short, surreal ride past a Von's warehouse along an incredibly dark road.

Our meal at the Buffalo Nickel was quite ordinary. $15 for a 10oz NY strip steak (think shoe leather with grill marks), some uninspired steamed veggies, and french fries. I had the pork chop special with mashed potatoes, which turned out to be breaded and fried chops covered in country gravy. I essentially got a plate of shockingly white food. A few veggies to color up the plate. Cream of potato soup, microwaved. Cold in the middle. Watery iceberg salad. At $13 it was not a great meal, but it was find and did the trick. Sustenance only.

We simply couldn't bring ourselves to part with our money at the tourist traps, so I spent a lot of time cooking meals in our little cottage. But after yesterday's rain canceled our walk to the Wrigley botanical gardens, we were at the golf course and noticed some festive lights and sounds coming from a little makeshift tent in the restaurant across the way. "The Sand Trap", it was called. A banner suspiciously colored in rastafarian tones proclaimed Happy Hour-- 4 to 7, $1 tacos! $2 draft beer! $4 margaritas! We peeked inside. We found a whole bunch of happy locals. High school kids whose baseball game was rained out. Local latinos huddled over the bar, chatting in Spanish. And mama was manning the taco bar.

You place your order at the bar. The bartender (the son of the taco mama, and the owner of the restaurant- residents of Avalon for 31 years) hands you a raffle ticket inscribed with the number of tacos you've ordered. You pay him or open a tab. You bring your raffle ticket back to mama, and she has freshly steamed corn tortillas (small, about 4"... the right size!) alongside four containers of different kinds of taco fillings. Chorizo, ground beef, carnitas, and a sort of carne deshebrada. Next to her is a condiment bar which begins with the cilantro and diced onions, and quickly (but briefly) makes its way into the gringo territory of orange cheese and iceberg lettuce. She also has three kinds of salsa, a verde, pico de gallo, and a pureed roasted hot salsa. Oddly, no limes. I had to ask the bartender for some, and the ones I received had already been sliced down the middle, ready to be anchored on the side of a plastic margarita cup.

I won't say these were the best tacos I've ever had. The chorizo was really quite good and decently spiced. The carnitas were too dry. The carne was moist and flavorful. Ground beef was nondescript. The margaritas were strong, and the $2 beer was Bud Light. But I can say that these were the perfect tacos to be eating as we took shelter from the rain, in this strange alternate reality of Avalon where it was really comforting to be among local people laughing, chatting, enjoying each other's company, under a makeshift tent. It was a rare bit of authenticity among this strange tourist-heavy world.

Incidentally, The Sand Trap does have a full Mexican menu for other times of the day, where tacos de al pastor y lengua (among others) are listed for $2.75. Didn't have a chance to try those, but I'll definitely give it a shot the next time we're in town.

Mr Taster

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Buffalo Nickel Restaurant
Pebbly Beach Rd, Avalon, CA 90704

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  1. Thanks for the post. Mr Taster. I'm headed to Catalina next month for a weekend trip. I'll definitely hit up this place.

    1 Reply
    1. re: granadafan

      Glad to help... please report back on your experience.

      Mr Taster

    2. Link:

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      The Sandtrap Restaurant and Bar
      501 Avalon Canyon Rd, Avalon, CA 90704

      1. Forgot to mention, they do offer hard shells for the tacos, if you're into that. Mama had them under wraps, so I didn't see if they were of the homemade variety, or were strictly Old El Paso from off the shelf at Von's. (Granadafan... maybe you can check out the hard shells when you're there next month?)

        Here's a link to their website and happy hour special.

        http://www.catalinasandtrap.com/happy...

        Please note that despite what the website says, the happy hours definitely extended to 7pm. Perhaps the 5pm listing on the website reflects summer season hours? Also, don't be thrown off by the Rastafarian motif. Not really sure what that's about.

        Mr Taster

        1. FWIW, The Sandtrap has been a favorite of mine for breakfast since my teen years when I camped at the old Bird Park every summer.. Nothing fancy, but it's not too crowded (at least it didn't used to be) and the food beats most of the other breakfasts I've had in Avalon.

          1. Thank you Mr. Taster!

            I'm actually surprised there aren't more good mexican places there, considering the large Hispanic population.

            1. Last winter on a kayaking trip we ended up at the Harbor Inn in Two Harbors on a Tuesday night. If I recall correctly the tacos were 75 cents apiece. It seemed as if the entire town was there. Carnitas was the only choice, but it was quite good. The Harbor Inn is an interesting enigma on Catalina. Its the only place to eat in Two Harbors, but it can be brilliant - or not. What can you say about a place that offers a good IPA, Blue Moon, and something seasonal on tap? This for a population of 150 plus tourists. Avalon? Naah...

              1. The best place to eat on Catalina is usually on a sailboat in my experience. Bring some wine and make friends. Sailer's are good peep's

                1. We just came back from Catlina. Overall, the choices for eateries in Catalina is rather grim if you don't like overpriced touristy places. Don't get me wrong, the food looked ok from peeking in on the plates people had, the prices were what I expected for a tourist destination.

                  We did indeed go to the Sandtrap, which is north of the town on the way to the golf course, baseball fields, and the Conservatory Nature Center (BTW, they were showing a webcam of a just hatched bald eagle chick). We had three $1 tacos: chorizo, ground beef, and some strange meat she said was pork. The latter, was nasty. It was chewy, fatty, and was some sort of innard. Bleah. The chorizo and ground beef were well seasoned, though ground beef is not our thing, we just wanted to try it. The $2 draft bud light was worth it on this very hot day and after an epic 7 hour hike.

                  We decided to skip the "locals place" Buffalo Nickel after our innkeeper, a long time local described it as a poor man's Norms. We walked down the street to the Lobster Trap instead for dinner, manly because it seemed the lesser of two evils for seafood (this or Armstrong's) and we were too tired to walk too far (again 7 hour hike).

                  We started with the Poke, which was very fresh tuna, seasoned well with the salt, nori and sesame oil on top of a bed of cabbage. It had a nice little zing to it with the chili.

                  The girlfriend ordered the Cioppino, which took a looooong time to come to the table. This is probably why my fish was overcooked.

                  I ordered the fish dish, in which you can choose your topping. I picked the seabass with the lemon caper sauce. Other choices were garlic mushroom, macadamia crust, blackened, mango salsa, special marinade of creamy basil tomato sauce. The lemon caper was good and tangy, but the fish was unevenly cooked, mainly because it was not uniform shape and probably sat around too long.

                  I will say that sitting on the main walkway on the beach drinking beers and margaritas at the window seats of Catalina Cantina (I think) was an awesome experience. We had the carnitas nachos to munch on, which were piled high with a generous dollop of fresh made guacamole.

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                  The Sandtrap Restaurant and Bar
                  501 Avalon Canyon Rd, Avalon, CA 90704

                  Catalina Cantina
                  313 Crescent Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

                  Buffalo Nickel Restaurant
                  Pebbly Beach Rd, Avalon, CA 90704

                  Lobster Trap
                  128 Catalina Ave, Avalon, CA 90704

                  1. Great report Mr. Taster!
                    Been going to Catalina since the early 70's..great when your Uncle has a mooring in Avalon.
                    ; )
                    We try and head out on the boat at least once a year in late August/Sept.
                    Been to the Sand Trap after golf and had beers but love that it has a taco happy hour of $2 drafts and $1 tacos...that is great to know!
                    Most places are still closed but I'm sure things are opening up.
                    Heli-pad and the Buffalo Nickel was decent for a cold one and a buffalo burger...miss the sea planes.
                    Eric's at the pier for decent cheeseburger and Coors Light.
                    Portofino for Italian..

                    The Marlin Club is my all time fave dive bar in the world..you must go there and have a few..
                    The beach bar at Hamiltons Cove for the local buffalo milks and nachos is pretty damn good when the sun is shining and the water is around 73 degrees.

                    Isn't Catalina a wonderful place..did you try the zip yet?
                    The best happy hour at Two Harbors is on Friday/Saturday at the Banning House.

                    1. Mr. Taster,

                      I appreciated your tip on avoiding the $15 parking fee! Could you please send me some additional cheap parking details as I'm not familiar with the area?

                      Thanks again,

                      Melissa

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: mesparza

                        All the necessary details are in my original post.

                        All you need to do is cross reference what I've written with google maps and the Passport bus maps/schedules, on their website.

                        Bon voyage!
                        Mr Taster