Tyler Blue, formerly a food writer for the News-Press, Wine & Dine and The Independent, now lives in the Pacific Northwest and is today’s guest blogger:
An Ex-Pat Reveals: The Ten Dishes I Miss Most from Santa Barbara County
By Tyler Blue
When I moved to Santa Barbara in April of 1999, I didn’t expect to stay very long. Sure, the American Riviera was prime for vacationing but how would I sustain myself on a daily basis? Well, one opportunity led to another and several years down the line, I found myself as one of the city’s most prolific food scribes. During a five year period writing for The Independent, News-Press and Wine and Dine, I explored the county’s restaurants from one end to the other like a mobster cracking the code of the witness protection program. All of the flavors dance through my palate’s memory bank but there are several special dishes which leave the most lasting impression.
Seven months have flown by since I packed up all my possessions in Santa Barbara and headed for the Pacific Northwest. As usual, the adventures of life are mirrored by the foods which slide across our table. Honestly, it’s hard to miss Santa Barbara while immersed in the foodie havens of Portland and Seattle. Even so, there are a few unrivaled dishes which manage to creep into my consciousness.
Salmon Crunch Burger at The Nugget in Summerland
The first time my wife and I went there, we noticed the Crunch Burger on the menu – a burger served on an English muffin. We wondered, “Can you substitute a piece of salmon?” Out came this flaky slab of fresh, wild salmon topped with melted Swiss (an unnecessary addition), lettuce and tomato. Somehow this huge piece of fish is able to be contained by the muffin. The special sauce brings it all together – a mustard, onion relish of sorts which acts like a tangy tartar. One of these babies with a couple of The Nugget’s signature libation – The Bloody Caesar, and I’m a happy camper. We ordered it so many times, they added a button onto the register.
MSC at Sakana in Montecito
Chef Nao is an artist with his expertly hybridized approach of traditional and futuristic technique. He has forty homemade sauces ready at any given moment to amplify the complexity and beauty of his creations. The morsel which captivates me more than any is the MSC Nigiri. With delicate layers of hotate scallop, monk fish liver and uni topped with a sprinkle of caviar, it may sound intimidating but the flavor is anything but. Rich and pillowy – perhaps reminiscent of oceanic foie gras – it melts in the mouth and lingers like a fine Bordeaux.
Indian Chicken Curry at Dargan’s Irish Pub in Santa Barbara
It wasn’t until a couple years ago while interviewing Josh Keating – then chef of Dargan’s – I learned that Indian chicken curry is a staple at most Irish pubs. One bite of the sweet, comforting concoction and I was hooked. Dargan’s became a frequent lunch destination – especially on rainy days – where we would post up next to the fireplace. I like how they offer the curry with half rice, half fries. The fries are so good. Throw in a pint of Harp and there’s the recipe for bliss.
Duck Confit Salad at Patrick’s Side Street Café in Los Olivos
I’m always searching for the ultimate salad so when I find one, I tend to get overly excited. I don’t know if it’s still on the menu, but this salad still haunts me from many years ago. Lean, tender shreds of duck were piled atop farm fresh arugula with dried cherries and a hazelnut vinaigrette. It went great with a glass of 2003 Di Bruno Sangiovese. I wish I could abracadabra that pairing in front of me right now.
Eggs Rose at D’Angelo Bread in Santa Barbara
Thanks to a show on the Food Network – “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” – I’ve been guided to some of, well, best things I’ve ever eaten. SB’s resident Iron Chef, Cat Cora, has given lots of love to local establishments with her appearances on that show. For one episode themed “Most Unexpected,” she went to D’Angelo where she heaped accolades on a dish known as Eggs Rose. It’s not exclusive to D’Angelo (Tre Lune in Montecito gives it a go), but I’m pretty sure there’s no other version quite like this. They start with olive toast, slather it with fresh, creamy artichoke puree and place perfectly poached eggs on top. The key, per Chef Cora, is the addition of arugula. Request a side (which only costs 50 cents) and add it to the mix. I could eat this every day.
Shrimp Tacos at Shoreline Beach Café in Santa Barbara
Sitting at a table at Shoreline, eating and drinking with feet in the sand is one of the great Santa Barbara experiences and one I definitely miss. A couple years ago, Enrique Hernandez, the manager with a 1000-watt smile, realized the magic in roasting peppers for sauces. The resulting chipotle sauce which adorns the Shrimp Tacos is bewitching with tangy, smoky flavors. If I’m in a healthier mood, I’ll go with the fresh fish tacos but if I want to indulge, the shrimp tacos are definitely the call. It’s a matter of preference but soft, chewy flour tortillas are the way to go in my book. Biting into fried shrimp and shredded cabbage topped with the sauce is a textural bang and taste bud boom.
Fried Chicken Salad at Tupelo Junction Café in Santa Barbara
Everyone and their grandmother loves the Fried Chicken Salad at Tupelo Junction. I wonder how many they’ve sold over the years. Once again, it’s as much about the texture as the flavor. Here you have well-dressed romaine with a lighter-than-it-could-be buttermilk dressing, chunks of cornbread, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds and juicy chicken fingers. It’s not what you want if you’re on a diet but hey, it does have all four food groups.
Seafood Omelet at Sly’s in Carpinteria
I’ve been to almost every upscale brunch in the county and Sly’s Seafood Omelet is a dish which exists in a league of its own. The first thing that struck me was the exceptional quality of the scallops, plump prawns and succulent crab. In a lesser restaurant, the greatness of these ingredients might be lost but here each player maintains its integrity. What really sends it over the edge is the lobster sauce oozing along the surface of the thin omelet. The pure flavor of lobster shines through and makes everything else sing.
Pistachio Crusted Salmon at The Brewhouse in Santa Barbara
The Brewhouse is like Old Faithful for Santa Barbarians because it’s a place you can almost always count on a satisfying meal and relaxed dining experience. The Pistachio Crusted Salmon is $20 well spent, delivering a knockout blow every time I’ve had it. This generous piece of salmon gets just the right crunch from a pistachio crust. The fireworks come in the form of a deep red wine sauce, accented by roasted garlic and shitake mushrooms. Served over oven dried tomato spinach risotto, this is an embodiment of healthy married to delicious.
Potato Egg Skins at Alphie’s in Goleta
Located in Old Town Goleta since 1980, Alphie’s remains an underappreciated gem. A wallet-friendly diner with an injection of Phillipino flair, they have several out-of-the-box offerings. The first time I was there, Potato Egg Skins jumped off the menu. When I finally pulled the trigger on my next visit, I declared them a work of genius and sung their praises to anyone who would listen. Imagine crispy baked potato skins stuffed with scrambled eggs, diced bacon, green onions and melted cheddar. There you have three of your breakfast staples put together like never before. I’ve never seen or heard of this anywhere else. Kudos to owners Ely and Ophelia Tagatac for pioneering such a creation.