Santa Cruz’s reputation skews more towards flip flops and 4:20 parties than elevated food experiences, but regardless of what brings you to this beachy surf city, you’ll have no problem finding something delicious. It could be as simple as the best tahini salad dressing of your life at the landmark vegetarian Dharma’s (it was McDharma’s until Mickey D’s sued them in 1986) or a little corn quesadilla from Tacos Moreno in midtown. But these five food experiences will wow you.
1 Eat with your fingers: Chef and restaurateur David Kinch’s name is synonymous with Manresa, the three Michelin-star restaurant in Los Gatos. But the Santa Cruz local made his neighbors very happy indeed when he opened Mentone in Aptos in 2020. Pizza from the bedazzling Mugnaini oven — why yes, that is a mosaic tribute to The Rolling Stones on its exterior — is the big draw here. The Pizza Soppressata ($24), for example, is topped with salami, pickled Calabrian chiles and “fairy dust.” And the Caesar Salad, which arrives in a huge colorful bowl filled with radicchio, torn bread croutons and shards of shaved parmesan, is perfection.
Details: 174 Aptos Village Way, Aptos; www.mentonerestaurant.com
2 Know your farmer: Santa Cruz hosts at least one farmers market nearly every day — and three on Saturdays, including one with ocean views (when the fog cooperates). This region is an organic food heaven and a pulse point for small farms. Ninety produce and food stalls dot the Saturday Aptos Farmers Market at Cabrillo College, for example, offering handcrafted cheeses, organic juices and artisanal breads, as well as veggies, flowers and herbs. The Downtown Santa Cruz Market serves up a wide array of notable bites — everything from momos to pupusas, naan and biscotti — alongside the produce.
3 Goat it up: Companion Bakeshop opened on Santa Cruz’s Westside in 2010, but Erin and Jeremy Lampel’s bakery and cafe soon began drawing lines. Today, they have brick-and-mortar locations in Santa Cruz and Aptos and stalls at seven farmers markets. You’ll find their delicious fare — sourdough loaves, galettes, croissants, kouign-amann — at local coffee shops, and they’re the pie partner for Pie Ranch near Pescadero. There are no wrong choices, only delicious ones, but if you see a Goat Horn, buy it immediately. This small, horn-shaped loaf is laced with crackly pools of goat cheese.
Details: 2341 Mission St. in Santa Cruz and 7486 Soquel Drive in Aptos; https://companionbakeshop.com.
4 Get messy: If only the walls at Zachary’s restaurant could talk. This local favorite has been around since 1985, survived earthquakes and pandemics, and it still serves up dishes that taste exactly the way you remember them. The turmeric-stained homefries, sourdough pancakes and oatmeal molasses bread are all great, but the most beloved brunch dish is the Mike’s Mess ($15.50). It’s a pile of potatoes, scrambled eggs, mushrooms and bacon topped with melted cheese, sour cream, tomatoes and a shower of green onions. Best wear stretchy pants, even for the junior version ($13). (Psst, there’s a vegan version, too.)
Details: 819 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; www.zacharyssantacruz.com
5 Find fantastic fungus: Mushroom hunting is such a big deal in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the region holds an annual Fungus Fair. So it makes perfect sense that you’d find so many mushroom-centric dishes on menus. FLASHbird, the Abbott Square fried chicken joint helmed by chef Jeffrey Wall from Alderwood, offers a mind-blowing, crispy hen-of-the-woods mushroom sandwich ($13) alongside the poultry sammies. The menu at Far West Fungi’s Santa Cruz shop includes a mushroom muffaletta ($15). And inside the craft beer mecca that is the Sante Adairius Portal, Bookie’s Pizza serves up chef-driven, farm-to-table, “inauthentic Detroit-style” pizza … and astounding maitake mushroom wings ($16), slathered in butter and Frank’s Red Hot. Dip them in the house blue cheese ranch, of course.
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