It was a leisurely stop en route to the central coast, and there was time for an overdue lunch meetup with my friend Dan. We met at Bell Street Farm in Los Alamos, where I’ve intended to have lunch for ages and ages, but could never find a time when I was passing through and the place was open.
Bell Street Farm caters to the weekend crowds, originally heading north or south for wine tasting, although in recent years Los Alamos has become a destination in and of itself thanks to places like this cafe.
The prize item most of my friends have raved over is the rotisserie pork belly salad – I knew I was going to order this before Dan and I even confirmed we’d be dining here. Just look at the photo, isn’t it magnificent? The pork is tender, as belly should be, but with a light searing on the outside to make it both golden brown and crisp on the outside, juicy and tender inside. It doesn’t feel too heavy to consume, thanks to lots of salad provided instead of heavy starches.
Dan went with his instincts and got the meatloaf sandwich. I stole a bite here and there. Meatloaf is a secret comfort food from childhood (isn’t this true with everyone?) that I don’t eat often enough. This sandwich is great. I’d get it again if I ever tired of pork belly, although the probability of that is very low.
Part of what makes Bell Street Farm such a nice place to dine at comes from the vivacious personality of the owner and the friendliness of the people working there. This was just a pitstop while heading further north for the weekend. I knew I needed to buy a few provisions for the final destination and although the deli and market section is quite limited, it had everything I needed: half a rotisserie chicken that came with lemon hummus, chunky slices of housemade pate, a wedge of cheese, and souvenir sized bottles of local olive oil and balsamic vinegar that was the perfect size for feeding friends over the weekend at our rented space in Atascadero.
I’m so glad I finally had a chance to eat here. I hope there are many more opportunities to come.
Bell Street Farm
This location has seen some contentious times – different concepts, but usually there’s been a common element of ownership or staff throughout those times. One outcome of an intense experience is that the group that shares it become strongly bonded together, I know what this is like.
On a recent weekday evening, the front and side was packed. Older locals, young scenesters with pressed shirts and popped collars, maybe a blind date or two, maybe some casual co-workers, a good upwardly mobile mix of people, that’s a good sign. It had the feeling of a neighborhood joint that someone in a fancy dress, or a pair of flipflops would be comfortable in.
The food was a pile of ridiculous happiness. Dishes you’d recognize on the menu, with a little twist to make it their own. Plated perfectly, like a little work of art, I almost felt bad about stabbing them with my knife to break it down into bite size pieces.
I was there with one friend, we plowed into the following.
* Asparagus and poached egg. One of my favorite comfort foods, if only I can ever get my poached eggs right. Their asparagus was dressed with dill, which I loved. And the poached egg was breaded and fried, making it crisp and crunchy outside, with that yummy velvety yolk inside that oozed everywhere like it should. I do happen to get a lot of satisfaction out of dipping my asparagus into a crater of egg white cradling the yolk, and this was harder to do with the breaded egg, but where else in this town have you had a breaded fried and poached egg? Nowhere I know of.
* Heirloom tomato salad. I often skip this on the menu, and I’m stupid for doing that, because the few times I’ve ordered it at places I’m always stunned at how delicious proper fresh tomatoes can be. These were meaty, flavorful, some perhaps a bit firm, and dressed nicely with other greens and chopped avocado, and with a crisp flatbread on top coated with some kind of young herby cheese. If a Santa Barbara spring or summer day can be presented on a plate, I think it would be a lot like this.
* Truffle mac and cheese. If you want to retain any fond memory of HobNob, let it be their truffle mac and cheese. A bit trite these days, but still good, and apparently a very popular item on the menu.
* Crispy pork belly over potato salad. OMG WHAT?! This was the favorite of the night, mainly because we are crazy for pork belly. It was golden brown and delicious, fatty without being greasy. The potato salad wasn’t the thick mayo shellac, but delicate chopped pieces more like a warm potato side dish.
* Kobe beef hot dog with coleslaw and housemade potato chips. Another OMG WHAT?! How did they know I not only love a good hot dog, but I love a freaking slawdog! The coleslaw came on top of the dog, big chunky juicy zippy slaw, my friend thought its spices were reminiscent of Korean chile sauce. At $9 it was one of the least expensive on the menu, and the most ample, a meal in itself. It is also very messy, with juices going everywhere. Maybe don’t order this if you’re wearing white or on a first date.
The food came out nearly all at once, which is cool for a big group, but there was two of us, at a small barside 2-top, it was a struggle to fit it all on the table and eat the food before it got cold. I often hear people gripe when their food comes out at different times, but with small plates near the bar, I’m there to graze and linger. As it turns out, I only had an hour to eat, so getting the food quickly was a good thing. But next time I’m there, I’ll order in rounds to keep things at a manageable pace.
One guy at the bar took care of us, and he was so nice and personable, my dining companion thought we knew each other prior. Nope. But if that’s what she thought, then I think he was doing a good job.
Throw in a glass of Brander white wine (sorry boozers, it’s just beer and wine here), the bill for two people was about $33 each. We probably ordered one item more than we needed. We rolled out of there stuffed and made our way over for an evening of PechaKucha.
Arlington Tavern (downtown)
I’m stubborn. When I hear my girlie girlfriends say Seagrass is the place for The Romantic Date or, *shudder*, the Valentine’s Day dinner I spin around and flee in the other direction.
Dude. So not the case. Ok, yes, look at the menu and gawk at the $15 appetizers and $30 mains.
It’s only offered on the non-prime time nights, Sunday – Thursday (and they are currently closed Mondays, but I think that’s changing in May).
Just $35 for three courses, based off their daily menu. So it’s not like everyone else is chowing the $30 waygu beef while you get yesterday’s coq au vin a la king. No, you get the waygu beef.
This includes a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. The portions, so I’m told, are a smidge smaller than the a la carte sizes, but honestly, it’s enough food. I was full. And it was delicious.
The first time I ate there:
My friend had the beet salad, sauteed local snapper, and raisin pudding.
Second visit was a big share fest with my dining companion.
* Kumumoto oyster shooter, ginger gelee, salmon roe, scallions, ale foam as one starter.
* Main – Sauteed wild seabass, sugar snap peas, leek soubise, pommes brunoise, tomato fondue, veal jus, basil oil. Can you tell I cut/paste this from their website? I really have no idea what soubise and brunoise are. My friend ordered this.
* Main – Slow braised Kurabuto PORK CHEEK, carrots two ways, pan fried polenta, braised shallots, tangerine foam, natural braising jus with thyme. There was also a juicy piece of pork belly, like an obelisk of bacon stacked on the polenta. This was an incredible dish, the pork belly was so tender. There was also a slow roasted half onion on one of the polenta disks that was sweet, tender, and still held its form. Loved it.
For dessert we both had the Valrhona bitter-sweet chocolate torte, in vanilla bean crust with candied orange zest and raspberries.
Both times the meal started with bread and butter, and a little amuse buche that was a spoonful of some kind of fish, and crisp slice of parsnip.
They source locally and very seasonally. They plate the food lovingly. The owners and chefs browse the tables to see how everyone is doing. It’s a family run business, but definitely not a “mom n’ pop” style place.
And yes, you can come here for a romantic date, or the mother-in-law meal. You know what I’m talking about.
I’m really enjoying the prix fixe options in this town, they keep getting better. Such a good deal. Add Seagrass near the top of the list.
Gong hay fat choy y’alls.
There was a time that my family had the big feast with nine auspicious courses, maybe more. And people trying to sneak into the house to get at the food.
Guest must bring at least two oranges or tangerines, because this represents a gift of gold, and wishing prosperity to everyone in the new year. Jonah brought this nice wood bowl full of citrus. And I don’t know what the deal was with the big wooden fish on the table, but he’s kind of cute, no?
We start off, unofficially, with some little snacks. Nuts and dried fruit and things. They’re always there. Sometimes we call them biji biji, but technically they’re not. Biji biji are little gifts. These are snacks!
Part of the fun of the meal is helping out here and there. The first course needs lots of help to put together. It’s called lo hei, and although it is more a Singaporean dish, we love it and it’s been a part of my family’s chinese new year traditions for years.
There’s a little activity in the kitchen as the second course comes together in the wok. This is a vegetable course, with bok choy and ginger. It goes quickly.
The third course is also vegetarian, with celery and mushrooms.
The fourth course is crispy rice, cooked in clay pots. Not all the rice is crispy, of course, just the rice at the bottom of the pot, and this is the item most sought after. After the rice has cooked in the pot, we throw in some additional vegetables and an egg, which cooks in the residual heat. This is new to the family dinner, and everyone loved it. No leftovers at all.
The course that has traditionally been a roast duck is now a roast chicken, albeit an organic free-range one from Whole Foods. I sliced it up, and we ate it in lettuce wraps with hoisin sauce, cilantro, and spring onions.
And finally, the course everyone goes crazy for, the tender pork belly! Tonight it was strips of pork belly prepared in a cast iron pot. SO GOOD. You know you want some.
And with that, we welcome in the year of the rabbit. Happy new year!
It was only two weeks since my last visit here, but I was so enthused at having a translated menu, I wanted to return quickly and try the hot pot.
It was the day after the Big Feast of thanksgiving, and we were in the mood to stray away from leftovers. We came here for lunch and found it wasn’t that busy. Not surprising, since just about everyone was probably still recovering from the previous day of endless gluttony.
First off, a little appetizer of eggrolls. These were fresh and very hot inside. Chinese eggrolls aren’t my favorite in general, but no real complaints about there. Perhaps the dipping sauce was more sweet than chile, but that’s okay.
Our main item is a broth hotpot. It cost $15 and came with a choice of meat. Once I heard “pork belly” I stopped listening, so I have no idea what else is available. Obviously, we got pork belly. It comes out raw on a platter with other soup-friendly goodies, like noodles, greens and enoki mushrooms.
The broth itself was unexpectedly filled also with goodies, like more mushrooms and more meat. We literally had to eat our way down to reveal enough broth to add our raw items to it. Meanwhile, the pot bubbled away with the sterno light underneath it.
I really enjoyed this meal, it’s good to share with one other. Some Chinese guys walked in and they ordered something similar. It’s not as abundant with the range and quantity of goodies as my mother’s broth hot pot, but it’s totally fine.
I think I can squeeze one more trip to Kobachi before going on vacation. This dinner was for a visiting Belgian woman, who was staying with my parents while researching another Belgian that my mother dated many many years ago. It’s a long story.
Top: octopus and scallops, pork belly skewers with red miso glaze, oshinko mori – assorted pickles.
This was the first time my parents tried the pork belly skewers and the chicken meatballs, they loved those. The hanpan before was “katsu” with fried breading and this wasn’t breaded. I was underwhelmed, as the fish cake now tasted dry and puffy. Nobody complained, though, so it was fine.
Finally, an eel roll. Sated!
Kobachi Izakaya Dining
Bringing someone new here rejuvenates my own fondness for the restaurant. Tonight’s newbie was Alyssa. I sense that she gets down on living in Santa Barbara. By that, I mean *living*, finding vibrancy and all that. Anytime I bump into her around town, she’s flying off to somewhere else the next day.
But tonight was the night to show that podunk little Santa Barbara can turn out a few nice dishes. There was three of us, settled at the bar and we shared everything.
One of the chef’s specials that wasn’t on the menu was corn cakes. Alyssa and I watched her frying them in the kitchen, like two little kids who could barely see over the counter. These cakes were topped with fresh tomato and apple salsa. Everything went together so well.
The farmers market soup was chilled asparagus soup with tarragon foam. Not everyone’s favorite, but I appreciate anything in this town that strives towards the molecular gastronomy that’s all the rage in the big cities. Plus, fresh market produce. The flavors were dark and fruity. And I happen to really like tarragon, and other licorice flavors.
Two “side” dishes, although great stand-alones as appetizers were the avocado fries with pinquillo pepper ketchup, and goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms. Each was $6, and the avocado was an easy favorite of the night. It seemed like a whole avocado, cut into quarters, battered and fried. Loved the pepper sauce it came with, which seemed like fresh chile peppers in liquid form.
The squash blossoms were also good, but they present a dilemma. I want to eat them quickly, before the batter goes soggy, but if eaten too quickly the hot cheese burns. What’s a girl to do?
We had two main dishes to share between the three of us. The first was a sweet potato gnocchi and it was top notch. The gnocchi was dense and chewy, not gummy at all like with so much store bought potato gnocchi I’ve had in the past. The gnocchi was served with a braised spring lamb ragu and fried cavalo nero lettuce. Rich tasting and slightly sweet. Gosh I love sweet potatoes!
And the big winner of the night, other than the avocado which we all know was awesome, was Square One’s version of a B.L.T. A pork belly BLT. Oh my god.
In place of the bacon was a fat slab of juicy pork belly. The tomatoes were heirloom green zebra tomatoes and the lettuce was wild arugula. The dish was $16 and worth every penny. It is very rich, keep in mind! I’m grateful there were people to share this with, there’s no way I could eat the whole thing on my own.
Overall, I feel we ordered really amazing items. However, everything we got was very rich, so the combination of it all could have been overwhelming. I definitely could have used more fresh produce to balance the decadence of the pork belly. But there was no other way around it. I don’t regret anything we ordered, and I’d do it again. The balance comes from eating almost nothing else for the next day.
When Chris and Anne heard we were izakaya fans, they insisted we sample the fare at Biwa. And we tried. The first time was the night the kitchen god was testing our mettle. It was raining, Anne was hangry after a long frustrating day, her umbrella broke, and the Biwa was totally full. But we were determined people and came back on our last night in Portland and we rewarded for our patience. While very little of the dining menu actually appeared to be izakaya food, it had late open hours, food was served on small plates and it was very good.
We started with pickles and drinks, to whet our appetites. The sake and shochu cocktail list was impressive and inventive, also tasty. I love asian booze, so my shochu tom collins was more enjoyable than a proper TC.
Small bites: shio-yaki saba – salt grilled mackerel and grated daikon. Then kara-age. That means friiiiiiied chicken.
The skewers are more typical of street food, and are a fabulous deal at this restaurant with hanger steak, pork belly, oyster mushrooms, chicken liver yakitori, all around $3/skewer.
We also had the bacon chahan (fried rice) and seaweed salad with lotus root (above). And korokke (curried pork and potato croquette), and something nobody remembers, but it was probably a kind of pancake (below).
Biwa added its own Portland twist by serving robust but tender lamb ribs. Again, not typical izakaya, but still delicious and we gobbled those down to the bone.
Price per head worked out to $40 before tip. Considering the group was its own definition of kimchi (i.e. well pickled), this was cheap eats and drinks. And thankfully, they have a cocktail using umeboshi, and can also offer a simple campari and soda. Cuz we needed the digestives after all that rich nosh.
Biwa (Central eastside, SE)