Wednesday Food: Beer and the West Coast
Yesterday, we returned. The only occasion was that two of the four had time, and the other two needed to take time away. Beyond that, a passion bordering on obsessive for all things beer brought four food and drink lovers together for an epic adventure. Luck was on our side as San Francisco was just beginning its beer week, Pliny the Younger was freshly tapped at Russian River, and the forecasted rain in Portland never arrived.
Highlights: an impromptu breakfast of half a pound of Cow Girl Creamery Cheese and baguette, served in the car; waking up to a lighthouse and impeccable mocha in isolated Shelter Cove; finding Michael Jackson’s out-of-print Beer Companion at Powell’s (for cheap).
Our places of respite and elation, by region:
(FOREWARD: I realize this post is exhaustively long but for the sake of posterity, I couldn’t help but thoroughly record the events. Feel free to skip around and skim!)
DAY 1: 367 miles, Los Angeles- Santa Barbara- Los Olivos- Santa Cruz
After congregating and loading in LA, our very first stop for lunch after a mere hour of driving was at La Super Rica in Santa Barbara. Esteemed by just about every food and travel publication for their sensational tacos, we were not disappointed by selections including tri-tip and chorizo. It was fresh, flavored, and fast– the perfect start to our journey.
In Los Olivos we visited Alta Maria Vineyard where we shared tastings of their Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Autonom Rhone Cuvee. All were good, but we were led to visit by the Cuvee and walked away with the Sauvignon Blanc. Sadly, but necessarily, this would be the only winery visit on our tour.
Following Highway 1 to the coast we watched the rolling hills and oak trees of the Santa Ynez Valley become slowly replaced by towering redwoods and steep cliffs, the unmistakable landscape of Big Sur. It seemed a shame not to stop and camp in this area, how better to immerse yourself in such a place and dream of the day you’ll retire and docent full-time at Hearst Castle? A stop at Big Sur Bakery for pastries and strong coffee was the closest we would come.
Famished and thirsty after a long first day we enjoyed basic bar fare and pints at 99 Bottles of Beer. Not a bad beer bar for a small town filled with college students, and a good place to avoid the gag reflex of Valentine’s Day as it manifests in the food industry. A night passed in the charming, detached cottage of an old friend offered us a quiet evening in a week where there were few.
Day 2: 85 miles, Santa Cruz- San Francisco- Oakland
A short drive through more wooded terrain brought us to the most beloved and only true ‘city’ of California– San Francisco. Beginning the day at Ferry Plaza we snatched coffee and cheeses from Cow Girl Creamery which I assumed would be eaten later in the day. But with four hungry travelers, quality cheese, a fresh baguette and apple, and the well-anticipated accouterments of a traveling cheeseboard and Leatherman knife, it made for an unforgettable spread. Remember that sister of mine who bested a grueling backpacking hike with a tetra pack of wine? She’s the one with the traveling cheeseboard. It’d be easy to mock her if she wasn’t so fucking amazing.
Well-fed, we unanimously decided the first beer stop (and earliest open) was to be Toronado. I wrote of my love for this place in the fall, but it was with fresh eyes and eager company that I enjoyed it a second time. A tap-takeover from Russian River renewed my faith, and I found Supplication and Mortification high on my list of best beers of the trip. Of course we had to stay long enough to settle into a table which meant a few hours and a few beers.
The resulting buzz and hunger for noodles led us to the Burmese hole-in-the-wall, Yamo. The food was excellent, authentic and inexpensive. The venue itself was a closet-sized kitchen and ten seat countertop, behind which three women prepped, executed, and served the dishes. Watching the cooks work with traditional tools, feeling the wafting grease of the poorly-ventilated structure permeate my hair and clothes, and hearing the heavily-accented orders of the Chinese owner, I couldn’t help but feel that I could be in turn-of-century San Francisco.
Restored of our faculties we stayed in the neighborhood for a brief visit to Monk’s Kettle. I’d say this is the least alternative of San Francisco’s many beer bars, though the well-coiffed crowd can’t be blamed for having excellent taste in beer.
Another fast favorite from my stay in the fall, Beer Revolution continues to offer some fantastic beers, in an atmosphere where you’re likely to make new friends (I’m glad for the ones I acquired.) The light fell while we were there and hunger rose once again. I wish I could have stayed longer.
Our appetite for Southeast Asian cuisine continued at Golden Lotus, in Oakland. Specializing in vegetarian ‘pho’ (can it be authentic pho without unmentionable meat parts present?), the menu had something for everyone as our table of six had no duplicated orders. And after a long day of too much beer, nourishing, hot soup becomes a thing of beauty.
But my night wasn’t quite over, as I closed the evening with a friend at The Trappist. In all its low-lit, Belgian beer glory, I can’t imagine a more intimate place to end such an extravagant day.
Day 3: 237 miles, Oakland- Petaluma- Santa Rosa- Shelter Cove
While others in the car were far wiser than I and skipped the previous evening’s final bar stop in order to drink water and get a good night’s sleep, I spent the morning of day three feeling as good as the many bugs of California splattered across our windshield. I was relieved that when we arrived at Lagunitas Brewing Co., the brewpub was closed but gift shop was open.
My pride forced me to rally when, upon walking through the well-worshiped doors of Russian River Brewing Co., I saw that Pliny the Younger was still available on tap. Regardless of whether this is a ridiculously overrated Imperial IPA, or a deserving small-batch brew, it must be sampled. One does not survive the Land of Darkness and arrive at the Fountain of Youth only to pass it up because they are hungover. My assessment– meh. Good beer. But phenomenal? I’d take Supplication or Mortification over it.
Day 4: 501 miles, Shelter Cover- Eureka- Portland
We couldn’t help but linger in the gorgeous isolation of the small town of Shelter Cover in Humboldt County. With redwood trees that creep down to beaches of crashing Pacific waves, you can picture it by imagining Big Sur but far more isolated. For those who fancy an off-the-radar escape, it couldn’t be better. There are 700 scattered residents and one fantastic coffeeshop, Lost Coast Coffee Co.
A scheduled day of driving, we allowed ourselves one indulgence with a stop at Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka. This is an unusual place as it brews well-distributed and esteemed beer, but sees a different kind of regular than most beer bars. The smart-assery of the typical beer geek (myself not excluded) is replaced by modest local color. Spinach and artichoke dip was a perfect match to the flight of a dozen beers.
Day 5: 8 miles, Portland
No morning, to new visitors of Portland, is complete without a cup of Stumptown Coffee Roasters coffee. Though the Pacific Northwest is by no means lacking in truly great roasted beans, so branching out is encouraged. And while most people enjoy its eclectic sweets after a late night, we stopped at Voo Doo Donuts for a maple bacon donut breakfast.
A stop at Powell’s Bookstore is another must for those new to the city. I was overjoyed to find a copy of a Michael Jackson beer book I had long sought for a third of the Amazon price. With the demise of Borders behind us and little hope for first-hand book browsing on the horizon, it’s refreshing to know there are a few classic institutions that survive. Who would have thought a languid morning at a book store would be such a rare luxury?
Having visited Deschutes on previous trips my compatriots and I made our requisite “big-brewery” stop at Rogue Public House and Distillery. It was a quick visit, but long enough to share a flight, make purchases at their garage sale, and tour the one-room distillery.
On the way from Rogue toward a gathering of food trucks for lunch, we happened upon Vinopolis, a wine shop with extensive selection (local and imported), and great prices. One particular employee was patient and funny as I pretended to know what I was talking about with questions regarding orange wine and Lambrusco (I bought neither as both are much more expensive than I anticipated.)
Finally, we crossed the river making our first stop at the vegan grocer, Food Fight. While I enjoy cooking and eating vegan meals, the novelty of such a store was somewhat lost on me, though the Seitan Jerky is pretty good. I felt more at home at Green Dragon/ Buckman Botanical Brewery on Belmont. A flight of their selections introduced me to the Chamomellow which was unique and totally drinkable but beyond that nothing stood out. To be fair, the place was packed and the beers were served well above ideal temperature.
Across the street we congregated at Cascade Brewing Co., where I enjoyed my favorite beer of the week. A three year oak-aged sour cherry pie ale was a more complex, mature version of their Cascade Kriek. It was tart, but not like juice in the pedestrian manner of so many sours, with just enough funk to keep it interesting. Warm pie spices were recognizable after the initial cherry taste. So, so, so good.
Soaking in the last of Portland’s beer scene before our collapse, we stopped at Apex. I have never met such an agreeable beer menu, with a draught list of 50, the cheapest prices I have ever seen in a a beer bar, and a bartender that will accomodate you with whatever size pour you request. Here we all sampled from an 8 ounce glass of ghost chili beer, from El Toro. Flavor was undetectable beyond ‘extremely hot’, but somehow you couldn’t help but try it.
Day 6: 658 miles, Portland- Chico- Oakland
The only stop on a day dedicated solely to driving, we made it a good one. Sierra Nevada is a hallmark of craft beer history, thriving when others folded, pursuing green practices before it was popular. They grow hops and grain on site, power their operation through solar panels, and to this day make reliably drinkable beer. I’ll always think of them as the first beer I poured, at a pizza place in high school long before I dared to sample what is now my favorite beverage.
Day 7: 424 miles, Oakland- Santa Barbara- Los Angeles
One stop at Blenders in the Grass. Mmmm.
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