When the mild California winter finally breaks around Easter, and the sun warms our faces on afternoon walks, we emerge from our cooped up tiny house existence for a celebratory stay-cation in Santa Barbara. It's not summer yet; not time for long holidays in exotic places far away from home. No, we venture just a few hours down the coast from bustling Silicon Valley life to the laid back beach town that knows a three-day weekend is all it takes to brighten our spirits after the chilly dark months, and prepare us for the balmy solstice ahead.
Time to take a look around, on foot and by bike; this city encourages explorers. After cruising from the hilltop Santa Barbara Zoo along the winding beachfront path, past Stearns Wharf and the harbor, there it is on our right, the never-ending downtown drag - State Street. This three-mile-long tourist hot spot could keep us entertained for the whole day with restaurants and shops, cafes and sightseeing. Thanks to careful city planning, iconic Spanish-style white stucco walls and red-tile roofs flood the city, reminiscent of a meticulously arranged scale model with figurine citizens. It's incredible how clean and organized this city feels when all the architecture is working toward a common goal, regardless if the establishments are corporate chains or mom and pop shops.
The edges of State Street branch out for the willing wanderer, revealing secluded beer gardens, art galleries, fine restaurants, and more than one zesty taqueria. It's here, two blocks removed from downtown, where we stumble across Barbareño. Intrigued by the lush courtyard dining area, we take our seat while a server approaches.
"Welcome to Barbareño. Tonight, we serve not just food for your hunger, but the history of Santa Barbara herself. Here are your choice of stories," he says, handing us sleek wooden menus. "As you'll see, each story is seasonal and locally inspired."
Everything looks delicious. We choose a handful of options to share, tapas style. Each plate is more unique than the last, and true to the server's word, comes with a short tale celebrating the deep heritage of Santa Barbara and California's Central Coast. We discover that the word Barbareño honors the name of the original Chumash dialect that was spoken in the area.
Over the candlelight, our eyes meet. It's going to be an exciting night.
The commercialization of the avocado in the U.S. is rooted in Santa Barbara. In 1871, Judge R.B. Ord came back from Mexico with three avocado saplings from Mexico. He planted them on his property at the corner of Canon Perdido and De la Viña streets. With these trees, Santa Barbara was home to the first avocado trees in America that actually bore fruit. (Excerpt from Barbareño Instagram)
Right off the bat, we're thrown for a loop. These deconstructed Eggamuffins start with bite-sized cornmeal blinis and are topped with seascape mousse, salty speck, cured egg yolk shavings. This dismantled version of the legendary McDonald's Egg McMuffin pays homage to the original which was created right here in Santa Barbara at the McDonald's on Milpitas Street by food scientist Herb Peterson in 1972. Fast-food mogul Ray Kroc took one bite of Peterson's invention and the rest is breakfast history.
Taking a break from meat for a moment, we plunge into this bowl of Oak Tagliatelle, a savory vegetarian story of acorn pasta, maitke mushrooms, and charred oak broth, complimented by smoked Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and wild herbs. Thoughtfully conceived, this soupy pasta dish references the significance of the acorn and oak tree in Santa Barbara's local history, including the diets of the plant-gathering Chumash people. Personally, it reminds us of when Luke went to meet Yoda for the first time in the swamps of Dagobah, but in the best, tastiest way possible.
This dish makes us smile, as potatoes often do. In a touching tribute to In-N-Out Burger, a treasured Californian fast food chain, these animal-style potatoes feature caramelized onion, special sauce, chopped pickles and smoked fiscalini cheddar, courtesy of local Fiscalini Cheese Farm in Modesto, CA.
Never been to In-N-Out Burger? I wrote a blog post about them here!
Yes, there is something dark and delicious on that black plate. Fresh Uni Carbonara pays recognition to the deep blue ocean just blocks away, filled with fresh seafood that grace the menus of many local restaurants. Bucatini pasta is covered in a rich black squid ink and butter sauce with dollops of alle pia 'nduja fine salami spread, red veined sorrel, sweet uni and aleppo pepper, finished with San Joaquin Gold cheese.
But why stop with one dessert? Besides, the story of Santa Barbara would not be complete without a little weed, right? In classic California fashion, this sweet ending is a hand-torched Baked California (a play on Baked Alaska). Made of mango and herb semifreddo, toasted meringue, lemon and a hint of pine, and topped with lavender-candied pine nuts, this mouth-watering concoction surrounds a moist disk of hop cake containing terpenes to emulate the flavors of OG Kush marijuana. Get it? Baked? Toasted?
Don't worry, this dessert won't get us high - it doesn't contain any THC or CBD. Though terpenes are a compound found in cannabis, they're also present in many other plants, including lavender, citrus zest, and pine, which is why all those flavors work together in this brilliant, symbolic dish. Science!
Thank you for joining us on our flavor journey of Santa Barbara's history!
P.S. Barbareño isn't the only amazing place to eat in Santa Barbara, if you're a true foodie! We enjoyed every bite at restaurants like The Lark and The Blue Owl during our weekend trip. Here, just read the blog post I wrote about it: click here.