We were expecting to eat well in our two weeks in California last month, but there were several restaurants that exceeded our expectations. Not being the ones we went to with friends or colleagues, or read about in guidebooks, they really felt like travellers’ finds. The most unexpected was on our last night staying in San Bruno close to San Francisco International airport the night before an early flight. Pointed in the right direction by the Ramada hotel receptionist who mentioned organic meat, we walked across a busy main road to discover a real find of a Mexican restaurant.
Don Pico’s has been in Isaac Mejia’s family for over 30 years and – always a good sign – there was a queue, not for take out, but for a table. The 20-minute wait looked like being worth it as we read the glowing newspaper reports on the walls, looked at a picture of the owner with the late doyen of California cooking, Julia Childs, and noticed the good humoured comings and goings of happy customers and staff. A rather bordello-like blonde was crooning to background music, a mixture of Latin and smoochy standards, and making several men of a certain age happy by putting her arm around them whilst serenading them. The customers were of all ages and all hues; the atmosphere was definitely family, local and loyal.
Once at our banquette, we were quickly brought tacos and dip; Brett ordered a Margarita and asked the waitress to open the bottle of serious single vineyard Zinfandel we had brought in a brown paper bag, given to us on a visit to the Sonoma winery Seghesio. We ordered guacamole plus a rather non-Mexican dish, Jambalaya for me and Ranchero stir fry steak (organic) for Brett.
Our wine did not return for quite a while until it appeared with Isaac the owner who sat himself next to me to chat and to congratulate us on our choice of bottle – turned out his brother worked in the wine trade. The restaurant, however, does not have a wine list as it simply offers for a modest $20 whatever good wine Isaac has in stock at that time. Brett offered him a glass and he promptly organised another delicious starter for us that he insisted we tried. He talked about his art and artifacts that adorn the wall collected on his travels and which include some wonderful old sombreros and several original props and paintings used in Hollywood movies. We tucked into our delicious food (far too much of course, and no, even though it was offered, we certainly couldn’t take it home with us …) and drank the superb Zin which coped with the spice admirably; then he posed with me for a snap in front of the painting from Citizen Kane. It was a great end to our California trip – and he didn’t even charge us corkage.
The other lovely evening we had was a few days earlier after a superb drive up Highway One to Carmel when we ended up at Cantinetta Luca in the beautiful town of Carmel. The restaurant was kindly recommended by Levi the barman at Nepenthe, when we stopped there for a drink at sunset. Luca is an Italian restaurant, once again with a family atmosphere. It presented us with classy décor, classy Italian food and a huge, all-Italian wine list. We enjoyed a refreshing and unusual Sicilian Inzolia with our cold hams/salamis, pasta and risotto before going window-shopping for expensive art en route back to the Wayfarer Inn , another good find in this very pleasant town.
Despite these lucky travellers’ finds, I am now really convinced that Wine Travel Guides needs to cover California sometime in future because there is so much choice out there. There is nothing like guidance from a local.