Thursday, September 30, 2010

“Look at that Place,”

I said to my Favorite Traveling Companion as we were standing looking at Monterey Bay. “Doesn’t it just scream tourist trap?”

Not only that, they distributed coupons for free appetizers in Tourist Bureau pamphlets and had a staff person stationed outside the doors handing out clam chowder samples. Normally, a place we would avoid. But wait. Free appetizer? So much for standards. Let’s hear it for “FREE.” So, lunch at The Fish Hopper Restaurant it would be.

“During the famous Cannery Row 'Steinbeck Era,' fish hoppers played an important role on the Monterey Peninsula. The fish hoppers, large square wooden boxes, were anchored off the shores of Cannery Row to receive the fish caught by Monterey's premier fishing fleet…Fishing boat captains guided their overburdened vessels to empty their catches into the fish hoppers floating in the Monterey Bay outside of each cannery. The fish were scooped into the fish hoppers…After being pumped into the cannery, the fish were weighed and then sent to the processing plants” (from the restaurant’s web site).

We were seated in a curved booth facing the bay and the first item I noticed was the white linen napkins on the table. Linen napkins in a tourist trap? Could I be mistaken? (Hard to believe.) Maybe this wasn’t a tourist trap.

Then our server, Manuel, told us that our coupon entitled us to either an order of the fried calamari or the grilled artichokes. Given that the calamari is over $10.00 on the appetizer menu, this isn’t a bad deal.

And we received a very generous plate of lightly floured and perfectly fried calamari pieces that also included the tentacles that I like so much. Then I made a mistake. I encouraged Chuck to try one of the tentacles. He liked it. He liked it a lot. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I should have learned by now. We both still give Scoma’s (San Francisco) the top prize for calamari, but the Fish Hopper’s is running a close second.

And the chowder promo worked on us. We both ordered a cup of their prize winning (I don’t remember what award – something like “Best of Monterey”) clam chowder. This would have been at home along the Maine coast – thick with potatoes and clam pieces, rich with cream, a hint of something I took to be salt pork, and – hard to believe – it came to the table steaming hot.

When looking at a menu, our first stop is always the appetizers. In addition to the artichokes and calamari, Fish Hopper offers: Dungeness crab cakes with mango chili sauce and red pepper aioli; prawns and scallops with mushrooms sautéed in a white wine butter sauce; coconut prawns with a spicy apricot sauce; and clams and mussels sautéed with white wine, garlic, tomatoes, butter, and herbs. But since we had already shared the calamari and had eaten the chowder, we both looked elsewhere.

Chuck, as has become his pattern, looked to the pasta listing. There he found: Seafood Pasta Monterey (sautéed fresh fish, scallops, and prawns with artichoke hearts, baby spinach, tomatoes, and fresh herbs in an olive oil garlic sauce over linguine pasta); Stuffed Jumbo Prawn Pasta (jumbo prawns stuffed with crab meat and served over angel hair pasta tossed with portabella mushroom, and tomato); Pasta Isabella (jumbo scallops, shrimp, clam meat sautéed with green onion, tomatoes in rich cream; Crab Ravioli with Prawns and Scallops served in a lobster cream sauce with baby spinach and garlic bread; and The Ultimate Seafood Pasta (scallops, prawns, and Dungeness crab meat sautéed in a cream sauce with Asiago cheese and served over fresh spinach fettuccini).

But his choice was California Crab Alfredo Pasta with Dungeness crab meat sautéed in a cream sauce with parmesan cheese and served over penne pasta. To me this was not a traditional Alfredo sauce since the parmesan cheese was used with the lightest of hands. But too much pungent and salty cheese would have masked the gently sweet flavor of the fish so not adhering to tradition was a good thing. The sauce was lightly creamy, not too rich, and let the Dungeness crab take the lead role.

I decided to try something entirely new (or new to me at least) and ordered the Sanddabs which came with garlic mashed potatoes and was garnished with sautéed spinach, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, and tomatoes.

The Monterey Fish Market web site describes sanddabs thusly: “The Pacific Sanddab is a wonderful little fish found in great abundance off our California coast. One of the most numerous fish along the West Coast, the Sanddab in chameleon-like fashion is able to change color and pattern to match a sand, gravel or shell rubble bottom and thus go unnoticed by prey…Seldom is the Sanddab discussed in cookbooks and only rarely is it seen in restaurants or seafood markets. A fish that is plentiful, cheap and delicious as well as being one of the most underutilized species in the Pacific Ocean. How can this be? The answer in one simple word is ‘bones.'”

Because of their mild flavor, it is recommended that sanddabs be prepared as simply as possible. Mine were lightly breaded and then grilled and there was nary a bone to be seen. Someone knows how to clean a fish. It seems that sanddabs are especially popular in the Monterey Bay area and can be found on a number of restaurant menus.

After chowder, calamari, pasta and sanddabs, who could be hungry for dessert? We could and shared a piece of warm chocolate bread pudding that came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. This was a very interesting bread pudding in that the “custard” was almost mousse-like making this a light—even if rich—dessert.

According to the restaurant’s web site: “The Fish Hopper Restaurant serves seafood from sustainable sources, harvested by methods that do not harm the environment. We proudly follow the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program.” Pretty good for a restaurant that I mistook for a tourist trap.

Yes, this counts as that “more interesting food out there” that Chuck (and I) was looking for and earns our ultimate 5.0 Addie score.

(Photo Above: Just below The Fish Hopper was this scene on McAbee Beach.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cannery Row

We had chosen an RV park in San Juan Bautista, CA, primarily because of its proximity to Monterey, so the first chance we got, we headed to Monterey, about 25 miles to the southwest.

About three miles from downtown, we came over a slight rise in Highway 1 and were greeted with a beautiful view of Monterey Bay.

From San Carlos Beach at the eastern end of Cannery Row, we had this view of the Bay (east, above; northwest, below), which is part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS).

The Sanctuary was established in September 1992. Marine sanctuaries strive to preserve ocean environments that are still relatively pristine while promoting multiple use of the area for enjoyment by everyone.

The Sanctuary protects plants, animals, rocks and shells and encompasses 5,322 square miles. Monterey Bay comprises about seven per cent of the MBNMS, the largest marine sanctuary in the United States.

Some facts about the Santuary that I thought were significant were: Approxi-mately 21 endangered and threatened animals spend all or part of their lives in the Sanctuary, the sea otter population within the Sanctuary is estimated to be more than 1,200, and a submarine canyon in Monterey Bay is larger than the Grand Canyon.

This sculpture of dolphins seemed to fit the setting perfectly.

The history of Monterey's Cannery Row is marked by waves--waves of immigrants, waves of fishes, and waves of activity.
In the late 1700's, the Spanish began to settle the area, bringing their religion and replacing the Native American customs.

In 1814, the Chinese began to arrive in large numbers, due mainly to the subject of the second wave--salmon. Around the 1850s, Portuguese whalers arrived, drawn by the large population of humpback and gray whales. Japanese immigrants began arriving in the early 1890s and were responsible, with the aid of insulated suits and helmets, for the advancement of abalone fishing in the Monterey Bay. And in the early 1900s Italian fishermen introduced the lampara net that helped revolutionize the fishing and canning industry and helped Monterey earn the designation "Sardine Capital of the World."

The first major cannery on Ocean View Avenue was the Pacific Fish Company, born on February 14, 1908. During the boom years of the canning industry, ships would unload their catch on long piers that stretched into the bay, move the fish into the canneries along the shore, and then send the cans by conveyer belt from the bayside of the street to the inland side for shipment. The crossovers above the street are vestiges of the conveyor belts.

The canneries themselves went through "waves," also--the huge spike in demand for canned sardines brought about by World War I, a decline during the Great Depression, another boom for the industry during World War II, and the collapse of the industry after World War II when the over-fished sardines disappeared from Monterey Bay.

When I saw this gathering of cormorants near this old building, I could almost sense the "conver-sation" occurring among them: "Why, back in the day, our ancestors would talk about 'the silver rivers of fish that would pour in out of the boats.' Those were the days."

Well, that was just how John Steinbeck described the heyday of the fishing industry in his 1945 novel Cannery Row. Steinbeck lived in Pacific Grove, next to Cannery Row, and it is along this street that banners having quotes from Steinbeck are hanging (left).

It seemed as though the 1960s struck a fatal blow to the area when many cannery buildings burned to the ground, but two Monterey restaurant managers and entrepreneurs opened The Sardine Factory Restaurant on October 2, 1968. The Sardine Factory is today one of the most successful, widely recognized, and highest grossing dining establishments in the country.

Other restaurants and hotels, such as the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa (right), have transformed Cannery Row from a street of abandoned canneries into a welcoming waterfront to which visitors would return again and again.

This table setting at the Hotel's outdoor restaurant is an example of the fine dining options available.

This simple mural of two fishermen on these concrete slabs seemed to be a modest but striking tribute to those who filled the history of Cannery Row.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

“What Part of Retirement . . .”

I asked my Favorite Traveling Companion, “don’t you understand?”

As we were walking into the Mission Café in San Juan Bautista, Chuck spies a flyer taped to the café’s window: For Sale…$80,000.00. Suddenly, I had visions of rising at 4:00 a.m. to “make the donuts.” Not on your life.

The Mission Café, constructed about 1856, is a a block from the Plaza Hotel. The Plaza was built in 1858 by Angelo Zanetta and has been restored to look as it did in the 1860's.

Zanetta also built what he hoped would be the county courthouse, but when Hollister was chosen as the county seat, the first floor of Plaza Hall was modified to serve as his family's residence, while the second floor was used for public meetings and celebrations.

This Mission Cafe had been closed for a number of years and reopened in March 2008. Those who knew the café in both its past and present lives say that nothing has changed all that much.

In the front window is a large table for six or eight. Along the side are four four-seater booths. In the middle are four small tables for two and there are ten stools at the counter. So max, this place, which is open only for breakfast and lunch, seats forty-two.

The floor is red and white tiles in a checker board pattern.

The valances are made of black and white checked fabric. The walls are decorated with old photographs, both of local scenes and of unidentified persons. And the window sills contained curios--many of a South of the Boarder variety.

The breakfast menu is extensive, but I fortunately had read a few on-line reviews and noted one reviewer had raved about the San Juan Special. This was a take on Eggs Benedict substituting sautéed fresh vegetables for the traditional Canadian bacon or ham. Sounded good to me.

What came was more than just good. I was scrumptious. First, the toasted English muffin was crisp, but could still be cut with a fork. Have you ever had Eggs Benedict where the muffin can’t be cut with a steak knife? I have. Second, the eggs were perfectly poached with no runny white and lots of runny yolk. Third, all of the veggies were cooked to crisp tender. The sautéed mushrooms had never seen a can and the spinach had never seen a freezer. And the large chunks of tomato were warm, but not mushy. The hollandaise was rich, but was light on the lemon. But this omission was rectified by the acid in the chopped tomatoes.

With this came a large serving of hash browns, cooked crisp as I requested. I am sure that ninety percent of the time, restaurant hash browns are poured frozen from a bag. So my standard of measure is whether, under the crisp shell, they retain some form of texture integrity. No soft mushy center for me, please.

Chuck eyed a breakfast that included eggs, chicken fried steak, home fries, and your choice of toast or a pancake. Cooler heads prevailed and he realized that this was too much even for him. Instead, he asked our server if he could just have the home fries and the chicken fried steak. “No problem.” she replied. So he received a good sized piece of very tender steak that had been crusted with a very good seasoned coating and then covered with equally good sausage gravy. The gravy almost made me with that I had ordered the biscuits and grave. Almost.

His home fries were made with new white skin-on potatoes, grilled with bell pepper slices and onions. If they had been my home fries, I would liked them crisper. But they were his home fries, and he seemed to think they were just fine.

I don’t think this breakfast counts as the “more interesting food” that he referred to yesterday. Still, this was a very good diner breakfast and still merits a 4.0 Addie rating.

I went outside while Chuck was paying the check. When he came out he tells me that he had been talking with one of the staff about the café being for sale. “Oh, No,” I thought. Then he told me that the purchase price does not include the building. Just the equipment and furnishings and the café’s “good will.”

I dodged a bullet this time!

Monday, September 27, 2010

It Seems Like Everyone . . .

is trying to lure Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, to their eateries. You remember me talking about Adam. He’s is the guy that tries to eat a four-foot diameter pizza loaded with sausage, pepperoni, ground beef, ham, pineapple, and so on.

Well, even JJ's Homemade Burgers in San Juan Bautista, CA, has its own Burger Challenge “for those who love a good chal-lenge!!!... Four patties layered with grilled onions, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes & special sauce, served with fries & a milk shake. The challenge is you have to eat the WHOLE burger and ALL the fixings/sides within 20 minutes. If you are successful, you will be stuffed.., but your meal is FREE, and your picture will be hung on our wall of fame” (from the restaurant’s web site).

JJ’s was described by one reviewer as “a place where hot rods and choppers meet up for a bite to eat.” Well, we saw neither hot rods or choppers – or many other customers for that matter – when we arrived at about 2:30 p.m. one day for a late lunch. Inside, JJ’s has three small tables and counter seating in the “main” dining room. Off to the side were two long counters with stools, and I suspect at one time this was outdoor dining. In addition, there is a good-sized front patio with umbrella tables, and that is where we parked ourselves to enjoy the fine weather.

From our seats, we could see The Casa Juan de Anza Adobe, constructed in 1834 as a single-family residence. The building also served as a cantina (1870) and became the first antique store along Third Street (1933).

Next door to the Anza Adobe is the residence originally constructed for Francisco Bravo. A 1908 map identified it as a saloon, later it was described only as a "Chinese business," and by 1926, the building was a pool hall. But back to lunch.

While we reviewed the menu, the radio playing over the sound system was airing one of the Bud Lite “Men of Genius” commercials. (My favorite of which was always: Mr. Giant Foam Finger Maker …Without you, our teams would be in six or seventh place and feel as if they were in sixth or seventh place…You craft uncanny representations of actual human hands…so that we may wave them annoyingly in the faces of our rivals…They're enormous, yes, yet one size fits all. Brilliant… So crack open an ice cold Bud Light Mr. Foam Finger Maker, and know we speak for sports fans everywhere when we say, "No, you're Number One".)

But I digress. Back to lunch. We didn’t even think of attempting the challenge. A normal sized burger would be plenty, and JJ’s serves up a large variety of burgers along with sandwiches, hotdogs, wraps, and salads. With all the burgers you get your choice of fries, garlic fries, onion rings, or chili fries.

Chuck quickly chose the double cheese-burger (two one-third pound patties) with a side of fries.

I, on the other hand, debated between the Guacamole Burger (pepper jack cheese and guacamole), the Jalapeno Burger (jack cheese, grilled onions, and jalapenos), the Mushroom Burger (grilled mushrooms and onions and Swiss cheese), and the El Jefe Burger (bacon, avocado, pineapple [hold the pineapple, please], jack cheese, grilled onions, and jalapenos).

Finally, I selected the Ortega Burger with an Ortega chilies, grilled onions, and jack cheese. Both burgers came on seeded toasted “buttered” buns and both of our burgers had nicely charred grill marks. My chilies were only mildly hot. Maybe I should have ordered the Jalapeno Burger after all.

The sides were good. The fries were definitely twice-cooked, but whether they came frozen from a bag or were cut in the kitchen is a mystery. But they were hot, crisp outside and soft and steamy inside, and absent grease. The onion rings were larger/thicker that we like, but were nicely coated with panko crumbs and crisp. And you could bite into one without the entire piece of onion coming out with the first bite.

I am sure that JJ’s Burger Challenge is way too wimpy for Adam Richman, so I wouldn’t advise hanging out on the patio to get his autograph. There was nothing wrong with either of our burgers. Nor was there anything exciting. In fact, Chuck stated--in words I never thought I’d hear--“I am getting tired of hamburgers. There’s a lot of more interesting food out there.” (Hallelujah!!!)

So JJ’s gets a 3.5 Addie rating, and we venture forth to find more interesting food.

And, wouldn’t you know it. I sang the lyrics to “Mr. Giant Foam Finger Maker” all the way home.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Largest California Mission

Native San Franciscans have been frustrated with the cool summer temperatures, but we've been enjoying them. But it was time to resume our travels.

We were heading inland, down I-5 to Highways 152 and 101, into the San Juan Valley and the town of San Juan Bautista, so we expected to find some hotter temperatures.

As we neared our destination, the landscape of rolling hills was unexpected. We had expected to find farm lands. After all, we had passed through Gilroy, CA, "The Garlic Capital of the World" and were not far from Castroville, "The Artichoke Center of the World."

And then there is Salinas about 20 miles south of San Juan Bautista. Sustained by the agricultural production of the rich valley farm lands and bolstered by excellent grazing land in the foothills of the mountain ranges on each side of the valley, the fertile Salinas Valley produces such enormous quantities of fruits and vegetables annually that it has earned the title the "Salad Bowl of the Nation."

And although they are few in number, the boutique wineries that do reside here are truly excellent.

But, even without crops or vines, the hills had an interesting beauty to them.

The well-preserved Mission San Juan Bautista, the largest of the 21 Spanish missions in California, was the first "must see" on our list. San Juan Bautista State Historic Park has the only original Spanish Plaza remaining in California.

In June, 1803, the cornerstone was laid for the Old Mission San Juan Bautista. The church has had an unbroken succession of pastors since its founding on June 24,1797.

Only three of the nine bells in the chapel area remain.

The community of San Juan Bautista gathered on December 17, 2001 as Old Mission pastor Father Edward Fitz-Henry and sculptor Thomas Marsh unveiled an eight-foot statue of mission patron, St. John the Baptist.

With three naves or aisles, it became the widest of all the mission churches.

As I was taking photographs of the interior, I was especially interested in the colorful decorative work on the columns and in what was probably the choir loft. To me, it was a tribute to the cultures of the Native American and Spanish workers and parishoners of the earliest days.

Interior completion of the church continued through 1817 when the floor was tiled and the main altar and reredos (which holds the six statues) were completed by Thomas Doak, an American sailor who jumped ship in Monterey. He painted the reredos in exchange for room and board.

The church surrounds a courtyard, which had been and still is a garden and had been the center for learning skills of carpentry, tanning, weaving, and candlemaking.

The San Andreas Fault runs along the base of the hill below the cemetery. The 1906 earthquake shook the greater part of central California. The side walls of the church collapsed. They were restored in 1976.

And Mission San Juan Bautista was featured in Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, although the bell tower, featured in two dramatic scenes in the movie, does not exist.