Unlike many gorgeous tourist oriented cities by the sea, Monterey California doesn’t necessarily shunt you down to a few tourist-friendly reconditioned blocks of bad and overpriced chain restaurants (Chart House, anyone?).
Yes, there is a section of the old Cannery Row that has spawned a whole string of the most goddawful avoidable businesses in California and the special torture of $18 prix fixe parking lots. I know there’s a Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Factory, and maybe an IMAX theatre and I’m guessing there’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not museum, though I haven’t really been down there in years, because it’s totally unnecessary to go there to get a good (and often cheap) meal or a great view amidst the heady smell of kelp forests and the background music of barking sea lions.
There are many great and celebrated restaurants in Monterey Bay and the surrounding environs. Here I’ll skip piling on to the raves for places like Tarpy’s Roadhouse on the road to Salinas or Pacific Grove’s Passion Fish, which specializes in local and sustainable seafood, and just say, yes, they’re awesome. Instead, I’ll hone in on four of my favorite out of the way places that I frequented when I was living and studying marine biology in this cold and beautiful back eddy of the California coast, and that continue to draw me back every time I come back to count some more snails or see some old friends.
Outside of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium (see below), the closest I’ll eat to Cannery Row in Monterey is the Trailside Café on the bike path that used to bear the tracks that conveyed the Del Monte Express that killed my hero, marine biologist Ed “Doc” Ricketts on a fateful late afternoon in 1948. A bust of Ed is laid at the crossing where his old Ford was hit. Someone has usually put a fresh flower beside him.
The ocean view from Trailside’s patio is one of my favorites, not for its spectacular beauty, but because it gives a wide and totally improbable glimpse of the old Monterey—vacant waterfront lots and rusty boilers and old piers crumbling back into the Pacific. Somehow the section of the Row in front of Trailside Café (except for the waterfront El Torito–an awful chain-like Mexican restaurant that I speculate owes its continued existence to some kind of Pollos Hermanos operation, though I can’t prove that) has escaped the transformation of Cannery Row into a thriving tourist mecca.
When I sit down, I can see that Trailside’s simple menu hasn’t changed much since it opened, some years ago. Nor has the help. I’m happy to see the owner/cook/server Sean still there and still smiling. Now I can date the place because around the time he was opening it we were both first time dads to be in a parenting class. We compare pics of our now 13-year-old daughters and then I get down to business.
I wish I had room for the beignets, but I’ll just say I remember them from 13 years ago. Warm beignets on a cold foggy morning on the patio is a visceral delight. I opt for a sample plate with a couple blueberry babycakes (small is how I like them anyway–if you are a fan of enormous plate size pancakes, I recommend First Awakenings in the American Tin Cannery mall near the Aquarium), a couple of eggs (Sean is the first server I’ve ever met whose face didn’t go all blank and confused when I asked for my eggs “cooked like an omelet”—why is that so hard?), sausage and rye toast with bright violet fresh blueberry jam. Simple enough, but everything was done just right, and the homey feel of the place and the view of the decaying part of Cannery Row and the Bay had me all dreamy and nostalgic and satisfied, which is what a good breakfast should do for you.
Taqueria Del Mar
Like all real taquerias, there is absolutely no theme whatsoever to the art on the walls of Taqueria Del Mar—a Technicolor acrylic fishing village painting, some Negra Modelo mirrors, a photo of a breaching humpback whale, a few oil color reproductions depicting the Swiss Alps. Know this – if you walk into a taqueria and the wall art is a whole matched set of framed Loteria cards (or worse, Frida Kahlo prints) you might not be getting the real deal. Del Mar is the real deal, but it’s also so much more than the average real deal taqueria.
Their menu has the usual terrestrial tacos and burritos, but it then dives into the Bay to bring you fish burritos and tacos de pulpo (octopus) and ceviche and squid and whatever else the waters happen to be providing. You can get a crab chimichanga and classic pescado al mojo de ajo. You can also take a trip up the coast to Castroville—where young Norma Jeane Mortenson was once named the Artichoke Queen—to pick some of the spiny veg for an artichoke burrito.
Despite the diversity of options, I’m a creature of habit, so I go with the same chicken burrito that I’ve had about 63 times before. This is not your dry-as-bones and almost-as-flavorful Chipotle burrito. The chicken doesn’t come scooped out of a stainless steel hotplate and dumped on your tortilla, but sizzled on a hot grill in a luscious mix of tomatoes and onions and oil and then quickly rolled into a hot tortilla that soon becomes fully integrated into that fine hot mess. Juicy as it is, every bite still gets individually doused in the salsa verde from the squeeze bottle on my table. When that last, best of all bites bite is gone, I’m still looking for other things to squeeze that salsa verde on, but it’s over. Time to bid adios and vaya con Dios to the taqueria and the alps and the whale and the little technicolor fishing boats.
Hula’s Island Grill
Hula’s (www.hulastiki.com) is a tiki bar themed restaurant, but not in the Tonga Room, sorta fun if you’re having a bachelorette party kind of way. It’s small and intimate and it doesn’t feel like a self-conscious experiment in retro-cool. Hula’s is sincere in its appreciation of the vibe of a good Tiki bar blended with a modern restaurant. There is, somewhat tragically, a gorgeous Yater longboard bracketed to wall over the kitchen, never to ply the frigid waters of Monterey Bay.
The flatscreen behind the bar runs a loop of surf porn with an occasional break to roll all three episodes of the Brady Bunch’s horrifically awesome trip to Hawaii. And there’s good music. Not fade into the background cool jazz or too cool for school hipster fare, but just good music. Like mixing Peter Tosh’s Mama Africa with Macy Grey and The Clash. These are bold selections for restaurant music, but it reminds you that someone in the kitchen really cares about how you are doing today.
Like any proper tiki bar, you can get drinks in funny mugs at Hula’s, but they’re real drinks, not sickly sweet veneers designed to give plausible deniability for the aforementioned bachelorettes stealing kisses in the back corners of the Tonga Room. The Dark and Stormy I ordered was both. And gingery. And mysterious.
Way back in the day, Hula’s menu was really simple. Three or four choice fishes, prepared three or four different ways. They were all excellent. The current menu is enormous but still charming. In addition to now five types of fish prepared six possible ways (that’s 30 dishes right there), there are a dozen or so apps, plus rice bowls, salads, burgers and sandwiches (the Luau Pork Sandwich advertised as “heaven on a bun”? Yes.). And yes, for those of you and your friends and family who have been suddenly afflicted with a digestive disease that never existed 5 years ago, there’s a enormous gluten-free version of the menu as well.
On this night, I opted for the seared ahi wontons to start. Light crispy and just a little bit spicy in their wasabi-ginger cream sauce. A great pairing with my Dark and Stormy. But an even better and more unusual pairing was to come.
For the main, I took a big leap from my usual Luau Pork Sandwich and went whole hog for Duke’s Luau Pork Plate. My bartender insisted that there was only one pairing that could do justice to the succulent slow roasted pork draped over pineapple and slaw, and that was Maui Blanc from Ulupalakua Ranch, a pineapple white wine from Maui. I’m not saying that Ulupalakua’s blanc will become my house wine of choice, but if you find me at a tiki bar by the coast, eating heavenly shredded pork and watching Greg Brady wipe out on his surfboard because of that cursed tiki god amulet he was wearing, I’ll be savoring this pineapple wine every time.
Cindy’s Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Fortunately for fans of zoos, aquariums and museums, the food in these institutions has gotten much better in recent years. No longer are we tortured by the 1980’s Smithsonian experience of soggy hot dogs wrapped in a foil sock and rolled down a stainless steel slide from some hidden sweat shop kitchen.
Visitors to these places can now actually make a day of culture, enlightenment, and good food. Moreover, many of these places are closely integrating their food service with the mission of their institution. One of the best of the new generation of museum food experiences is at the previously vile Smithsonian, in the National Museum of the American Indian. There at the Mitsitam Café (http://nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/mitsitam-cafe/), several of the major American tribal groups are represented through their traditional and modern food traditions—from squash soups to buffalo burgers to the still vile (but sometimes irresistible) fry bread.
Here in Monterey, the Monterey Bay Aquarium–which in some ways presaged the modern local and ecologically conscious food movement by being the first local and ecologically focused aquarium–is now on the cutting edge of the museum message food movement. For years MBA has promoted a “Seafood Watch” program that aims to give both consumers and restaurants more information about the ecological impact of the seafoods they choose to order or serve.
The Seafood Watch wallet cards (now available as a smart phone app: www.seafoodwatch.org) they give out at MBA (and many other zoos and aquaria) are regionally focused lists of seafoods to avoid—because they are endangered or caught in a way that damages the environment—and more sustainable alternatives.
They’ve recently backed this up with a funny interactive exhibit called “Real Cost Café” in which visitors sidle up to a greasy spoon mockup and electronically enter an order one of seafood dishes on the diner menu. Depending on their order, large video screens behind the counter display actors—a sassy waitress, a “Mel” kind of cook, and a busboy, talking about the “real cost” to the environment of your order. Order a plate of shrimp and the tough talking cook sheds a tear as he tells the waitress that in order to fill her pound of shrimp order, he needs to dump on an additional tens pounds of other seafood—the proportional amount of bycatch that gets pulled up by fishing trawler nets with the targeted shrimp. But select a species from the “better choices” list, like a nice wild Alaskan salmon, and the chef beams with pride as he serves up a delicious plate of sustainable seafood.
It is these best choices that are highlighted in the menu of Cindy’s Waterfront the MBA’s real sit down dining option. It is not set up to look like a greasy spoon, but rather a bright open space with simply elegant tables, set with salt, pepper, and binoculars to take advantage of the spectacular vantage point, literally on top of Monterey Bay. Your appetizer might be a great view of sea otters cracking open urchins on their bellies or a pod of dolphins plying the edges of the kelp forest.
For those seeking sustainable and local seafood there are abundant options like Monterey Bay Calamari, which I can never resist, and Point Reyes Oysters, or a Monterey Bay Cioppino of local clams, mussels, cod, and Dungeness crab.
Leaving a satisfied meal at Cindy’s and walking out into the Aquarium becomes a strange reverse take on the old fish tanks in the front of classic Italian and Chinese restaurants. Strolling through the exhibits you can see up close and personal, swimming and filter feeding in simulacrums of their native habitats, the very same species that just filled your plate. I love the food at Cindy’s, but as a marine biologist, I’m still partial to the living versions of my favorite sea creatures.