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Santa Cruz Food Tour

Burani at Laili
Burani at LailiSusanna Gaertner

Once again summer fun in Santa Cruz is enhanced by the delicious and informative Santa Cruz Food Tours. Local historian and food fan Brion Sprinsock takes visitors (and locals) on a 3.5 hour stroll through the city, with stops for items of historic and gastronomic interest. This year there are six food stops sprinkled along the 1.8 mile walk.

our guide leads the way
our guide leads the waySusanna Gaertner

We began on a recent Sunday with lively butternut squash borani at Laili, a mecca for Mediterranean and Afghani cuisine. As we enjoyed our exquisitely dressed field greens, Brion revealed that we were actually in the Old County Bank building whose facade had been saved after the 1989 earthquake and quite literally “glued” to the front of the new interior, designed by local architect Mark Primak.

In case any readers of this column plan to take the tour, I don't want to spoil the surprise of how the ancient tale of Laila—a Persian Romeo & Juliet story—led to Eric Clapton's song of similar spelling (Layla) and underlying heartbreak. Brion showed mastery in brightening what might have become a tedious listing of historical and architectural elements by telling wonderful stories, many with pop cultural references. As he said, “History is a fable agreed upon.” Lots of those on his tour.

Organic mini cupcakes at Buttercup Cakes offered a sweet finish to the first part of our afternoon. Buttercup Cakes sources its vegan and gluten free recipes from Depression era cookbooks as those recipes call for more wholesome alternatives. Thus, eggs are replaced with vinegar and baking soda, their chemical reaction releasing carbon dioxide and making the cupcakes deliciously light and fluffy. You really don't miss the eggs nor the dairy butter frosting for which soy butter is substituted. All ingredients are seasonal and organic; Buttercup Cakes is open seven days a week.

Next we ambled up to the Santa Cruz Mission, to learn about the city's Indian and Spanish origins. Brion masterfully told tales of these often embattled beginnings, astounding us especially with the fact that in1769 there were c. 2000 Indians—ten years later 90% were gone. Many died from diseases brought by the European settlers, others simply left for the hinterland.

Along the way we enjoyed encounters with 19th century Victorian architecture. Santa Cruz hosts examples of Stick Eastlake, Italianate, and Queen Anne styles, all of them side-by-side on one memorable stretch of Walnut Street. For the locals, discovering these gems that you've walked past so often is like falling in love with SC all over again. Speaking of which, one of my favorites was the Coastal Redwood at the corner of Walnut and Center streets. Roughly 80 years old, this mighty tree has extended its roots into the surrounding sidewalk, quietly co-opting real estate as it grows ever higher. The Coastal Redwoods have an amazing respiration system which allows them to bring up water from their roots in the rainy season...and press it down from their canopies from coastal fog (hence the name) in the summer.

After witnessing the oldest Indian residence in CA as well as the oldest avocado tree, we went down the seventy-four steps leading back into what is now downtown SC (once less desirable since it turned into a flood plain every year).

More food now at the Penny Ice Creamery, which features seasonal organic ice cream in a house-made cone. Their real claim to fame is the house-made ice cream base...I'll leave the details for readers to discover when they take the tour!

At Assembly, a new restaurant owned by Zach Davis and Kendra Baker of the Penny Creamery, we sampled chicken barley soup and Scotch olives; unfortunately, the noise level here impedes digestion. Baffles recently installed in the (very high) ceilings simply do not suffice to muffle the roar.

Local micro brewed beers and derby sliders on homemade rolls welcomed us at Surfrider Cafe, where we also sampled Redwood ale, Dragon's Breath IPA, and San Lorenzo porter from the Boulder Creek and SC Brewery Tasting Room.

Our final stop was at the True Olive Connection, which epitomizes the spirit of the Food Tour: lots of historical information about the production of fine olive oils and Balsamic vinegars...and the opportunity to taste them. Like Buttercup Cake, TOC is open seven days a week. Prepare to be wowed by how diverse the taste and properties of olive oils with undiluted polyphenols and oleocanthals. More on these marvelous oils in a future segment.