Best Of 2011 - Editor's Picks
An endless view shimmers from the cliffs to the horizon. An iced cocktail clinks with conversation. The sun dips; laughter rises. This is life on top. The key detail: This reverie isn’t running upwards of $2,000 a night for you, because you are armed with an editors’ pick. So operates life with the insights below: Much of the most beautiful, inspiring and enjoyable elements around us are accessible not through money or politics, but by getting in good with those in the know.
Best Place To Record a Demo On The Cheap
Franklin Street Recording Studios
600 East Franklin St., Monterey, 656-9991
On the last Wednesday of every month, Franklin Street Studios – Monterey’s oldest professional recording studio – offers the public the opportunity to use its state-of-the-art equipment and software to record professional CDs engineered and mixed by Pro Audio expert Richard Bryant. Al Jardine, Kenny Stahl and Doris Day are just a few of the many names who have recorded within the studio’s walls but now, despite the proud pedigree, the price is pedestrian – only $30 for two songs (or about 10-15 minutes). A grand Kawai piano is provided, but you furnish any other instruments. A professional-grade DVD of the session is also included.
Best Place To Pair Pinot With Al Pastor
Lopez Brothers Casa Bodega
500 Del Monte Ave., Monterey
The Lopez Brothers know how to run a nicely stocked liquor-and-spirits store, as their long-standing, long-adored Wagon Wheel-adjacent shop in Carmel Valley demonstrates. Chuy, Ricardo, Nacho, Manny and Mama Chela also can cook a mean bit of Mexican, as the chile rellenos and mole at Lopez Cantina in Monterey attest. Here you get the best of both worlds: Good carnitas, al pastor, even sturdy vegetarian fare from the catering-style kitchen – there are deli sandwiches, too – and your pick from the beer and wine selection with zero corkage. The liquor store ambiance can be a little harsh, but the $20 you save on good local and regional wines means a tasty meal and a couple of glasses of vino for a canción.
Best Place To Feel Like $1 Million For Just $15
Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar Restaurant Bar
30 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur
With rooms starting at $595 a night (and topping out at several grand), a lot of local folks assume they’ll never get to experience the atmospheric ocean views and spa-like serenity offered at the Post Ranch Inn. While different from spending an evening in its edge-of-the-world accommodations, sitting at the Sierra Mar’s small (and recently remade) bar and sipping subtly intoxicating cocktails like the Winterhita ($15) – reposado tequila, orange rum liqueur, muddled fresh Asian pear and pomegranate juice – reveals the same attention to detail that caused the hotel to recently top Travel & Leisure magazine’s list of California hotels.
Best Eclectic Interior You Have To See To Believe
GA GA Hair Lounge
490 Orange Ave., Sand City
When it comes to interior design, most salons offer only slight variations on contemporary themes. Not GA GA Hair Lounge in Sand City. It started when owner Ann Parodi decorated the place, located in a funky strip of buildings reminiscent of a Wild West main street. Inside, she painted one wall black and mounted mirrors with frames found at thrift stores, covered one wall with red velvet-flocked damask wallpaper (think “brothel”), and created a collage of pin-ups on another. The studio gradually erupted into an astonishing explosion of “Annmade” jewelry and crafts (such as her decoupage trays with edgy sayings), plus figurines and antique curios that Parodi collects and arranges just so, greeting cards individually made by the shop’s esthetician Liz Menafra, and the work of other local artists and craftspeople. Stop in or make an appointment and let Parodi make good on her slogan: “Come on in, we’ll mess with your head.”
Best $3.25 Baguette
Chopstix Vietnamese Restaurant
1988 Fremont Blvd., Seaside
The fresh festival of crunchy carrots, daikon root, cucumber, jalapeño and cilantro mingles with soft pâté, creamy butter and crusty baguette to deliver a texture and taste that invokes Vietnam flashbacks (the good kind). Even as food trucks in L.A. and Oakland can’t sell bahn mi like these quickly enough, we can’t get them anywhere else around here. Fortunately, Chopstix, which debuted on Fremont in 2010, is adding a Monterey location for the tofu, vegetarian ham, chicken and barbecued-pork permutations of the cheap treat, and the best choice, the pork-pâté combo.
Best Reason For Crate Digging
Big Sur Festival: One Hand Clapping Classic Vinyl from 1971
Local record stores, yard sales, thrift shops
Between 1964 and 1971, there were eight Big Sur Folk Festivals at the Esalen Institute. The last one was recorded for an album titled Big Sur Festival: One Hand Clapping and features performances by Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal and Blood, Sweat & Tears. It’s a kick to hear Baez give a shout-out to the Santa Lucia Mountains on “Oh Happy Day,” and hard not to smile when Kristofferson freestyles a line about getting lost on the way to the Esalen baths at the end of a killer “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.” Happy hunting!
Best Cowgirl Gone Hollywood
The In Crowd has been keeping Holly Harris a secret. Harris is a longtime, hard-core Salinas Valley cowgirl. She follows rodeos and barrel races. She married a steer wrestler. She looks smokin’ hot in a Stetson. But that’s not the secret. When she ties up her blonde locks and swaps out her chaps for an apron, she becomes Cupcake Bakestress Extraordinaire, owner/operator of Hollywood’s Cupcakes. Think graham-cracker crusted chocolate cakes crowned with melted marshmallow. Or champagne cakes with equally bubbly butter cream. Now put them in a hot pink box tied up with black lace. Don’t look for a store; instead, every box is personally delivered. Go on now, y’hear? Get outta here and order you some.
Best Reason To Drive To Chualar
23477 Grant, Chualar
Just past the last exit for Salinas is the tiny town of Chualar, not much except a few markets, a couple of abandoned buildings and, there on the corner closest to the off ramp, pure Mexican flavor madness. Hidalgo lists a huge menu of tacos, burritos and other classics for dirt-cheap prices, plus an al pastor that gives any out there a good run for its money, and some surprisingly good (if not so sustainable) shrimp tacos. Wandering next door to the meat market gives way to Modelo tall boys in brown paper bags, which help ease the heat when downing the accompanying jalapeños.
Best New Live Music Movement
Skydecker’s Acoustic/Electric Concert Series
East Village Coffee Lounge
498 Washington St., Monterey, 373-5601
214 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey, 643-9169
Several months ago, local musician Keigan Skydecker developed what has become one of the most enjoyable and fresh ways to experience live music on the Peninsula. The concept is simple: One Saturday per month, a band is invited to play an acoustic set at East Village followed by an electric set. So far, Skydecker has delivered Battlehooch, Sun Hop Fat, Matt Baldwin, Mike Beck, The Blank Tapes and Sean Smith to largely sold-out audiences who have found the shows to be a revelation – who knew Mike Beck or Battlehooch had such a soft and reflective flavor unplugged, or that melancholic-genius songwriter Sean Smith could electrify like that? In April, the concert series continues at Carbone’s with shows that include Forrest Day, Silent Comedy and Le Vice.
Best Place For an Edible Scavenger Hunt
215 Reservation Road, Suite F, Marina
We’ve all got the inherent notion that if a $5 item is only $2.50 somewhere else, it must’ve “fallen off the truck.” Here, it just feels like a deal fell out of the sky. Stacks of snack foods? Check. Superb value wines to drown your sorrows? Check. Frozen TV dinners to eat at that second night job you took to pay the cable bill? Check. You can even find cheeses and chocolates, in both regular and high-falutin’ varieties, and surprisingly good produce.
Best Place To Not Worry About Your Pre-Teen
Boys and Girls Club of Seaside
1332 La Salle Ave., Seaside, 394-5171
85 Maryal Drive, Salinas, 757-4412
There’s no shortage of caregivers for the 5-year-old circuit, but somewhere along the line someone decided that by age 11 a kid should be left to his own devices after school. Then we wonder why sweet little Timmy Angel turns into Henry Hoodlum by 13. Not all kids get lost in the shuffle, but with Boys and Girls Club around, why take that chance? For around $20 a year Timmy can have access to a slew of afterschool distractions to keep him angelic. With a gym, basketball court, computer lab, air hockey and pool tables, he’ll never miss that Jersey Shore marathon you didn’t want him to watch anyway.
Best Reason (Today) To Love The Government
Coastal Access Program
California Coastal Commission
13 locations in the city of Monterey alone
Monterey County is one of the most expensive locations for an ocean-front domicile on the planet. True. It’s also true that any down-on-his-luck surfer dude with blown-out huaraches and barely enough coin to get that next fish taco has the exact same access to pure, unspoiled, mind-bogglingly-scenic, trillion-dollar views as the yacht-club-dwelling blue blood. Just try and find that in Texas or Nevada.
Best Reason To Be Late For Your Monday Morning Staff Meeting
Bay View Deli & BBQ
Coast Guard Pier, 32 Cannery Row, Monterey
As much as you want to hit the snooze button (again), the growl in your tummy won’t let you. And that 9am meeting you’ve already rescheduled twice doesn’t help. You drag your butt out of bed only to find that your noshing options are down to a stale bagel and the remnants of last night’s meatloaf. Then you remember that little gem on the Coast Guard Pier and your Monday woes disappear. At least the hunger-induced ones, anyway. A salmon frittata and a warm, thick slice of toasty bread can even make flow charts and sales quotas look more manageable.
Best Meeting of Land, Sea and Sky With Wi-Fi
CSU Monterey Bay Library
100 Campus Center, Seaside
There are not too many places where one can grab a coffee at Peet’s downstairs, tote the laptop to the third floor, curl up on a comfy chair next to floor-to-ceiling windows with breathtaking Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley vistas, and watch the first five seasons of Weeds on Netflix. (OK, studying, researching, working or simply admiring the views from the comfort of modernist furniture – the Tanimura & Antle Family Memorial Library is open to the community – are options, too.) It’s good for the mind and soul, and good for the environment: The building’s many green features include its orientation (short side to the south to limit sun exposure), natural lighting to cut down on electricity use and a large roof that collects irrigation water.
Best Non-Discriminatory Signage
Parks, beaches and public spaces throughout Monterey County
It’s nice to know that in Monterey County, all dogs are equally forbidden from certain public places. At least, that’s what we make of the “No Dogs Allowed” graphics enlightening our city parks, commercial districts and beaches, depicting a fair-minded mix of breeds and dispositions behind the red circle-and-slash. At one beach the shape suggests No Alert Greyhounds Allowed; at another, the silhouette clearly indicates No Obedient Labrador Puppies. It’s apparently No Well-Groomed Collies in the tourist hubs of Monterey; and absolutely No Frisky Retrievers on the North County dunes. Until we see a No Purse Yorkies sign, though, we’re assuming our cutest fashion accessory is welcome everywhere.
Best Snob-free Wine Pedigree
Dolores and Seventh, Carmel, 625-6500
Monte Verde and Seventh, Carmel, 624-8578
Somewhere along the way, all the aromas and tannins got tangled up with ego, expensive taste and pissing matches over who knows more. Fortunately we have fellows like winemaker Thomas (TOE-mas) Perez, who directs wine for Mirabel Group and its mighty lists at L’Auberge and Cantinetta Luca. With Perez there’s no ego, only an oenology degree from the University of Rioja in Spain and a profound understanding of the connection between how the wine is made and how it acts in the glass – knowledge dug out in the dirt during harvests at spots like Domaine de La Romanee Conti, the best Pinot Noir producer in the world. It was there that he drank out of giant magnum bottles without labels – they used chalk to distinguish the year and vineyard – with fellow farmers. No one at that table was snobby over there, so he’s not here.
Best Oldtown Salinas Art Walk After Party
430 Salinas St., Salinas
Will Devoe and Imelda Suarez were local graphic design students when they opened the polymorphic gallery/store just around the corner from the main artery of Salinas’ South Main Street. Since 2006, it’s chiseled its own reputation as a fresh, youthful, urban epicenter, thanks to a steady stream of rock-steady shows that flare with energy (like the Street Cinema film screenings and the tattoo-inspired Metamorphosis) and gear like Kidrobot and Dunny toys, posters, tees and fitted hats, art books and mags, and miscellanea. The art openings regularly turn into musical DJ and MC showcases and are attended by an energized, diverse young crowd, like the geeks, skaters, hip-hoppers, outcasts and cool kids have joined forces. High-step it over to their openings at the tail end of the monthly First Friday Art Walks.
Best Niche Nigiri
Sakura Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar
574 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey
Arigato is right. Thank you for a place that understands that while food, service and value are important, in the hospitality world, ambiance and experience are priceless. Thank you for a place short on pretense and long on style. Thank you for the sushi boats. Thank you for the karaoke (somebody sing Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight,” soon). Thank you for the waves of hot sake and the oh-so-rare midnight closing time, a hospitality industry godsend. Thank you for scaring away the sushi snobs and leaving the seaweed salads and the abalone rolls to us. And arigato arigato arigato for the one and only Kazu, the most jolly, generous, goofy-in-the-head sushi ninja we know.
Best Sport Punching Its Way Through Our County Consciousness
Mixed Martial Arts
Various locations throughout Monterey County
Mixed martial arts – a hybrid fighting style of any combo of Brazilian jujitsu leverage, Muay Thai kickboxing quickness, Greco-Roman wrestling power, boxing juke moves, and other styles (including a method bluntly called ground-and-pound) – has grown wild and fast. Humbly conceived in 1993, the main fight organization, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) in 2006 surpassed boxing and WWE (fake wrestling) in pay-per-view grosses, and despite regulations and public protestations, it’s expanded worldwide. Thanks to amateur fight promotions like Sand City’s Diesel Fight Inc. and Salinas’ Central Coast Throwdown, which last December put on a 12-fight amateur card that filled the Fox Theater with enthusiastic but respectful fight fans, it’s also exploding locally. That night Salinas prodigy Jonathan Gaxiola, making his debut, even unleashed not one but two rare reverse roundhouse kicks that each tagged the padded head of his opponent. Good times.
Best Evidence That Size Matters
Red’s Burger Joint
1220 S. Main St., Salinas
Sure you can have a little one. It’ll do the job and leave you satisfied – eh-ehm, for the most part. It’s what you do with it – blah, blah, blah. Whatever. But every once in a while, admit it, you want it this big. You need it this big. It’s all right. It’s just us. Oh, and a big-ass beef patty. And onion rings. And barbecue sauce. And bacon. And coleslaw piled about 4 inches high. Now stack that between two buns, baby, and that’s the Big Red Burger. Get a fork. Ain’t nobody going home the same after this mutha. And get here early; the tables in this new little joint fill up quick, and the line pours out the door – no worries, though, the game’s on the big screen.
Best Reason to Brake
The Canadian Geese
Laguna Grande Park
Canyon Del Rey Avenue, Seaside
It was 2pm, traffic was flowing in most directions, but we were at a standstill on lower Canyon Del Rey Boulevard. Minutes passed, the line of cars didn’t budge, and our blood started to boil – until we saw the source of the holdup. An orderly procession of geese was waddling – single-file – across the street from Laguna Grande Park to the Seaside City Hall lawn, on the crosswalk. Frustration turned to admiration. Rather than getting a well-deserved rest along their burly migration route, the ubiquitous Canada geese in Seaside have weathered hounding by city-sponsored border collies, a new Cyclone fence around Laguna Grande Lake and a never-ending game of fútbol on their favorite sod. City officials may consider them a nuisance, but we say: Waddle on.
Best Mid-Century Time Warp
Lolita’s Ice Cream
521 Front St., Soledad,
The faded yellow swivel bar stools reminiscent of milkshake dates in the ’50s would be enough to lure hungry hikers from Pinnacles National Monument, but this eclectic Mexican menu can meet the needs of every hungry palate. If ice cream and snow cones don’t entice your sweet tooth, try the cinnamon-raisin tamale. The more traditional savory carnitas and cheese tamales are best with a generous helping of the devilishly hot salsa, all delivered on mismatched plates. Or just order standard gringo fare like the bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Whatever you eat, be sure to order fresh-squeezed juice from whatever fruit you spy on the counter (watermelon might be most refreshing), and take your time chatting in Spanish about the many variations of smoothie-style concoctions they can make, as it’s the casual atmosphere that charms this place into another century.
Best Budding Scene In a Bucolic Locale
9 Del Fino Place, Carmel Valley
Music promoter Kiki Wow has made it her personal mission to make sure there’s live music at Plaza Linda seven nights a week. So far, she’s accomplishing precisely that, in a venue that’s miles from the regular traffic of a downtown. At a glance, an average week begins with multi-instrumentalist Tamas Marius, on Sundays from 4:30 – 7:30pm. Every Monday through Thursday, from 5 – 7pm, you can enjoy some silky lounge standards from Dino Vera. Then there is the variety of other acts Wow brings to the Carmel Valley Mexican restaurant: from classical guitar virtuoso Goh Kurosawa and folk singer-songwriter Amy Obenski to the Appalachian Americana of Little Black Train and a jazz trio featuring Kenny Stahl on flute, Bob Burnett on seven-string guitar and Renata Bratt on cello. And there’s always the open mic sessions every Wednesday from 7 – 9pm.
Best Strategic Seaside Spot To tackle Your Honey-Do List and Get Your Grub On
Food Corner Market
1800 Noche Buena St., Seaside
Just as you’re heading out for your lunch hour, you get the call. “Honey, can you pick up some milk and bread while you’re out?” Now you’ve only got 58 minutes to fulfill your domestic duties and still meet your own personal five-burrito-a-week quota. A quick pit stop at Food Corner Market is for serious multi-taskers only. A couple of aisles of essentials with the bonus of an on-site taqueria counter featuring several carnivore-friendly lunch deals… What more do you need? Maybe that post-burrito car nap that only a belly full of quality carnitas can give you.
Best “Pinch Me” Moment
The Giants Win the World Series
By the strictest interpretation of geography, the San Francisco Giants are not technically a Monterey County product. Whatever. If you’re a straight ahead sports fan, the Giants’ 2010 season was a “first time in 52 years” historical event. If, however, you’re pleasantly predisposed to jet black facial hair, recreational drug use, grown men talking about their underwear and watching two former presidents named Bush squirm in their seats, then the Giants 2010 World Series victory was more like a righteous month-long party disguised as a sporting event. Either way, I bet you remember where you were when Renteria hit that homer to clinch it in Game 5.
Best Place to Get Stone
Carmel Stone Imports
1725 Contra Costa St., Sand City, 583-1011
The Barnyard Shopping Center, Carmel Valley, 888-633-0669
To stroll through the cavernous warehouse that houses Carmel Stone Imports is to venture into an Indiana Jones-like stash of mysterious, sturdy-looking crates, a dizzying array of stone slab racks and pallets of pristine marble. A native of Australia, owner Robbie Robinson migrated coastally as a young lad, and over the past decade he and his knowledgeable staff have grown the humble stone-importing business into one of the nation’s leaders in importing exclusive, hard-to-wrangle foreign stone. And what solid rock it is. Monumentally beauteous marble, dolemite and limestone hail from primo quarries in such legendarily rocky places as Argentina, Jerusalem and Italy, verily spilling out of the stoniest showrooms around.
Best Accessible 200-degree View of the Peninsula
Accessible from Veterans Park, southeast of the Presidio
This steep stroll, accessible by foot from downtown Monterey – or better yet, from the chronically underappreciated Veterans Park – offers a phenomenal sweeping view of the city and the bay on a clear day. Runners and dog-walkers occupy the destination on weekends, but usually by the time you reach the peak of Huckleberry Hill –about an hour’s walk from town –folks are sparse, and you may find you have a perfect viewing perch entirely to yourself on a fallen tree. Sunset doesn’t suck from here, though the walk back might without a flashlight. Points for easy access, an impressive view, and the not-so-insignificant fact that it’s free.
Best Place to Listen to Grumpy Old Men
Cherry Bean Coffee House
332 Main St., Salinas
Imagine if Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets were live human beings. Add five or so of their grumpiest, most conservative pals to the mix and plop them on the stools surrounding the bar at the Cherry Bean Coffee House and Roastery in Oldtown Salinas. Mention liberal politics, stand back and get ready for the show. It’s the scene that plays out most every weekday morning starting about 10:30 at the Bean. Eight or so regulars in their 60s and 70s, men who for the most part have known each other much of their adult lives, get together and chat – about local politics, national politics, cute girls, baked goods, their kids, the good old days and life. To mention César Chávez to some of them is to invite scorn. To mention health care reform in general is to invite ridicule. They soften a bit when their token female friend, a retired teacher named Mary, graces them with her presence. The banter escalates when their token liberal friend, a local printer/jazz musician named Stan, shows up. “Why do you do it, Stan?” I ask. He shakes a full head of shaggy, white, trumpet-player hair and says, “Ah, they’re all OK. They’re just Republicans.”
Best Place to Get Tossed on Cannery Row
El Mariachi Restaurante
711 Cannery Row, Monterey
Although a sophisticate like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World (who is said, among other things, to be allowed to touch the art in museums) would not likely slip into El Mariachi to enjoy a cold one, he might consider it when paired with the option to showcase his manhood atop the recently installed mechanical bull. Whether the place is empty or packed (usually the former), El Mariachi staff is happy to oblige all comers with the cojones and/or lack of sense to tangle with the bovine beast, as long as they sign a waiver first. Multiple speeds to accommodate riders of varying sizes and athleticism, as well soft horns and an inflatable, catch-all pad, it’s probably not as dangerous as it feels when one is getting jerked around, and ultimately, launched. Just don’t get too tossed beforehand, and, if you believe in karma, you might want to hold off on the carne asada.
Best Evidence That The Kids Are Alright
KSPB 91.9 FM
Stevenson School, Pebble Beach
Licensed as a tiny 1,000-watt non-commercial station, KSPB is the hidden music gem on the Monterey Peninsula, and the place for “radio-active” sound. By day the station broadcasts BBC news, but from 6-8am and after school gets out at 4pm, Stevenson School students take over. Featuring playlists that span the gamut from the obscure to the noisy, the DJs show off vast music collections, youthful enthusiasm and a bit of splendid amateurism. One show boasts “both underground and mainstream techno,” most shows dabble in non-commercial hip-hop and reggae, alternative and college radio music show up large, and plugs for listener requests dominate every break. We’re gonna make it.