Of Pinnacles National Park wonders and Watering Trough natural beauty.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
It must be the Coalinga in my blood, but there’s something about a place like the Watering Trough (678-1726) in a town like Soledad that speaks to a soul like mine.
It’s got everything you want, nothing you don’t: Microwaveable pork rinds ($2). Large flat-screens with the Warriors on. Stretchy cheese and loaded signature combination pizza from Cheezers. Several spirits like Don Julio on tap. A pole in the center of the dance floor. Franzia Chablis that goes into the chavelas ($9), along with Modelo Especial, Clamato tomato juice, Tapatio and Worcestershire with a spicy salt-rimmed glass accented with no fewer than four shrimp, celery and carrot stalks, slices of salami, pepperoni, orange, lemon and lime, and a jalapeño stuffed olive. There’s even a photo booth – in the adjoining bowling alley. I repeat: In the adjoining bowling alley, which is connected to Cheezers, and where there’s also air hockey and video games. Amen.
But I didn’t come to the humble South County town, where phone numbers are known by the last four digits and the big house is the biggest housing development, for the Franzia. I came for the stop-and-stare Pinnacles rock formations and talus caves forged from earthquakes and eruption, freshly minted a national park by President Barack Obama. While Pinnacles’ rock spires leap into the air, lichen colors leap from stone surfaces in yellow, burnt orange and electric green. Purple larkspurs and elegant clarkia furnish further fuchsia and lavender. Some of the biggest rocks shout red and the chiseled-out footholds near the top of the aptly named “steep and narrow” section of High Peaks Trail whisper history.
Full 360-degree views and wheeling condors await whoever climbs an hour and a half (and 1,200 feet) from the west parking lot to reach Hawkins Peak (at 2,720), not too far from a 50-yard tunnel and quite near where a resident ground squirrel, repping 49 species of park mammals, poses for pics and hopes for human food.
While the Pinnacles website and much of its literature still say “national monument,” 17,000-resident Soledad (prisoners not included) hasn’t hesitated to rebrand itself in honor of the 26,000-acre park five miles to the east. That means past slogans for the blustery ag town like “May the wind be at your back,” and the ever-popular (and still billboarded) “It’s happening in Soledad” are no longer the main mottos, and on the advice of a San Jose P.R. firm they paid $150,000, Soledad has been grabbing domain names like gatewaytopinnacles.com.
Down the street from the Watering Trough, Tony Vasquez runs down-home Frankie’s Grill (678-3499), a converted house with authentic Mexican and American grill fare as filling as the place is no-frills: Big Boo burgers ($7.69), barbecue tri-tip ($13.99), lengua ranchera ($9.79) and a chile relleno ($10.99) so robust it stuffed two of us. (Get more Frankie’s fun on the previous page.)
“It’s not happening in Soledad,” Vasquez says. “It’s happening here.”
But he’s never been to Pinnacles. Between its singular mix of bobcats and bats and towering topography, the park makes a natural case for itself as the heart of South County. Its west gate actually empties onto the Monterey County Wine Trail, and more than 10 strong wineries sit within five miles – including Wrath, Hahn, Paraiso and Ventana. For now, though, as lodging and infrastructure – or even a rock-climbing gear store – are scarce, the city of Soledad’s soul is closer to the blue-collar Watering Trough and funky Frankie’s than it is tourism and the prairie falcons and California buckeyes of our newest national park.
But there’s something about the area – the uniquely slanted front stairs at Frankie’s, the steep rock stairs at the heights of the Pinnacles – that confirms steps, baby steps, are precisely what should be happening in Soledad.
•Bernardus GM Mike Oprish is Monterey County Hospitality Association’s professional of the year. Dinner March 15 at Hyatt Regency Monterey ($150) to celebrate the very deserving guy. More at 626-8636.
• Crown and Anchor (649-6496) has lamb shanks braised in Guinness ($17) that my Hellam’s homies call fall-apart-fuggetaboutit good. Or in one syllable: Wow.
• Surf N Sand (624-1805) offers tastes on Deerfield Ranch 5-8pm Thursday, March 7.
•Andre’s Bouchee Bistro (626-7880) has a fun and avant-garde one-off going Wednesday, March 20, with six Chef Jacques Zagouri courses (think veal sweetbreads in lobster sauce) paired with at least 12 Sommelier Dmitri Ruban choices ($145), each dish getting a French and California standout to compare blind.
•First Thursdays, the second phase at Independent Marketplace (394-6000), starts Thursday, March 7, with a $25 farm fresh pop-up dinner after a modest market.
• Last week, the second 2013 winemakers dinner at Hyatt Carmel Highlands – with Morgan Twain Petersen and his Bedrock Wine Co. juice – was nothing less than a revelation, from the cuisine (bone-marrow-crusted Wagyu, for instance) to the crazy-inspired old world wine (who knew field blends could be so damn beautiful). Expect more on the blog soon, and expect more of the same at Highlands (622-5445) with the third installment ($125) March 21 with Rolando Herrera and the wines of Mi Sueño and the Highlands dynamic Jacques Melac-Matt Bolton-Paul Fried-Gina Hudson team.
• Restaurant 1833 (643-1833) dropped a fresh seasonal lineup of cocktails last weekend. The 5-6:30pm social hour, with $5.50 drinks and $6 wines, ranks among the good times to get by and try what Mike Lay’s laying down. Try the Stormy Phosphate.
•“National parks are the best idea we ever had,” Wallace Stegner said in 1983. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”