Assembling the definitive list of Monterey County’s tastiest and most intrepid special epicurean events.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
A Portuguese American guy takes a huge pitchfork and scoops six slow-simmered crabs from a big fat vat of steaming homemade broth.
“We do sauna late night,” he says, grin across his chin. “Hot tub.”
He is joking. I wish he wasn’t, because fawning food writers love to say they like a sauce so much they’d bathe in it, but rarely is it actually possible.
At the festive crab feeds that happen at Portuguese Hall in north Monterey, it is doable, as the cooks use giant built-in tubs to prepare incredible cioppino for hundreds.
There are other things that seem possible only here – like filling a football field of picnic tables with crustacean crackers, or dancing traditional jigs with a gaggle of grandmas – which is why the event enjoys a unique electricity, and ranks No. 1 in foodie adventure fun.
The criteria to qualify aren’t complicated. Each event must be just one meal and occur no more than once a week. Family-style eating is good but not mandatory. Eating with your hands, also good. High costs, bad, which disqualifies Pebble Beach Food & Wine and Cooking for Solutions. (Those are more than a meal anyway – and are coming quickly. Ticket time.) Fifty bones max, BYOW a bonus.
An even more crucial requirement: the clear sense that the event is as much an experience as eating – though the food’s gotta be really good too.
The top five follow. Email your faves to email@example.com. And get detailed individual writeups of each at www.mcweekly.com/edible.
5. Fried Chicken Sunday Night at 1833
Diners tuck into premium cluck for 36 bucks: Four courses including a half chicken’s worth of pieces (three), with the option to tack on sides for $6.
The deviled egg is a nice way to start. The pedestrian Caesar romaine salad doesn’t belong in this glorious sequence, but what might be the best fried chicken ever hatched prevents any dwelling on it.
Weeks of experimentation by 1833 (643-1833) Exec Chef Levi Meszick went into it. His resulting recipe reads like a spell: Brine the chicken for half a day in honey, salt and herbs; soak another half day in buttermilk; sous vide with duck fat, sage, thyme and rosemary; and coat it in a blend of flour, spices and herbs including Hungarian paprika.
Crisp, unoily, lively and succulent on impact, tender, juicy and umami inside. With a bacon gravy baptism to boot.
4. Independent Market Pop-up
HGK (373-GIRL) was a year into doing fun and familial installments of its freaky brand of farm-freshness with Chef Matt Millea and folks like Live Earth Farm, Pinnacle Ranch and Mariquita. Now HGK-affiliated pop-ups have added square footage, diversity and urban-arty dimensions – and lowered prices – with the Independent Marketplace affairs Jordan and Todd Champagne helped cultivate. This month, team Indy brought in Maha’s (372-8999) to pile dolmas, fried kibbe, saffron rice and super shish kebab on 120-foot-tables surrounded by 125 peeps and belly dancers. A half-dozen vendors – like the Queen of Quince, Eco-Deli and Local Catch Monterey Bay – filled in the nice art space behind Post No Bills and Ian Brand of Le P’tit Paysan provided vino (at extra cost) and the buzz of culture and conversation lasted three hours, easy. Not bad for $25.
First Thursdays roll on with Uncie Ro’s Wood Fired Pizza – and other Cruz artisans – April 4 for the same rate (or $10/kid, $20/Sand Cityites and military).
3. fish Fry at Retired Men’s Social Club
The club (899-3332) hides in plain sight at the top of Del Monte Boulevard in Seaside. Like one diner last Friday said, “I’ve driven by 1,000 times.” But he, like so many, never really noticed it.
After a cocktail at the old-school bar comes catfish in combos with fried prawns or tilapia layered on white bread. Flanked by Louisiana Hot Sauce and authentic sides like cabbage, cole slaw, potato salad, hush puppies, red beans and rice and banana cream pudding, it’s a transportational treat for $10-$12 a plate.
The best part, though, might be feeling like at least one piece of old-school Seaside – when it was far more military and African-American – survives.
“Come as yourself,” says outgoing president Illona D. Cooper, adding, “some of us are too much of ourselves.”
I’m already applying to be a member of the 501(c)(3) – $7/month; $84/year – which, if granted, means I can provide input on the Styrofoam boxes they use.
2. Monday Night at Cachagua General
The twisting 30-minute drive past Carmel Valley takes you away from it all, then the banjo player, picnic tables, cowboys, dogs and chickens scattered about the rickety and rollicking roadhouse take you to another world (659-1857). The environment would be enough to merit a visit, but it’s the dynamite organic fare – at reasonable prices, particularly with BYO wine – that make it a pilgrimage: Corralitos sausage pizzas, store-smoked wild salmon, mesquite-grilled Niman Ranch baby back ribs, porcini cream oysters, gazpachos, trailblazing beets.
The food itself might take a while, but to take issue with the service is to take your life in your own hands, as chef-owner-rebel Michael Jones is as enthusiastic about sticking up for his staff as he is standing up to the local sheriff.
1. Crab Feed at Portuguese Hall
How many times have you eaten two tons of one thing with 600 of your closest friends? It happens twice a night two (ish) times a year at the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo Hall, aka Portuguese Hall (372-1913), with zero marketing.
The silver bowls descend, brimming with a secret cioppino broth built from fish broth, garlic, tomato paste, white wine, red wine and Old Bay seasoning – and it keeps coming, bowl after delicious bowl, as lemon squirts and crab meat flies, for $45.
Garlic bread, salads, peel-and-eat shrimp, cheap wine and little ice cream cups add value, but it’s the dancing and band that make this the king of experiences best enjoyed by way of tastebuds, with your best tastebuddies.
• The former French Poodle is on the block, which means let’s go halvsies on our very own French restaurant (!): 45 seats, nice corner location, $79,000. 393-0324, CarmelForsales.com.
• More than prime rib and fancy whiskey kickin’ at Growers Pub (754-1488) where there’s now a three course pre-fixe Monday-Thursday with rotating acts – Monday is sand dabs; Tuesday chicken picatta; Wednesday braised short ribs; Thursday tilapia with basmati rice – for $16.95.
• Lotta heart at adorable, family owned Hofsas House in Carmel, as reiterated by the fun fundraiser ($50) Thursday, March 28, for Food Bank of Monterey County with Brandon Miller and Dory Ford on food, Lula’s on chocolates, Ventana on wine and Terrence Ferrell on strings. RSVP 624-2745.
• Knuckles Sports Bar Monterey (372-1234) has new specials. In addition to classic sports bar gnashes – six-piece buffalo wings ($6), potato skins ($6.50), and garlic fries ($4) – check out daily beer deals ($5.50) on pints of Miller Lite, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Bass Ale, Anchor Steam, Newscastle, Firestone DBA and Fat Lip.
• The C has a new GM. Kyle Wareham, formerly of The Beach and Tennis Club, comes in to team with Chef Jerry Regester at C Restaurant + Bar (375-4800).
• Rio Grill’s (625-5436) Flavor Education Series resurfaces Saturday, March 23, with famed local fish purveyor Robbie Torrise. Chef Cy Yontz’s three course menu ($65) stars oysters on the half shell, Thai snapper and wild king salmon, all paired with cocktails. The tail end sees guests taking home a goodie bag with Yontz’s secret seasonings.
• Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets (728-5060) newsletter is legit. Signing up for the letter at www.montereybayfarmers.org opens up a monthly treasure trove of recipes, key seasonal market produce and worthy profiles on local vendors.
• On what they hope will be a “Starry Night” on Saturday, March 30, Casanova Restaurant (625-2727) hosts a five-course dinner in honor of Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday. (Happy 160th bud!) For $75 – plus $40 for wine pairings – enjoy Exec Chef Johnny de Vivo’s special menu deals: cheesy rhubarb tarts, crab with greens, venison sausage, braised lamb shank and absinthe sorbet. Hold the disembodied ear.
• A free “Green Your Garden” workshop sprouts 10am-noon Saturday, March 23, at Monterey Regional Waste Management District. Register at www.mrwmd.org or 384-5313, learn to save money, time and water.
• Whole Foods does a spring fling 9-11pm Friday, March 22, at its DMC spot with food, beer and wine tasting ($5 in advance for food or drink; $8 both; $6 and $12 at the door) and live music by The Audio Waltz. wfmmontereyspringfling.eventbrite.com.
• Take it away, Tony Robbins: “It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean.”