It was an omen, a hint, a harbinger. At our booth sat Giuseppe Panzuto, author of arguably 2015’s best new Monterey County restaurant, il Tegamino. (I had it No. 2, by a strand of angel-hair pasta behind Gusto Handcrafted Pizza & Pasta.) Across from him was Joey Nguyen, the mind behind one of 2016’s breakout hits, Poke Lab in downtown Monterey. Next to Nguyen: Zach Hood, now a server at Cultura Comida y Bebida, where we sat.
We were there because Cultura was conducting a free two-hour mezcal seminar with William Scanlan III of Heavy Métl imports, trying spirits that aren’t yet available in the U.S. As it turns out, that enlightening power proves part of what earns Cultura its lofty spot on this list:
5 • Nuernberger’s German Sausages
The name honors one of the clear strengths – Old World-style bratwursts created by hand with natural casings – and German natives Rosi and Rainer Nuernberger. They started at farmers markets in the San Francisco Bay Area, then saw a shortage of sauerkraut to the south. Their other meaty features – frikadellen, schnitzel and smoked pork – transcend expectations in freshness and flavor. And that’s not just for people experiencing the gulasch or cheesecake strüdel for the first time: German transplant Hans Uslar, Monterey assistant city manager, ranks among the enthusiastic followers. Their recipes are authentic, their cooking is skillful and the rotating specials are delivered in a simple country-style setting across from Monterey Sports Center. Plus the potato salad rivals any in the area code.
9am-6pm Tue-Sun; 398 E. Franklin St., Monterey; 717-4168, www.wurstfranz.com.
4 • Aabha Indian Cuisine
Chef-owner Bhupender Singh enjoys the pedigree to do top-shelf Indian. He studied classic French and Italian, toiled for years in his native New Delhi with the city’s best talent and helped start the Ambrosia Indian dynasty (which introduced a new place on Cannery Row this winter). Aabha, which means “spark” or “light” in Hindi (and combines the names of his kids and mother), brings life to the long-dormant former Bahama Billy’s – via vibrant flavors, warm colors and a stylish waterfall element. The lunch buffet already enjoys a fanbase, but it’s the East-West hybrid creativity, executed well, that earns Aabha this slot. Indian interpretations of California ingredients include basil salmon, kale-cumin pakoda, green-chili-and-lime chicken, goat cheese-stuffed lamb kebabs, turmeric garlic scallops and butter-cilantro naan.
11:30am-9pm; 3690 The Barnyard, Carmel; 250-5940.
3 • Tricycle Pizza
Here the charm comes from familiar and atypical places, and finds accessible harmony. The familiar part: The charred-crust pizzas that were a hit at special events and the Pacific Grove Farmers Market. Among the many tasty 10-inch creations done with organic tomato sauce on medium-thin crust that’s airy and crispy – without sacrificing chew – are the chicken pesto, fennel-mushroom and pepperoni-jalapeño. The atypical piece: There’s no traditional restaurant to be found here. There’s a dining room in a former smog shop that’s appointed with reclaimed wood and a flat-screen TV. There’s a big backyard eating area with picnic tables and a tattered ping pong table. Then there’s the glorious food truck with the gorgeous domed oven slanging pies to an eager line of pizza lovers.
3-9pm Wed-Fri, noon-9pm Sat; 899 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey; www.tricyclepizza.com.
2 • Poke Lab
The first and best of a wave of poke spots differentiates itself from the rest with location (the heart of revitalized downtown Monterey), creativity (courtesy Exec Chef James Anderson), consciousness (sustainable sourcing) and contemporary accoutrements (a food truck and smartphone app). The lab’s take on the Hawaiian tradition of raw fish salad runs two directions: Choose a pre-designed signature bowl or build your own. Either way you get a choice of white rice, brown rice or mixed greens as a base; then toppings like bean sprouts, daikon, ginger, edamame and masago. The salmon belly Anderson candies and smokes at nearby Alvarado Street Brewing Company, my number-one new restaurant for 2014, deserves its own monument. The signature “Da Kine” recipe – albacore with dark soy reduction, lemon zest and Japanese furikake seasoning, seaweed salad, edamame, avocado and tobiko – is also excellent.
11:30am-8pm Thu-Tue; 475 Alvarado St., Monterey; 200-3474, www.thepokelab.com.
1 • Cultura Comida y Bebida
The landmark setting, formerly Jack London’s, has been reborn with a beautiful copper bar, candy-red booths, artfully arranged animal skulls and paintings to honor the Oaxacan inspiration behind it. The menu engages tradition and innovation, adventure and comfort, mind and mouth, with dishes like black mole smoked pork and Monterey red abalone relleno style. It can go dinner-of-a-lifetime ($145 Wagyu rib-eye) or easygoing affordable ($2 tacos and $4 beers 9pm-midnight). Then there’s the selection of artisanal mezcals, unmatched in the area, and intriguing wines curated carefully by project pointperson Sarah Kabat-Marcy. With forward-thinking local food stars like her and Exec Chef Michelle Estigoy, Partner John Cox, barkeepKyle Odell and general stud Matt Glazer leading a supergroup-of-sorts, the hype here was rampant, and the delivery has met it. And they’re still getting better.
5pm-midnight Mon-Tue; 11:30am-midnight Thu-Sun. Dolores between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel; 250-7005, www.culturacarmel.com.
~ QUICKBITES ~
- In a year dominated by sad news of good souls gone too soon, the one I’ll miss most in Jeena Piccuta of Monterey. She taught Korean at the DLI, and was one of those sweet, patient and tolerant types who was so vivacious you never thought she’d die, let alone at a relatively young age. Fortunately she got to meet Kade Anthony Piccuta before she left.
- Big Sur Foragers Festival, happening Jan. 13-15, won’t be in Big Sur. But it will occupy the closest thing, figuratively and geographically. Just over the Santa Lucia Mountains, Carmel Valley Ranch subs in as primary host because Ventana Inn & Spa is undergoing upgrades. Tickets, and more on Fungus Face-off – with chefs like Chad Minton, Soerke Peters, Angela Tamura and Cy Yontz – at www.bigsurforagersfestival.org.
- One thing to look forward to in 2017: Fish ‘n’ Chips Café on Fisherman’s Wharf by sister spot Abalonetti will be launching… chowder fries.
- The new mug club at Trailside Café (298-7453) already has more than 55 members. With $50 annual sign-up fee, they get an 18-ounce mug (instead of a pint) kept cold that gets filled for $1 less than normal and $2 off Tuesdays.
- Places like Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill, Hotel 1110 and Bon Ton L’Roy’s Lighthouse Smokehouse are doing fun New Year’s Eve stuff. Jump over to NYE on the Weekly Arts & Entertainment Calendar for more. p. 28.
- Exec Chef Boris Ilabaca of La Playa Carmel and The Carmel Foundation present Philanthropic Foodies, a dinner – lobster bisque! wild mushroom salads! center filet! – Thursday, Jan. 19 ($120) to benefit hunger relief (620-8702, www.carmelfoundation.org, RSVP by Jan. 6).
- The Carmel Residents Association continues to think having very limited counter ordering at places like Carmel Belle will turn the crazy-regulated food scene there into McDonald’s-by-the-Sea. Not a chance. Give progress a try.
- Lucia Restaurant & Bar (658-3400) and Cal Stamenov are doing grilled cheese Wednesdays with things like the heavyweight with truffles and chanterelles on chestnut bread.
- From Welcome to Night Vale podcast: “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.”