Let me paint the picture: It’s 1993. You’re a barista at a hip, Hermosa Beach coffee shop, right near the strand. Machines are howling; frothy milk bits are flying through the air. Suddenly, a high-pitched voice appears from nowhere.
“Latte with two shots, please!”
You look down, only to see a 6-year-old girl donning a blue sequined dress—a Halloween costume, probably. Before you can even protest the situation (even for L.A., this is too much), the little girl interjects, with an air of time-worn weariness. She’s even using the dismissive “hurry it up, already” hand swish.
“I can’t have my morning cigarette and newspaper without it,” the kid announces, loud enough for the entire room to hear.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF HAYLEY THOMAS
- FARM ENVY: Now, this is going to piss some people off, but I’ve always really wanted a miniature petting zoo. Yes—farm animals bred for cuteness and companionship. Currently, I’ve got two laying hens (Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn) and two half chihuahua “children” (Peyton Manning and the famous Miss Mavis, who used to live with music editor Glen Starkey). Up next: A precocious pot-bellied pig? An ornery miniature donkey with a heart of gold? I take the agriculture industry incredibly seriously, and I have utmost respect for the fine people who work the land and source the animals we love to eat. But they’re also really cute. You cannot deny this fact.
End scene. Roll applause.
My mother, an espresso junky for most of her life, always got a kick out of this performance. Not much has changed.
I’m still a huge ham and I’m still drinking lattes—only now, I make them at home with organic coconut milk and an undisclosed number of shots. And, while we’re on the topic of delicious ham, Black Forest ham is as life-changing today as it was tucked into rustic baguette on my family’s earliest road trips.
I’d like to think that inside every self-proclaimed foodie, there is a plucky, uninhibited child. This inner-voice is ravenous—insatiable. It wants the steak tartare, the edible flowers and the Syrah straight from the barrel, damn it. It wants to know the acidic playfulness of a young vintage if only to dream of what it could become. Sometimes, it wants a tuna melt—or anything, for that matter—cooked in bacon grease.
For me, a new dish represents a heart-palpitating thrill: An exploration that leads to a better understanding of every single thing I will put into my mouth thereafter. Like listening to old rock records, this knowledge is cumulative and sacred.
I remember the first time my tongue touched pork belly. I remember the best street taco I’ve ever eaten, after a night of Tijuana-fueled debauchery (before someone punched a cactus and things got rocky). I remember the best piece of sushi I’ve ever consumed—the single hunk of glorious tuna I will forever judge all others by.
These are culinary time capsules—whether in an aunt’s kitchen or on a street curb—that radiate pure, soul-affirming joy. I doubt anything could be better than being huddled around a campfire somewhere in lush Vancouver, B.C., eating just-caught salmon from a mess of tin foil, the stars white-hot as blown glass.
Today, my “holy grail” is represented by the plate I’ve yet to order—a handy philosophy, as the SLO culinary scene is bursting with growth. Across the region, all eyes are on craft. Folks are planting their own lettuce, curing their own meats, brewing their own cider, and generally rocking a “pull up your sleeves and hand me that Mason jar” mentality.
It really is a beautiful thing.
So, how did I eventually come to call these worthy interview subjects my cohorts? Flashback No. 2: Commencing.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF HAYLEY THOMAS
- TRAVELOGUE: I’ve always written everything down, as early as I can remember. Here I am, incredibly content: snuggled in a sleeping bag, writing down the day’s thoughts and having my picture taken—still three of my favorite things of all time.
My family relocated from Redondo Beach to Atascadero in 1997. To put this in context: Not a single Starbucks existed between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles at this time. “The Home of the Velvet Foam” became a fixture in our lives.
Moving onto our 37-acre ranch after extremely wet El Niño conditions meant that the entire landscape was green and alive. I chased wild turkeys, attempted to ride (nearly wild) Icelandic ponies, balked at the bashful deer, and cradled slimy salamanders. I relished my mom’s home-cooked lamb and my dad’s salmon fettuccini. In the heat of the summer, my older sister and I would sprawl out on the cold, linoleum kitchen floor, hand-churning our own ice cream spiked with fruit from the nearby U-Pick berry stand. In the winter, we’d wake up early to haul in firewood to heat our home’s two wood-burning stoves. Good food has always been vital to my family. My dad’s spicy sausage spaghetti sauce is an ever-changing masterpiece, gaining momentum with time.
Like most SLO-based young professionals, I spent my later teen and early adult years slumming it in the “big city.” Los Angeles taught me a lot. Namely: How to work my butt off as a freelance writer, how to parallel park my 1968 Oldsmobile into microscopic parking spaces at 4 a.m. to avoid street sweeping, and—most importantly—how to truly appreciate San Luis Obispo County. The last straw came when the corn man was shot in front of my apartment in Long Beach.
I made my return to SLO County in 2009, writing for local newspapers and magazines with manic verve. It was a big “right place, right time” moment: The burgeoning food and wine scene was splayed out before me, and I became wholly immersed in its luscious offerings.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF HAYLEY THOMAS
- DINER QUEEN: Digging into a plate of “Alaskan Waffles,” aka waffles topped with vanilla ice cream at a dive-tastic diner in old Las Vegas earlier this year. Dessert disguised as breakfast is my husband’s favorite treat. This is obviously his meal.
Snapping photos of Villa Creek chef Tom Fundaro breaking down a whole, locally-raised lamb; holding fossil-laden shale in my palm as Ancient Peaks winemaker Mike Sinor waxed poetic on the complexities of soil composition; sitting in the bright kitchen at Windrose Farm as Barbara Spencer fried up freshly-plucked peppers “just to taste how sweet they can be”; weighing the differences between an Arkansas Black and Granny Smith cider. And don’t even get me started on the mystifying world of wine phenolics—when DOAU Vineyards & Winery’s Daniel Daou opens his mouth, the clouds part and birds begin singing.
These are the artisan renegades you’ll find behind every cork, plate, or jar of local lavender honey. Thanks to their dedication, we get to taste greatness straight from the tap. I’ve come to find that true greatness originates in unexpected places: bars, garages, backyards, and basements—the cracks between the pavement.
And, as Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson has said of what it takes to make it in music and in beer: “You can’t stay in your garage forever.”
Consider me your humble-yet-pushy servant, shedding light onto the far-reaching corners of our fertile land. Or, imagine me with a garage door opener in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other. Either way, you know I’m hungry.
Farmer’s Market in a jar: Scout’s Seasonal Soda
Lately, I’ve been parking my trusty laptop at Scout Coffee Company, home of my favorite sweet and frothy fabulous Honey Tea Bowl. One muggy morning, I swapped my usual hot tea for a wildcard Seasonal Soda, and everything changed. What I received was ridiculously refreshing, with just a hint of tart bite and a bounty of playful bubbles (and best of all—it matched my new pink Linus bike). What I got: Muddled strawberries, Meyer lemon zest and juice, sparkling water, and Scout’s house-made vanilla syrup in a Pinterest-approved Mason jar (yes, it comes with one of those striped, old-timey straws). Each Seasonal Soda is crafted from a rotating assortment of whatever Scout has on hand—basically, an assortment of fresh leftover garden goodness. Consider it the farmer’s market kitchen sink. Or delicious upcycling.
About $3; Scout Coffee is located at 1130 Garden St. in San Luis Obispo.
So fresh, so clean: Novo’s Cucumber Moscow Mule
A glass of cabernet sauvignon is my go-to at any restaurant, but whenever I’m at the bar at Novo, I start acting like some sort of drink-ordering rebel. I always end up trying out some newfangled concoction, to which I usually end up ruminating later: “How could I replicate this at home? I must have this every night of my life, forever.” The truth is that the alchemy of mixology is best left to the pros. Enter: Noah Clark, that friendly bartender with the big, stately beard and mad skills. The other day, Clark fixed me up Novo’s newest offering, a fresh take on an old favorite. It’s aptly called the Cucumber Moscow Mule, comprised of vodka, cucumber vodka, fresh lime juice, and ginger beer served up in a fashionable copper mug. The revitalizing libation will soon to be available as an add-on to Novo’s classic Moscow Mule. So fresh, so clean … it’s like a boozy day at the spa, minus the awkward steam room conversation.
About $10; Novo is located at 726 Higuera St. in San Luis Obispo.
Letters of outrage to my mother can be sent to email@example.com.