Santa Barbara Vintners Association Director Jim Fiolek has watched the Santa Barbara County wine industry grow tremendously over the years.
PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
When I first tasted American Flatbread at the annual Au Bon Climat and Qupe spring open house event, I had an epiphany. The flavor and chew of the delectable, crisp wheat crust transported me back two decades to my first taste of Acme Bread from Steve Sullivan, baker at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I'd always loved bread but I knew I'd never tasted any as delectable as that artisanal pain au levain. I relived that moment 20 years later when I sampled American Flatbread and realized it was the best pizza I'd ever tasted and I worked for chef Wolfgang Puck, who earned fame worldwide for elevating pizza from pedestrian fast food to gourmet delight.
It wasn't just American Flatbread's wholesome crust made with 100 percent organic and kosher wheat flour that won me over. I raved about the toppings, too. Nearly all of the ingredients are organic, locally grown, and always seasonal. Depending on the month, pizza choices might include fresh local chanterelles and porcini, clams in their shells with chorizo, scallops and prosciutto, homemade fennel sausage, or artisanal goat cheese.
Amazingly, they're just as delicious at wine festivals, where pizzas are baked fresh with an array of toppings. Guests can choose a vegetarian slice or one crowned with meat or fish and most people want to taste them all. That day at ABC/Qupe I could've scarfed down an entire pizza, if not for the queue of hungry guests behind me eagerly anticipating their share of the treasure.
American Flatbread cooks can bake their pizzas just as easily while on the road because they built one of their wood-fired ovens on a trailer that they tow to events. As I discovered the first time, it doesn't matter where American Flatbread appears a wine festival or a single winery there's a line of fans in front of them. The wait can seem insufferably long when the aroma is wafting at you and you can't get some in your mouth very quickly. Or was that just me?
I was further impressed by the freshness and quality of all of the foods while dining at the Los Alamos restaurant, yet I was only there once. If not for the long drive, I'd dine there each week. I had no clue I was missing out on their frozen pizzas (in fact, I couldn't have imagined it) until the Wall St. Journal reviewed the best frozen pies across the country in January, naming American Flatbread No. 1. The critics were right. Frozen American Flatbread is amazingly close to the quality and flavor of pizzas served fresh from the oven in Los Alamos.
The Journal's critics prized American Flatbread for its "gorgeous, dark, slightly misshapen crust with a strong wheat flavor and generous cheese-to-crust ratio." Frozen versions include The Revolution, with mushrooms and caramelized onion
or cheese and herb on 12-inch pizzas. There's also tomato sauce and three cheese Ionian Awakening with feta, Kalamata olives, and red onions or fire roasted tomatoes with corn, cheese, and black beans on 9-inch pizzas.
Now my freezer holds several versions, so there's always one ready to satisfy my craving. One caveat: Implicitly trust the baking directions on the box. Over-baking dries out the wheat crust, killing its goodness. Another discovery: American Flatbread pizzas are widely available in SLO County at Albertson's, De Palo & Sons, Grande Health Foods, New Frontiers, Scolari's, and Spencer's grocery stores. Still, you've got to taste them at their finest, which is at the source. It's quite appetizing to watch the cooks sliding blistering-hot pizzas away from flaming oak in the wood-fired oven at American Flatbread in Los Alamos. And it's amazing to see what they cook in that primitive-looking oven, including s'mores with homemade marshmallows.
Clark Staub, the West Coast man behind the brand, is usually found with his loyal crew baking fresh flatbreads. The factory is converted into a restaurant only on Friday and Saturday evenings. If you don't get there by 6, you're in for a wait. And it's not just pizza that makes people think dinner's worth waiting for. The bar and front porch provide plenty of room for sipping one of many excellent Santa Barbara County wines offered by the glass. Besides, you'll be in good company among the local winemakers and celebrities waiting for their tables.
The rustic, barn-like interior of the factory/restaurant befits the "post-modern bread baking" theme. Every dining room table offers a front-row view of bakers and staff composing salads or plating luscious-looking, fresh desserts to bring to your table. Before the dinner hour rush, I had a quiet conversation with Staub and understood why I experienced my bread flashback. He's fervent about bread baking and readily tells of his love for the process of making bread and tearing into a hunk while it's still hot from the oven.
During a tour of the factory/restaurant, Staub pointed out every detail with the pride of a father and, essentially, he is. He restored the old building from the floor to the ceiling, built the bar stools from wine barrel staves, cast the two primitive wood-fired pizza ovens, and crafted the heavy benches on the front porch from the carcass of a Monterey Cypress left on his doorstep.
Then I learned that the artificer who found his passion in hand-crafting bread was formerly senior V.P. of marketing for Capitol Records. He left to start a bakery in Claremont, but the frustrations of a self-owned business left him easily swayed to return to the corporate world. Fortuitously, he accepted a job with Burton Snowboards in Vermont. There, his continual quest for artisanal bread landed him on the doorstep of George Schenk, founder of American Flatbread.
Numerous publications have described Staub as a hippie for his long mane of black hair. But after seeing everything he's done, I'd say Renaissance man is a more apt description. Afterward, I realized I'd seen Staub several times at the Arroyo Grande Farmers' Market. He goes to meet local farmers and artisanal food producers, all potential customers who can supply him the freshest produce available for his one-of-a-kind restaurant. The web site www.foodremembers.com and pizza boxes explain the philosophy Schenk and Staub live by: "From local soil into local hands to our hearth, Food Remembers the acts of hands and hearts." It speaks to my heart of the singular quality of American Flatbread.
INFOBOX: Go flat
American Flatbread is at 225 W. Bell St., Los Alamos, open Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. For more information, call 344-4400.
You can contact New Times' Cuisine columnist at Kathy@GrapevineRadio.net.