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The Neon Carrot shines!

Chef Maegen and Jeff Loring have opened a fabulous café in SLO sure to delight the most discerning foodies

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PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Have you heard about the Neon Carrot, a great new little café owned by chef Maegen and Jeff Loring? This hot eatery hasn’t been open a month but it’s already a favorite of foodies. I loved the carrot club; a huge sandwich on grilled whole wheat bread, only $7.95. It’s piled high with thinly-sliced turkey breast, avocado, bacon, and lettuce, dressed with a delightful housemade lemon caper mayonnaise. A tiny pickled carrot on the side was tangy and crunchy. For only $2.25 you can order the “sack lunch:” a bag of chips and a cookie or pudding ($1.95 each on their own).

Visiting with friends, I tried their orders too: the dazzling grilled romaine salad with crème fraîche, blue-cheese dressing, bacon, red onion, cherry tomatoes, and croutons, $7.50; and Pacific Rim crab cake salad with citrus dressing, $8.95. My favorite hamburger was the Park burger, the Loring’s popular Wednesday night special at their former restaurant, the Park. Now it’s on the Neon Carrot’s daily menu. This excellent hamburger is made with a choice of Hearst Ranch beef or the housemade veggie burger. The buns are baked fresh, unlike most other restaurants. She also offers several interesting choices like: caramelized onions or cheese for 75 cents each, bacon or avocado for $1 each.

FIND IT HERE:  The Neon Carrot - 3536 S. Higuera St., #206 - SLO, 545-0000 - Open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
  • FIND IT HERE: The Neon Carrot 3536 S. Higuera St., #206 SLO, 545-0000 Open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.

I revisited the first day they began serving breakfast and tried the fried- egg sandwich, $4.50. It’s served with farm fresh basil and tomato, and dressed with crème fraiche on the housemade bun, and a perfectly-ripe, giant strawberry. My dessert was the freshly-baked anadama toast with fresh, housemade ricotta and strawberry-rhubarb jam, $1.95. The breakfast menu has since expanded to a full array of egg and sweet treats, ranging from $3.50 - $6.95. The great thing about these delicacies made by pastry chef Christina Bonnett, is they express essence of the fruit rather than the sugar. I’m crazy about her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with pecans and dates.

A MINUTE’S REST :  Chef Maegen Loring and partner Jeff Loring relax before the lunchtime crowd swarms their inviting new café. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • A MINUTE’S REST : Chef Maegen Loring and partner Jeff Loring relax before the lunchtime crowd swarms their inviting new café.

Chef Maegen Loring can’t bring herself to return to the site of her first restaurant, the Park in SLO, which closed last July. The thought of it still breaks her heart. Recently, when she was about to open her new restaurant, she sent her husband and partner Jeff to get the last of their furnishings. After nearly seven years, the recession forced them to close down their popular restaurant. During the last dinner at the Park, two different winery owners who frequently dined there pulled out their checkbooks and asked Maegen: “How much do you need to stay in business?” But the practical chef said she couldn’t accept it; she was closing because she didn’t want to sink deeper into debt.

 “Over the six-and-a-half-years we were open, I always woke up and looked forward to getting up and going in,” Loring recalled. “The night we closed we stayed there until 3 a.m., crying over it. We were like family.” Her eponymous catering business, which she started before opening the Park, has been renamed The Neon Carrot. Quite popular among the wineries and local residents, it always kept her busy and supported her efforts at the Park. After closing the fine restaurant, she found a small café space on South Higuera at Prado Road that had a functioning kitchen for her catering. That was a very good thing. It was just what she needed to open a new eatery that’s in tune with the current trend. It’s casual and relaxed, and it allows her to offer her fabulous foods once again, but at relatively cheap prices.

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

`They opened suddenly on a Wednesday with no more notice than a 10-a.m. note to their customer email list and on Facebook: “We’re opening at 11 and will offer lunch for now, adding breakfast later on,” it promised. By noon that day the Neon Carrot was packed. The place seems out of the way to many people, but I believe that the Loring’s many fans will keep this great little eatery busy. I’ve visited six times; after all, sometimes you need to do some thorough research. Like many other people have said to me, the Park was a little too expensive to be able to dine there regularly. Now I can enjoy Loring’s food much more often at prices that fit nearly anyone’s budget.

On my latest visit, I asked Loring if she felt the same about getting up to go to work at the Neon Carrot as she did about the Park. “Of course,” she smiled. That’s why her food is consistently good, and she’s just getting started here. The ambiance, like the menu, will always be strictly casual. And it’s quite lively thanks to the two large communal tables built by Jeff Loring, a former architect. The beautiful arch over the doorway was inspired by his love of early Italian Renaissance and late Gothic, which is still a work in progress.

“This is the kind of restaurant Maegen wanted for a long time,” Loring explained. “This way she can be all over the board with foods she likes and not forced to be structured.” He also brings in the great local wines and ales they offer. “The younger crowd couldn’t afford the Park. We want to see them coming here to meet friends for a sandwich and a beer.”

You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com

 

Waves, Wine & Beyond

Thursday, June 3-Sunday, June 6

The first annual Central Coast longboard surf classic is a four-day event that includes: a premiere of the documentary 180 South—Conquerors of the Useless surf movie at the historic Fremont Theatre in SLO; a barrel-to-barrel tasting featuring wine and beer from more than 50 producers; plus gourmet foods; live music by Forever Stoked; surf art and photography; a brew master’s dinner of five courses paired with five of Firestone Walker’s unique beers; a longboarding contest at Pismo Pier; and a special gourmet taco menu through the month of June at each participating hotel’s gourmet restaurant.

This fundraiser is sponsored by the Central Coast Boutique Hotel Collection, which includes the Cliff’s Resort, Sycamore Mineral Springs, Sea Venture and Apple Farm Inn. Proceeds from the event benefit the Association of Amputee Surfers (AmpSurf.org). Prices aren’t bad at $10 to $55 per event. I attended the media preview of the dinner, which included awesome pairings: the Cliff’s poblano pepper stuffed with smoked chicken and chipotle goat cheese, and jicama slaw with Hemp Ale; a selection of handcrafted cheeses and accompaniments with Honey Blond; and a fabulous Xantus Stout bittersweet chocolate cake with Black Xantus Stout.

 On Sunday, guests and competitors will gather at the Pismo Beach Pier to watch the surfing heats, which includes members of AmpSurf. The event will conclude with an awards party at Sea Venture Resort. For details and tickets call Brooke Mattingley at 556-3306 or visit winewavesandbeyond.com.

 

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