10 Dishes You Need to Know About
Santa Cruz County has plenty of creative diversity. But the same can be said for its culinary offerings, especially ethnic dishes. Take note of 10 that captured our interest.
Pumpkin Red Curry
What It Is: Succulent scallops plus sizeable prawns and chicken pieces are encased in a fragrant, red curry sauce featuring pumpkin and Thai basil. You will swallow any pride and lick up every last drop; like all the restaurant’s dishes, you can taste the freshness. The recipe comes from Thailand native Dee Hongmanee, who co-owns Sawasdee with her husband Bill and creates all the recipes.
Get It Here: Sawasdee, 5050 Soquel Dr, Soquel, 462-5051
Chicken Mole Enchiladas
What It Is: The mole sauce is perfect: sweet but with a spicy richness that remains light. Sprinkles of feta on top of the enchiladas provide saltiness that juxtapose successfully with the mole tastes. Owner Cheryl Marquez traveled extensively throughout Mexico to perfect her recipes and you can taste that she uses organic produce and herbs in Tortilla Flats’ dishes whenever possible—including items from her own garden.
Get It Here: Tortilla Flats, 4616 Soquel Drive, Soquel, 476-1754
What It Is: This entrée is any Italian-food-lover or meat-lover’s fantasy come to life. The tomato-based, well-seasoned sauce is chock full of ground pork, ground beef, Italian sausage, and country spareribs (the sauce is cooked with bone-in ribs, then the bones are removed and meat is chopped up and put back in), and served over linguini, penne, cheese ravioli, or polenta. The recipe is from owner Joe Moreno’s mother, Lillian, who used to prepare it on Saturdays and let it stew for many hours before the family gathered to eat on Sundays.
Get It Here: Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, 1116 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, 425-2288
What It Is: It’s not what you picture when you hear the word quesadilla: it’s more like a taco, and it’s a refreshing combination with lots of fresh shredded cabbage, pinto beans, and Monterey jack cheese, plus tomatoes, tomatillo salsa and a little onion and cilantro in a corn tortilla. The salsa has heat, but you can still taste the spices and you can add more with the salsa-filled squeeze bottles on each table. The quesadilla—whose recipe comes from the Moreno family—makes a good appetizer, or order two or three for your entrée.
Get It Here: Tacos Moreno, 1053 Water St., Santa Cruz, 429-6095
Dan Dan Noodles
What It Is: Hearty noodles inside a large bowl are covered in Dan Dan sauce, which uses peanut butter, soy sauce, chili oil and other ingredients in an addicting combination (note: the default noodle option is chow mein; there are three other noodle choices plus white or brown rice to also try with Dan Dan). It’s a very affordable meal, and you can add toppings for a small cost: pressed tofu or poached white chicken complement the sauce especially well. Co-owners/husband and wife Jack and Sue Chiao, natives of Taiwan, created the recipe.
Get It Here: Little Shanghai, 1010 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, 458-2460
Saffron Chicken Breast Kebab
What It Is: Chicken breast chunks are marinated in a flavorful lime-saffron blend, then grilled. You can order this tender, moist chicken as a wrap, salad, or platter—either way you get Zameen’s fabulous homemade flatbread. Choose one of six sauces; the pomegranate walnut really enhances the chicken flavors (but be sure to eat some without the sauce and appreciate those subtle flavors first). The dish was created by Iran native Mike Assar, who co-owns Zameen with his son-in-law Ed Watson. Restaurant consultant Mimi Snowden—the former Bleu Spoon/Café Sparrow owner-assisted with Zameen’s menu and design.
Get It Here: Zameen, 7528 Soquel Dr Aptos, 688-4465
Butternut Squash Ravioli
What It Is: Avanti’s seasonal dishes are often ethnic gone oh-so-gourmet, and Butternut Squash Ravioli definitely fits that bill. The butternut squash filling is sweet and rich but not excessively so, and the sage brown butter and toasted hazelnut garnish are perfect together. The fresh pasta is handmade by local Pasta Mike (aka Mike Ruymen, who supplies several restaurants and stores), and Avanti creates the filling and the rest of the dish—the recipe originated by a former Avanti chef, but was fine-tuned by current chef, Ben Sims.
Get It Here: Ristorante Avanti, 1711 Mission St., Santa Cruz, 427-0135
What It Is: One bite of this roll will have you doing the happy sushi dance. Filled with vibrant red maguro, always so fresh, the Sunset Maki delivers a great taste-texture combination. Salt and crunch from tobiko (flying fish roe) provide balance to the minty shizo leaf and negi (green onion). The recipe was created by Mobo founder Scott Maddox.
Get It Here: Mobo Sushi, 105 S. River St, Santa Cruz, 425-1700
Tom Kha Gha Soup
What It Is: Thailand native Wanlop Kachinthorn, Sabieng chef and co-owner with his wife Nantaporn (who is manager), created the Tom Kha Gha served at this restaurant. You can order Tom Kha (coconut milk-based soup) at many restaurants around town, but Sabieng’s version is heavenly—it’s creamy with just the right balance of sour, salt, and sweet flavors – and includes mushrooms, scallions, lemongrass, galanga, and kaffir leaf. Tom Kha Gha features all-white-meat chicken, but vegetarians can substitute tofu (Sabieng also offers Tom Kha Koong with prawns).
Get It Here: Sabieng Thai Cuisine, 1218 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, 425-1020
What It Is: Only available on Wednesdays, Kota Riganati includes melt-in-your mouth tender chicken that’s been marinated in lemon, olive oil, garlic, and tangy Greek spices and then roasted. Its accompaniments include tzatziki sauce (yogurt-garlic-cucumber), a creamy and excellent complement to the lemony chicken, plus pita bread and feta-topped salad. The salad vinaigrette and pita both feature a successful secret spice blend (30 total!); the pita is grilled, buttered, and sprinkled with these herbs. The chicken recipe hails from Constantinople—from the former restaurant owner’s grandmother.
Get It Here: Vasili’s, 1501A Mission St., Santa Cruz, 458 -9808