Best Bites Avanti
Dining Reviews

Santa Cruz’s Best Bites of 2019

The county’s top dishes of the year, from tapas to a killer chocolate-espresso tart


Calamari is so easy to love—and so hard to cook perfectly.

It’s turned up in quite a few of my favorite dishes of the year. A platter of tender grilled squid adorned with English peas and bits of rich pork belly made one lunch at Avanti Santa Cruz an enduring memory. But perhaps the most memorable calamari of the year was a tapas dish at Barceloneta in downtown Santa Cruz filled with succulent morsels of grilled Monterey squid, fideos pasta and finely diced chorizo, all bathed in black squid ink with spicy little peppers and piquant aioli. I could eat three plates of it right now.

At the chic bookshop-café Bad Animal, a glass of one of the house bubblies, Crémant de Bourgogne from Céline & Laurent Tripoz, was a lively partner to an earthy and authentically French paté served with dijon mustard, cornichons and outstanding sourdough bread. This dish made sense of a crazy world. And the sparkling wine didn’t hurt.

Bantam is always welcoming, a serious restaurant disguised as a neighborhood pizza joint. On one of my trips to the intimate bar—for something with gin in it, plus an appetizer—I found culinary salvation. An elegant creation of a single plump, grilled scallop arrived astride a miniature landscape of black lentils surrounded by avocado cream. The scallop was perfect—tender inside, golden and crisp outside. Crimson Jimmy Nardello peppers joined the shellfish, and everything shimmered with an intense citrus oil. A spectacular constellation of flavors and textures.

The Kitchen at Discretion Brewing offers plenty of gastronomic seduction, but it was that plate of tempura eggplant with a soy-citrus reduction and aioli all dusted with red pepper togarashi that had us well and truly enchanted. Thanks Santos Majano! I would drive from the Westside, even during rush hour, for this dish.

From chef Tom McNary’s kitchen at Soif came a gorgeous small plate of Vietnamese-style grilled quail accompanied by rosy butter leaf lettuce, pickled onions and slices of spectacularly ripe tomatoes. The glazed quail was tender-chewy wonderful, especially dipped into a tart and fiery vinegar sauce laced with chilis and shallots. 

From La Posta’s kitchen came an elegant dessert of barely sweet ricotta pear tart, embedded with almonds and glazed pear and served with a housemade Meyer lemon gelato. An adult dessert made with flair, filled with dazzle.

At the Homeless Garden Project’s Sustain Supper last autumn, I swooned over an ensemble of desserts from chef Laci Sandoval of Wind & Rye. All were beautiful, but for sheer sex appeal, nothing topped her densely creamy chocolate espresso tart inflected with candied orange zest and sea salt. Brilliant combination of sensations.

The ethereal GF Carrot Cake from Manresa Bread—available at Verve locations throughout Santa Cruz—always knocks me out. Light and addictively flavorful, this buttery little tea cake is shaped into a miniature round studded with carrots, spices and walnuts. A spectacular achievement in gluten-free sin.

At Oswald, the drinks are perfection and the bar food sophisticated. Along with an evening special gin cocktail with pomegranate juice, blood orange and lime, I was transported (and not for the first time) by an appetizer of Dungeness crab layered with avocado and lemon zest. Great service, great food, and the chance to see everybody in town. One of the great dining moments of 2019. I look forward to many more in the New Year!

To Top