2621 41st Avenue
Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Lunch - 1:00 PM
Number of Diners: 2
Food Quality: 8
*Service is an 8 with elements of 5 for occasional visitors and 10 with elements of 5 for regulars - the place is so overwhelmingly friendly that frequent long gaps between server visits are easily overlooked, but it would be inaccurate not to mention them.
Time for an Ego confession before the review. This is my favorite restaurant in the United States, period. That said, it is far from the best restaurant in the U.S. How can it be my favorite if not the best? It's a lot of little things - fresh, local, often organic meats, produce, and the like. Comfortable, bustling atmosphere, unpretentious on every level. Consistently good (not great) food - American standards with a Northern California flair. Decent wine list, good beers on tap, and always friendly. When I lived in the area we would hit this restaurant nearly monthly - not enough to be called regulars, but as often as we could for a decent meal. It was always worth the 40 minute drive each way from Gilroy. Special occasions? Not here. We could go to San Francisco or other "special" places. Cafe Cruz provided us with reliable and consistent high-quality, food, beer, and wine at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere. Any time I visit the area, this place is at the top of the list for "must-do" dining. Our schedule on this trip only permitted one visit for lunch, and it was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. It just felt - easy. You can always count on Cafe Cruz to take great ingredients and combine them competently without damage.
Cafe Cruz is located in Soquel, which is just south of Santa Cruz. It's definitely a locals-only place, not near the water for tourists or downtown for the college and "cool" crowds. It's in an old building across the street from the local Super K-Mart. Parking is non-existent, half shared with a nameless Chinese place behind the building. The structure itself is a labyrinth of small dining areas, a bar and adjacent table seating, a featured gas-fired rotisserie with rotating spitted chickens and other fowl, an outdoor open-air patio, and a heated, covered outdoor courtyard. I have never counted, but I'd speculate there are at least 50 tables scattered about the place. The bar is small, noisy, and always jammed wall to wall with happy locals chattering about the workday while catching whatever game is on TV. Tables are set simply with tablecloths covered by white butcher paper. And it has an all-copper bar and showplace kitchen area with 4 seats, installed before such things were cool or commonplace. One or more of the chefs nearly always will ask about your meal when you walk past to visit the restroom or exit the front door.
Visiting on a Friday later in the lunch period, the main dining rooms were full, and the bar tables seemed overrun by people with small children, so we gladly accepted covered courtyard seating under the heaters. There was a large table set, and we took one of the five 2-person tables next to it. A couple with a (very sick) baby were behind us, and another couple a few tables down. The large table slowly filled with eight or nine women and one man. "Who invited HIM?" I asked softly, eliciting a giggle from my dining companion. We were pleased to see our server was Lisa (pictured here in a circa 2000 photo and unchanged today), who had been with the restaurant since opening, and had served us many times in the past. There was no reason for her to remember us, and she did not, but still greeted us warmly and treated us like long lost friends - the normal atmosphere for the place. I believe it was Lisa who told us many years ago that one of the desserts (the lemon bar) was prepared by one of the waitstaff and brought with her to work fresh daily. They discontinued the practice later, outsourcing to a local bakery, but it's that kind of place - where anyone would pitch in to make it successful.
We ordered our standard San Pellegrino liter ($4.25) and heard the specials. Learning that they had Seabright Brewery's Amber Ale on tap, we both ordered one of those as well - passing up Anchor Steam, Newcastle, Heinekin, Paulaner Hefeweizen, Guinness, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale also available on draft. I reminisced that Seabright, a local brewery in Santa Cruz, was one of our favorite post-beach hangouts in days past. The decent and affordable wine list (with 15 by the glass) also beckoned, offset by the fact of a 40 minute drive to Carmel for a meeting that had already started at 1PM. We had opted for the lunch and a late arrival at the meeting in order to work Cafe Cruz into the schedule! They had an interesting special of fresh ahi tuna organized somehow into a taco salad. It looked very tasty on the large table near us, but we were wanting lighter fare in smaller portions for our afternoon repast.
What we had with menu descriptions...
Happy Boy Farms Organic Baby Green Salad (Large) - Granny smith apples, crumbled Gorgonzola, glazed walnuts & raspberry vinaigrette $13.50
Organic Baby Green Salad (small) - balsamic vinaigrette or creamy Gorgonzola port dressing $6.50
Three Cheese Spinach & Artichoke Ravioli - roasted red bell pepper cream sauce $14.95
Each table is started with a sliced sourdough baguette served with herb-infused olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh chopped garlic (prepared daily). The concoction makes a hot-spicy garlicky nectar readily absorbed by the excellent bread. Lisa brought us a second round of bread and garlic after taking our order. The salads were, as anticipated, prepared from fresh, local, organic greens. The Happy Boy salad was generous in size and perfect in presentation. The small salad really "popped" with the Gorgonzola port dressing. The pasta was also very good - warm, creamy, and redolent of fresh spinach and artichokes both procured from farms less than 20 miles away. The roasted bell pepper cream sauce was mild with a strong hint of sweetness. The hoppy Seabright ale made a great complement to the simple meal. It was a wonderful, albeit all too quick, homecoming for us.
We wanted to bring our friends back for dinner the very same evening, but the meeting in Carmel was scheduled to go until 9PM and likely to be later. I asked Lisa when closing time was for a Friday night. She went to check and reported that they planned to close around 10. I mentioned that we were hoping to bring a few friends back, but the schedule would be tight and late arrivals might not be welcomed. Lisa (without checking) assured me that if I called with a party of four or more at 9:30 for a 10PM arrival, they would without question stay open for us. Perhaps it's the rough economy, and perhaps it's also just that kind of a place. While we might ultimately have made it happen, the meeting was so exhausting that none felt up to the 80 minute round trip. So we all will have something to look forward to on our next visit.
Cafe Cruz - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a friendly and comfortable Northern California lunch or dinner experience if you are relaxed and unhurried - not recommended for the demanding, up-tight, or time-limited diner
Highs: Friendly environment, reasonable prices, reliable preparation, stellar ingredients - fresh meat, fish and pasta
Lows: Parking, occasional periods of absent service
Bon Appétit! - W. Ego