IN THE KITCHEN
TABLE TO FARM
California Grill of the Pajaro Valley keeps it local
By Jillian Laurel Steinberger, Photography by Patrick Tregenza
Dick Peixoto had been a regular at Tabacchi’s Family Coffee Shop in Freedom for years. He met a group of farmer friends at the restaurant daily from 6–7am, and they called themselves the “coffee boys.” When the owner wanted to retire two years ago, he asked Peixoto (pronounced Peh-SHOTE) to take it over, saying that he was capable of bringing something to the community that they’d appreciate—plus, as a farmer, he already had the raw ingredients!
At that time, the Watsonville area’s only fine dining restaurant— the nearby Green Valley Grill—had just closed. It was a sore loss, and ironically, the Pajaro Valley, which produces a huge portion of our region’s organic bounty, didn’t have much in the way of local, seasonal and organic-focused restaurants. (Café Ella is an exception.) So about six months later, Peixoto stepped up to the plate, and he and his daughter and business partner, Ashley, opened California Grill of the Pajaro Valley in the former Tabacchi’s. Their aim was farm-to-table-quality ingredients prepared and served without pretention, and the Green Valley Grill’s popular former chef, Elvis Gomez, and his brothers Pete and Robert, came on board to do the cooking.
Dick was up to the task. He started his own farm when he was 17 years old, and after switching from conventional to certified organic practices in 1996, Lakeside Organic Gardens has become the largest family-owned and operated organic vegetable grower in the country. He sells more than 45 different kinds of vegetables to restaurants and grocery stores, and says it’s a thrilling new challenge to sell food directly to the public. The Pajaro Valley native clearly enjoys it, as is evident as he walks from table to table, dressed in a farmer’s ball cap and blue jeans, greeting customers by name.
Many of his diners are locals who frequented Tabacchi’s, and for them, the restaurant remains homey and down to earth. Other locals crave farm-to-table dining near home, and then there are those who drive all the way from Hollister, San Juan Bautista, Aromas and Santa Cruz for the experience.
“It shocks me that we have customers who come weekly from Santa Cruz because of how fresh we can have things,” says Dick.
Today, the “coffee boys” still meet every morning at the restaurant. They include strawberry and berry farmers, “apple guys,” retired farmers and a tractor salesman. In fact, the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau meets monthly over lunch in the restaurant’s banquet room. Says Lakeside Organic Gardens marketing and communications manager Lindsey Roberts, “You can always tell when the farmers are there because of all the muddy trucks!”
California Grill’s menu features traditional American comfort food and Italian dishes—many of them rich and generous in size. But Ashley, the general manager, has a passion for serving healthy meals. Back in high school, she became frustrated with the high-fat, low-quality food served in the cafeteria, such as pizza, burgers and fries. So the kitchen at California Grill is tasked with preparing options for breakfast, lunch and dinner that are as good for customers as they are great tasting. Making this all easier is Lakeside’s ultra-fresh produce, which is picked in the morning and served at California Grill the same day.
The restaurant features gluten-free pasta, bread, desserts—and even gluten-free beer. It also offers low-fat choices like sweet potato fries that are baked rather than deep fried, and spaghetti with meatballs made from turkey rather than beef or pork.
The menu features mainly beef, chicken and seafood entrées but also offers many vegetarian dishes. Hooray! I had delicious (and comforting) polenta lasagna layered with ricotta cheese, pesto and grilled eggplant, portabella mushrooms and red peppers in a tasty marinara sauce. It came with soft, warm French bread from Watsonville’s Golden Sheaf Bread, butter and a large dollop of very spicy minced garlic (all of which I ate for the thrill), with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the table.
Entrées come with veggie-laden minestrone soup or a colorful side salad as well as steamed, buttered vegetables. The side salad was impressive—crispy and diverse with Lakeside’s mixed greens, yellow beets, cabbage, cucumber, rainbow carrots and tomatoes. The steamed vegetable medley included fresh green beans, parsnips, carrots, zucchinis and cauliflower.
The next time I go, I’ll be happy with just a big plate of those steamed veggies, or Lakeside Organics’ Whole Farm Salad, to which grilled chicken, shrimp, steak or prawns can be added.
ON A MISSION: SUPPORTING THE LOCAL ECONOMY
On the day I visited the restaurant, Ashley was touring Napa Valley wineries with her mother, sister and five girlfriends. But the girl party was just for fun—Ashley was not buying wine for the restaurant.
In fact, California Grill is committed to buying from local businesses, including many that are multigenerational and family owned. “There are so many fantastic growers and food businesses right here in our backyard,” says Dick. “Why would we source our apple juice from Argentina when Martinelli’s is right down the street?”
Freedom Meat Lockers supplies meats, and sausages come from Corralitos Market & Sausage Co., whose jalapeño cheddar and chicken artichoke are menu staples. Poultry is from Mary’s Chicken, a little further afield, in the San Joaquin Valley, but one of the most humane producers in the country. The restaurant serves only fresh fish, delivered daily from Stagnaro Bros. in Santa Cruz.
While the menu offers many tempting desserts, Dick talks mostly about the pies from Gizdich Ranch, which has grown berries and apples in Watsonville for about 50 years. A menu staple, the ollalieberry pie is delicious. Most of the year there is apple and any of 12 seasonal varieties.
As for drinks, the menu features only hyper-local wines from Hunter Hill, Storrs, Alfaro, Soquel, Cinnabar and Birichino Wineries. I enjoyed Birichino’s sweet, crisp white Zinfandel rose. The grill also offers a full line of spirits and beers that range from Coors and Budweiser to Sierra Nevada (Chico) and Lagunitas (Marin County), but nothing from our immediate area—yet.
Next, the restaurant wants to offer more organic wines and beer from local labels, as well as organic meats, cheeses and other items. The word is out!
California Grill of the Pajaro Valley • 970A Freedom Blvd., Freedom • 831.722.8052 • www.californiagrillrestaurant.com