South County is both more tame and
more tasty than you might think
Scenes of South County: clockwise from upper right, chips and salsa at La Fuente
in Soledad, on the street in Chualar, La Michoacana Peleteria Y Neveria
in King City, cows in Arroyo Seco and agriculture off River Road.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX
In July 2015 a large headline on a local television news website read: “13 suspected gangsters arrested in South Monterey County.” Illustrating the story was a group of mugshots depicting six stone-faced suspects, one of whom had “93960,” the Soledad zip code, tattooed in bold script across his forehead.
With stories like this appearing in the local news media, it is no wonder that some people don’t see the allure of the eastern edges of Monterey County—South County, as the corridor of the 101 running from King City to Salinas is known. I will admit that when driving back from a weekend trip to Los Angeles I used to try to fill up my gas tank in Paso Robles and then power through to Monterey. It just seemed too risky to make a late-night pit stop in between.
But in recent years, between more dramatic headlines about crime and drug task forces, many more positive stories have come out of South County. In 2013, the Pinnacles gained recognition as a national park, one of only nine such parks in California. The area is filled with wineries and tasting rooms and hosts family-friendly attractions like a dude ranch and the Agricultural & Rural Life Museum. And just last year, in local hospitality news, Soledad opened its friendly Visitors and Gateway Center, and a young couple from Seattle started a contemporary farm-to-table restaurant in King City. That restaurant, the Cork & Plough, made large enough ripples in the local dining scene to be felt in Monterey and Carmel.
So after years of avoiding South Monterey County, last spring I decided it was well past time to see what was really happening there. I reached out to friends and gathered a list of restaurants and other points of interest. Armed with a camera and the results of my Facebook poll, I set out to find the best food in the area.
Our first destination was the tiny town of Chualar, just 10 miles south of Salinas, right off of Highway 101.
As we exited the freeway and pulled onto the access road, we drove past a classic-gold convertible low rider parked outside a brightly colored taco shop. On the next block we spotted the first place on our list, Alma’s Bakery, which was alleged to have the best tortas in the county.
Outside the restaurant a heavy duty brush had been placed for field workers to clean off their dirty boots. Inside, a long glass case displayed dozens of Mexican breads, and a self-serve coffee station stood in the center of the dining area. In anticipation of a long day of eating, we ordered two Mexican breads and a torta al pastor. The first bread, a classic conchita blanca, was airy and predictably dry, begging to be dredged through a coffee loaded with milk, sugar and cinnamon. The second bread was quite interesting, similar to a banana muffin that had been wrapped in a flaky pie dough.
The torta came out of the kitchen wrapped in butcher paper. In addition to the roasted pork, there were avocado, queso fresco, shaved onion, jalapeño, cabbage, tomato and mayonnaise all piled on top of a light and crispy roll. It was delicious, and at only $4 for the generous sandwich, it could compete head to head with the best báhn mi spots in San Francisco!
Feeling a boost of confidence after our first successful stop, we decided to walk a block to the little taco shop down the street. The first thing we noticed was that the entire staff spoke Spanish and made no effort to communicate with us in English, even though it was likely either hilarious or painful for them to allow us to order in our limited kitchen Spanish vocabulary. We split three tacos: cabeza (beef head), chorizo and chicharrón. They were all tasty, but the chicharrón was unexpectedly soggy and gelatinous— it seemed as though the pork skins had been intentionally puffed up in hot oil and then braised in some sort of liquid. The flavor was excellent, but the texture must be an acquired taste.
Next up was Roy’s Swiss Sausage Factory in Greenfield. As we passed seemingly endless fields of lettuce, pulling around work trucks and tractors as we went, it appeared we had lost our way. Just as we were about to turn around, we noticed the sign at the end of the dead-end street. As we pulled into the driveway, a small corrugated metal and cinder block warehouse appeared at the back of the property with a neon “Open” sign and a proudly waving American flag. Inside the tiny warehouse a stocky man darted around cutting and packaging steaks for a waiting customer. He looked up and flashed us a big grin, saying he would be right with us. As we watched, it became obvious this was Roy himself, the proprietor and second generation butcher. His father used to own a meat processing plant in this very building where Roy began learning the butcher trade as a young boy. These days Roy gets most of his meat in primal cuts, but the hanging rails, from when the warehouse used to be a meat processing business handling whole animals, still thread their way through the building and out toward the walk-in cooler.
As Roy tells us about his method for making sausage, his passion for the topic is obvious. He uses time-tested recipes and top-quality ingredients to create sausages that people travel hundreds of miles to purchase. Roy talks with pride about his customers—the Italian tile layer always eager to get a bargain and the couple from up north who send their kids back home with a full cooler every time they drive past on business. He has an Old World quality about him, perhaps due to his absolute contentment and enthusiasm for his work. It seemed as though there was nothing he would rather do in life, and that joy undoubtedly translates into his products. In fact, Roy has been approached about taking his sausage factory to other cities on several occasions, but he is quite happy to stay on the family property and do what he loves.
Just as we were getting back into our car, we spotted a young man whose baggy denim shorts exposed a tattoo on his calf. He was just stopping by to pick up his order, and Roy greeted him warmly.
We headed back west toward the G-16 that eventually winds its way through the coastal range and into Carmel Valley. Late winter rains had left the pastures verdant, and cows languidly grazed along the roadside. Sadly, while there are many thriving and noted wineries on nearby River Road, the one we had been looking for was long closed and we drove back toward King City.
On our way through Greenfield, we couldn’t help but notice how much more pleasant and tranquil the South County we were experiencing was from our preconceptions: Attractive family homes sat on well-manicured lots with late model cars parked out front. Kids walked home from school with their backpacks and sports equipment. It felt like you could easily be somewhere in Monterey, except there was more grass and the streets were wider.
When we arrived in King City we discovered that the Cork & Plough was closed because it was Monday. I had heard good things about the restaurant and was sorry to miss it.
Fortunately we had another recommendation just around the corner, El Lugarcito, whose seafood has developed a loyal fan base. As we entered, I was pleasantly surprised by the ambience—almost an atrium with plenty of light and colorful hanging arrangements. Once again, we went with our friends’ recommendation and ordered the coctel de camarones.
It arrived in a large glass packed to the rim with poached shrimp, avocado, cilantro, onion and a fresh, bright tomato juice infused with celery. On its own, the coctel was very clean and refreshing, but I preferred it with a touch of the roasted tomato salsa that was on the table. These cocteles have become so well known on the Central Coast that people will sometimes refer to a King City-style coctel de camaron.
A few blocks away La Michoacana – Paleteria Y Neveria caught our eye. An attractive iron archway and two colorful ice cream cones painted on the wall made us stop and take a closer look. The shop is family run and specializes in fresh ice creams and fruit popsicles.
Everything is made in house from fresh fruits, and flavors range from traditional chocolate to exotics like mamey, curdled milk, corn and avocado. We sampled a variety of flavors and were impressed by the creativity of the selections and quality of the ingredients. I’m convinced that if this shop was located in San Francisco, it would have a cult foodie following and charge double its prices. It was clear that the family took a great amount of pride in its business and culinary heritage.
Local treats: clockwise from upper right, torta at Anna’s Bakery in Chualar, tacos at
Taqueria Hidalgo in Chualar, shrimp cocktail at El Lugarcito in King City, popsicles at
La Michoacana Peleteria Y Neveria in King City and a rock formation at the Pinnacles
By this time it was late afternoon, and we decided to drive up and check out Pinnacles National Park. As we wound our way through the dense blocks of vineyards behind Soledad and crested a series of rolling hills, we saw rust-red rocks beginning to protrude from the valley. Reminding me of the famous painting by Peter Blume, “The Rock”, the Pinnacles stand in the periphery just outside the frenetic industry of the Salinas Valley.
The curious rock formations are the remnants of an extinct volcano. Subterranean labyrinths formed by massive boulders falling into narrow canyons form a network of talus caves. These cramped passages, often filled by seasonal streams, are the home to many species of native bats. On the cliffs high above, a group of endangered condors has found an inland sanctuary.
Winter rains had painted the park with wildflowers and turned towering stone obelisks into brightly colored pillars of orange and green lichen. We hiked the park for a couple of hours, wading through the talus caves and climbing below the steep cliffs, until the sun began to set.
Our last stop was Soledad, the historic town John Steinbeck incorporated into his 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck is said to have chosen Soledad because the name translates into solitude, one of the themes of the novel. Today, almost 80 years after the book was published, the Salinas Valley remains a hub for agriculture, and the surrounding golden hills are largely unchanged.
We drove down the main street of Soledad at dusk, looking for La Fuente. It didn’t take long to find the bright yellow restaurant with a red tile roof and Spanish fountain. Inside, the walls were covered in mosaics of Diego Rivera prints, and colorful carved wooden chairs were placed around a few tables. The dining room was small and crowded for early on a Monday night. We were seated next to a couple who seemed to be enjoying a date night and across from a local family of ranchers. Everyone was relaxed and taking their time, enjoying the cozy and quaint setting.
As soon as we sat down, we were presented with a basket of chips and a dark red salsa. The salsa was unlike any that I had ever eaten, starting off sweet and subtle with a strong flavor of roasted peanut, then slowly escalating in heat until my tongue was burning and numb. It was quite unique and delicious, especially with a tall glass of horchata to tame the peppers. The chile rellenos were also fresh and well prepared. All in all it was a very pleasant experience, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back if I was in the area.
After dinner we drove back through the quiet town. The streets were mostly empty with only a few people out enjoying the spring evening. Streetlights began to flicker on, and a freight train idled across Front Street. I could almost imagine Steinbeck’s characters George and Lennie, walking and enjoying each other’s company in the solitude of dusk.
Back home I reflected on how different South Monterey County was from my expectations. Why had I avoided it for so long? Was there any merit to my concerns or was it simply an urban myth or media exaggeration? I decided to do a little digging and see what the real crime statistics were, and used a site called areavibes.com.
Carmel-by-the-Sea, a town I would walk around at any time of day or night without a care in the world, I learned has a violent crime rate of 336 incidents per 100,000 people.
Santa Cruz, a vibrant college beach town, has a crime rate of 826 incidents per 100,000. By comparison, Soledad has a rate of only 205 incidents per 100,000, making it one of the safest communities in California. These findings were a revelation.
While the Monterey County’s Wild, Wild East may not be quite as wild as I had imagined, it does have an abundance of great restaurants and miles of stunning scenery. If you haven’t been to Pinnacles National Park, or to explore the culinary destinations of South County, I recommend you go soon, before the word gets out!
The former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, John Cox is taking a sabbatical from the kitchen to pursue a number of projects including serving as a partner and consulting chef for the new Carmel restaurant, Cultura — comida y bebida.
EXPLORE: See also “River Road Revival,” a story about the River Road wine trail and the many noted wineries along it and a story about King City’s Cork & Plough restaurant in EMB’s Fall 2015 issue. The Soledad Visitors and Gateway Center is located at 502 Front St. and can be reached at 831.204.7208.