Brion Sprinsock created a tour of Santa Cruz last year, that melds local gastronomy with local history. It was something he and his wife had always wanted to do, after going on a food tour in Chicago many years ago.
“We thought, wow, that would be so fun to do downtown [in Santa Cruz],” said Sprinsock. A few years later, the Penny Ice Creamery and True Olive Connection opened up downtown, and the couple knew it was time.
Sprinsock choreographed a tour with five carefully selected establishments (including the two above), and led 72 tours on the weekends between March and September last year. This year, Santa Cruz Food Tours plans to continue it’s successfully trodden SC tour and also introduce a Capitola Food Tour, beginning in April.
Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of joining Sprinsock along with nine other interested and interesting parties—several couples and a few brave loners hailing from Carmel Valley, Sacramento, Salinas, Fremont, and two Santa Cruz transplants from the United Kingdom.
We all met in the courtyard outside Center Street Grill where the tour begins.
Sprinsock, knowing what it’s like to be surrounded by ten growling bellies, did the wisest thing: brought us inside, sat us down at a pre-set table and brought out three hot pizzas, “some of the best pizza in Santa Cruz, the other place being La Posta,” said Sprinsock.
I couldn’t tell which I was loving more, being treated like royalty (instant table, instant service) or chowing down on homemade-pizza-dough pizza with the ineffable combination of homemade sauce, caramelized onions, spinach, applewood smoked bacon and mozzorella.
After the pizza and a couple of glasses of water (we were going to need it), the tour took off at a brisk pace up the hill on Green Street and launched into a fascinating little dose of Santa Cruz history, the founding of which essentially took place at the site of the old Santa Cruz Mission.
Sprinsock kept his audience enthralled with strange but true stories about Russian otter pelt hunters, goldminers, and a dwindling population of Native Americans who joined the Mission because they offered food and shelter, and were then turned into slaves.
After a breathtaking view of the clock tower (it’s way more impressive from above than when you’re just driving by), the next stop was the and the pace curiously quickened. At the ice cream shop we were met with a scoop of Verve Coffee with chocolate pralines, one of the many flavors on their rotating menu of organic, locally-grown ingredients. It was served on a house-made waffle cone made from the thousands of egg whites left over from the ice cream-making process.
A bit more walking and site seeing followed, including a glimpse of the first electrical light in Santa Cruz (it’s inside the Hinds House on Chesnut Street), and the chilling story of the Hinds family, who lost all four of their children to a diphtheria outbreak that ripped through California between the summers of 1876 and 1878. (They started a new family with five more kids; three of them survived.)
Sprinsock is an endless dispensary of interesting historical facts, and he enjoys answering your questions, kind of like a really good college professor does.
The next stop was the True Olive Connection, where we got to taste various combinations of gourmet olive oils and vinegars. Sprinsock revealed some shocking truths about the “olive oil” for sale at Supermarkets—ask him about lamp oil—and poured us each a healthy soda alternative he made from Peligrino and a black cherry balsamic vinegar (it tasted like a Juice Squeeze!)
The sliders at the Surfrider Cafe scored major points with the tour. Made with free range organic black angus beef from Painted Hills Ranch in Oregon, homemade sourdough buns (baked every half hour) and a generous slathering of gorgonzola, a pickle, and bacon crumbles, these mini wonders have never fully left my palatal memory, and I know I’ll bring some of my friends in to try them.
We were also given tasters of a Redwood Ale, an IPA and a Pale Ale microbrews from the Boulder Creek brewery.
“This is a sign of maturity. I used to drink my way through downtown Santa Cruz. Now I’m eating my way,” said Carlton Green, a Carmel Valley resident who came with his wife, Shelley Post, who was scouting out the tour to tell her customers about at West Cliff Inn.
Then it was on to, sadly, the last stop of the tour: The Malabar Restaurant, a vegetarian Sri Lankan fusion restaurant with deep roots in Santa Cruz. They were one of the businesses that made it through serving out of the temporary tent that was erected after the 1989 earthquake for all of the displaced restaurants of downtown.
Here, we were met with banana lassis, a sweet and ambrosial mix of yogurt, bananas, cardamom, and a sprinkle of saffron. It was the perfect drink to cool our tastebuds which were on fire from a delicious vegetable rotti. The rottis were made with a buckwheat flat bread and served with a ramakan of coconut curry broth and a smear of very spicy red sambal sauce (chili pepper based.)
I'll definitely be returning to Malabar Restaurant, which is Asian Rose by day and Malabar by night, where diners can go with the "serve me whatever you want until I'm full" option if they are having trouble choosing something on the moderately priced ($10-$30) menu.
It was three and a half hours later when the tour dispersed, full of really great local food, inspired to try some of the other places Sprinsock mentioned (The Picnic Basket, and Cafe Campesino, especially), and full of a few historical facts I got to blast my friends with when I got home.
“I liked the history and the architecture, and we found places that we wouldn’t think of trying,” said Hannah Batterbee, 30, a "not-really-a-foodie" whose brother in the UK did a web search and bought her a tour gift certificate as a birthday present.
For more information on the tours, visit their mouthwatering website and have a look! They can fit 2-12 people, and are rain or shine on Fridays-Sundays at 2 p.m.