July 27, 2008

LMC & Mr. Tall's Culinary Adventures in Santa Barbara: Part 2

What would a trip with LMC & Mr. Tall be without cupcakes! I read about Crushcakes Cupcakery on a cupcake blog (I don't remember which one anymore, or else I would totally mention it!). Not far from State Street, Crushcakes is an adorable little corner-store cupcake shop. Mr. Tall and I ordered half a dozen cupcakes to enjoy later. We got 2 Crush Cakes (their signature red velvet cake with sour cream frosting and topped with a chocolate heart), a Strawberry Blush (strawberry cake with pink frosting and some pink white chocolate shavings, I think), a Buttermilk Crumb Cake (buttermilk cake with cinnamon brown sugar crumble and caramel swirls), a Vanilla Harmony (vanilla cake topped with dark chocolate frosting and mini dark chocolate chips), and a Lemon Drop (lemon cake with lemon frosting and candied lemon peel).

Crushcakes' daily menu offers 10 different kinds of cupcakes and also special cupcakes such as The Elvis (fresh banana cake with peanut butter frosting and chocolate drizzle) among other equally intriguing choices. Mr. Tall and I particularly enjoyed the Buttermilk Crumb Cake and Lemon Drop, but all were moist and yummy. Crushcakes cupcakes had a bit of a homemade charm--each cupcake was not perfectly manufactured and consistent as you may find at Sprinkles, but they were every bit as creative and delicious. Crushcakes looks like the only place around downtown Santa Barbara that is a specialty cupcake bakeshop so if you live or travel to SB and is a cupcake fiend like me, Crushcakes is definitely worth stopping by--hey, you might remember (or get your first) cupcake crush.

After a day of shopping on State Street and enjoying the Museum of Art, Mr. Tall and I had a destination in mind for dinner. We got on the road and drove northeast to Buellton--to The Hitching Post II.

As seen in Sideways, The Hitching Post II boasts its own winery in the Santa Ynez Valley and other Santa Barbara County wine selection, and its famous Santa Maria-style barbecue menu. As you can see (picture below), the structure and the interior of the restaurant are far from impressive, but it is not the ambiance that bring people to this landmark--it's the food culture. A straightforward menu, carefully selected wine list, and the chef-owner Frank Ostini with his signature beard and hat, the HPII is a destination all on its own.

First, I checked out the wine menu and Hitching Post's own 2005 Pinot Noir Highliner caught my eyes, and I ordered a glass. Mr. Tall doesn't like wine so he simply ordered a soda (plus he was driving us back to SB).

Mr. Tall and I started with its most popular appetizer, grilled artichoke -- seasoned with "Magic Dust" (HPII's unique blend of salt and spices) and served with a spicy smoked tomato mayonnaise. Mr. Tall is not a big fan of artichoke, but he really enjoyed this first taste of the Santa Maria-style barbecue. The "Magic Dust" added a lot of flavor to to the artichoke, and the spicy smoked mayonnaise was a great compliment to the smokiness from the grill. We both gobbled that up. Each entree of HPII's menu comes with a choice of organic mixed green salad or today's soup, and Bay Shrimp Cocktail, soup or neither for $2 less. The entree also arrives with rice pilaf, baked potato or French Fries.

Mr. Tall and I both ordered the salad and decided not to get the second course. The salad was nothing memorable--it was doused with your choice of salad dressing (in our case, Ranch) and herb croutons. The Los Angeles Times hailed that HPII's French Fries to be the best in Southern California so Mr. Tall got the fries along with his 10-oz. Prime Top Sirloin, medium. According to its menu and website, HPII purchases its beef from small packers in Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and its steaks among other items (including the grilled artichoke) are grilled on its Santa Maria rotating barbecue, over an oakwood fire, and seasoned with Magic Dust.

The steak was perfectly cooked--slightly charred on the outside, still pink and juice in the center. The French Fries were pretty addicting--evenly cooked to a golden crunch on the outside but creamy and soft on the inside. Each fry was consistently and freshly cooked.

I wanted to get something different so I went with the smoked duck breast--cold smoked and grilled over oak, slightly pink inside, and served with an apricot-ginger sauce--with rice pilaf. This dish was apparently one of the main character of Sideways Miles' favorite dishes along with the Highliner. The duck was tender, and the smokiness did not overwhelm the flavor of the duck. The apricot-ginger sauce provided the perfect amount of sweetness and acidity to the dish. Needless to say, it went perfectly well with the Highliner. Overall, our dinner was definitely worth the 25-minute drive from SB to Buellton.

Also, the service at HPII was nearly as wonderful in quality as its food. Our waitress was sweet and friendly, and any diner will get a sense of loyalty and pride of the restaurant from each of its employee. The Magic Dust and smoked tomato pesto (which is what they put into the smoked tomato mayonnaise) are available for purchase as well as a variety of wine bottlings from HP and other wineries. If you plan on going wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley or are traveling near that area, then I highly recommend making a dinner date at the Hitching Post II--you will not be disappointed, and be sure to make a reservation!

The weather in SB was not as accommodating as everything else on the rest of our trip. Mr. Tall and I endured cool weather and lack of sunshine, but tried to make the most of our visit anyway. Case in point: Day 3's picnic at the beach. After picking up some yummy sandwich, salad, and drinks from Panino 3, we drove up to Montecito and set up a picnic on Butterfly Beach. After braving the cold sea breeze long enough to finish our lunch, we headed back to our B&B and walked around Stearns Wharf and the harbor to take in more of the sights and grab some souvenirs for our family.

For dinner on our last full day in SB, Mr. Tall and I just wanted something quick and easy--but still delicious, of course. After a really short drive from our B&B to State Street, we grabbed some burgers at The Habit. With a few location in Santa Barbara, it seems to be a local favorite burger joint. They also have several locations in Ventura County, LA County, and up in the Sacramento area. Their Charburgers are "100 % fresh lean beef" served with mayonnaise, pickle, tomato, shredded lettuce (the best way to put lettuce on a burger), and caramelized onions on toasted sesame seed buns. In terms of quality, The Habit's and In 'N' Out's burgers are probably on the same par, but Habit's burger paddies are not as greasy since they are char-grilled. I got the #1, which is the Charburger with fries and a drink, and Mr. Tall got the #1 with cheese.

Their fries were also comparable to In 'N' Out. Mr. Tall and I enjoyed our burgers while people-watching on State Street, which was a cool setting for our short and sweet dinner. The Habit also offer grilled sandwiches, salads, shakes, and malts, which I would assume are all tasty.

After our very casual dinner, Mr. Tall and I decided to end our last night in SB with some drinks at Opal Restaurant & Bar. I discovered this place reading one of the magazines at the B&B room. The thing that caught my attention was its specialty martini menu, which offered a Thai-Chee-Ni. Located by the Arlington Theater, the Opal reminded me of a local favorite akin to restaurants in South Park or Kensington. Mr. Tall and I sat at the bar, surrounded by happy diners in this charming restaurant. Mr. Tall ordered a beer and I, of course, had to try the Thai-Chee-Ni. This martini is made with a Thai chili-infused vodka and pureed lychee fruit--it was spicy and sweet! A really surprisingly delicious drink--the spiciness was unlike when you eat a Thai chili but added to the warmth and complexity of the vodka. Lychee was the perfect fruit to chill out the punch of the chili. Their other drink specialities sounded interesting (Blood Orange Greyhound and Fresh Ginger Mandarin Cosmo among others), but me being a light-weight, I just got a Framboise (raspberry liquor) and Sprite, and Mr. Tall got another beer to end the night. The next morning, after mailing a postcard for Mr. Tall's grandparents in Wisconsin, Mr. Tall and I departed from Santa Barbara, and what a wonderful trip it was!

Good-bye, Santa Barbara--we'll be back again!

Little Miss Contrary

Coming: San Diego Restaurant Week at Chive and LMC's 24th birthday!


Sharon said...

Wow, what a great trip! I can't get past the cupcakes and the huge burger. Both look so delicious!

Roger. said...

Makes me wanna head up North again D: