Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country

Wine Tasting in Buellton, Solvang and Los Olivos

Although we go to wine tastings any chance we get, Mike and I have never visited any wine regions. Since the Santa Ynez Valley is only a two and a half hour ride from my mom's house in Torrance, CA (see the previous post), we decided to take a side trip.

Every aspect of this trip was better than we could have planned, and there was more than the usual amount of serendipity involved. We stayed at the Best Western Pea Soup Andersen's Inn in Buellton. For about $80/night, we got a big room with fab 70s light fixtures and a great location. The hotel even had a putting green behind the pool...Mike was happy. It is right next door to Andersen's restaurant, the place that claims to have invented split pea soup. I haven't done any research regarding that claim, and we didn't try the famous soup because that's not really what I want to eat with a good bottle of wine.

Before they got on the wine tourism bandwagon, this area was best known for being a little enclave of Dutch culture and kitsch, nestled between the lovely mountains of the Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang, adjacent to Buellton, is the center of the Dutch thing with several blocks of shops, beer gardens and bakeries with windmills generously sprinkled throughout. Solvang also has a cute open-air theater where their summer theater festival is held, but we weren't here for another summertime production of The Taming of the Shrew.

Since we weren't interested in the theater festival or the famous pea soup, then what did we have left? This trip was all about the wine. You don't have to drive around to the individual wineries, although you can visit a few of them on site, like Rusack, pictured at the top of the post. All you have to do is wander down the main drag in Solvang or Los Olivos and visit the tasting rooms that many wineries have set up. Most charge between $5 and $10 to taste several wines and take home your glass. The prices are really reasonable, and if you look for promotional maps and brochures like we picked up at our hotel, you can find coupons for 2-for-1 deals at a lot of the tasting rooms. This is a tasting room in Solvang that showcased wines from several very small producers not large enough to have their own tasting room.

In the Santa Ynez Valley, I also recommend:
  • I also highly recommend Carina Cellars, Alexander and Wayne and Daniel Gehrs, all in Los Olivos.
  • Los Olivos Grocery where we picked up cheese and charcuterie for lunch at a nearby park.
  • Trattoria Grappolo, a Tuscan restaurant that one of the tasting room attendants tipped us off to. We sat at the counter in front of the brick oven in their open kitchen and got wonderful stuffed calamari and penne with sausage and mushrooms. It's a great little restaurant in Santa Ynez with a nice menu...and supposedly Giada De Laurentiis filmed a segment of her travel show there.
The Greatest Hamburger of My Life

No doubt about it, we totally lucked into this one. I shudder to think how we could have missed it. We had heard of the Hitching Post, Buellton's renowned steak house. We were afraid it might be an expensive tourist trap even though it has a good reputation. There was nothing to worry about. The place is reasonably priced, homey and delicious. When we stopped in to make a reservation, the hostess informed us that Monday was burger night in the bar area. We were intrigued, and by dinner time we decided burgers were the way to go.

Our waitress clued us in to the secret of the Hitching Post burger: they grind up all the odds and ends left over when they cut the meat for their steaks. The result is a thick, juicy, beefy patty. You can top it with a thick slice of cheddar if you want, but the real show stopper is the homemade bun. It is an egg bun, not too doughy, but soft, golden brown on the outside and covered with what I think was asiago cheese, creating a baked-on crust. They serve it with mango ketchup on the side, but I just crave good old Heinz with my burgers. The fries are wonderful, but this is the rare instance when you'll hardly care.

The hitching post also has their own line of locally made wines. We had a juicy, medium-bodied bottle of their Merlot with tannin in all the right places. Priced at about $25, it was a good deal for any restaurant. I would not hesitate to go out of my way to arrange a trip in order to be in Buellton on a Monday.

Santa Barbara, aka Taco City

Santa Barbara is just a half hour south of Buellton, so we passed through on our way in and out of the wine country. Several months ago, we read an article in the New York Times highlighting the best taco stops between L.A. and San Francisco. According to the article, Santa Barbara is a hotbed of taco activity, and based on the two lunches we enjoyed, I would agree.

Now, when I say tacos, I mean soft corn tortillas with some kind of meat (preferably marinated pork), topped with fresh salsa and hot sauce, if you want--a real Mexican taco. La Super Rica was supposed to be the place, and we got some amazing tacos on tortillas that were being freshly made before our eyes. But, then we went to Lilly's Taqueria. In a slightly grittier location (which, for Santa Barbara, means hardly gritty at all), this place made a pork taco that rocked my world. The meat was tender and flavorful and the hot sauces were fresh and bright. See for yourself (that's actually a beef taco on the left)...

We are back in Fort Lauderdale now, and I don't think we will be traveling again for at least a little while. I have a bit of a back log of recipes to blog about while I'm detoxing from our California trip...then maybe I can work on my own version of Lilly's tacos.

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MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

My mother always insisted we try the pea soup! It is excellent! And she loved Solvang, I wondered the streets with her years ago. Now I want to try the Hitching Post on a Monday, that does sound like a good burger but you won't care about the fries - that would be some burger!
Next time we fly in or out of Santa Barbara, I'll want to try one of the Taco places.

Lydia said...

I've never been to Solvang, so thanks for the photos to give a taste of the town. And the world's greatest hamburger -- well, I'd make a special trip for that!

Anonymous said...

fyi, solvang is danish, not dutch

Roy D. Slater said...

My wife and I have been looking into santa ynez wine tours. After reading about your experience, I must say that I'm rather jealous. Thanks for posting, we can't wait to go.

holiday villas spain said...

This is really an amazing post.. I enjoyed being here and gathered so much information regarding the recipes and this wine country is very nice.. I will share it out with my friends..