The Octagon at Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz
The Octagon at Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Lily Belli on Food: Restaurant fires, Roux Dat leaves Abbott Square vacancy, and COVID strikes home

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Lily

… Two Santa Cruz restaurants experienced very close calls this past week when they were almost destroyed by fire. Last Thursday at 1:30 a.m., a blaze broke out in the kitchen of Firefish Grill on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Santa Cruz Fire arrived at the scene to find a “well-established fire” spreading quickly to the attic and the roof, according to the incident report. Thankfully, firefighters were able to extinguish the fire within 45 minutes and save the restaurant, surrounding businesses and the wharf. The fire is estimated to have caused about $250,000 in damage, but could have caused untold millions had it spread to the historic wharf. For now, sheets of plywood cover the front door, and it’s unclear how long Firefish will be closed while it repairs the damage.

Then, late Sunday morning, another fire broke out in a strip mall on the north end of Mission Street. The building most recently held Shen’s Gallery, but has been vacant for several years. While the interior of that business sustained considerable damage, neighbor La Cabaña Taqueria was, incredibly, unscathed, as were Arrow Surf Shop and the empty restaurant space that once held O’Mei on the other end of the mall. “Everyone is fine, the building is safe and we should be able to continue serving mañana!” La Cabaña posted on Sunday. The close calls at both Firefish and La Cabaña couldn’t have come at a worse time, as spring break and gorgeous weather herald the first tourist season in two years with low COVID cases …

… Santa Cruz fans of Roux Dat Cajun Creole will now have to go visit the restaurant’s flagship site in the Brown Ranch Marketplace in Capitola for their jambalaya and po’boys. Roux Dat departed its satellite location inside the Octagon at Abbott Square at the end of February. Roux Dat shared the space for almost two with Daisuki Octagon Sushi, which is still holding down the fort, but the space never performed as well as its Capitola location. What will replace it for downtown workers like me? Abbott Square manager Joey Ward offers a friendly “no comment.” The historic space has been tricky to fill since its remodel five years ago. Before that, Lulu Carpenter’s coffee shop occupied the space for 10 years. After the square completed renovations in 2018 that divided the Octagon space into two businesses, the building sat empty or held a number of short-term tenants for a couple of years, including an art gallery and the Puppetry Institute. Roux Dat had the unfortunate experience of moving in just a few months before the pandemic started. Now the local dining industry is booming. I’ve reported on far more restaurant openings than closures in the past few months, and restaurant spaces in high-traffic locations come with a premium. Several would-be restaurateurs have confided in me that they’ve been looking for brick-and-mortar spaces for months, but competition is fierce. The shape and shared space of the 140-year-old Octagon definitely make it a quirky choice, but interest in it could be intense ...

The Octagon is the gateway to bustling Abbott Square.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

… Being able to shop at incredible farmers markets year-round is one of the joys of living in Santa Cruz County, and CalFresh recipients can enjoy it as well. In fact, Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets is a partner of CalFresh, a state program that gives monthly financial support to those who need to supplement their food budget. All five of the Santa Cruz community farmers markets, including Felton, Live Oak, downtown Scotts Valley and the Westside, accept EBT, which is the method used to distribute these funds, and the markets regularly match funds dollar for dollar. Cabrillo College and UCSC students can find out more about how to take advantage of this program tomorrow on CalFresh Student Outreach Day. Any student who’s interested should visit the information booth at the downtown farmers market Wednesday from 1-4:30 p.m. CalFresh recipients will receive $20 free when they spend $10 of EBT at the market, and can enter a raffle for $50 worth of farmers market gear. Find more information about using CalFresh at local farmers markets at santacruzfarmersmarket.org.

This week, Cabrillo and UCSC students can learn about how to use CalFresh benefits at local farmers markets.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

ON THE MENU

Our local food trucks and pop-ups have some of the most creative cuisine in the county. In any given week, you can dine on everything from hot chicken to Japanese yakitori to Chicago-style hot dogs to Neapolitan-style pizza, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. These mobile food businesses are booming, and the secrecy that used to buzz around them like the hum of a generator is a thing of the past. Now, they want to be found — many of these businesses are their proprietor’s full-time gig. My Guide to Food Trucks and Pop-Ups in Santa Cruz County will tell you where you can find incredible tacos, crispy Filipino lumpia and Eastern European pierogies. This is going to be quite the undertaking, but it’s a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I’m excited.

Help me make sure I don’t miss anyone. What are some of your favorite pop-ups and food trucks? Where do you find them, and what do you order? Writer to me at lily@lookoutlocal.com or text me via Subtext.

THE NUMBER

Local brewery Sante Adarius Rustic Ales is raising money for World Central Kitchen through sales of its Platform 4 IPA.
(Via Facebook)

$6,504 — Amount Sante Adairius Rustic Ales has raised so far for nonprofit World Central Kitchen through the sale of cans of its Platform 4 IPA. 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this citrusy, citra-hopped beer will be donated to WCK, an organization that is currently feeding those fleeing from the war in Ukraine. If you’d like to participate, head to Sante Adairius’ Santa Cruz Portal or Capitola brewery to pick up a four-pack for $22. Enjoy a great beer while knowing your money is going to support a good cause.

THE QUOTE

“With the labor rights movement growing, we’re looking at possibly thousands of elections coming in the next year, and we really need to look at reforming how we have union elections.” — Joseph Thompson, the lead organizer for two unionizing Starbucks in Santa Cruz, on how he and his fellow workers are preparing for their vote. Read my colleague Max Chun’s interview with Thompson, who is also running for State Assembly.

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LIFE WITH THE BELLIS


Well, two years into a pandemic and it finally happened. My little family got COVID, and we have been isolated at home for the past week. Thankfully, everyone’s case was mild, but bad colds are unpleasant even in the best of circumstances. Little Marco was a trooper. While he did have a fever for one day, his biggest challenge is being stuck at home with mom and dad. The poor kid is bored out of his mind, despite our best efforts to keep him entertained. This was especially hard for me, because the virus enthusiastically attacked my throat. Not only was it painful to drink and eat, but I couldn’t speak above a whisper for three days, let alone laugh or sing with Marco. And concentrated as the virus was in that area, I’ve been terrified that I would lose my sense of taste and smell. While inconvenient for anyone, it would make my ability to do my job extremely challenging. I’ve been feverishly checking every hour or so, even if I didn’t have an appetite, and eat a bite of something just to make sure it would register. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have affected it any more than a normal cold.

If you’ve had COVID, did it affect your sense of taste and smell? If so, what did you do? How long did it last? Email me at lily@lookoutlocal.com, or text me via Subtext.

THIS WEEK, I’M WATCHING ...

… “Julia” on HBO, a new series based on the life of Julia Child and the creation of her iconic television show, “The French Chef. “I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of this series, but I’m totally hooked. Actress Sarah Lancashire portrays the charming Julia with a heavy dose of hubris, which makes me love her all the more — although there are moments when Julia doubts herself and what she’s doing, and I want to yell at the screen, “Girl, you’re Julia $%@&-ing Child! You can do it!” If you, too, have a well-worn and much-beloved copy of her timeless masterpiece, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” in your collection, I can’t recommend it enough.

THIS WEEK, I’M RETHINKING ...

… getting delivery, after two burgers with fries and two milkshakes cost me $60. A few days into COVID, my husband, Mike, and I were at our peak of feeling crappy and decided to treat ourselves. We ordered a couple of cheeseburgers with fries and a milkshake each from the burger joint down the street, and since going into the restaurant to pick it up wasn’t an option, we opted to have it delivered. Our burgers and fries were $12 each and the milkshakes just under $7 each — so far so good — but after taxes, a $9 delivery fee and a 20% tip, the total was just under $60. The cost really took the fun out of it. Despite the fact that the icy milkshake sliding down my burning throat was one of the most soothing experiences of my life, next time I’ll think twice. Or at least adapt my thinking from categorizing delivery as a convenience to a luxury.

FOOD NEWS WORTH READING

Required Reading: The most important takeaway from EcoFarm 2022 (Edible Monterey Bay)
‘Recipes of resilience’: Bay Area chef Reem Assil’s highly anticipated first cookbook, ‘Arabbiya’ (San Jose Mercury News)
This new food-delivery app sold the Bay Area’s best pastries. But the bakeries had no clue (San Francisco Chronicle)

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Thanks for reading! Eat well, my friends.