EATERS DIGEST: Vasili’s closing, new venture for Hanloh chef and chowder cook-off returns
A Mission Street staple is shuttering this weekend, though the spot might not be vacant long. Lily Belli also checks in on the next move for chef Lalita Kaewsawang and runs down foodie events you don’t want to miss in her latest Eaters Digest.
Hello, food people. Welcome to Eaters Digest. Sadly, we’re starting the weekend with the news of the shuttering of another long-standing Santa Cruz favorite — Vasili’s Greek Restaurant will close after this weekend. But there’s some good news on the horizon, as chef Lalita Kaewsawang of Thai pop-up Hanloh searches for a permanent home for her new restaurant, Jealous Chicken.
As we inch toward spring, the calendar is filling up with food events. Check out my picks below, including the return of an in-person Clam Chowder Cook-Off this weekend.
Some sad news for the Santa Cruz restaurant community: Vasili’s Greek Restaurant, a beloved fixture on Mission Street since the early 1990s, will close this weekend after 31 years. Owner Julie White purchased the restaurant from the namesake owner in 2003, and for the past 19 years has offered traditional Greek recipes like keftethakia meatballs, moussaka and spanakopita.
“It was a dream come true for me when I bought Vasili’s 19 years ago and have had a great time carrying on the legacy. It is now time for me to make a change,” says White in a Facebook post. A server at the restaurant told me that Vasili’s has been for sale for some time, and a new restaurateur recently swooped in with a generous offer. “The best way someone put it to me was, ‘Congratulations and condolences,’” said the server — adding that the new owners plan to open an Indian restaurant in the space sometime next month.
White did not return my calls by publication time to confirm these details, but she has said publicly that she retains ownership of the name and her recipes, so perhaps fans will be ruined with their favorite dishes again in the future. I know I would buy gallons of her creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce out of the back of a car, if necessary.
Vasili’s last days come on the heels of the recent closures of Soif, Mutari and Your Place. The restaurant is open through Sunday if you’d like to stop in to bid White farewell and enjoy a last roasted lamb gyro or chicken souvlaki plate.
Chef Lalita Kaewsawang plans to expand her popular Thai food pop-up and catering business to a brick-and-mortar space in Santa Cruz, and is actively looking for the right spot. She’s already decided on a name: Jealous Chicken. The name comes from a dish from northern Thailand, and Kaewsawang feels the quirky image resonates with her own personality and the playful energy she infuses into her recipes. This will be the first restaurant for the Manresa alum, who also apprenticed at the now-closed Grace in Chicago, which at one point also boasted three Michelin stars.
At Jealous Chicken, Kaewsawang plans to expand on her menu of traditional Thai dishes like kao soi, laab and som tum, to include additions from all of Southeast Asia. She envisions a sit-down restaurant that offers an exceptional lunch as well as dinner, with a bar of colorful cocktails. I have been a passionate fan of Kaewsawang since she started popping up at local breweries back in 2017. Every dish on her seasonally driven menu of vibrant Thai dishes is a feast for the senses. At the onset of the pandemic, she pivoted to prepared food and meal kits, which I’ve also loved. I’m thrilled that I will soon be able to enjoy her food on a regular basis. If you know of a space that might be a good fit for this vision, reach out to Kaewsawang at hanloh.com.
Since the temperature dropped, I’ve been craving the soup dumplings at Shun Feng, my go-to Chinese restaurant on River Street. I still smile when I remember explaining soup dumplings to a friend a few years ago. “Soup dumplings, like dumplings in soup?” she assumed innocently. I laughed. “No, the opposite.” The dumplings are, somewhat magically, filled with soup, and when lifted from their bamboo steamer basket with chopsticks, balanced on a spoon, you’re able to bite the dumpling and slurp the delicious broth from the inside. Or eat them all at once. So satisfying and fun.
Cruz Kitchen & Taps, one of the newest restaurants in town, is hosting a grand opening party Saturday from 4-9 p.m. Since it opened last month in the downtown space that used to be Saturn Café, the establishment has generated considerable buzz for both chef Dameon Deworken’s upscale, island-inspired takes on comfort dishes, like fish sauce and chili-infused chicken wings and blackened basa with red pepper-yuzu sauce, and its Santa Cruz-inspired renovations that feature art from more than a dozen local artists. On Saturday, the Santa Cruz Mustang Club will beautify the parking lot with at least a half dozen new and vintage cars, and costumed characters from Telegrams and Party Jams will “add a lively celebratory vibe,” says Cruz Kitchen co-owner Mia Thorn. Food and drink specials will run all day and music will be provided by a TBD band or DJ. Says Thorn, “We are so excited to just have a good time and serve good food to Santa Cruz.” More info at cruzkitchenandtaps.com.
Local chefs and home cooks are sharpening their knives, gathering their secret ingredients and putting on their game faces as they prepare for this weekend’s Clam Chowder Cook-Off at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This friendly competition has been an annual tradition for 40 years and is an important fundraiser for Santa Cruz Parks & Recreation. On Saturday, the “amateur” cooks — meaning non-professionals — compete, and the professional, restaurant-backed cooks compete on Sunday. Purchase a tasting kit with six taste tickets to $12 and cast your vote for the best Manhattan or Boston varieties. More information at beachboardwalk.com.
Santa Cruz Burger Week began Wednesday and will continue through Tuesday. This event is the little sibling to Santa Cruz Restaurant Week, and follows a similar format. Twenty-six participating restaurants are offering special burgers for $10-15, and highlight either a good value or an exceptional, limited-time creation that’s worth seeking out, or both. I’ve got my eye on the Crepe Place’s burgers, which are all wrapped in one of their signature crepes, and I’m intrigued by Solaire at the Hotel Paradox’s Peanut Butter Burger. Zachary’s Monte Cristo Burger, built on savory French toast with bacon, cheddar, grilled onions and barbecue sauce, looks like it might kill me, but I’m willing to take the risk. Read all the menus at santacruzrestaurantweek.com.
Whiskey fans, mark your calendars for a special collaboration dinner and tasting event at Alderwood restaurant in Santa Cruz on March 9. Chef Jeffrey Wall is partnering with House of Suntory Whisky to create a special four-course menu that highlights the artisanal craftsmanship of the premier Japanese whiskey brand and our region’s coastal cuisine. Throughout the meal, Jonathan Armstrong, House of Suntory’s brand ambassador, will guide guests through a tasting of four whiskies. This event, priced at $250 per person, is limited to 40 guests. Purchase your ticket at exploretock.com.