EATERS DIGEST: Chubbs’ choice chicken, Coffee Conspiracy booted and El Mercado reopens

All of Chubbs Chicken Sandwiches' fried chicken is gluten-free.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Happy Friday! Although I already miss the warm days from last weekend, I’m not mad about a little extra rain.

Lily

Rain or shine, visitors can now stop into Big Basin Vineyards’ new satellite tasting room on lower Pacific Avenue, which opened Thursday to the public. The opening marks a significant shift for the area that connects the Boardwalk to the downtown mall. On the Eastside, Coffee Conspiracy, a local pop-up run by Eddie Alaniz, was ordered by the county to stop serving on East Cliff Drive until it receives a special permit. Alaniz, who has been operating a coffee cart there for a year and a half, is planning his next moves.

If you miss Kickin Chicken, you’ll love Chubbs Chicken Sandwiches. Run by former employees of Kickin, the fried chicken sandwich pop-up is worth seeking out in the Santa Cruz Arts Center in downtown Santa Cruz, especially if you avoid gluten — its fried chicken and most of its menu is entirely gluten-free.

Last, El Mercado, a health-focused farmers market in Watsonville, is reopening this week for its second year. Join in for a grand opening celebration on Tuesday.

Let’s get to it …

News

Big Basin's tasting room.
(Big Basin Vineyards)

Big Basin Vineyards opened its beautiful new satellite tasting room Thursday at the lower end of Pacific Avenue, just a few blocks from the Beach Boardwalk. Upon entering, a bar made of salvaged curly redwood and photos of Santa Cruz scenes by owner Bradley Brown aims to give visitors a sense of the coastal terroir they’re about to experience. Big Basin Vineyards’ wines are all organic, and many are grown on its estate vineyards high above Boulder Creek, bearing different marks of ocean influences. The tasting room also offers a short menu of hearty bar snacks to complement the wines, which I had the opportunity to taste at its soft opening a few weeks ago. The cornerstone of the menu is a hearty beef tongue stew made with Big Basin red wine by Home chef Brad Briske. Vegetarian options include a set of dips — olive tapenade, sun-dried tomato tapenade and hummus — served with Companion bread and a cheese plate curated by the Tasting House in Los Gatos. Be sure to grab a glass of the 2019 Wirtz Old Vine Riesling — fresh and zippy with a hint of petrol — which winemaker Blake Yarger created to celebrate the opening. Read my full preview before you go.

Eddie Alaniz serves a Coffee Conspiracy customer along East Cliff Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Eddie Alaniz, owner of coffee pop-up Coffee Conspiracy, has served specialty sourced cold brew from the back of his custom coffee trike on East Cliff Drive every morning for the past year and a half. So he was shocked when he received an email from the Santa Cruz County parks department on Monday. In it, the department said it was notified that Alaniz was operating on East Cliff Drive without a park pathway permit, and ordered him to cease operations there until he secures such a permit.

“My stomach sank because this is my livelihood,” says Alaniz. “Sometimes I feel like people think I’m out there doing it as a hobby. But this is what I do to survive and pay my bills.” He was also confused, because he believed his business to be fully permitted and above board and was unaware that this permit existed. “I’ve been there for a year and a half and I’ve never had anybody say anything to me.”

Alaniz is considering several options while he tries to move forward, but for now, he won’t be returning to East Cliff Drive. He said he’s confident he’ll figure out a solution, and that he’s overwhelmed by the community support he’s received. Alaniz will launch a GoFundMe this weekend to help cover startup costs for the espresso bike. Fans can purchase whole-bean coffee, steeped coffee packs and other merchandise via coffeeconspiracy.co and on Instagram @coffeeconspiracyco.

Here’s another sweet way to support the people of Ukraine: Downtown’s Pacific Cookie Company is offering a Peace for Ukraine cookie gift tower with proceeds donated to World Central Kitchen, an organization that is feeding Ukranians throughout the country and as they cross the border to Poland. Of the $21.95 purchase price, $15 goes to WCK, says Cara Pearson, president of Pacific Cookie Co., and more than $2,500 has been raised so far. Each tower includes a dozen cookies of your choosing, and, yes, you can choose more than one if, for example, you just can’t decide between Dr. Midnight and Snickerdoodle. Purchase the tower online, and send it to friends and family via FedEx, or purchase it at the retail bakery in downtown Santa Cruz. Go to pacificcookie.com to purchase online.

Eat this

It’s easy to love a fried chicken sandwich, but Chubbs Chicken Sandwiches raises the bar. For one thing, I’m easily charmed by hole-in-the-wall places, and Chubbs certainly fits the bill. Located inside the Santa Cruz Arts Center in downtown Santa Cruz, visitors order and pick up through a backdoor that opens onto Chestnut Street. Guests can enjoy their sandwiches on the patio of the multi-use space, formerly known as the Santa Cruz Food Lounge, or take it to go in a brown bag decorated with Chubbs’ quirky logo of a smiling cat in a chicken hat.

Chubbs Chicken Sandwich owners Casey Long, Gabe Conroy and Trent Wood are former employees of Kickin Chicken.
Chubbs Chicken Sandwich owners Casey Long, Gabe Conroy and Trent Wood are former employees of Kickin Chicken.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When I bite into a Chubbs fried chicken sandwich, I think about how lucky I am to live in Santa Cruz. I feel sad that people live in places where they can’t crunch through house-made pickles and golden-brown batter into a juicy, well-seasoned thigh between a soft brioche bun five days a week. While I munch on the endlessly crunchy pieces of coating that hang over the side of the bread, I muse on all the decisions in my life that have somehow gotten me to this glorious place. Yes, it’s that good.

I’m not alone in this camp, and Chubbs fans have grown in recent weeks via a local Facebook group. Co-owner Casey Long says the community welcomed Chubbs with open arms when it opened a year and a half ago, but the venture has never experienced a boost quite like it did last month when Chubbs went viral within a Facebook group for local foodies. Members of the group 831 Dining Out, Best & Worst shared their positive experiences at Chubbs in almost 50 unique posts. “We got pummeled,” says Long. For a while, Chubbs had no idea where the onslaught of orders was coming from, but eventually sleuthed out the source. Long, Gabe Conroy and Trent Wood were thrilled, Long said: “It was kind of ridiculous. Everybody’s so kind.”

Long established Chubbs with fellow former Kickin Chicken teammates Conroy and Trent Wood after the fried chicken delivery service and pop-up dissolved in the beginning of the pandemic. Building on a combined eight years experience in the fried chicken biz, they made one significant change to the recipe and made it entirely gluten-free.

Long believes the commercial gluten-free batter they use, made with potato starch and a blend of seasonings, is the secret to the great crunch. Chubbs also offers a gluten-free bun made by local gluten-free baker Amanda Frasier of NotPie Cakery, made with a mix of different rice flours and potato starch. It’s more biscuitlike and less fluffy than its glutinous brioche bun, but it has great flavor and somehow manages to hold the whole sandwich together — no small feat. Chubbs also offers both gluten-full and gluten-free versions of its velvety mac n’ cheese. Many of its other sides, including potato salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, fries and a seasonal salad, are naturally free of gluten. A seasonal salad of oranges, fennel and peppery arugula in a tangy dressing was one of the tastiest salads I’ve eaten in recent memory.

The team is hoping to add a vegetarian oyster mushroom sandwich to the menu soon, but needs to purchase another fryer. Sandwiches start at $10 and sides are $3 to $5. Spice lovers should order the hot chicken, and can crank up the heat with additions of sriracha mayo or Chubbs’ homemade habanero-ghost pepper mayo. Try Chubbs’ fried chicken sandwiches Tuesday through Saturday at the Santa Cruz Art Center. View the menu and order online at chubbschickensandwiches.com.

Events

El Mercado, a health-focused farmers market, is reopening in Watsonville at Pinto Lake City Park on Tuesday.
(Via El Mercado)

Celebrate the reopening of El Mercado farmers market on Tuesday at Pinto Lake City Park in Watsonville. From 2 to 6 p.m., there will be a number of activities for kids, including a jump house and touch-a-truck display, where kids can explore fire trucks, police cars and ambulances and meet first responders.

This is the second year for this health-focused market, and it has moved from Ramsay Park to Pinto Lake because of construction. Visitors can enjoy fruits and vegetables from local farms like Castellano Farms and Avila Farms, as well as seafood from 831 Seafood, fresh flowers from Ruvalcaba Nursery and local artwork. Other vendors with eggs, nuts and other goodies will cycle in through the season, says Annie Puckett, the programs manager for the Community Health Trust of Pajaro Valley. The market also offers a range of free wellness services, including screenings for conditions like diabetes and hypertension; live cooking demonstrations that focus on using fruits and vegetables; COVID-19 vaccination clinics; and resources from nonprofit organizations, health clinics and Pajaro Valley Unified School District. El Mercado accepts state and federal government assistance such as SNAP, WIC and VeggieRx and can assist visitors in signing up for these benefits. This market will continue to run every Tuesday starting next week through October. More information at pvhealthtrust.org.

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