EATERS DIGEST: Fire at Michael’s on Main, Midway chef to open Midtown restaurant and amazing almond butter

Firefighters at Michael's on Main early Thursday.
(Via Clay Butler)

This week, a fire ravaged Soquel restaurant and music venue Michael’s on Main and chef Katherine Stern leaves Bad Animal to open her own restaurant, plus astounding local almond butter and where to get bánh mi and pho.

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Lily

Happy Labor Day weekend! And to everyone working in the hospitality industry, you have my unending respect for the energy it takes to manage the hungry throngs on a holiday weekend. I hope the tips are generous and the customers kind.

Early Thursday morning, Michael’s on Main went up in flames. Firefighters rushed to the scene and were able to put out the fire before it spread, but the Soquel restaurant and music venue has been severely damaged and is expected to be closed for months.

In Santa Cruz, Bad Animal will choose a new culinary artist in residence with the departure of chef Katherine Stern in a few short weeks. But Stern fans will be pleased to know that she’s leaving to open her own restaurant in Midtown. More on that to come.

Also in this edition of Eaters Digest: the local strip mall restaurant I visit when I need to scratch the itch for a banh mi or giant bowl of pho, and how I fell in love with a $30 jar of almond butter. Plus, the quintessential fall activity you should make time for this autumn.

Read on for news, good eats and fall fun.

News

Fire damage to the side dining room at Michael's on Main.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A fire broke out at Michael’s on Main in Soquel early Thursday morning, causing significant damage to the dining room, kitchen and upstairs offices. The restaurant is now closed indefinitely and all scheduled music acts are canceled until further notice while owners Michael and Colleen Harrison tackle what are sure to be extensive repairs and renovations. Michael Harrison told Lookout he had “no idea” what could have caused the blaze, which started in the kitchen, and said he was unsure why a recently installed fire suppression system didn’t go off. As of Thursday morning, Mike DeMars, fire marshal for the Central Fire District of Santa Cruz County, was also uncertain what started the fire; an investigation is ongoing. Read the full story here.

Thankfully, no one was injured in the fire, but what a blow to the owners and staff at this beloved local spot, especially coming during what should have been a season of resurrection after two years of pandemic struggles. But perhaps it will return stronger than ever — Aptos restaurant the Hideout suffered a similarly devastating fire in 2019, and although it took nearly two years to reopen, customers rushed back into the beautifully remodeled space, and it now appears to be thriving. I hope Michael’s on Main can similarly rise from its ashes.

Chef Katherine Stern will leave her post as Bad Animal’s culinary artist in residence in a few weeks, the bookstore-slash-wine bar announced Wednesday. Fans of her culinary venture the Midway, which also serves brunch at the Westside and Live Oak farmers markets, will have until Sept. 18 to enjoy Stern’s hyper-local wine snacks and seasonal dishes at the downtown Santa Cruz restaurant. The next culinary artist to helm the kitchen will be announced in a few weeks.

The reason for the departure? Stern plans to open her own restaurant in Midtown Santa Cruz. Stern was head chef at Seabright restaurant La Posta for many years, and after leaving in 2020 became a fixture at local farmers markets as the Midway. Her focus has always been on creative yet comforting dishes featuring the best local and seasonal ingredients. I can’t wait to see what this talented chef will do under her own roof.

Eat this

Philosopher Foods sells products made from various combinations of almond, coconut and chocolate.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

My husband and I were shopping at the Westside farmers market one Saturday when he stepped away to sample some almond butter from Philosopher Foods. When he returned, he had spent nearly $30 on a 16-ounce jar of Naked Creamy Sprouted Almond Butter, which he nonchalantly tossed into my bag. Now, I am a proud supporter of local businesses — but $30 for a jar of almond butter?! I gave him an earful about reckless spending and conscientious budgeting.

But as soon as I came home to try this almond butter that was apparently made out of solid gold, I realized how wrong I was. When I say that one bite changed my mind completely, I’m not exaggerating. It was not only by far the best almond butter I had ever eaten, it was shockingly delicious. A warm, nutty sweetness flooded my senses, followed by an addictive earthiness and a silky texture. I was hooked. I couldn’t believe it. It is easily worth every penny — although perhaps not something I could buy every day.

As it turns out, all that flavor is hard won through regenerative farming practices and careful processing — which transforms it into a nutritional powerhouse to boot. Learn more about Philosopher Foods and its line of sprouted almond and coconut butters in this profile by Lookout intern Thomas Sawano. Find Philosopher Foods products by using the store locator at philosopherfoods.com.

Santa Cruz County has a vibrant food scene, but there are some big holes in the types of cuisines available here. The lack of Vietnamese food is one I feel acutely. I spent a month traveling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014 and fell in love with the cuisine — especially bowls of steaming, noodle-filled soup, snacks like bánh xèo and, of course, bánh mi sandwiches. When I have to scratch that itch, I go to Asian Express off of Clares Street by the Capitola Mall. While it looks like an unassuming strip-mall joint on the outside, I can get a seemingly bottomless bowl of pho ga, which I fill with herbs and crunchy bean sprouts. I also love the pork banh mi. Inside the crusty French bread is a swipe of creamy pâté, crunchy pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro and jalapeños and thick slices of sweet barbecue pork. Although different — and much larger — than the versions I ate in Vietnam, both are extremely satisfying and dishes I return to time and time again.

Events

By the end of this weekend, many of us will have transitioned from summer to fall, at least mentally if not physically (I’m looking at you, heat wave). Why not take the time to enjoy one of autumn’s agricultural traditions — apple picking? On Wednesdays through Sundays now through the end of October, visit Luz Del Valle Farm off of Hames Road in Aptos for a good ol’ fashioned U-pick. The commercial apple farm and Arabian horse ranch offers apple picking for $12 per adult while kids 12 and under are free. Each entry includes a free pound of apples per adult, and any amount over that is $2.50 per pound. There are more than a dozen varieties of apples for baking, eating and distilling — Luz Del Valle is one of the apple orchards that local cidery Santa Cruz Cider Company sources for its tasty hard cider. Reserve a time to go through Eventbrite.

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