EATERS DIGEST: Hanloh’s electrifying Thai cuisine at Bad Animal, triple-gold chili and Halloweekend

Betel leaf-wrapped mieng waits in the window at Bad Animal
Betel leaf-wrapped mieng waits in the window at Bad Animal, where Hanloh chef Lalita Kaewsawang is the culinary artist in residence.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Hanloh chef Lalita Kaewsawang offers playful Thai cuisine as culinary artist-in-residence at Bad Animal in downtown Santa Cruz and East Side Eatery wins triple gold for the third year in a row at the Boardwalk’s Chili Cook-Off.

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Lily

Happy Halloweekend, my frightful foodies. Don’t worry — there are no tricks here, only treats.

I visited Bad Animal this week to try the menu by new culinary artist-in-residence Lalita Kaewsawang, the chef of Thai pop-up Hanloh. While the vibrant, electrifying flavors and textures are in step with her pop-up creations, guests will discover elevated menu items that align perfectly with the ultra-hip vibe of her new home at the natural wine bar and used bookstore in downtown Santa Cruz.

I also asked Beach Boardwalk Chili Cook-Off winner and East Side Eatery owner Derek Rupp what the secret to his gold-medal chili is, and I reflect on one New York Times writer’s recommendations for a “perfect weekend in Santa Cruz.” If you’re in the mood for something tasty and terrifying, enter Lúpulo Craft Beer House’s hot wing-eating contest Saturday; for something sweeter, hit up the Halloween-themed Food Truck Friday at Skypark in Scotts Valley.

News

If you missed the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Chili Cook-Off last Saturday, you can taste the winning chili at East Side Eatery in the Pleasure Point neighborhood. Owner Derek Rupp and his team swept the competition for the third year in a row, winning first place in the professional category for people’s choice, most tasted chili and red chili. What’s the secret to award-winning chili? Rupp says his team focuses on cooking methods, technique and using exceptional ingredients. “We practice a lot, take it seriously and get great quality ingredients,” he said. “Other than that it’s really just meat, chilis, tomatoes and beer.”

With a local winning streak under his belt, next year Rupp says he plans to compete for best chili in the country at the World Champion Chili Cook-Offs, put on by the International Chili Society. Try the gold-medal chili on its own, or on top of mac and cheese, nachos or french fries, at East Side Eatery, open every day. More info at pleasurepizzasc.com.

Several Santa Cruz businesses got a shout-out in the New York Times last week in a story that promised “How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in Santa Cruz.” Writer Lauren Sloss taps into Santa Cruz’s current vibe more accurately than most writers who try to share what makes our corner of the Central Coast so special, with descriptions like, “This is a place where, daily and unironically, you’ll see a vintage Volkswagen Vanagon parked next to a Tesla, with surfboards extending from both,” and gives decent food and drink recommendations that I can’t argue with. On her list: the Point Market, Steamer Lane Supply — one of my regular haunts — Harbor Café, Pretty Good Advice, Home, Bantam, Copal, Alderwood, Oswald, Bad Animal (keep reading for a review of its new chef) and Apéro Club, plus nearly a dozen local breweries and coffee shops. What do you think of her list? Did she miss your favorite Santa Cruz-y stop? Tell me at lily@lookoutlocal.com or text me.

Eat this

In the five years since chef Lalita Kaewsawang started her pop-up Hanloh in Santa Cruz, I’ve eaten her food countless times. The ephemeral nature of pop-ups meant that she was able to offer a constantly changing menu depending on the season and driven by inspiration from her favorite dishes in Thailand, her home until she immigrated to the United States at 13. From fish sauce-spiked fried chicken wings to luxurious khao soi soup to addictive Makrut lime-scented cashews, Kaewsawang’s food is layered, beautiful and memorable. Every time I ate anything she made, I would inhale my exceptional meal and wonder what she would do in her own space.

Plaa nueng manao prepared by Hanloh chef Lalita Kaewsawang at Bad Animal.
Plaa nueng manao prepared by Hanloh chef Lalita Kaewsawang at Bad Animal.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now we know. As of early October, Kaewsawang is the new culinary artist-in-residence — aka chef — at Bad Animal, downtown Santa Cruz’s rare and used bookstore-slash-natural wine bar, owned by Jessica LoPrete and Andrew Sivak. Previous culinary artist Katherine Stern departed at the end of September to open her own brick-and-mortar restaurant in Midtown; more on that soon. As is her style, Kaewsawang’s new menu sings with electrifying spices and playful textures, and elegance not often seen at her pop-ups.

If you go, start your meal with the mieng ($11). This tiny appetizer is more of an amuse-bouche, but packs enormous flavors. Each bite is wildly interesting, as you journey through sweet, bitter and sour from whole lime, toasted coconut, plums, ginger, fried shallots, tamarind sauce and lemongrass wrapped in a peppery betel leaf. LoPrete recommends pairing this palate-opener with a slightly sweet Alsatian riesling.

The sai krok woonsen ($16) — pork sausage with vermicelli noodles — is one of Kaewsawang’s favorite Thai street snacks. Bite through the thin noodles threaded through the savory sausage, follow with a bite of cool, sweet cabbage and finish with a nibble of house-pickled ginger.

Lalita Kaewsawang in the kitchen at Bad Animal in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The plaa nueng manao ($33), or steamed halibut, was the stunner of the evening. The tall, buttery filet was served in a steaming, clear broth brimming with lime juice, celery and — noticeable as soon as you took your first sip — bird’s eye chilis. I drank spoonful after spoonful of the broth long after the perfectly poached fish was gone.

My beloved spiced cashews ($8) from Hanloh’s pop-up days made it to her Bad Animal menu. The curried sweet potato-filled roti ($16) is a comforting fall appetizer and a tribute to Kaewsawang’s mother, who makes roti for a living in Bangkok. Crispy shallots added extra crunch to the gai tod hat yai ($27), or fried chicken, topped with fresh cilantro and served with bright red sweet and sour sauce and fish-sauce based Thai chili sauce. We finished our meal with lod chong ($13), a fun dessert that I’d never had before — shaved ice with squiggly, green pandan jelly, cool melon, chocolatey adzuki beans and a sweet coconut-cane sugar syrup.

Kaewsawang said she plans to change an item or two on the menu each week: “Thai cuisine is broad, and my love for Thai cooking is abundant.” Visit Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Make reservations at badanimalbooks.com.

Events

Food Trucks A-Go-Go is hosting a special Hallowen-themed Food Truck Friday this Friday, Oct. 28, at Skypark in Scotts Valley from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Everyone dressed in a costume gets a treat from the participating food trucks. This week, Scrumptious Fish & Chips, Kuki’s Bowls, Pana, Matta Pizza, Taquizas Gabriel, Cracked Cookies and Aunt LaLi’s ice cream truck will offer everything from “sandwitches and booritos” to “horrors d’oeuvres and terrormisu.” The beer garden features brews from Scotts Valley brewery Steel Bonnet.

On Saturday, Lúpulo Craft Beer House in downtown Santa Cruz invites you to face your biggest fear — a plate of terrifyingly spicy hot wings. The challenge: be the first to devour a horrifying plate of chicken wings or protein alternative in order to win beer-themed prizes. Registration is $25 and the competition takes place at 4:30 p.m. Only 12 spots are available — sign up at Eventbrite.com.

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