Anthony Kresge’s 30-year culinary career has taken him from Napa to Santa Cruz to Italy and back again. Now, he channels his experiences into elevated sandwiches at Reef Dog Deli in Capitola Village.
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It’s easy to miss the tiny, white shingled beach cottage on your way down Capitola Avenue toward the beach, but walking past Reef Dog Deli without stopping would be a mistake. Beaming down from above the door of this postage stamp-sized gourmet sandwich shop is the smiling face of a bright yellow Labrador — the namesake Reef dog — and inside are some of the best sandwiches in Santa Cruz County.
These aren’t your typical lettuce-tomato-pickles-and-onion deli sandwiches, either. Chef Anthony Kresge has poured his experiences from a 30-year-career working in restaurants throughout the Bay Area and Santa Cruz County and his culinary education in Calabria, Italy, into his creations, all of which would be at home on any high-end culinary menu if they weren’t offered between two slices of bread.
Reef Dog is far from Kresge’s first restaurant project. In the past 10 years alone, he’s helped create menus for a half-dozen local restaurants, including Vinocruz Wine Bar & Restaurant in Soquel, Surf City Sandwich at the now-closed Pour Taproom in downtown Santa Cruz, Belly Goat and Vamonos Comida at Abbott Square Market and Seabright Deli in Santa Cruz. In 2016, he started and was the executive chef at Sotola, the first farm-to-table restaurant in Capitola Village. Before that, he was head chef at Capitola’s iconic Shadowbrook restaurant for three years.
So why did a local chef with considerable culinary chops decide to funnel those skills into pastrami and tuna melts? Is Kresge Santa Cruz County’s version of chef Carmen Berzatto from Hulu’s “The Bear"— a Michelin-lauded chef who returns to his hometown to take over his late brother’s humble sandwich shop?
While Kresge laughs at the comparison to the show’s lead character, he admits that watching “The Bear” was “a little bit of a mirror on the wall.”
Kresge grew up in the heart of Napa County in Yountville, a culinary destination and home to some of the best restaurants in the country, including the three Michelin-starred French Laundry. He enjoyed cooking with his grandmother from an early age, and by the time he was a teenager he was earning his stripes working the line at local restaurants. “I thought those chefs were like superstars, with their big tall hats and white jackets, just doing amazing stuff with ingredients that I had never seen in my life,” says Kresge. “I was eager to learn everything as soon as I could.”
In the early 1990s, Kresge moved to the Santa Cruz area, a “second home” where his family spent many summers. He began working with some of the area’s notable chefs at the time, including Jozseph Schultz at India Joze and Scott Cater at Casablanca Inn by the Beach Boardwalk, and at restaurants in Monterey, Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach. Later, he took a break from the kitchen to start his own brokerage for Santa Cruz Mountain wineries, whose wines he promoted through dinners in their vineyards.
In 2007, Kresge decided to earn a master’s certification through the Italian Institute for Advanced Culinary & Pastry Arts in Calabria, Italy, in order to gain a deeper understanding of “old world” gastronomy. While there, he interned with master baker Fabio Bertoni and chef Walter Zaroni.
The Maestro Giacomo sandwich on the Reef Dog Deli menu is named after a good friend whom he met there, who later passed away from leukemia. In it, his rendition of porchetta, a celebratory Italian rolled pork dish, is stuffed with fennel and savory herbs, an homage to “what pigs eat in the fields.” He pairs it with mojo, a citrus-soaked condiment often served with suckling pig that hails from Cuba, but which reminds Kresge of the citrus groves of southern Italy.
“Giacomo was Sicilian, and he always made this limoncello for us,” Kresge says. “We would sit back in the evenings overlooking the Ionian Sea and just drink limoncello to our heart’s desire and eat good food and pasta.”
It’s these kinds of powerful culinary memories that Kresge endeavors to translate into his sandwiches. “I’ve never been one to journal when I travel, but I remember everything that I’ve tasted,” he says. “And that’s what I draw from.”
During the pandemic, Kresge continued his work as a restaurant consultant and experimented with a few side projects, like selling meal kits, but dreamed about opening his own place. He discovered a little coffeehouse in Capitola that had been vacant for six months, with overgrown weeds, chipped paint and bad cabinets. At the same time, his beloved yellow Lab, Reef, was coming to the end of his life.
“I thought, how cool would it be if I had a craft sandwich shop, named after Reef?”
Reef Dog Deli opened two days before Christmas 2020 and his loyal canine friend, a “symbol of love,” became the perfect mascot for the warm, inviting space Kresge envisioned. “And he was always in the kitchen,” Kresge says, “so we had that in common.” Reef passed away just a few weeks later at the ripe dog age of 16.
To Kresge, sandwiches are far more than the humble fare they’re often billed as: “If you can make a good sandwich, that means you’ve been around the block. It means you’ve cooked everything else.”
At Reef Dog, Kresge bucks the sandwich status quo in favor of drawing inspiration from his experiences and the seasons.
In the Surf Trip, Kresge serves locally caught halibut or salmon crusted in a toasted spice blend, with celery root remoulade, pickled red onion and mayo spiced with Korean gochujang on a toasted ciabatta roll. Smoky eggplant, marinated mushrooms, herbal chimichurri, peppery arugula and skillet-charred peppers and onions come together on toasted sourdough for the Happy Cow, a vegan sandwich with the volume turned all the way up.
There’s a lot going on, but every component is so thoughtful that each sandwich feels both harmonious and exciting. Every one is a two-handed, multinapkin affair that is far more memorable than your average lunch. Kresge prioritizes using ingredients from nearby farms, which ensures that the flavors are vibrant in every season. “I’m blown away by the amount of high-end organic farms that bless us every day with the gift of their soils,” he says. “There is no better produce that I have ever tasted than what comes from the Central Coast.”
The star of the menu is the Reefy’s, made with Kresge’s house-smoked beef brisket pastrami, sharp Vermont cheddar, onion jam and whole grain mustard. It took Kresge months to perfect his pastrami recipe, and its rich, peppery flavor and melting texture against sweet toasted rye bread is undoubtedly worth the effort.
“It took me six months to research the history of pastrami all the way back to Germany and the Jewish community there,” says Kresge. It takes 10 to 12 days to cure, soak, spice, sit and smoke. Even so, “if it wasn’t for Golden Sheaf [Bread Company in Watsonville] making this really incredible Jewish rye, I don’t think I would even put it on the menu. Bread is everything.”
According to Kresge, whether you’re creating a sandwich or an expensive dish at a nice restaurant plated with tweezers and fine herbs, the process is the same.
“Every single great dish that you’ve ever tried, whether it be at a Michelin-level restaurant or at Reef Dog Deli, there’s not much of a difference in the composition of some of those flavors and how they come together,” he says. “I don’t want you to come and just get lunch because you’re hungry. I want you to come have an experience and walk away saying, ‘I’m gonna come back because that was more than what I thought it was going to be.’”
Visit Reef Dog Deli at 311 Capitola Ave., Capitola. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More info at reefdogdeli.com.