Quick Take:

There’s no shortage of options when the noon hour finds you in Watsonville with a rumbly tummy. Laura Sutherland has a few suggestions, from a seafood standby to farm-to-table and airport views to a taqueria/craft beer gem tucked speakeasy-style inside a gas station.

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If you live in Watsonville, you know where to eat … but if you live out of town, say, in faraway Santa Cruz, it’s helpful to know where to go for a food experience that has something unexpected about it. Plus, if you go for lunch, you might not have to worry about traffic in either direction.

Here are a handful of restaurants that are worth the trip. And yes, there are many other restaurants that could have been included — this is just a start.

La Perla del Pacifico

La Perla del Pacifico's seafood molcajete.
La Perla del Pacifico’s seafood molcajete, overflowing with shrimp, heads-on prawns, mussels, calamari, octopus and scallops in a deeply flavorful diablo sauce. Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

Gabino Torres and Anna Martinez opened this restaurant 34 years ago on Main Street in downtown Watsonville, and today it’s still the same love letter to Mexican seafood that it’s been for more than three decades.

“Half my life has been spent here,” laughs Martinez. “Our recipes have come from our mothers and grandmothers, and other places we visit when we travel to Mexico. Not long ago we went to Puerto Morelos in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and had a whole fish that had been both grilled and fried. It was delicious, but our son told us, ‘Dad, you could make this better.’ When we got home, my husband experimented for a while, and now we have our own version of Puerto Morelos fish — it’s a whole fish grilled and fried, but with our version of spicing and sauces.”

Diners enjoying lunch at La Perla del Pacifico.
Diners enjoying lunch at La Perla del Pacifico. Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

I usually start with the mixed seafood ceviche with its shrimp, fish, scallops and octopus. Of course, there’s plenty of fresh lime juice and pepper plus a secret condiment Martinez won’t disclose. But on my most recent visit, it was cold and gloomy outside, so when we saw the steaming hot molcajete head past us, overflowing with shrimp, heads-on prawns, mussels, calamari, octopus and scallops in a deeply flavorful diablo sauce, we ordered one to split. The seafood absorbed the diablo sauce just enough so the delicate taste and texture came through with a satisfying bit of heat and the complex smoky, spicy flavor of the sauce.

There are other traditional Mexican dishes on the menu, too, like chiles rellenos and tostadas, but honestly — it’s a crime if you don’t order the seafood.

458 Main St. | 831-724-0993 | Tuesday-Wednesday 10 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. | Thursday-Friday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. | Saturday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. | Sunday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. | Facebook

California Grill

The walls of California Grill and Bar include paintings of fertile fields.
Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

You really can’t get closer to farm-to-fork cuisine than this restaurant, unless you picnic in the middle of a lettuce field and pluck a leaf of romaine to tuck into your sandwich. California Grill founder and owner Dick Peixoto happens to be the owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens — the largest family-run organic grower in California — and that means the produce at the restaurant comes fresh from his nearby fields.

The California Grill and Bar's daily special sandwich.
The California Grill’s daily special sandwich with the sustainable catch of the day. Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

“We harvest our salad greens and other veggies in the morning, bring them to the restaurant and serve them that day,” he says. “The greens in our salads never see a plastic bag. They go right into an ice-water bath to clean them and then onto the plate.” His closest farm is about a mile from the restaurant, with other parcels throughout Watsonville and from Los Gatos and Aptos to Moss Landing and Aromas.

“Salads are hugely popular,” points out restaurant manager Robin Anderson, “and salmon salad is probably our most popular lunch dish, along with the stir-fried vegetables. But we have a huge menu — and a lot of regulars. People get attached to dishes, like the roasted polenta lasagna and the fire-grilled Lakeside organic artichokes, and if we try to change up the menu they get upset.”

Of course I ordered the salmon salad, and I don’t know what I liked best — the perfectly grilled salmon with its crispy outside and butter-soft inside or the tender rainbow beets I ate like candy. My husband decided on the daily special sandwich with the sustainable catch of the day — a three-napkin affair piled high with fixings and a tangy feta aioli.

The restaurant is in a rather plain office building — it shares space with an urgent-care facility — and the interior is very brown. But the walls hold a treasure trove of old black-and-white photos of farming on loan from the Pajaro Valley Historical Association, along with large paintings of fertile fields that underscore the importance of farming to the family and the region.

40 Penny Lane, Watsonville | 831-722-8052 | Monday-Saturday 7 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. – close | Website

Ella’s at the Airport

Ella's at the Airport in Watsonville.
Ella’s at the Airport in Watsonville. Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

I wish the tables at Ella’s came with identification cards — the kind you see with butterflies or birds, but with small airplanes instead. That way you could identify the planes you watch take off and land while you eat, like the sleek, futuristic white one I saw with a missile-like nose and long tapered wings that reminded me of a giant frigate bird.

“Saturday is the busiest day for plane action,” our server told us, “but every day there are planes coming in and out, and some of the pilots and their passengers fly in just for lunch.” The glassed-in patio is the best place to see the aviation action close up, but there’s also a full bar and an indoor dining area.

Ella's at the Airport in Watsonville.
Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

The menu is varied. “Our most popular lunch dish is the Pavo Mio panini — roasted turkey breast, caramelized onion, baby pickles, organic baby greens, Swiss cheese and Ella’s special sauce with an Ella’s salad on the side,” our server said, “but our other lunch classics like pasta and burgers are popular, too.”

When the young woman sitting next to us with a toddler noticed our appetizer — the ABP Fire starter with caramelly roasted local Brussels sprouts, Castroville artichokes, crispy prosciutto and sriracha aioli — she ordered one, too, and told us, “My 3-year-old can sit still at Ella’s for at least 10 minutes, and often even 15 thanks to the planes. That’s a record for him at any restaurant.” The little boy watched, mesmerized, as a plane taxied past … and didn’t even notice when his mother popped a sprout into his mouth.

100 Aviation Way | 831-728-3282 | Tuesday-Wednesday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. | Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. | Website

Ranch Milk Mexican Grill

Ranch Milk Mexican Grill features gas station pumps and a taqueria with a curated craft beer tap list inside.
Ranch Milk Mexican Grill features gas station pumps and a taqueria with a curated craft beer tap list inside. Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

I’ve been to speakeasies in New York City where you walk through a pawn shop or a refrigerator door to get into the restaurant. Ranch Milk has that feel, too. There are gas station pumps out front and a classic minimart/convenience store inside; walk past the ranch-flavored Doritos through an open doorway and suddenly you’re inside a taqueria with a brilliantly curated selection of craft beer on tap.

The menu ranges from very Mexican (pozole) to very American (bacon-wrapped hot dog) and everything in between. In fact, If you draw a graph of Ranch Milk’s menu offerings, you’d have a line from traditional Mexican to classic American with stops along the way that blend the two, like its twist on nachos with french fries instead of chips smothered in nacho cheese, jalapeños, pico de gallo, avocado and sour cream.

Ranch Milk's Bandera burrito.
Ranch Milk’s Bandera burrito. Credit: Laura Sutherland / Lookout Santa Cruz

“One of our most popular lunch items is the Bandera burrito, and you definitely need a knife and fork for this one because it’s smothered in green tomatillo and red guajillo pepper sauce,” says Demetric Olveras, who helps run the restaurant with his founder parents, Lazaro and Irma, and his sister, Jasmine. “Our super burritos are crowd-pleasers, too,” he adds. I can never seem to resist the shrimp or chili verde street tacos garnished with cilantro, onion and extras like pineapple, avocado, and grilled onions, if you ask.

Demetric is responsible for the beer, and from the tap list it’s clear that he knows and loves craft breweries, especially Central Coast locals like Corralitos Brewing, just around the corner, Santa Cruz’s Humble Sea Brewing and Monterey’s Alvarado Street Brewery. “I want to showcase local brewers,” he explains. “If you don’t have time to visit them all you can get them here.”

No matter what you order, be sure to ask for all four signature salsas: salsa fresco, salsa verde, salsa rioja and a mouth-blistering peanut and fiery pepper salsa to use with caution.

1 S. Green Valley Rd. | 831-722-3662 | Daily 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. | Website

Follow Laura Sutherland on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Laura Sutherland has been covering culinary travel and destinations around the globe for the past 30 years. Her articles have appeared in national...