Chile Relleno – ¡Olé!

Cafe del Sol Wowed Southern California

California pioneered many innovations in food and gastronomy in America. As a larder for the fruits and vegetables that are indispensable in good cuisine, as well as repository of a viticulture stretching back centuries, it has everything necessary to support good dining and good living. Did I mention its place on the long littoral of the Pacific, ensuring access to good fish and seafood from its full length? What it doesn’t have was shipped by fast refrigerated rail from “the East” and later by plane as necessary.

Hence its pivotal place in the history of wine and cheese tasting as I discussed earlier, its creation of an array of salads including the famed Caesar and Cobb salads, and its interest in market cuisine of which world-famous Alice Waters is avatar in Berkeley. California invented the Moscow Mule (1946, at the Cock and Bull Pub in L.A.), and the ancestor of the Martini (Martinez). It came up with the Bloody Mary. Oh, it had something to do with craft beer too.

It started the trend for “warehouse”-style restaurants of which the first was probably the Old Spaghetti Factory in the 1950s, a former pasta plant. Its eclectic mix of bare factory walls and pillars with old chandeliers, lanterns, and ceiling-suspended chairs created a new style in American and finally world dining.

(This alone created a huge industry in faux/distressed period piping and ductwork – in a word in industrial chic).

While California did not of course create Mexican cuisines, the propinquity of Mexico and large number of Latino residents whose cultural capital included foodways made it a natural gateway for Mexican food and fusion with American dishes.

Julia Child later in her life spent a lot of time in California especially the Bay Area, paying obeisance to the new trends after her own revolution in American culinary habits. We once saw her close up walking through a restaurant, I think in Sonoma, the mirthful smile just like in pictures.

And so by the 1960s, the earlier food traditions brought by the settlers from the East, more or less standard American, underwent modification starting of course with restaurants.

Still, to show an interest in Mexican food in the 1960s was unusual. Mexican immigrants were regarded as an underclass and their foodways did not receive much investigation from the culinary establishment. To be sure ethnic restaurants could be found, mainly Italian, German, and Asian of course, but Mexican food was a no-go. Even fast food stayed away until Taco Bell started to expand and introduce people to its simplified version of some Mexican classics.

But being the cradle of the American food revolution from the 1960s – c. 2000, California could not ignore the great storehouse of Mexican cuisine.

The way the new interest first manifested was how restaurants were named and designed. Thus, a Mexican ambience was created without necessarily offering very many Mexican foods.

The Cafe del Sol is a perfect illustration including the evolution of its menu. A 1967 menu is preserved in the archives of the New York Public Library. It shows that this restaurant, located initially in Montecito in a plaza – it later moved to adjoining Santa Barbara – offered a mild “casa” exterior design. The menu featured a similarly restrained Latin design motif.

When you look for the Mexican food, there is relatively little, but some. A couple of appetizers, one or two of the main dishes – I’m not sure paella qualifies.

But the elements of the future food revolution are in place. Apart from the building design and “atmosphere” being Mexican, as the menu explains, the first page is devoted entirely to non-food matters. It discusses the history of Santa Barbara and Montecito. It talks about winemaking in the area and some unusual 19th century history in that regard. It tells a romantic story. This didactic but charming style – they didn’t write like Beer Et Seq – would have appealed to an educated and aspirational middle class. Food became interesting, something to think about, enjoy in an enhanced context.

But most of the dishes were standards of national or continental cuisine: steak, sole amandine, frogs’ legs, coq au vin, beef burgundy. Only one main dish seemed Mexican: enchiladas with chile relleno and refried beans. But there was guacamole as an appetizer, probably familiar to many diners from its use in salads, and chile relleno again. The germ was there.

And look at the wines: California was solidly represented through its up and coming marquee names of Concannon, Louis Martini, Beaulieu, Wente. That was a harbinger of larger changes to come both in California’s world famous wine culture and food too. “Local” in wine encouraged a similar approach to food and ingredients.

In the mid-1960s, restaurants which stressed gastronomy, meaning its European and especially French roots, did not focus on local wines. Food and wine societies had made forays, but in general good wine meant nothing Californian. It was middle class restaurants that pioneered the discovery of the quality and distinctiveness of California vineyards. Indeed the trend started in the 1930s and even before as I explained in earlier posts but was delayed in … fructification by the Depression and WW II.

In later years, the Cafe del Sol’s menu became fully Mexican. The restaurant lasted until 2014, approximately a 50-year run, impressive for any restaurant. The site briefly became a conference locale, then was purchased by principals of the Magic Castle to become a further location for the well-known magicians night club and restaurant in Los Angeles. However, that has not occurred as yet as far as I know.

Looking back some 50 years, the menu of Santa Barbara’s Cafe del Sol seems rather dated. But it was actually ahead of its time, and the restaurant’s longevity proved that.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website of California news channel KEYT 3 which featured a story on the Cafe del Sol, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.