The deep south of California, that is. Paul and decided to go back to San Clemente, which is in the very southern end of Orange County, almost to San Diego County, right on the ocean. Since neither of us likes to stay in motels long term, we rented a sweet condo with a view of the pier and just a 2 minute walk to the beach.
I’m here to tell you about the restaurants we tried, so let’s start with Harris Ranch, on the I5 corridor at Hwy 198, outside of Coalinga. Paul had been dreaming for days about having a steak for dinner so Harris Ranch was a must stop heading south. They have two restaurants, the fancy one and the more casual one, which we chose. Paul had a ribeye steak with roasted yams. Even though he ordered it medium well, it was tender, juicy and flavorful. Those guys know how to cook a steak, as well as grow a great steak. I had the Blue Smoke personal pizza, a flatbread crust number with gorgonzola cheese and steak strips on top. So delicious, with a smoky barbecue flavor. Harris Ranch is an oasis in that boring drive, I recommend stopping for a great meal.
The day we arrived in San Clemente Paul and I were wandering around on El Camino Real, looking for a place to stop and eat. He spotted Café Rae, which had good vibes. Inside it was small and filled with people and colorful batik hangings (for sale of course – the hangings, not the people). And what a great menu! I ordered the Café Rae Salad, with baby greens, tomatoes, goat cheese, apples, caramelized walnuts and lemon-dijon vinaigrette. I added chicken and ooh la la was it ever fresh, flavorful and just plain wonderful. I couldn’t stop praising the food. Just go. They’re at 1421 N. El Camino Real in a tiny strip mall. You can’t miss the extremely colorful storefront!
I asked an acquaintance of mine who is from the area where I can get a fabulous meal. She suggested Sapphire in Laguna Beach, one of her foodie husband’s favorite places. So I made a reservation for Sunday evening and then proceeded to search for reviews. They were mixed, mainly on service, but the menu looked so good that we dived in. Sapphire is only a block from the beach, and since we opted to sit outside we had a nice view of the ocean. I often order 1 or 2 appetizers or a small plate and call it good but it was my birthday and the pan-seared beef tenderloin with lobster ravioli and creamed spinach was calling my name. The beef was cooked medium and was so tender, moist and flavorful that I was in heaven. Paul had the pan seared ocean trout with miso glazed eggplant and stir fried udon. Wow. He said it was great, and it looked delicious, but I didn’t taste his food and he stayed out of mine. We were happy as we were. They have a great wine list and I decided to have the ’05 Stanton Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. I wanted to go a little nuts so I had the half carafe! And I drank most of it! It was one of the smoothest, richest, most decadent cabernets I have ever had the exquisite pleasure to drink. And I felt perfectly fine the next day. Yeah! I just wish I could afford to buy a bottle! Paul and I shared the Rocky Road Ice Cream Pie and it was delicious, with little marshmallows on top. A perfect ending, with coffee. This place is expensive, but if you go to the area and want to experience a special, fabulous meal, go there!
Sapphire also has a little gourmet food store next to the restaurant and I just had to go in. I was extremely happy to see Jamón Iberico in the deli case. Now Jamón Iberico is a very special ham from Spain, and is like prosciutto. The piggies from whence it springs live free range in oak forests and eat lots and lots of acorns. This pig has a high omega 3 content in its fat and is highly prized. The leg is displayed in Spanish markets and very thin slices are sliced off and sold like prosciutto. I saw it for sale in a market on College Ave. in Oakland, for a jaw-dropping $185 a pound! I whined about the price and was so shell shocked I didn’t even consider buying a slice to try. At Sapphire I was happy to see the price is $98.99, though still ridiculously expensive. So I decided to buy a couple of slices, as well as some Prosciutto d’Parma at a paltry $26.95 a pound to do a little comparison tasting. Prosciutto d’Parma is wonderful, but next to the Jamón Iberico it doesn’t stand a chance. The Jamón Iberico tastes richer, with a deeper flavor; however, it’s not four times better! I’m grateful for the opportunity to try it and will dream Jamón dreams for a time.
I wanted to drive to Carlsbad and look around. It’s a nice little town south of San Clemente, well on the way to San Diego. There’s a sweet little neighborhood of restaurants and shops and therein I spied Vigilucci’s on State Street. It had delicious vibes and smelled good too so in we strolled for lunch. It’s a pretty place, very Italian looking. Paul just wanted vegetable soup but I was eyeballing the Panini portion of the menu. I chose the panino with prosciutto di parma, grilled portobella, arugula and sautéed porcini mushrooms on ciabatta. The bread was crispy on the outside, easy to bite into and the prosciutto and mushrooms were so savory and juicy. No need for cheese, which is what I generally think of when I think of panini. Paul loved his soup and I made him eat some of my panino, which also impressed. When we stopped in Encinitas, not far from Carlsbad, I spied another Vigilucci’s, and it turns out there are 7 restaurants in the San Diego area. Fantastico!
While in Encinitas Paul had a strong craving for a burger. He googled great burgers on his Blackberry, which led us to Angelo’s. Angelo’s has Greek, Mexican and American cuisine. Very scary. (How about doing one thing well?) And it was in two small dingy buildings separated by a drive thru lane. A poster on Yelp crowed about the onion rings so we ordered them and split a monster bacon cheese burger. Now the burger wasn’t a monster but it was good. The onion rings, however, were awful. They were greasy and bland and we both prefer our rings dipped in cornmeal, not flour. So, if you happen to go to Encinitas and happen to want a burger in an old joint that serves 3 cuisines, go ahead, drop in at Angelo’s at 608 S. Coast Highway and get the burger. Just don’t get the onion rings. Or do.