Los Angeles: Santa Monica culinary tours

By Leena Tailor

Leena Tailor gets on her bike and works up a taste for Santa Monica fare.

Cycling is a great way to tour Santa Monica. Photo / Lloyd Raboff
Cycling is a great way to tour Santa Monica. Photo / Lloyd Raboff

We're 13km into a 20km ride and at dessert-tasting number three of four on a "Sweet Spot" cycling tour of Santa Monica when I have to ask: are we burning more calories than we're indulging in?

"You probably don't want to know," says my guide, Shaun, laughing.

"Let's just say it takes a lot of work to burn off these desserts ..."

Taking into consideration that a salted caramel brownie and two Mexican "wedding cookies" still sit in my bike basket untouched, I convince myself that for now at least, I have achieved balance.

And, tucking into the brownie later will be a more-than-justified reward for making it through my longest ride since Auckland's Bike the Bays in my teens.

It's only five minutes after pedalling away from the pedestrian-filled Santa Monica pier that my legs start to ache, but before I know it we've made it to 26th Street, where manoeuvring through the shiny Priuses, traffic-oblivious tourists and Segways of downtown Santa Monica - fearing for my life at times - gives way to a pleasant cruise through the peaceful and picturesque streets of Brentwood.

No doubt the first sugar rush - Galletitas de Boda (wedding cookies) from Mexican bakery La Monarca - has helped power me through. The cute eatery was founded by Monterrey natives Ricardo Cervantes and Alfredo Livas, who came to the US to study but missed the thousands of breads and pastries on offer back home.

Failing to find anything that compared in LA, they opened their own business, offering traditional treats such as guava cheese tarts, pineapple taquitos and around 20 different types of Oaxacan coffee, with everything made using fresh, natural ingredients.

"It's like a Mexican version of Dunkin' Donuts but without that stigma," says Shaun.

"It's classier, but still has the 'mom and pops' feel."

A tour guide by day, Shaun is a comedian by night at the M.i Westside Comedy Theatre, where the likes of Zach Galifianakis and Dave Chappelle practise their routines. He doesn't offer any jokes, but he does deliver on his promise to introduce me to the best icecream in Los Angeles, at the Sweet Rose Creamery in Brentwood's celeb-frequented County Mart.

With the envy-stirring job title of "icecream chef", Shiho Yoshikawa whips up fresh batches daily using organic produce from local markets and foregoing stabilisers or bases. Cones, toppings and sauces are made on-site and the menu rotates monthly to reflect seasonal produce.

I fail to make it to the seasonal menu after tasting the fresh mint with homemade chocolate chips - one spoonful leaving me feeling as if I've bitten into a cluster of mint leaves from my mojito - and the salted caramel, which comes peculiarly but deliciously sprinkled with sea salt and prompts me to upgrade Shaun's judgment of "best icecream in LA" to the best I've ever tasted.

Having cooled off after the sun-drenched ride, we continue east to sample the delights of Compartes' Jonathan Grahm, "chocolatier to the stars", whose clients include Jennifer Garner and Heidi Klum.

When the store opened in 1950, it was frequented by Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, who all indulged in the gourmet treats, made using European chocolate techniques.

Now run by 29-year-old Grahm - named one of Forbes' 30 under 30 - his chocolates continue to win over health-conscious Hollywood and are used in Oscars gift bags and on film and television sets like Breaking Bad.

Grahm's signature truffles received a perfect score in foodie bible Bon Appetit and the store is also known for its fruit varieties, such as the chocolate-covered candied orange peel, and love nuts (roasted nuts layered 14 times in chocolate).

But it's the dreamy aroma of pure chocolate that engulfs one upon entering. Once again, the theme of our tasting is salted caramel and I devour two divine pieces before beginning the windy ride back into Santa Monica.

The gusts subside as we as we inch closer to the ocean, coasting down gorgeous Georgina St, a hidden gem where stunning homes take up half a block, their values rocketing into tens of millions.

By now I'm starting to feel shamefully unfit.

Soon the distant ocean is the backdrop of our final stretch, along the bustling waterfront and towards the iconic pier.

It's Friday evening and office-goers are kicking off their weekend with sunshine-infused happy hours or seaside runs, but in the morning the streets will transform into the Santa Monica Farmers' Market.

My first dip into the beach town's culinary scene may have been all about sugar and indulgence, but the farmers' market is a reflection of how much Santa Monica has become one of the most health-conscious cities in the US.

Juice bars are as common as Starbucks, vegan cafes continue to pop up throughout every neighbourhood and the farm-to-table movement has fuelled popular dining spots like Tar & Roses and Rustic Canyon.

Local food writer and cooking teacher Amelia Saltsman credits the downtown farmers' market - the oldest and largest in California and the first city-run market - for the town's culinary explosion.

"It started as a few boxes on a few tables 33 years ago and it has evolved to be the leader in the industry," says Saltsman, who runs tours to educate people on what makes a good market and what qualities to look for in produce.

"Santa Monica has changed from a sleepy beach town to having a great culinary focus and I attribute a lot of that to the farmers' market because chefs who were coming across town to shop here started to think about the opportunities of being based on the west side - being able to walk to the market, get what they need, go back and cook.

"That proximity to one of the best markets in the world is drawing top chefs to cook here. It really is where you get the best, most flavourful food - even the humblest ingredients like carrots and potatoes are so delicious.

"And for tourists, you have an extraordinary coming together of being a block away from the Pacific Ocean with that iconic palm tree scene as you look west, with the ability to see, taste and understand what is valued in the local community."

While nearby restaurants sourcing from the market include FIG and Border Grill, it's Main St, a mile south, that has become a wining and dining hotspot.

Locals flock to its bars and restaurants, many of which have popped up in response to the increasingly health-aware locals. The lively strip is also popular with foodies from wider Los Angeles - so it's no surprise that all 11 people on my Taste of Santa Monica dinner tour are from LA.

The three-hour walking tour stops in at four local eateries for tastings. One minute we're whetting our appetites on melt-in-your-mouth sweet potato croquettes and flatbreads on the buzzing, open-air, European-style patio at Areal and the next we're chowing down on grilled cheese at The Victorian, a mansion formerly built for Roy Jones, the son of Santa Monica founder John P Jones.

Moved from Ocean Ave to Main St in 1973, the restored home is now a restaurant, bar and events space, with a fairylight-filled dining deck.

Down below, the cave-like Basement Bar is a local favourite - and where those who wish to continue drinking will return after the tour.

From the comfort of bourbon cocktails and grilled cheese we take a healthier turn down the road at vegan cafe Rawvolution.

"When I say 'raw' people usually freak out and think I'm going to feed them raw meat," says guide Annie Breheny, who started running culinary tours in Arizona before expanding to Santa Monica.

"Then I tell them it's all vegetarian and plant-based and that's when I lose most of the male members of the group. Yet usually it's those who are least interested in going here who are the most impressed."

That truth is demonstrated later, when an initially wary male lists Rawvolution as the highlight of the tour, thanks to our tasting of vegan nachos, made with walnut taco meat, guacamole, salsa, seed cheese and cashew mayo piled atop blue corn chips.

While the idea of "walnut taco meat" makes me frown, the combination works and despite the two preceding mini-meals, all plates, including mine, are clean by the time we leave.

Bellies full with guilt-free goodness, we step outside, dodging women and their yoga mats leaving a class next door ­- most likely about to continue their healthy living at Rawvolution or the nearest juice bar.

I, on the other hand, have a salted caramel brownie and Mexican wedding cookies waiting for me at home.

IF YOU GO

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com and SantaMonica.com for more on southern California's foodie scene.

Farmers' market tours: See ameliasaltsman.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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