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Doughy Pleasure: Nin Ton of Dunlap's Donuts displays a tray of apple fritters in front of the store.

Best Food & Drink

Critics' Choice Awards

Best dessert innovation of the new millennium

Marini's Munchies

Among rows of sugary jelly candies and individually packaged chocolates, Marini's Munchies offers an ingenious spin on the caramel apple of yore. Made of voluptuous fruit bathed in rich caramel, wrapped in sultry white chocolate and sprinkled with crystals of sugar and cinnamon, the confections stand like gold-metal Olympians high above the other treats. The experience is a sure trip to the dizzying heights of Mount Olympus. (Santa Cruz Wharf; 425.7341)

Kelly Altshuler


Best oatmeal cookies

Beckmann's Old World Bakery

A superb oatmeal cookie is a thing of sophistication and wizardry, leagues of complexity beyond the choking sweetness of a chocolate-chocolate-chip assault or the feigned naiveté of a sugar cookie. A good oatmeal cookie has the power to gather up opposing forces of nature into a mighty ode to joy: crispness and chewiness, sweetness and heartiness, earthy goodness and heavenly delight. Many oatmeal cookie bakers strive for this perfect suspension of elements. Most fail. But Salvador Sandoval, head baker at Beckmann's, succeeds. Every day, he takes butter, brown sugar, rolled oats, raisins and the freshest and most finely chopped walnuts, mixes them up and applies heat. The results are magical. These cookies are big--they're balanced on the cusp of health food and candy. Eat them as a meal. Make of them a sacrament. But don't let them go untasted. (2341 Mission St., SC 831.423.2566)

Traci Hukill


Best free lunch

Costco

You know who you are. You go from sample stand to sample stand scarfing up the nachos, pizza and potato salad. By the time you leave the store, who's got any room left for the snack bar at the entrance? I'm not a member of Costco, but if you've already made that compromise, then you know how easy it is to fill up on the sample food. And it's delicious in a tawdry, culinary-slumming kind of way. It tastes even better, of course, if you don't cave in and actually buy anything. That way you get the extra little rush of enjoying the proverbial free lunch (no matter what time of day it is). So bon appetit--it's on the house.

John Yewell


Best ticket to forgiveness

Fresh Crab From Shamrock Charters Inc.

Nothing says I love you like fresh crab. Flowers wilt, chocolate settles straight to the hips, but it's hard to go wrong with a culinary crustacean. When the need to grovel arises, it's good to bring some extra ammo--preferably of the eight-legged variety. The six-week anniversary of a first kiss went unnoticed? Better stop by Shamrock in the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor (5-7pm every day). Forgot to tape the new episode of Buffy last night? Beeline it to Shamrock. They do sell out quickly, however, "so you better check with us before you fight," cautions Marty Shulman, crab vendor extraordinaire. "I've been married 48 years now, so I don't bring anything home. She's lucky if I come home." Looks like Marty may be stopping by the crab tank on the way home tonight.

Jessica Lyons


Best apple fritters

Dunlap's Donuts

For the best French crullers in the world, it's Tommy's Donuts in Hayward. Fortunately, if your donut jones is whistling for an apple fritter, you have to travel only as far as Pleasure Point to Dunlap's Donuts. Dunlap's has divined the secret to a perfect fritter: a ménage à trois of sugar, gooey dough and fat, with a scattering of apple chunks for texture. For the ultimate fix, take that fritter home and nuke it for about 15 seconds, then slather it with butter. Nothing at Frenchy's Adult Emporium (located right across the street) can top it for twisted, unspeakable pleasure. (3791 Portola Dr., SC; 475.6447)

Kelly Luker


Best worst-kept secret

Corralitos Sausage

My workmates kept this treasure secret from me for almost a year after I moved back to Santa Cruz. After stumbling upon it by chance, I demanded to know why no one had told me about Corralitos Market and Sausage Co. Knowledge of it is a sacred trust, they told me. Anyway, I'm sure the store won't mind if I violate the taboo and leak this worst-kept secret: fresh, locally produced sausage from "Joe's Smokehouse" (it's right out back) that rivals the good stuff from overseas. Added plus: riding your bike to rural Corralitos burns enough calories to justify the indulgence. They also carry smoked salmon and turkey, ribs and Cornish game hens. (569 Corralitos Rd., Watsonville; 722.2633)

John Yewell


Best vanilla fix

Vanilla Cappuccino at Lulu Carpenter's (a.k.a. Espresso Royale)

Some sneer at anything other than basic black coffee. Others lean toward espresso drinks laden with syrups and whipped cream. But the humble vanilla cappuccino rules in this highly caffeinated haven. Creamy, foamy and rich with soothing vanilla flavors, it's an effortless blend of comfort in a cup. (1545 Pacific Ave., SC; 429.9804)

Mary Spicuzza


Best way to kick-start a new lease on life

Healthy Way

There are many ways to feel better--a new Jaguar, giving money to the poor, massive doses of illegal drugs. But for those shooting for a real high, think cellular versus cellulite. In other words, exchanging the Burger King and Bud diet for something kinder and gentler to your body. Like, oh, real food. But you are a weakling when it comes to temptation, so it's time to bring in the support troops. Healthy Way positions itself as a weight-loss program, but unlike clinics that pony up the Phen-fen and over-priced diet-TV dinners, Healthy Way encourages sensible lifestyle changes as a path to enlightenment. Lighter butt, enlightenment whatever. Not cheap, but think of the money you save on that triple-bypass. (3251 Mission Dr., SC; 462.5900)

Kelly Luker

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From the March 22-29, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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