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Fast! Healthy! Cheap! Eats!

reed, pahl & rodriguez pig out
Robert Scheer

Ring Around the Rosa's: Jordan Reed (left), Mothusi Pahl and Agustin Rodriguez feast on the Mexican roast chicken that has made Rosa's Rosticceria, located overlooking the Yacht Harbor, justly famous.

Crucial local eateries to learn to love for students living a hand-to-mouth existence

By Christina Waters

IT MUST BE A LAW or something that you're always hungriest when a) you don't have much time, and b) you have even less money. We can relate. We've been there. And like you, we try not to stoop to the greasy, hi-cal toxicity of Burger King or McDonald's.

So, here's the deal. What follows is a Santa Cruz County guide to inexpensive, quick, healthy food that's almost completely devoid of commercial poisons. You'll thank us.

Ali Baba Cafe Pacific Avenue kiosk, between New Leaf and the Del Mar Theater, SC (425-4675). A true gem of the street food genre, this cozy Mediterranean outpost offers astonishingly expert, flavor-intensive versions of Greek salad, hummus and tabouli plates, an Olympic champ of falafel sandwiches--crunchy, soft and packed into warm pita--even moussaka stuffed into pita. Grab a fresh fruit smoothie, and soak up the street culture from one of the tiny tables surrounding the kiosk. A daily specials menu usually offers a deeply satisfying homemade soup. The colorful, tongue-in-cheek tone is set by your host, who dresses up like a pirate.

Asian Rose Cafe 1547 Pacific Ave., SC (458-3023). Eating well and quickly on a budget gets easier the minute you step into this attractive lunchroom located across the cobblestone courtyard from Kelly's Bakery. Brilliantly seasoned Pacific Rim dishes are done justice for mere dollars: spinach tofu curry, gado gado vegetables, mushroom and soy masala, potato and leek curry, Singapore noodles. To drink, think exotica like mango lassi or simply your favorite juice or bottled water. From purist vegan meals to chicken curries, there's a large sensory array from which to choose.

B. Anna Pacific Avenue kiosk, in front of New Leaf, SC (457-8100). With $2 crepes and enormous Italian sandwiches for around $5, this cozy kiosk qualifies as a delicious emergency food pit-stop. Check out the roast vegetables and herb spread on focaccia for $4.25, or get temporarily decadent with prosciutto, mascarpone and arugula. You get the idea. Creative, fresh, huge, inexpensive sandwiches.

The Bagelry 320 Cedar St., SC (429-8049);1636 Seabright Ave., SC (425-8550); 4763 Soquel Dr., Soquel (462-9888). Dropping by these dens rapidly becomes a way of life. Simple blonde wood appointments, strong coffee and freshly made bagels are the main point of this much-loved local institution. The Santa Cruz branch has spiffy banquettes and architectural glass bricks--the brick patio is particularly inviting. But whatever you do, don't resist the fresh soups, wonderful pasta salads and spectacular house-made hummus spread (the best in the area). We can't get enough of the lunch-sized Duke--cream cheese, jam and cashews--that we call for on the chewy whole-wheat raisin bagel. Bagels are terrific, cheap food--and never better than at the Bagelry. Service can be slow during peak hours, so bring your homework.

Cafe del Sol 1315 Water St., SC (423-8041). A next-door offshoot of Santa Cruz's natural foods shrine, the Staff of Life, this sleek, sunny cafe is open daily serving fat tofu burgers from the grill, and exotically spiced vegetable entrees like eggplant lasagna and tofu vegetable stroganoff. An attractive, granite-top juice bar pours out organic wheatgrass and carrot elixirs, plus sensuous smoothies using organic, seasonal fruit. But the heart of this healthy empire is the mother of all salad bars--offering interesting extras like yellow cherry tomatoes, tofu cubes, nuts, pumpkin seeds, fresh corn kernels, red and green bell peppers--all this atop your organic lettuce, plus pasta salad and choice of six dressings, for $4.50. Save room for an espresso and the incomparable pastries for which this landmark is famed.

Palomar Taco Bar 1336 Pacific Ave., SC (425-7575). Served in what could easily be a taqueria in Zihuatanejo, fat prawn tacos, shredded chicken burritos and loads of other variations will amaze you with their sophisticated spicing and high quality. For around $3, you can down outrageous, made-to-order, designer finger food served on housemade cornmeal tortillas and packed with fresh seafoods, meats and vegetables--everything served with a variety of fiery salsa frescas. These tacos could just spoil you for anything else. Sit at the tiled counter and watch your order being made. It won't take long.

Erik's DeliCafe 712 Front St., SC (425-5353); 1664 Soquel Dr., SC, (458-1414); Rancho Del Mar Shopping Center, Aptos (688-5656); King's Plaza Center, Capitola (475-4646). Fine, fast, straightforward eats are the specialty of this local landmark. For over 20 years, folks who don't want to shell out a lot of time or money have stepped up to an Erik's counter, placed an order and then picked up some of the largest classic deli sandwiches ever seen. If they were smart, they'd also be sampling one of the fresh, housemade soups ($2.25) or a meal-sized salad like the Leaf Erikson, filled with every vegetable, meat and cheese fit for human consumption. This is definitely the place for big, hot sandwiches like pastrami and jack heated on pita bread or some hearty beef stew served with salad, roll and butter. And most items are way under $5. Remember these words: carrot cake.

Hobee's 740 Front St., SC (458-1212). The Santa Cruz version of this fine chain has tailored its menu to local tastes, without sacrificing quality control on its specialties. Grab a quick meal in a bowl at the soup and salad bar--all you can eat for $6.95. They've got traditional ground chuck burgers ($5.95) and not-so-traditional organic tofu/vegetable burgers ($6.25), each served with tortilla chips and all the classic burger trimmings. At least seven fresh seasonal veggies jump into the plate of steamed rice and tofu on Hobee's steamed veggies ($7.75) dish. Best of all, Hobee's serves breakfasts all day long.

jason cupp
Robert Scheer

Grub-a-Tub-Club: UCSC student Jason Cupp fills up on Marcelo's giant portions of low-priced food conjured up fast and fresh at a convenient Bay-Mission location.

Marcelo's 1520 Mission St., SC (423-2845). It's clean, well-lit and close to UCSC. Very ecumenical, Marcelo's provides respectable Mexican fare, gargantuan--seriously gargantuan--salads and big, juicy burgers. Plus, everything in the place is downright cheap. You order at the counter, they bring it to your table--a restaurant style that cuts out lots of wasted time and energy. Several people could fill up on a single Marcelo's salad, and the tacos packed with healthy chicken and greens provide lunch for a couple of bucks.

Noah's Bagels 1411 Pacific Ave., SC ( 454-9555). The Santa Cruz version of this splendid kosher chain welcomes breakfast and lunch patrons who can't get enough of the fat bagels shmeared with cream cheese, smoked lox, hummus and smoked whitefish. The giant bagel specialty sandwiches (from $1.50-$3.75) are complete meals unto themselves, lavishly topped with nourishing stuff like peanut butter and jelly, French onion tofutti, even eggs and cheese. This is a painless way to get full on freshly made deliciousness, and you'll leave with change from a five-spot.

Pacific Avenue Pizza & Grille 1415 Pacific Ave., SC (425-7492). Oven-baked sandwiches, plus salad for under $5, and personal mini-pizzas starting at $3 make this no-nonsense downtown eatery a haven for the young and the restless with low cash flow. This is not the place to seek atmosphere--your basic chairs and tables here--but look instead for cheapo lunch specials or garlic bread and salad for under $2. The emphasis is perhaps more on "cheap" and not so much on "healthy," but often we can't have everything.

Planet Fresh--Burritos! 1003 Cedar St., Old Santa Cruz Hotel, SC (423-9799). It's a case of love at first bite with this sensational new eatery offering world wraps that are, like the name says, fresh! You can build burritos out of a delicious array of fresh fillings--we love the Caesar chicken salad burrito ($4.50). There are myriad Veg Wraps, packed with goodies like fresh spinach pesto ($3.95). Check out the tubular tacos, made to order with your choice of filling--grilled snapper, sautéed veggies, flame-broiled steak ($2.70-$3.25). Or splurge on the mighty land and sea, a mega-burrito bursting with flame-grilled chicken and lemon garlic prawns ($5.10). There's a juice bar and a salsa bar to sample along with chips in flavors like spinach, tomato, chipotle. Yes, this is a better planet.

Rosa's Rosticceria 923 B Lake Ave., SC (479-3536). If the aroma of rotisserie chicken and turkey slowly turning behind the front counter doesn't get you, you're not breathing. Rosa's is amazing--casual (you carry your own order to your table), friendly and very inexpensive. Tacos and fiery veggies start at $2 and work their way up to huge portions of grilled chicken sided with beans, rice and chips in the $5-$7 ballpark. Flavors are as bold as the dozen salsas waiting to ignite your tastebuds at the huge salsa bar. From seafood to grilled meats, it's all here and yours to enjoy in a no-fuss, no-muss atmosphere overlooking the boats at the Yacht Harbor.

Royal Taj 270 Soquel Ave., SC (427-2400). Indian cuisine is king at this sensationally scented restaurant, where the $6.50 lunch buffet is a serious bargain. You can help yourself as often as you like to fiery condiments, a variety of turmeric-tinged curries, tandoori chicken, crispy papadams and rich rounds of fresh-baked nan. Add rice and rich, lentil-laden dahl, consumed along with an ice cold beer or iced tea, and start all over again. The management here is gracious, and the food is well-made. We're talking deal.


Santa Cruz Food Court In El Centro Mercado at 1108 Pacific Ave., SC (469-3683). Purveyors of ethnic cuisine share the delicious atmosphere of this airy galleria, serving quick, inexpensive fare from 11am-9pm daily (until 10pm on weekends). Our two favorites are:

Manila Turo-Turo Restaurant, showcasing Filipino food, where you can enjoy adobo pork or chicken stewed in white vinegar, soy and bay leaves for under $4 and fresh lumpia with garlic sauce for $2.50. Check out the leche flan for dessert ($1.20).

Zelan is a tiny, aromatic outpost of South Asia whose steam trays offer huge quantities of expertly made, brilliantly seasoned curries, tempeh and spiced vegetable sautés, all fresh and healthy, served with mountains of jasmine rice and starting at $3.75. Carry-out or consume on the spot.

Saturn Cafe 1230 Mission St., SC (429-8505). A beloved hotspot of politically correct, cheap, quick, healthy dining, Saturn offers handy munchies of the granola and brown rice variety, for sure, but this isn't just a fiber trough for neo-hippies. Also on hand are creative hot vegetable dishes, serious pastries and espresso drinks, dirt-cheap bagel combos and elegantly sinful desserts. For sheer funque and grunge glam, Saturn has few rivals. And you can't beat the location, within spitting distance of the campus.

Tacos Moreno 1053 Water St., SC (429-6095). The line outside the door, especially during prime lunchtimes, testifies to the wild popularity of this family-run taqueria, where lengua, al pastor, carnitas and refried beans fit for the almighty await. The barbecued pork burrito is the stuff of folklore, and everything is served fresh from the steaming cooking pots. It's made quickly to go or to consume on the spot with a bottle of orange Peñafiel or an icy Dos Equis. But it won't cost you more than a few bucks to dine with an authentic Mexican accent.

Taqueria Santa Cruz 2215 Mission St., SC (423-0606). English is not the first language at this authentic, working man's taqueria, where you can get menudo, tongue and stewed goat, as well as all your other favorite meat-filled tacos. The mood is friendly, the concept is simple. You order up front and pay. Then you take your beer or soda back to your table until your number is called. Relax, they'll find you. Posole and quesadillas are among the house specialties, and fans of this spicy, homecooked cuisine will be able to find more at the Merrill College branch on the UCSC campus.

Taqueria Vallarta 608 Soquel Ave., SC (457-8226); 893 41st Ave, SC (464-7022). A quick-witted and lively team of young men work this full-service taqueria with style and speed. Tiny, soft tortillas can contain the barbecued chicken of your dreams, along with some zippy salsa fresca and all the trimmings for under $3. Try the thirst-quenching, fresh-squeezed carrot juice or traditional horchata rice drink along with your ultra-spicy, muy picante tacos al pastor, or that cheese and bean burrito the size of Oaxaca. A very smooth act, and each table offers bowls of raw radishes and wicked-looking pickled peppers, as well as a view of the soccer matches that are always on TV.

Zoccoli's 1534 Pacific Ave., SC (423-1711). Open daily, this place welcomes downtown Santa Cruz's hungry workforce to its bustling old-time deli atmosphere, where you take a number and then have the sandwich of your dreams made to order. Don't miss the Mediterranean--filled with meats, cheeses, pickled peppers and vinegary dressing--for $4.25. Or, grab some fresh fruit, deviled eggs (sheer sin for 60 cents) or one of the freshly made fruit salads, pasta salads and huge chef's salads. Hot minestrone and some fortifying hot pasta special are always available to go or to eat at the alfresco tables just out front. This place guarantees prime people watching and flavor satisfaction.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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