There is something special about dining at a restaurant where the chef pays tribute to their roots through delicious food. Here are a few Santa Cruz County places where this is the case. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg!
Pana Venezuelan Food
118 Cooper Street, Santa Cruz & 2738 Mission Street, Santa Cruz
Photo by Jenn Day
Open since 2023 inside the Octagon at Abbott Square, Pana serves up authentic Venezuelan style arepas. These cornmeal pockets are opened in half and filled with a variety of tasty ingredients. Pabellon is a customer favorite with a magnificent combination of black beans, mozzarella, shredded beef, and plantains. Another must-try combination is the Sifrina, which overflows with flavorful shredded chicken, tasty cheddar cheese, and a generous helping of ultra-fresh avocado. Their homemade sauces are the crowning touch: choose from guasacaca (avocado), garlic, or spicy. Insider tip: you can customize your arepa however you want. Interested in the Capresa (a takeoff on an Italian Caprese salad) but also craving chicken? Go ahead and ask for a chicken addition! Love plantains but the arepa you’re looking at doesn’t come with them? Add them—or get a whole side order instead.
The arepa “houses a lot of emotions, stories, and culture,” says German Sierra, who is chef and co-owner/business partner with his wife Gabriela Ramirez. He is a Venezuela native; Ramirez was born in California to parents from Mexico. The foundation of the arepa recipes came from his family in Venezuela. He and Ramirez have enhanced the recipes from there. Their goal, which they definitely achieve, is for people to experience a feeling of comfort—and for people who grew up eating arepas to be taken back home through wonderful food memories. “Every morning before going to school, my most vivid moment is waking up listening to my mom in the kitchen cooking arepas, then the smell of arepas, then I got to the kitchen and there were arepas ready for me for breakfast,” says Sierra. They originally created Pana as a food truck in 2019. You can find the truck on the Westside (2738 Mission Street) many days of the week.
Fun facts: Pana’s arepas are also available to San Jose Sharks hockey fans in a kiosk at the SAP Center. And Pana earned a spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in the Bay Area in 2022 (one of only 2 Santa Cruz places to receive this honor).
1203 Mission Street, Santa Cruz
Photo by Liz Birnbaum, The Curated Feast
Chef Ana Mendoza, a Oaxaca native, opened Oaxacan restaurant and mezcal bar Copal in 2020 with partners Stuyvie Bearns Esteva and Noëlle Antolin. The trio’s mission is to share Oaxacan culture through fabulous food and drinks. They brought back much of the decor from Oaxaca including handmade textiles and wood block prints. There are also vivid folk-art sculptures from Mendoza’s village, San Martin Tilcajete.
They make all the food from scratch, and it shows. Recipes have been passed down to chef Mendoza from several generations of her family.
Looking for unique regional appetizers? Try Chapulines (sautéed grasshoppers with chile, lime) or fresh Nopales (chopped cactus with tomato, radish, onion, and cilantro—ingredients complement each other beautifully). If you’re a meat eater, you will adore the Molotes: masa fritters filled with potato and chorizo.
Photo by Caryn Hewlett
Menu standouts include signature mole; choose from four kinds including Mole Negro and Mole Verde and choose your protein (chicken, pork leg, pork ribs, or vegan with tempeh, garbanzo beans, and roasted chayote). The verde is excellent with either of the pork options. Chef Mendoza and her staff grind the many spices necessary for this dish, by hand. In fact, the Negro contains 30-plus ingredients including roasted chile ancho, chocolate, and cinnamon, and takes three days to make. The homemade tortillas that are included (in this and many entrees) feature corn that Copal has milled itself. They use organic heirloom varieties which are imported from Oaxaca and grind it every day to make masa for tortillas and other selections.
Meat lovers shouldn’t miss two specialties: Albondigas soup (the pork meatballs are to-die-for) and Tlayuda. Some refer to the Tlayuda as a Oaxacan-style pizza, but it is way more than that. Picture a hard corn shell that’s over a foot in diameter topped with ground chicharron, savory black bean paste, grilled pork adobo, thinly sliced salt-cured Wagyu steak, and housemade chorizo. Now add quesillo, avocado, cabbage, tomato, and outstanding homemade salsa. It’s as colorful as it is delicious.
If you’re dining at lunch, you’ll love the Oaxacan torta sandwich, served on a large fresh-baked roll called a “telera.” It’s spread with pasta de frijol (a black bean paste). Additional fillings include avocado plus protein choices such as a breaded pork cutlet.
Copal has a mezcal selection unlike anywhere else in the county, with more than 200 available from small-batch producers. You can even order a mezcal flight! Copal also has mocktails like Bright Eyes with botanical spirit Livener from Three Spirits, Martini and Rossi Floreale, housemade hoja santa syrup, and lemon. Beer, wine, and agua frescas round out their drink menu.
Photo by Jenn Day
You will be very happy when you discover this hidden bakery treasure, which appears at popups around town in cafes, breweries, and shops. The main people behind Emozioni are partners Crescenzo “Enzo” Pelliccia (founder/co-owner/executive chef) and Michele “Mic” Tartaglia (co-owner/sous chef), both Italy natives. Pelliccia went to culinary school in Naples; his experience includes serving as the executive pastry chef at Los Gatos-based fine dining restaurant Dio Deka.
Most ingredients Emozioni uses are from Italy. As you devour the results, you can taste the difference. The name they chose for the business, Emozioni, is very fitting. It comes from the Italian word meaning emotion, and you will undoubtedly be filled with emotion as you enjoy these works of art.
One of Emozioni’s must-have pastries is Baba Al Rum, which is a staple in Naples, the Italy region they are from. “We operate with a great deal of Neopolitan philosophy and pride,” says Tartaglia. Delectable Baba Al Rum is sponge cake soaked in spiced rum syrup. They also make a spinoff of this, the equally delicious Baba Crema Amarena. It utilizes the same pastry; the difference is a cherries and cream filling.
Another star from Emozioni is the Chocolate Bomb, an absolute dream for chocolate lovers. The core is a flourless dark chocolate brownie; it also has whipped milk chocolate ganache, vanilla chantilly cream, and dark chocolate glaze. People of all ages love this—kids can eat it on its own, adults can take it home and complement it with a glass of red wine. Or choose the Limoncello E Meringa (lemon meringue tart): take one bite and you will be transported to another dimension. Ingredients include authentic Sicilian candied lemon, Sicilian lemon marmalade, and white chocolate ganache. What an incredible contrast of crunchy and creamy textures. And the flavors? Wow. Other delights include a pistachio-inspired riff on a traditional Tiramisu.
The menu rotates depending on the pop-up; the pop-up schedule varies as Emozioni does a lot of catering plus big orders for hotels and other businesses. Local breweries that Emozioni has appeared at in 2023 include Capitola Tap House and Shanty Shack; shops include Mother Lode. Capitola Tap House has also featured Emozioni’s savory creations including homemade pizza made with focaccia; the focaccia is made from their own sourdough starter.
Real Colima 2
1101 E Lake Ave, Watsonville
Photo courtesy of Real Colima 2
Yes, there is a plethora of Mexican food in Watsonville—from grocery stores that sell tacos, to taquerias, to sit-down restaurants. And many of them serve very authentic cuisine. But there was only room for one in this article, and that’s Real Colima 2. The Watsonville-based family-run Mexican restaurant is a true gem that has been serving customers since 1992. The Moran Family operate this plus Real Colima 1 in Royal Oaks; the latter has been open since 1980. Owner Rosa Moran was born in Mexico. Her son Alphonso Moran is Real Colima’s general manager.
When you first see the restaurant, you will be charmed by its exterior—that of a small, quaint house. The staff are friendly, and portions are large. The popular tortillas are made fresh every day. Many orders come with a tortilla; if you choose flour, know that it is huge, but you still might want to order an extra because they are fantastic.
One of the dishes that comes with a tortilla is a restaurant specialty: Camarones Al Charco, otherwise known as fabulous bacon-wrapped shrimp. This is a must-try on your first visit; you will truly enjoy the smoky and spicy flavor juxtaposition. Each order contains several meaty, large shrimps encased in bacon, smothered in Monterey jack cheese and spicy Diabla sauce.
A can’t-miss breakfast dish, available all day, is the Chilaquiles. Cut-up chunks of fried homemade corn tortillas, Mexican and Monterey jack cheese, and Ranchero sauce with a nice kick combine to create a wonderful harmony of flavors. And you get rice and beans on the side.
Hot tip: for another Real Colima specialty, birria soup (only available on Saturday and Sunday), go as early as possible. They open at 8 a.m. on weekends. Both the birra and the menudo, another traditional dish only offered on weekends, draw crowds. These selections sell out every weekend; once it’s gone for the day, you’re out of luck. The same advice is true if it’s a cold or rainy day and you want the “regular weekday” soup. These are Caldo de Res (beef soup) and Caldo de Pollo (chicken soup) and there is only one batch each day.
Real Colima 2 is also known for empanadas (cheese, shrimp, or meat), sopes, and chile colorado, among other dishes.
Hanloh Thai Cuisine
1011 Cedar Street, Santa Cruz
Photo courtesy of Hanloh
You’ll love Hanloh, which has been serving extraordinary dishes at Bad Animal (a wine bar and rare and used bookstore) since 2022. Bad Animal is homey and casual with a Bohemian spirit; it serves as a perfect backdrop for Hanloh’s down-home yet sophisticated cuisine.
Hanloh’s owner/executive chef Lalita Kaewsawang was born in Thailand and emigrated to the Bay Area at age 13. Her extensive culinary experience includes working at Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos and doing popups and catering with Hanloh for several years.
The menu rotates, so not all dishes will be available when you visit—but whatever you order you’re in for a treat! From the starter selections, don’t miss Phla Pla, which is essentially a Thai crudo. Thin, ultra-fresh halibut slices are layered with paper-thin cucumber slices. Seasoned with scallion, the herb sawtooth (a relative of coriander), and a piquant citrus sauce, you will savor these bright flavors.
If you see tomato jaew relish, order it. Made with tomato, spring onions, garlic, shallots, and fish sauce, it’s currently offered a la carte and as part of Gai Tod Hat Yai. Vegetables are fire-roasted which brings out the natural flavors; the result is a knock-your-socks-off delicacy with a tapenade consistency. Hanloh usually has a fried chicken dish on the menu. The current version, Gai Tod Hat Yai, is comfort food with a Thai spin: coriander-rubbed fried chicken thighs with the aforementioned relish.
Another must-try is Nam Prik Lon—it’s heaven in a bowl. Right now, Hanloh is serving this with crab; a past version has included smoked trout. A bowl is filled to the brim with creamy, savory, soup-like deliciousness. Picture a cool broth made of coconut cream, aromatics like galangal and ginger, and crabmeat. Surrounding the bowl are fresh lettuce leaves, cucumber and radish slices, and homemade shrimp chips. It’s fun to assemble your food and personalize the ingredients to your liking. The vegetables in this, and all dishes, are fresh from Santa Cruz farmers’ markets; Kaewsawang shops there twice each week. Hanloh receives fresh meat and fish twice-weekly, too.
“My food is very much centered around shareable dishes with rice,” says Kaewsawang. “I like to feel transported to Thailand when I eat them. I’m quite proud of our team that they are able to execute my vision!” The chef has vivid childhood memories of eating fantastic food from Thai street vendors. “Many vendors are dedicated to their craft. A lot of Thai street vendors are only focused on one dish, so they spend years making the best version of a dish. I can resonate with that.” Hanloh’s menu is intentionally small so the team can create excellent dishes each night with seasonal ingredients.
Visitors will not want to miss the wine. The list, focused on natural, organic, and biodynamic vintages, has more than 50 choices curated by Bad Animal—which features Hanloh as part of its rotating chef residency. There are also local beers and hard cider.