Santa Cruz County is a paradise for many reasons, including an abundance of fabulous food venues and a plethora of natural attractions, from the redwoods to the beaches. And there are countless neighborhoods that offer both. Let’s explore a section of East Cliff, specifically a couple of blocks that feature two wonderful restaurants plus a store that draws crowds for its signature tamales. All three are family-owned. And the cherry on top? These spots are just a hop, skip and a jump from the 14th Avenue entrance to Twin Lakes State Beach, Sunny Cove, and Santa Maria’s Beach.
Lago di Como Ristorante
Chef Giovanni Spanu and his wife Mary Ellen founded this beloved Italian restaurant in 2012. In 2023, Matteo Robecchi and Lindsay Rodriguez joined them as partners. Giovanni and Matteo are both natives of Italy’s Lombardia region. The menu includes several homemade pasta selections which rotate, like the delectable Spaghetti alla Carbonara, prepared authentically with Guanciale (Italian cured pork) or Spaghetti Costa Smeralda with fresh clams and aged caviar—a perfect combination. If you’re a meat lover, you’ll love the tender Veal Scallopini with rich porcini and crimini mushroom sauce. Past seasonal specials include unique creations like Borsetti Pere & Formaggio, which is delicious, pillowy ravioli filled with pear and smoked Scamorza cheese and with topped with a rich Pecorino sauce and exquisite 25-year-old balsamic. Lago di Como offers pizza nights every Sunday with woodfired pizza made by Culinary Institute of America alumnus Sam Kornfeld, also known as “The Pizza Schmuck.” The pizzas feature high-quality ingredients like San Marzano tomato sauce and Fior di Latte mozzarella, and you can taste the difference! In early 2023, Robecchi and Rodriguez designed a new look for the restaurant with a revamped menu; the warm atmosphere, attentive service, and fabulous food remain.
Open since 2001, this small-but-mighty taqueria has a loyal fan base—some customers have been coming for more than 20 years. Husband and wife Mario Maldonado (who serves as chef) and Monica Berumen run the restaurant with the help of their family. If you enjoy carne asada, make sure to try the version from Michoacan—it’s succulent and perfectly seasoned. Another must-order is the shrimp; the tacos and burritos are very popular, and with good reason: they are flavorful and addictive. The chile relleno burrito is a unique, signature item that is one of the taqueria’s best sellers. And here’s an insider tip: even though it’s not mentioned on the menu, you can add fries to the inside of any burrito. You can also add chorizo to a beef burrito for an amazing, meat-lovers’ dream come true. There are great lunchtime specials if you’re looking for hearty, affordable options—selections include two tacos with your choice of meat, accompanied by rice and beans. In March, the taqueria added a dessert display case that is filled with treats from Laura’s Sweet Side. This is a separate business run by Mario and Monica’s daughter Laura (before she added this brick-and-mortar location, she did only pop-ups and catering); they are open for several hours each day. Selections include churro cheesecake bites (topped with chocolate and strawberry), brownies, and small cakes in rotating flavors such as tres leches, red velvet, and the incredible “churro cake” which is vanilla cake topped with cinnamon cream cheese frosting and a churro. Families have been known to fight over the last bite.
El Rosal Bakery
Looking at the unassuming storefront tucked into a small shopping plaza, you would never imagine that El Rosal Bakery contains a bounty of treasures. But people flock to El Rosal for scrumptious tamales— made fresh daily—and lots of other goodies. It has been open since 1994, and it’s clear from the constant flow of customers that their recipes have withstood the test of time. It’s also great that both vegetarians and omnivores can be satisfied. The star of the show is tamales. Very reasonably priced, they come in several choices: chicken or pork with red sauce, chicken with green sauce, sweet corn, or cheese and jalapeno (also known as rajas). They are served quickly and are always nice and warm. The savory red sauce, which includes guajillo chiles, perfectly complements both of the meats. The sweet corn is a decadent treat, featuring fresh corn, sugar, and butter. Tamales are plenty filling on their own, but El Rosal also offers a “loaded” version topped with cheese and veggies, with or without rice and beans on the side. The bakery has several display cases overflowing with pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) in many colors, shapes, and flavors including traditional conchas, and other pastries like apple turnovers which are bursting with fruit and sweetness. El Rosal also serves seasonal specialties like Rosca de Reyes in January and sugar skulls in October. And the plaza it’s located in has another bonus: every Sunday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. it is the site of the Live Oak farmers’ market with fresh produce and bread plus other ready-to-eat options.