“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”
― Mark Twain
If you’ve ever heard of Big Sur, it’s reasonable you would have certain expectations: an artist community, amazing views of the ocean from atop the expanses of rocky cliffs as the surf crashes below, and an abundance of life. Big Sur is the beauty of the forest and the violence of the ocean cannoning into rock-strewn beaches, a haven for artists and forward thinkers for years.
The Big Sur Roadhouse will not only meet your expectations, it will exceed them. Like falling in love, you will find yourself attracted to all the things you think you want, then find yourself amazed at all the wonderful parts you didn’t even know existed.
My wife Katie and I wound ponderously down Highway 1 in our old RV. From Oregon we lurched down the amazing and often extreme coast of California. Coming out of Bolinas our headlights arced over mist suspended hundreds of feet above the pounding sea. We snuck through San Francisco at night to avoid the traffic, stopped along a lonely highway to help a wayward traveler, and came into Big Sur on a busy weekend. The weather, as it often is here, was perfect.
Having way more than a passing interest Cajun cuisine, I was excited to meet Roadhouse Head Chef Matt Glazer, who brought his New Orleans roots to grow in the fertile soil of this California coastal community.
Chef Glazer was born and raised in New Orleans and went to Northern Italy after college where he worked on an organic, raw milk, pasture-raised dairy farm. While there he became invested in learning “how the farmer’s wives were cooking.” Matt had an epiphany eating mozzarella that tasted like the hay he’d been cutting that very morning.
After returning to the states, Glazer attended CIA in Hyde Park. An internship at the Esalen Institute introduced him to Big Sur, and he’s never left. Taking the reins at the recently revamped and reopened Roadhouse gives him the opportunity to bring a little of his homegrown flavor to a table thousands of miles away.
Big Sur Roadhouse fully embraces Chef’s Cajun upbringing. Dixieland and Jazz slip from overhead speakers into the rustic modern decor that’s half San Francisco chic, half Big Sur earthiness, and all-together inviting. Sneaking into the kitchen, a Saint’s game comes over the radio while fresh gumbo comes together on the stovetop.
The Roadhouse epitomizes “inviting,” and if you’re a little unfamiliar with New Orleans style cuisine, blackened fish, or anything else, the knowledgeable staff is more than trustworthy to guide you in the right direction. They helped us slip into a bottle of wine, a locally produced Pinot from Poppy, and we were on our way.
I might as well have been touring the facilities mumbling “gumbo, gumbo, gumbo.” Chef is talking to me about his relationship with local farmers and the flavor profile of their house-spice, and all I can think of is “and how does this affect the GUMBO!”
If you’re unfamiliar, Gumbo is a thick stew-like soup which can be made several different ways while remaining traditional, is served on rice, and, usually contains shrimp.
I was extremely fortunate to be invited back into the kitchen for an insider’s peek on the gumbo production of the Roadhouse. What primarily caught my attention was Glazer’s method for thickening the gumbo.
The practice of using roux to thicken sauces and soups is a staple in French Cooking, combining flour and fat (such as butter). Glazer, however, uses Rouxt to thicken his gumbo. A playful pun, “rouxt” is a mixture of slow-roasted root vegetables, which are then added to the gumbo while it cooks on the stovetop.
The Roadhouse’s gumbo is also made with Dungeness Crab, Andouille Sausage (a Cajun staple), and of course, Trinity (the Cajun version of mirepoix, it’s a mixture of Bell Pepper, Onion, and Celery).
The rouxt creates a fascinating flavor density, and a stable platform for the crab and shrimp to stand upon. I would have been more than happy to sit at the bar eating Matt’s gumbo and drinking wine all night long.
This, however, was not to be. Instead Chef and his staff wowed us with course after course of amazing food (tres bon!). Next we had the Lacinato Kale Caesar Salad, a mountain of wonderfully garlic and anchovy dressed shredded kale with delicious garlic croutons and sharp, almost tart, Grana Padana Cheese.
Following the salad, we were thrilled to receive these Monterey Bay Sea Bass Po Boy Sliders. Swimmin’ yesterday, they were now light, flaky, and spectacular—served on a soft roll with a little Creole Mustard, Marinated Cabbage, Tabasco, and Marinated Tomatoes on the side.
Then, as a kind of halftime before the highlight of our evening, Matt brought us out some local, unpasteurized Boiled Peanuts Au Classique. A Louisiana staple, but entirely new to us. They were boiled in stock with some of the Roadhouse’s Cajun spice blend, a little messy to eat, and very fun. Instead of the crunch of a roasted peanut, these offered up a nice, firm, yet soft bite that sometimes needed worried out with your tongue (fun!).
Katie and I had thought we were excited before… then our entrees came out: sitting beautifully on their respective plates their mouth-watering aromas caressing and bringing us in close for a bite.
The Monterey Bay Wild King Salmon had a smoky citrus flavor with a subtle heat accompanied by Succotash of Fresh Shelling Beans, Corn, and Arugula.
Spicing and saucing food can be a very tricky prospect for a chef. How is he to know what the customer wants? Often this leads to food that’s a little more bland than I would like to eat. And table-side adjustments are never the same, they just can’t match up to the flavor of something properly spiced while its cooked. Occasionally, food can be ruined in the opposite direction. Over-sauced or spiced and/or sauced with flavors that don’t match or overpower the food.
Big Sur Roadhouse avoided all these pitfalls. The blackening spice on the salmon was perfect and the sauce accentuated the flavor of the salmon: heightening it, not overpowering it.
Last and certainly not least: Grass-Fed New York Strip with Caramelized Onions, Crimini Mushrooms, Red Wine Demi Glace, Serrano Cheese Grits, and topped with a bit of Creamed Spinach.
They nailed it. The steak was gorgeous. Cooked perfectly, it melted in my mouth. The glace drenched mushrooms and grits gave me the chance to pause a few moments and not just wolf down the delicious steak. Everything was perfect.
Big Sur Roadhouse sets itself apart from the standard in the area with its welcoming San Francisco inspired décor, like rich art dealer’s villa perched on a sandy cliff. The fare in the Roadhouse is a welcome surprise as well. Chef Matt Glazer’s New Orleans inspired California cuisine is bright and fresh, while remaining rooted and earthy.
Big Sur’s identity crisis stretches as far back as there have been inhabitants to inspire it. Is it a hippy commune? A redneck bastion of self-sufficiency? A resort town with million dollar homes? It’s somehow all these things and more. And out of this tumultuous and fertile ground, a place like Big Sur Roadhouse makes perfect sense.