Saturday, August 17, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 24
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Chef Conrad Gonzales cultivates collaborative food and wine venture in Los Alamos

NICK POWELL

It only took 10 minutes of chatting with Chef Conrad Gonzales about his new eatery for it to become abundantly clear that he was planning something bigger than just another restaurant. 


Where history and innovation intersect
Located in a designated landmark building that harks back to the days of Model T’s and the barely tamed wild West, Cisko Kid at The Station in Los Alamos serves creative food made with locally sourced ingredients in a stunning atmosphere at a price closer to casual dining than fine cuisine. The business just opened so expect some fluidity in the schedule, but for now, they’re serving food Thursday through Sunday, from noon to 8 p.m. at 346 Bell St. Follow @ciskokideatery on Instagram for more information.
 

TENDER MORSELS
The meat on these slow-smoked pork spare ribs couldn’t wait to fall off the bones and into my heart. I’ll bet you didn’t know they were coated in a blueberry barbecue sauce. Heck, I never knew such a thing even existed, but now I want to coat everything in it.
PHOTO BY NICK POWELL

The guy is passionate about food, but not just the end result on the customer’s plate. He talked about the varied, interconnected origins of cherished cuisines—from the great-great-great-grandmothers who cobbled the first salsas together with the ingredients they happened to have on hand, to the farmers whose seed experiments made those tomatoes and chiles available in the first place. 

He talked about how modern chefs can continue that history without getting trapped in tradition. He talked about industrial farming and over-processing, about sustainable agriculture and a good meal’s power to gather people communally. 

Ultimately, he talked about the future of food and how it starts here on the Central Coast. 

He calls his new venture Cisko Kid, and like the wild caballero of lore, Gonzales makes his own rules. 

“I’m not doing authentic Mexican tacos,” Gonzales said. “I’m doing my own authentic.”

To Gonzales, the word “authentic” is so over used in culinary talk that it doesn’t really mean anything, except that someone is cooking the way their parents cooked. His goal is to take the next step in Santa Maria-style cooking by combining regional techniques with the skills and creative impulses he learned in culinary school and by collaborating with local farmers to have the best possible ingredients at his disposal.


PEEK UNDER THE HOOD
Chef Conrad Gonzales offered a preview of his delicious creations the day before his new eatery, Cisko Kid at The Station, was set to open for business.
PHOTOS BY NICK POWELL

The results are damn delicious.

My family went to the small but well-enjoyed soft opening of Cisko Kid at The Station, and we were blown away. The venue is incredible—an old garage and gas station built in the 1920s and beautifully preserved with high, open, wood ceilings; rustic decor; original gas pumps out front; and a gorgeous back patio and lawn. There are fire pits, a stone stage for eventual concerts, and plenty of room for guests to relax while the kids run free.

The atmosphere was nice, but the food was stellar. We ordered the best tray of french fries I’ve ever had, a delightfully creative pair of pork belly tacos made entirely from scratch, a plate of slow-smoked spare ribs glazed in blueberry barbecue sauce, and a slice of incredibly fresh peach pie for dessert. 

The plates seemed to be designed for maximum share-ability, so we ate family style since everything looked too good to miss. The service on opening night was a bit slow, but the food was well worth the wait. I loved every bite, except that the fire-grilled garlic bread was a little light on garlic. That’s the only critique I can really muster.


MR. TACO’S WILD RIDE
Nothing about these tacos is “normal.” The main filling is pork belly, crispy on the outside and decadently soft and juicy on the inside. Then there’s tart and creamy goat chevre and two types of salsa—verde and guajillo—packing in extra flavor.
PHOTO BY NICK POWELL

Gonzales shares the space at The Station with his business partner James Ontiveros, who runs the adjoining wine bar, Rancho de Ontiveros, and pours chardonnay and pinot noir made from organically grown, minimally irrigated grapes on the same land his family has farmed for seven generations.

With excellent food and wine in one location, Gonzales said he hopes The Station can be a place for people to come together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company without servers rushing to flip tables.

“Barbecue isn’t about a specific style and a set of rules,” Gonzales said. “It’s about gathering and having a great time together.”

The restaurant looked like it was off to a good start, but Gonzales has bigger plans for the future. For the last few years, he’s purchased special seed and partnered with local farmers to grow unique batches of heirloom corn that he mills in-house just for his tortillas. It’s a project he’s hoping other chefs and restaurateurs will eventually buy into so it can grow beyond his own restaurant.


PURITY IN PIE
My family had mixed responses to Cisko Kid’s pie. I loved it. The peaches were perfect and fresh, the crust was buttery and thick, and the cream was lightly sweetened with strong vanilla tones. But there wasn’t a lot of sugar in the filling, so less sophisticated palates found it not as sweet as they’d expected.
PHOTO BY NICK POWELL

Right now, he’s in the experimental stage. He found that last year’s crop of green Oaxacan heirloom dent corn made better hominy than tortilla masa. This year, he’s hoping the black Aztec and yellow Nothstine corn varieties will really make his tortillas pop. He said he won’t have enough of his special corn this year to produce all of the restaurant’s tortillas, but he will serve heirloom tortillas at occasional special events. 

After he finds the best variety, he expects it’ll take two years to get to the point where he can serve all of his tacos on tortillas made from sustainable, home-grown corn milled in-house.

“That’s as OG as it gets,” Gonzales said. 

Contributing writer Nick Powell is corny and he likes it at npowell@santamariasun.com. 

Powell’s Picks

Sunstone Vineyards and Winery is celebrating its 25th anniversary on Saturday, Aug. 17, with a Wine and Swine reception from 4 to 6 p.m. There’s going to be a pig roast, live music, and a raffle. Tickets cost $30 and can be purchased online at sunstonewinery.com. 

• One winery not enough for ya? Head on down to La Purisima Mission in Lompoc for the Wine and Fire Grand Tasting Saturday, Aug. 17, from 5 to 8 p.m. There will be 40 local wineries pouring drinks and local chefs and farmers serving all kinds of grub. Visit staritahills.com for tickets, shuttle information, and corresponding events throughout the area that weekend. This grand tasting is but a nibble of the festivities.  

• Get your hands a little dirty, learn some gardening tips from seasoned experts, and enjoy a farm-sourced brunch at the Dare to Dream Farms Gardening Brunch and Seminar in Lompoc this Saturday, Aug. 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tickets cost $44.95 and can be purchased at dare2dreamfarms.com. 

Contributing writer Nick Powell wants to grow a tidy garden of food-related happenings right here in this newspaper. Plant seeds at npowell@santamariasun.com.




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