Santa Maria Sun / Eats
Artful cuisine: Enjoy some eye candy with your meal at Cafe Quackenbush in Los Alamos
WENDY THIES SELL
Come for the food and stay for the art. Or vice versa.
Café Quackenbush at The General Store is the kind of place you would expect to find in sophisticated urban areas like San Francisco or Paris.
But the café opened for business in the small rustic town of Los Alamos in 1999. It has organically grown a loyal following with a trifecta of fine café cuisine, fine wine, and fine art.
“It’s a perfect combination, I think. The art gallery—you can enjoy that. You can enjoy food, relax, and all that great stuff,” said the café’s chef since opening day, Jesper Johansson.
Customers enter the place through an outdoor dining patio. There are two dining rooms inside for café customers to sit and enjoy breakfast or lunch; one is close to the kitchen, the other is inside the adjacent art gallery full of beautiful plein air paintings, quirky watercolors, antiques, and colorful crafts.
“We have people who come in just for the art gallery that end up eating, and that’s kind of my goal,” Johansson said. “I think that for sure, the café is a great draw for the art. And then you sit in the art gallery and you might stare off at something you like. And you come back two months later, and if it’s there, you might buy it.”
Johansson, a native of Sweden, graduated with honors from the Santa Barbara School of Culinary Arts.
Ralph Quackenbush and John Morley, who wanted to open a café that connects to The General Store, approached Johansson in the late ’90s while he was working in the kitchen at the Brothers Restaurant in Solvang.
“We just started with basically espresso and pastries,” Johansson recalled. “And then realized soon that we had to put some sandwiches on the menu and go from there.”
A few years later, Johansson added breakfasts, such as the simple yet delicious Chef’s Special Breakfast Sandwich ($8.95), which I adored on my last visit. It’s local eggs, thick bacon, tomato, red onion, cheese, and mayo on toasted bread.
The breakfast menu includes pancakes, a breakfast burrito, and house-made European pastries. There are more options on weekends, such as Joe’s Special Scramble; a vegetable frittata; omelets; and bagel, lox, and goat cheese.
For lunch, Johansson makes a soup of the day; an 8-ounce hamburger with sharp Vermont cheddar or bleu cheese with thick-sliced bacon; Dungeness crab cakes and cole slaw on crispy wonton skins; roast beef with Danish bleu cheese; oven-roasted turkey with chipotle mayonnaise; smoked salmon with honey mustard caper sauce; and the popular pulled pork barbecue and cole slaw on a bun.
Johansson gets creative every day with his local special menu.
“We have a whole enclave of people who don’t even look at the regular menu that I have. They only go for my specials. They will come in and trust me,” Johansson said. “Most people get into that, and I love that. I want to be creative, and I try to be local. With my salad and sandwich menu, I just want to be consistent, because I have people who come in for the egg salad—that’s all they want every time they come in. I’m creative with the special menu.”
An “immensely popular” Café Quackenbush special recently was the chef’s take on the Reuben sandwich: a “super delicious” Jimenez Family Farm bratwurst wrapped with corned beef, with Sriracha thousand island sauce, and provolone cheese on a hoagie.
The café is open Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast and lunch, and it stays open one evening a month for dinner, during Los Alamos’ Third Saturday Evening Stroll—each third Saturday of the month, when all the businesses in town stay open late.
That one night a month, dinner is served from 5 to 8 p.m. The chef prepares a special menu with usually three entrees, a couple of appetizers, and sometimes the regular lunch menu as well.
When Café Quackenbush opened 15 years ago, the town was sort of sleepy, doing mostly weekend business. But as of late, new tasting rooms and eateries on Bell Street have invigorated the little historic town.
“We love Los Alamos! It’s happening,” Johansson said.
“Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Orcutt have sort of kept us in business, and obviously Santa Ynez, too. People travel up and down the coast,” he explained. “A lot of my customers that come back once or twice a year, who stopped 10 years ago and had a good meal, come back and it’s their regular stop between L.A. and San Francisco.”
Every time I have stopped in at the café, there are several bicycles parked in front and cyclists inside refueling before continuing their ride.
“Let’s not forget about the cyclists! I think every road kind of leads to Los Alamos,” Johansson said. “There are so many loops for bicyclists.”
Johansson said his goal is consistency; that’s what brings people back over the years: “If you do a consistent job every time, you’ll have your regulars come back, and they do.”
Wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell likes art with her latte. Contact her at email@example.com.