Exploring the ‘Funk Zone’ in Santa Barbara

Those who know me well know that I always try booking food tours when I travel, but for once I had absolutely no say in this one. While visiting friends in California in November/December, a road trip was planned to Santa Barbara from San Jose, and with that, so was a food tour. Our friends in Cali had tried the Eat This, Shoot That! tour in Santa Barbara a few years ago, and enjoyed it enough to book it again for our trip.

On a bright, crisp Sunday morning, we met our guide Abby in front of our first stop in the ‘Funk Zone’ (more on this later) at the Enterprise Fish Co. We learn that the restaurant was first a laundry site, and it was taken over by the founders of the concept.

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The first dish we tried on the tour was this ridiculously lip-smacking lobster bisque, which was so so creamy and hearty – with a tomato-based bisque and a flaky puff pastry enveloping it, I can see why this is a popular dish. All seafood, I am told, is either a local catch or comes from the Californian coastline.

Next stop was Poquita, located within the main site that is Loquita! A new spot at the time, it’s a pinxtos bar and we tasted a traditional pinxto known as The Gildas, which was a skewer with juicy Manzanilla olives and white anchovies wrapped around piparras peppers drizzled in olive oil. Tell me your mouth is NOT watering as you read that! And then we tried the DaVall Farms honey date stuffed with Valdeon blue cheese from Spain wrapped in chorizo. It was lit with a torch to bring out the fat just before we popped it into our mouth.

At this point, we crossed over to another part of the Funk Zone and while doing so passed the mural seen in the Instagram embed below. Meant to represent the east of Santa Barbara, the mural was created by artist Ruth Ellen Hoag, and looks quite striking in the brick and mortar of the area. We learn that the Funk Zone was intended to be an industrial park, but also used to be quite a dangerous place to be in. It eventually evolved into an arts district where people could afford to live and so the people petitioned against turning it into an industrial park. “Keep the funk zone funky,” they said, we are told. BTW, the area is called the Funk Zone because of the (now non-existent) smell! It was the home of the original Santa Barbra fish market and used to stink up the entire block.

Anyway, we cross over to the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. and have a beer tasting. I won’t talk much about the beers (also because I’m not a beer fan unless it’s certain types), except to say that we had a kambucha root beer and it was AMAZING. I actually think I finished everyone else’s so wound up having about three of those. It has a slightly medicinal, herb-y taste, but considering I’m the person that likes the taste of seaweed, I’m not surprised I loved this beer that not many others on my tour enjoyed as much as I did.

After a little walk around the neighbourhood, we wound up at Shalhoob’s Butcher Shop, which we are told is fourth-generation and reportedly has a 100-year-old jerky recipe in its arsenal. Originally just the shop, the company has added a patio restaurant in the Funk Zone. We try the tritip sandwich there – the tritip is a cut of beef that isn’t always in high demand but is taken from the bottom sirloin of a cow. It’s put under six to eight hours of low heat to create what we were eating, which was absolutely beautiful also due to the rub. The tri tip was glazed with a house BBQ sauce and topped with pico de gallo between the bread.

We keep walking, and head to Lucky Penny. Now, this concept is owned by the same company as Loquita – Acme Hospitality. There are three walls outside decorated with, well, pennies! I won’t tell you how many there are (I do know!), because you’ll have to guess once you get there!

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There’s a lot of history to this restaurant, as well as Acme Hospitality owned by restaurateur Sherry Villanueva, which Abby shared – and it was amazing to hear about a home-grown community initiative in a way that ended up being a profitable F&B venture.

Anyway, at Lucky Penny we tried the Milpas pizza, whose recipe is based on a street in Santa Barbara which we are told has the best Mexican food in the city. The pizza is meant to be a homage to the breakfast burrito and includes salsa verde, fingerling potatoes, chorizo, cilantro and egg.

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At this point I was pretty stuffed. I’m not sure how I kept moving but I remember being thankful that I wasn’t wearing trousers that needed a belt.

We stepped next into another Acme Hospitality product, the Santa Barbara Wine Collective. Because it wasn’t economical for each winery to have its own tasting room, they came together for this collective. Now, wines from this side of California are quite different from the rest of the state. Here, the wines are sweeter because the grape it is produced from is sweeter. Santa Barbara wines, I am told, are lighter and not as alcoholic with around 12% alcohol levels compared to 18-20%. We also eat a plate of bread from Helena Avenue Bakery (more Acme Hospitality), made in-house, with salted butter. It’s simple but just what we need right then.

Finally though, we went to Cutler’s Artisan Spirits which was the city’s first and only legal distillery since the prohibition. We try a range of spirits, from vodka (which we’re told is distilled seven times and then filtered through charred coconut husks), to gin, to bourbon aged in white oak barrels, and much more. We ended with the apple pie liquer, which was the perfect sweet note to end the tour on.

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What I liked about the tour is that it wasn’t just about food, and that’s what, I think, makes a food tour a winner. There was a healthy injection of all things local and cultural and historical. Abby, who had lived in Santa Barbara for four years when we did the tour in December 2017, took us on a history lesson in a way; we visited: The Reagan Ranch Center, which is a homage to President Reagan; the site of the burned-down Potter Hotel which had opened in 1903 and burned down in 1921 and shared the history of the building and the area around it, including the train station where we saw the original Pullman train care made in 1905 that was parked there; the Moreton Bay Fig tree, which is native to Australia and said to be the largest in North America, which can reportedly fit 9,000 people in its shadow (there was a great story behind it, but I’m not going to type it here, check it out on Wikipedia!); the place where the only koi breeders in Santa Barbara are; and so much more! I’d recommend you go on the tour yourself to find out the rest 🙂

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Moreton Bay Fig Tree in Santa Barbara

You can book the tour yourself on Eat This, Shoot That’s official website.

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