Essential Eats: Diving deep into the culinary world of the Monterey Bay

By Raúl Nava

Earlier this year, I shared my favorite 100 bites around town—a collection of our region’s essential eats. Collecting these best bites sparked further culinary contemplation. What started as collecting solitary snacks has spurred further foodie followup documenting Monterey’s epicurean essentials. Here’s the second in the series as we turn the focus from individual dishes to restaurants.

This time around, I’m diving deeper into restaurants who bring global cuisines to the Central Coast. From marvelous mu shu and pasta perfection to superb sushi and tasty tacos, these restaurants take diners’ palates on a gourmet getaway around the world without ever leaving town.

As with my list of the bay’s best bites, only local restaurants — not chains or franchises — are eligible for this list.

Some cuisines — like German or Hawaiian — are poorly represented around town and with such limited options, it would be unfair to choose one spot over so few others, so they’re excluded from the list.

Get ready for an epicurean expedition around the world below, and join me next month when I’ll consider specialty selections, from breakfast to late-night, burgers to vegetarian, and everything in between.


Tommy’s Wok

Locals love Tommy’s Wok—there’s brisk business for takeout from the cozy kitchen for Mongolian beef, mu shu pork, kung pao chicken and more. At lunch, look for wallet-friendly combo plates with noodles and fried rice. And mix and match dumplings, buns, potstickers and more with Tommy’s daytime dim sum menu.

Mission, between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel. 831-624-8518. Closed Mondays.

Honorable Mention >> Dim Sum Inn (Salinas)


Andre’s Bouchée

A Carmel classic, look for escargot tartine, duck confit, veal sweetbreads and more, expertly paired with wines from the restaurant’s extensive cellar. Enjoy fine French food and wine on a budget with the popular twice-monthly themed Monday Night Supper Clubs—four courses for $46 (plus tax and tip) with wine pairings for an additional $24.

Mission Street, between Ocean and Seventh, Carmel. 831-626-7880.

Honorable Mention >> Bistro Moulin (Monterey)


Aabha Indian Cuisine

Aabha Indian Cuisine may be a new addition to our local culinary landscape, but with elegant presentations of tandoori, curries and more, it’s easily risen to the top of the list for Indian food. The menu is especially rich with vegetarian and vegan options. And lunch (Monday — Friday, 11:30 AM — 2:30 PM) includes a buffet with selections that change daily.

3690 The Barnyard, Carmel. 831-250-5940.

Honorable Mention >> Namaste India Bistro (Monterey)


La Balena

La Balena’s rustic Tuscan cuisine marries Italian tradition with California’s organic and seasonal sensibilities. The menu features fried cauliflower, grilled octopus, housemade pastas and the restaurant’s famous fried chicken (available Sundays and Tuesdays). This cozy spot fills up quickly—up the street, sister restaurant Il Grillo offers handmade pastas and other delectable dishes without the wait.

Junipero Street, between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel. 831-250-6295. Closed Mondays.

Honorable Mention >> Il Vecchio (Pacific Grove)



Akaoni flies under the radar for most diners, but consistently tops the list for best sushi from foodies in the know. You won’t find crazy rolls here, just simple, authentic Japanese fare. Keep an eye on the specials board for recent arrivals from elite Japanese fish markets. If raw fish isn’t your thing, try steamed shrimp dumplings, crispy softshell crab or velvety housemade tofu.

Mission Street, between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel. 831-620-1516. Closed Mondays.

Honorable Mention >> Ocean Sushi Deli (Monterey, Pacific Grove)


New Korea Restaurant

Well off the beaten path in a Marina residential neighborhood, New Korea Restaurant is a true hidden gem. Start with traditional banchan bites, crispy kim chee pancakes and spicy duk bok gi rice cakes. Savor sizzling plates like galbi beef short ribs and bulgogi pork or choose from a menu of meats grilled tableside.

300 Carmel Avenue, Suite D, Marina. 831-384-7171. Closed Mondays.

Honorable Mention >> WonJu Restaurant (Monterey)


Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar

With dishes from Spain, northern Africa, Greece and the Middle East, Jeninni offers a culinary tour of the Mediterranean. Favorites include shawarma pork buns, lamb burger, eggplant fries and mussels and fries with tahini. Belly up to the bar for Jeninni’s Sips + Snacks happy hour (4 — 6 PM) and keep an eye out for special pop-up dinners.

542 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove. 831-920-2662. Closed Wednesdays.

Honorable Mention >> Artemis Turkish Kitchen (Carmel)


The Haute Enchilada Cafe and Gallery

Just outside of town, enjoy a bohemian getaway at the Haute Enchilada Cafe. The menu is inspired by Mexico, but also draws from other Latin American cuisines. Look for familiar favorites, like chile relleno, enchiladas and tacos, alongside fusion foods. Diners with dietary restrictions will find plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.

7902 Moss Landing Road, Moss Landing. 831-633-5843.

Honorable Mention >> Mariscos Puerto Nuevo (Seaside)


Krua Thai

Thailand’s fresh and flavorful cuisine takes center stage at Krua Thai. Look for staples like tom ka soup, papaya salad and pad se ew noodles alongside signature dishes like crispy chu chee trout or spicy barbecue duck. Of Krua Thai’s rainbow of curries, the creamy, coconut-y panang curry is a must-order.

731 Munras Avenue, Monterey. 831-655-9797. Closed Sundays.

Honorable Mention >> Zab Zab Thai (Monterey)


Noodle Bar

Noodle Bar’s menu draws heavily from Vietnam, though its reach does extend into other Asian cuisines. Beef and meatball pho is a must-order—a steaming bowl of broth with thin slices of beef, savory meatballs, delicate noodles and all the fixin’s. Other favorites include five-spice fried chicken wings, fried rice and the barbecue pork noodle bowl.

1944 Fremont Boulevard, Seaside, 831-392-0210 (closed Sundays) or 215 Reservation Road, Marina, 831-384-6225 (closed Tuesdays).

Honorable Mention >> The Orient (Seaside)

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