Essential Eats: Monterey County’s top 100 bites

By Raúl Nava
Five years ago, under the looming prospect of the Mayan apocalypse, I gathered with fellow foodie and Herald correspondent Mike Hale to craft a list of the top 100 bites around town — our culinary bucket list. Turns out the ancient Mayans didn’t quite get it right — we’re still here, after all. Fast-forward five years and our local culinary scene has welcomed new talent and said goodbye to old favorites, inspiring a fresh look at the Central Coast’s Essential Eats.

This list echoes many of our original ground rules. First and foremost, no chain restaurants! It was an obvious choice to shine the spotlight on local favorites — even if it meant dropping In-N-Out’s famous Double Double. Unfortunately, that decision also eliminated some of my favorite dishes from restaurants that are part of larger groups based out of town. Sadly, the blackened rare ahi at Roy’s in Pebble Beach and the bay shrimp roll at Cindy’s Waterfront inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium aren’t eligible.

This list captures the best bites, so it means drinks are out too. You won’t find Restaurant 1833’s flaming absinthe or Peter B’s craft beers, nor Montrio Bistro’s clever cocktails or the Cypress Inn’s famous whiskey sour, on this list. Even sober sips, like Central Coast Juicery’s cold-pressed juice or Acme’s sublime nitro cold brew coffee, were disqualified.

A new consideration this time around? Including dining experiences, not just dishes. Several of the best spots in town offer chef’s tasting menus and it’s impossible to purchase just one of the dishes a la carte. So this time around, look for tasting menus, bento boxes, lunch buffets and more in the list.

I recognize many favorites aren’t on the list. With a considerably large number of restaurants along the Central Coast, choosing just 100 bites meant giving some local favorites the chop.

So here it is — a collection of 100 essential eats around town, presented by city and organized alphabetically.

The complete list of local Essential Eats isn’t ranked, but here’s a closer look at 12 dishes that rise to the top — some of my most favorite bites around town.

Live Santa Barbara uni, Akaoni >> Highlights include fresh fish from Japan’s top markets and silky housemade tofu, but the live Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin) is a seasonal treat that’s beautifully briny and buttery. Mission, between 5th and 6th, Carmel

Spinach gnocchi, Bistro Moulin >> Gnocchi is a standout on a menu of classic French bistro fare. Parisian-style, it trades potatoes for delicate pâte à choux dough, baked in a decadent Parmesan cream sauce.

Roasted bone marrow, Cachagua General Store >> Monterey’s original popup, the Store’s Monday Night Dinner epitomizes Cachagua’s quirky character. Rich, roasted bone marrow paired with umami-rich mushrooms is a must-order. Mondays at Lokal restaurant, Carmel Valley

Street tacos, Cultura Comida y Bebida >> Street tacos are a favorite at this new Carmel hotspot. Look for rotating selections like lengua or duck mole. And snag $2 tacos during late-night happy hour, 9 p.m. to midnight.

Paella, Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar >> Monterey meets the Mediterranean at Jeninni. Spanish paella is foodie favorite here, available by special order Sunday — Thursday with 48-hour notice.

Fried chicken, La Balena >> Foodies flock to La Balena for the restaurant’s famous fried chicken — a half chicken brined, breaded in rice flour and fried to perfection — available Sundays and Thursdays.

Al pastor tacos, Mi Tierra Supermercado y Carniceria >> You’ll find the tastiest tacos in town at a humble counter in the back of this Seaside supermarket. The al pastor pork is a must-order — sweet, smoky and savory. 1000 Broadway Ave., Seaside

Tomatoes and mozzarella, Mundaka >> With juicy heirloom tomatoes, creamy housemade mozzarella, bright basil and sweet saffron honey, this twist on the classic Caprese is a summer staple.

Rare beef pho, Noodle Bar >> Belly up to the bar and you’ll sit elbow-to-elbow with fellow foodies slurping Noodle Bar’s savory soups and budget-friendly bowls. Go for the classic rare beef pho. 1944 Fremont Blvd., Seaside

Nabeyaki udon, Ocean Sushi Deli >> With a menu boasting more than 200 items, it’s hard to pick a favorite here. The loaded, hot pot-style nabeyaki udon makes a savory — and substantial — supper.

“Bee’s Knees” honey ice cream, Revival Ice+Cream >> Revival boasts unique flavors unlikely to appear in other scoop shops, like mint-eucalyptus or candy cap mushroom. The honey-infused “Bee’s Knees” has quickly become the favorite.

Chicken pesto pizza, Tricycle Pizza >> Tricycle’s truck now has a spot all its own in New Monterey, where foodies line up for delicious wood-fired pizzas. Try the chicken pesto with corn and cherry tomatoes.


1. Lunch buffet, Ambrosia India Bistro

2. Spinach gnocchi, Bistro Moulin

3. Philly cheesesteak, Boardwalk Sub Shop

4. Coffee toffee crunch, The C Restaurant + Bar inside Intercontinental The Clement Monterey hotel

5. Chicken pho, Cafe Lumiere (Thursdays, lunch only)

6. Banana caramel crêpes, Crepes of Brittany

7. Custom bento box, Crystal Fish (Monday — Friday, lunch only)

8. Falafel nuggets, Dametra Fresh Mediterranean

9. Potato tacos, El Cantaro

10. Afternoon tea service, Eddison & Melrose (reservations required)

11. Bacon-wrapped dates, Estéban Restaurant at Casa Munras Garden Hotel & Spa

12. Bananagerm pancakes, First Awakenings

13. Pork potstickers, Full Moon Mandarin

14. Garlic breadsticks, Gianni’s Pizza

15. Panang curry, Krua Thai

16. Princess cake, Layer’s Sensational Cakes

17. “Squiddle and eggs,” Loulou’s Griddle in the Middle

18. Tavern burger, Melville Tavern

19. Duck confit popcorn, Montrio Bistro (seasonal)

20. Argentinean brisket sandwich, Mundos Cafe

21. “The Phife” nachos, Nacho Bizness

22. Nabeyaki udon, Ocean Sushi Deli

23. Canelé, Parker-Lusseau Pastries

24. Gyro sandwich, Petra Cafe

25. “The Poke Lab” bowl, The Poke Lab

26. The 1833 Burger, Restaurant 1833

27. “Bee’s Knees” ice cream, Revival Ice+Cream

28. Calamari, Sandbar & Grill

29. Fish tacos, Taqueria Del Mar

30. American Kobe burger, Tarpy’s Roadhouse

31. Chicken pesto pizza, Tricycle Pizza

32. Belgian waffle, Water + Leaves

33. Fresh spring rolls, Zab Zab Thai

Pacific Grove:

34. Chicken and waffles, Crema

35. Tonnarelli alla carbonara, Il Vecchio

36. Paella, Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar (Sunday — Thursday by special order, 48-hour notice required)

37. Eggplant Parmesan, Joe Rombi’s La Piccola Casa

38. Pozole, Mando’s

39. Sea scallops with tomato-truffle butter, Passionfish

40. Crab cake eggs Benedict, Red House Café

41. Point Pinos burger, Point Pinos Grill

42. Salmon skin roll, Takara Sushi

43. Spam musubi, Yi’s Hawaiian BBQ

Pebble Beach:

44. Balloon bread, The Bench

45. Korean Philly cheesesteak, Porter’s in the Forest


46. Crispy okra, Aabha Indian Cuisine (seasonal)

47. Live Santa Barbara uni, Akaoni (seasonal)

48. Crispy veal sweetbreads, Andre’s Bouchée

49. Chef’s tasting menu, Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel

50. Braised short rib fries, Brophy’s Tavern

51. Plant-based vegetarian tasting menu, California Market at Pacific’s Edge at Hyatt Carmel Highlands

52. Burrata, Cantinetta Luca

53. Avocado toast, Carmel Belle

54. “Van Gogh’s Table” tasting menu, Casanova (by special request, limited availability)

55. Soft-shell crab tostada, Christopher’s

56. Street tacos, Cultura Comida y Bebida

57. Almond sea bass, Flying Fish Grill

58. Kurt’s four-onion tart, Grasing’s Coastal Cuisine

59. Ricotta gnocchi with wild mushrooms, Il Grillo

60. “Misto Polpette” meatball sampler, Il Tegamino

61. Fried chicken, La Balena (available Sundays and Thursdays, dinner only)

62. Butternut squash pizza, La Bicyclette (seasonal)

63. Tarte bressane, Lafayette Bakery & Cafe

64. Tomatoes and mozzarella, Mundaka (seasonal)

65. “Jolly Rancheros,” Rio Grill

66. “Tom & Jerry” spicy tuna, Sushi Heaven

67. Dim sum, Tommy’s Wok (lunch only)

Carmel Valley:

68. Wood-fired flammenkueche pizza, Cafe Rustica

69. Duck confit pizza, Corkscrew Cafe

70. Steak tartare with tarragon ice cream, Lokal

71. Sonoma duck burger with foie gras, Lucia at Bernardus Lodge & Spa

72. Beignets, Roux

73. Santa Barbara Benedict, Trailside Cafe & Beer Garden

Big Sur:

74. Bacon bowtie, Big Sur Bakery

75. Eggs Benedict, Deetjen’s

76. “Taste of Big Sur” tasting menu, Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn


77. Pumpkin curry, Baan Thai

78. Flor de calabaza empanada, El Milagro Restaurant

79. Pupusas, El Migueleño

80. Hot link sandwich, Ferdi’s (lunch only)

81. Saffron papperdelle with osso bucco, Gusto Pizzeria and Pasta

82. Tamales, Rosa’s La Villa Taqueria

83. Chile verde, Mariscos Puerto Nuevo

84. Al pastor tacos, Mi Tierra Supermercado y Carniceria

85. Rare beef pho, Noodle Bar

86. Carnitas tacos, Taqueria Zarape


87. Crab ravioli, Frutti De Mar Grill

88. Fried chicken wings, Keoki’s Hawaiian Barbecue

89. Korean barbecue, New Korea Restaurant


90. Har gow shrimp dumplings, Dim Sum Inn

91. Chile verde burrito, El Charrito

92. Gigandes bean salad with prawns, Patria

93. Mariscada seafood stew, Taquitos Mexican Restaurant

Moss Landing:

94. Shrimp and huitlacoche enchiladas, The Haute Enchilada

95. Lemongrass tom yum soup, Lemongrass

Mobile vendors and popups:

96. Honey lavender caramels, Bread & Butter Caramels (seasonal, special order or available at Bright Coffee, Monterey)

97. Roasted bone marrow, Cachagua General Store (pop-up dinner, Mondays at Lokal in Carmel Valley)

98. Naan burrito, India Gourmet food stand (available at Old Monterey farmers market, Tuesdays)

99. Bonsai chicken, Kuki’s food truck

100. Miso maple donuts, Niño Gordough (seasonal, available at Marina farmers market, Sundays)

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