Lily Belli on Food: Plant-forward Vietnamese cuisine, cocktail crash courses and fab vegan cheese

Lily Belli on Food: Plant-forward Vietnamese cuisine, cocktail crash courses and fab vegan cheese

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Hello eaters! Jessica M. Pasko is here. While Lily is out on maternity leave, I’m pitching in on the latest local food news. A little about me — I’m a writer and a native of upstate New York, living in Santa Cruz for over a decade. Our rich food culture is just one of the many things I love about our region, and I’m especially interested in the stories of the people who grow, serve and make the food we eat. Now, let’s dig in!

With a new cookbook, Santa Cruz author Andrea Nguyen doubles down on veggies

Santa Cruz cookbook author Andrea Nguyen.

“It’s a very flexible book, it’s very sustainable, and it’s for everyone,” Andrea Nguyen says of “Ever-Green Vietnamese.” Her seventh cookbook comes out next week, and she’ll talk about it in June at Bookshop Santa Cruz. Read more here.


El Mercado in Watsonville opens for the season

A vendor at the El Mercado farmers market at Watsonville's Ramsay Park

(Via Community Health Trust of Pajaro Valley)

El Mercado, the farmers market operated by the Community Health Trust of Pajaro Valley at Ramsay Park in Watsonville, heads into its third year of a mission to improve access to healthy produce. Read more here.

Crafting the perfect cocktail with Venus Spirits

"Tiki Time" is among Venus Spirits' upcoming cocktail classes.

Whether it’s margaritas, a drink that begs for a tiny umbrella or something fizzy, Westside Santa Cruz Distillery Venus Spirits has a full slate of classes that’ll up your home cocktail game. Read more here.

Feel like venturing slightly south? Other Brother Beer Company in Seaside is planning a five-course Sunday supper with food from By Brutta. The French-inspired feast will be accompanied by natural wines selected by a sommelier Alyssa Papiernik of Soif. By Brutta is the brainchild of chef Amelia Telc, who has worked at some of the best restaurants on both coasts and is now living in Santa Cruz. By Brutta started as a popup at Apero Club on the Westside of Santa Cruz, with a focus on southern Italian cuisine. Tickets for this Sunday’s event are $135. More info here.

Hop 'N Barley festival-goers raise a toast

(Via Hop’N Barley Festival)

Tickets are on sale now for Hop n’ Barley, the annual beer and cider celebration in Scotts Valley’s Skypark. Proceeds from the July 15 event will benefit the Homeless Garden Project. Sixty breweries and cideries are expected, along with food vendors and music. Early bird tickets are already sold out, and general admission is sure to go quickly. Purchase tickets here.

Flashbird’s Scotts Valley location is now open in the Safeway shopping center. It’s the second location of the fast-casual restaurant focused on fried chicken sandwiches, after the flagship location in Abbott Square in downtown Santa Cruz. Flashbird is part of the Santa Cruz Sky restaurant group, which also owns the two Alderwood locations downtown. The new Scotts Valley spot is open daily from 11am to 9pm for both dine-in and takeout.

Flashbird's hen-of-the-woods sandwich.

Flashbird’s hen-of-the-woods sandwich.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

UC Santa Cruz professor Julie Guthman has spent much of her career focused on global food systems — including everything from labor models to the strawberry industry and organic labeling. She recently received the Distinguished Career Award from the American Association of Geographers’ Cultural and Political Ecology group. Her most recent research digs into the tech industry’s focus on finding new protein sources.

Shoppers Corner promoted content road block


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Need a change of scenery? Take a trip down the coast to Monterey. Ashley Spencer has planned out all the stops for the perfect day trip, including kid-friendly spots and, of course, where to eat. Her pro tip? Start with coffee and breakfast at Power Plant Coffee in Moss Landing. Check out her full agenda here.


75 — That’s the number of years the Zoccoli family has run a food business in downtown Santa Cruz. Robert Zoccoli Sr., his wife, and another couple opened the Plaza Grocery in March 1948 on Pacific Avenue, the same location where their grandsons now run Zoccoli’s Deli.

UC Santa Cruz student and avid homebrewer Thomas Mahady with some of his kombucha

“Kombucha may not be the answer to all your problems, but at least you’ll have a fizzy, healthy homemade drink to make all your other concerns easier — and more dollars in your wallet.” — UC Santa Cruz senior Thomas Mahady, extolling the benefits of homemade kombucha in his recent Community Voices piece.


…how far faux cheese has come. Back in college, I had a boyfriend with a dairy allergy who worked at a natural foods store. He’d often bring home various non-dairy substitutes for us to try and most of them were, well, not good. Many of the “cheeses” had a strangely gritty texture and an off taste. And forget about melting them – those substitutes didn’t change texture, no matter how much you broiled, toasted or grilled.

A vegan "cheese" platter

Flash forward two decades and there’s been some impressive innovation in the world of nondairy cheese. A good friend, who is vegan, recently hosted another friend and I for a wine-and-cheese night with a twist. She’d ordered a beautiful array of vegan cheeses from The Vreamery in Paso Robles, including an ash-ripened mock chevre from Rebel Cheese in Austin, Texas, and a bleu “cheese” with a pleasant pungency that closely replicated the real thing. To accompany our feast, we also tried a lovely nonalcoholic sparkling rosé from Surely that actually tasted like wine and not just grape juice.

I’m still very much an omnivore, but like many of us, I’m trying to be more mindful about drinking less alcohol and eating more plants and less animal protein. I don’t think I’ll be giving up dairy-based cheese anytime soon, but I’ll just as happily enjoy a vegan cheese platter with friends if it tastes this good.


Food prices ease for the first time since 2020; Here’s what’s getting cheaper (CNN)
Hawaii’s mushroom boom is here (Eater)
Spanish startup grows hydroponic hops to help ‘save’ climate-threatened beer (Reuters)

Happy eating!



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