Fresh Octopus in the Salinas Valley (or I *Heart* King City)

(image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

El Camino Real, or the Royal Road, was a meandering roadway established by the Spanish that ran the length of much of present day California from San Diego to Sonoma, connecting the various missions and pueblos along the way, with each outpost about a day’s horseback ride from the next. You might recognize it better today as US 101.

I found myself on the El Camino Real a couple weekends back, heading to Paso Robles for the annual Hospice du Rhône weekend–easily one of my favorite wine events, and this year, with an excellent seminar by Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal, as well as standard funfests like the Rhône N Bowl and walk around tastings, proved to be one of the best editions of Hospice yet. But let’s forget for the moment about tasting superb old and new world wines from syrah & co: what I was most excited about was the chance to stop off at El Lugarcito in King City .

(Above: Upon walking into El Lugarcito, I was greeted by this giant piñata of a can of Corona. Stuffed with tetra-paks of beer, that might just make one hell of a party favor.)

King City is the approximate midpoint of the Salinas Valley, California’s coastal breadbasket (vegetable basket is probably more accurate), which is notable for connections to John Steinbeck, the surreal giant billboard people dotting the roadside and, more recently, the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in some of the spinach grown in the valley.

My friend Max first told me about El Lugarcito–a Michoacan restaurant specializing in seafood–after stumbling upon the place a few years ago. Specifically he raved about the tostada de pulpo, or octopus tostada. Now dusty King City, with its scents of rubber, cabbage and broccoli, doesn’t really seem like a destination for fresh, succulent octopus; but if you catch the wind at the right time of day you’ll notice a feathering of cool seaside air. This of course is California’s legendary diurnal shift, where the ocean breezes chill down the state’s fiery interior to allow for, among other things, the cultivation of winegrapes. It’s also a subtle reminder that the ocean isn’t really so far away.

I sat down to a basket of fresh chips and homemade salsa (above) and then eagerly tucked into the mounds of fresh octopus, shredded lettuce and sliced avocado heaped generously on to a crispy, crunchy tostada (below). Yum.

*King City is also a notorious speed trap, so should you find yourself along this stretch of 101, do yourself a favor and slow down for some octopus.