Driving north out of Los Angeles, you’ll hit a city that even a veteran California traveler may never have heard of: Oxnard. This beachside gateway to California’s Central Coast is worth a stop, especially when it comes to its Jewish side.
Located about 60 miles north of Los Angeles on the way to Santa Barbara and San Francisco, it’s the home of the prestigious Baron Herzog kosher winery and Tierra Sur, the winery’s acclaimed, open-kitchen restaurant; there, Chef Gabe Garcia, previously sous chef under Todd Aarons, serves creative kosher meals on elegant white tablecloths.
Regular diners come to Tierra Sur from as far away as Los Angeles to sample Garcia’s alluring take on California and Southwest cuisine. How about Lamb Chorizo con Huevo, or Fish Tacos with Home-Made Tortillas? They’re on the eclectic kosher menu.
Meals at Tierra Sur can take some unexpected turns, I discovered; during one, a winery worker in tall rubber boots walked into the intimate dining room and asked if I would join the minyan in the wine cellar. There’s nothing quite like davening near giant wine vats to get your spiritual juices flowing.
Baron Herzog sources its grapes from around California, but wine production takes place in its state-of-the-art winery, which offers visitors self-guided tours with bird’s-eye views through look-down, second-floor windows, and wine tasting at a swank granite tasting bar.
Under veteran winemaker Joe Hurliman, Baron Herzog produces more than 200,000 cases of wine a year, leading the way for consumers seeking “the highest quality kosher wine that there is.”
Recently, the winery launched a new project, using a California North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, to showcase the difference between the very same wine aged in American and French oak.
It was an opportunity, Hurliman explained, for consumers to appreciate the difference between French and American barrel aging.
Back in the Tierra Sur kitchen, for Chef Garcia, who is not Jewish, cooking kosher means learning to adapt to kosher requirements and, as he told me, being “more savvy.”
Sporting his trademark baseball cap, Garcia touched on the key role of Jewish seasons in the kitchen. “Food changes according to the Jewish holidays,” he said. “I never knew that prior to working here. We follow the seasons, so our menu changes constantly, also influenced in a major way by the arrival of new seasonal produce.”
But it gets personal, too, as Garcia finds intriguing similarities between kosher cuisine and his grandparents’ Mexican table, where meals were “full-flavored, full of warmth, lots of spice — coriander, cumin, cinnamon.”
And Israeli shakshuka? For Garcia that is definitely huevos rancheros!
Last fall, the Chabads of Oxnard and the neighboring cities of Ventura and Camarillo sponsored an “Israel Lecture Series” at the winery with wine and “small bites.”
In recent years, Oxnard’s population has grown to over 200,000, and while it has added new neighborhoods and shopping malls, it still retains its agricultural roots with strawberry fields and quaint fruit stands off side roads.
Of course, there is always room for the unexpected, like a taste of Venice on Gondola Paradiso, Mark Schooling’s gondola ride on a canal in Oxnard’s upscale Seabridge neighborhood.
Schooling’s 30-foot wooden gondola can seat up to six people for a 50-minute ride. The gondolier remembers one particularly romance-filled ride for two, when the love-struck fellow dropped a bottle in the water … with a marriage proposal inside.
“He got down on one knee on the gondola and proposed,” Schooling recalled. “There was a lot of happy crying.”
In contrast to modern Seabridge, Oxnard’s Heritage Square — an entire city block between Seventh and B Streets — is a step back in time, with beautifully restored Victorian homes now used as offices, wine tastings and, in the case of McGrath House, as the home of La Dolce Vita’s Kitchen.
Docent tours are offered on Saturdays from 10 to 4 and Sundays from 1 to 4 for a $5 donation. You can also do self-guided tours.
In the nearby Henry T. Oxnard National Historic District, I drove through an actual lived-in neighborhood with craftsman-style bungalows, revival cottages, and prairie-style homes in a 10-block area along F and G Streets. It’s a step back to an America at peace with itself before World War II.
The Carnegie Museum, with impressive Greek-style Doric columns, stands imposingly at Fifth and C Streets, a gift from the 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
And what a surprise to walk into the restored Woolworth building at Fourth and A Streets, where the Fresh & Fabulous Café has mid-20th century red leatherette booths and a vintage Coca-Cola dispenser with the words: “Serve yourself…Please pay the clerk.”
Beach life is also close by. Our hotel, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Mandalay Beach, looked out at the sandy shore, where we could walk the promenade, rent a bicycle or a surrey, or hit the beach itself.
One day, I ventured beyond the beach to join Island Packers’ half-day cruise to Santa Cruz Island, one of eight California Channel Islands.
During the cruise out of Ventura Harbor, the whales remained rather reclusive, allowing us only one lone sighting in the distance. But from the side of the boat we did see large numbers of dolphins doing their amazing acrobatics.
Under a bright afternoon sun, the vessel slowly approached Santa Cruz Island and circled the rocky reefs near Painted Cave, the largest of its type in North America — yet another unexpected aspect treasure along California’s Central Coast.
For more details about Oxnard, see www.VisitOxnard.com.