Great Escapes

06.01.14

A California Tavern With an Artichoke Obsession

The farm-to-table trend may be new, but Duarte’s has been serving local produce for over 120 years. The James Beard Award-winning tavern is all about the area’s star crop: artichokes.

Ron Duarte, who lives above his family’s 120-year-old tavern in Pescadero, CA, comes down for breakfast a little after 7 a.m. carrying a single egg, the gift of a farmer whose chickens, he rhapsodizes, lay “beautiful eggs, big brown ones.” After greeting the handful of regulars who gather every morning for pre-work coffee and conversation in the dining room and on stools at the short counter, he walks into the kitchen. As his egg fries, he chats with the staff. “Have you guys done chicken and dumplings lately?”

“Last Wednesday,” a cook replies.

“The pears?” Duarte asks, referring to a bushel of fruits just brought in from the backyard orchard.

"Ready for pie,” comes the answer.

Mr. Duarte, a spry octogenarian, says he doesn’t do much anymore; his kids, Tim and Kathy, run the family restaurant. But every detail matters to him, and he knows the business farm to table. Walking through the back of the kitchen, he shows how apple pie gets a flat crust, while the pear pie’s crust is made of latticework, making it easy to distinguish between the two. He shows off a box of Watsonville olallieberries used to make Duarte’s most popular pie, then laments how short olallieberry season is. “By late summer, I have to find other blackberries,” he says. “The best are marionberries from Oregon. They come in later and grow longer.”

Although the Duarte family restaurant remains the same rugged old tavern it was throughout the 20th century, Ron Duarte’s respect for food’s seasonal correctness rivals that of any trendy chef in a wine country bistro. Duarte, who took over the business in the 1960s from his parents, Frank and Emma, cannot hide his happiness when Dungeness crab season starts in November, because that means the restaurant’s legendary crab cioppino goes on the menu. “We don’t buy frozen,” he says. “We like to get them live and cook them.”

“Ron Duarte's respect for food's seasonal correctness rivals that of any trendy chef in a wine country bistro.”

A large garden in back of the restaurant supplies much of the kitchen’s provender and demonstrates Duarte’s savviness when it comes to seasonal food. Walking through rows of Swiss chard, heirloom tomatoes, leeks, and artichokes, he can tell you exactly when each is at its peak. 

The artichokes are particularly handsome—big, healthy globes with endless meat on their petals. The family garden doesn’t yield enough to meet the kitchen’s needs, but the Duartes don’t rely on a generic foodservice supplier to make up the difference. “Those artichoke balloons you see in the store?” Duarte asks rhetorically. “They drive me nuts.”

Artichokes from the backyard garden are used in the kitchen for the most basic preparation—steaming—where no other flavor vies with the thistle’s deep green goodness. For sausage-stuffed artichokes, artichoke dip, artichoke omelets, fried artichokes, and the restaurant’s famed cream of artichoke soup, supplies come from farms an hour south, around Castroville, the self-proclaimed Artichoke Capital of the World and the source of nearly all grown in America. (In 1948, Castroville crowned its first Artichoke Queen—an aspiring young actress who had only recently changed her name from Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe.)

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Ron Duarte knows a thing or two about the local crop and loves to share his knowledge. He says that the French first brought artichokes to Louisiana, but they didn’t thrive in the humid air. The valley around Pescadero proved to have the right soil and ideal climate, but soon there wasn’t enough growing room, so the farms moved south. It was Ron’s idea to make artichokes a signature of the tavern’s kitchen by broadening his parents’ meat-and-potatoes (and seafood) menu with all kinds of dishes he developed using a process he calls “tweaking”: finding a recipe and refining it. In the case of soup, he created something magical. He cooks big, local ‘chokes in butter with plenty of garlic, a process that makes the flavor of the meaty leaves blossom. They are then blended with chicken broth and that potion is thickened with cream. The result is a jade green soup that is smooth and gently tonic.

When we came across Duarte’s in the 1970s while researching the first edition of our restaurant guidebook, Roadfood, we loved it not only for its fine fresh seafood, its artichoke cuisine, and its blue-ribbon pies, but because it was such a folksy sort of place, utterly without pretense. Here you could come for a fine meal of pork chops with fresh applesauce, an unfussed-with grilled cheese sandwich, or flawless bacon-and-egg breakfast. You still can.

Duarte’s has gained a measure of national recognition in the last several decades, including a 2003 James Beard award for being an “American Classic.” It can get crowded, especially on weekend evenings. But it remains a Main Street town cafe where working folks and families come to sit at mismatched tables in the pine-paneled dining room and enjoy a square meal or a slice of blue-ribbon pie any time from dawn to dark.

Duarte’s: 202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, CA. 650-879-0464.