Birthplace of Nobel-winning author becomes more of a tourist draw as appreciation grows for America’s salad bowl.
SALINAS, California — I was first able to appreciate the allure of Salinas during an eight-course dinner at Aubergine, a restaurant 40 minutes away in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Although I wasn’t in Salinas, the meal transported me there.
Our server explained the origin of the ingredients in the artfully presented dishes, and Salinas kept coming up. The artichokes crusted in coriander seeds were from the Salinas Valley, the 90-mile-long region outside the city, and so were the celery root steaks, seasoned with miso, and the pressed cauliflower on a bed of wild rice. Even the wine in the crusty pinot-noir rolls was produced there.
Aubergine’s executive chef, Justin Cogley, later told me that he is a triathlete and trains for races with bike rides and runs along the farm fields blanketing the Salinas Valley. He finds the area so inspiring that he showcases what it has to offer in his cuisine whenever he can. “I can literally smell how alive the land there is and had no idea it was so beautiful until I visited,” Cogley said. “It was a real discovery.”
Steinbeck and greens
If you go
Salinas is on Highway 101, an hour south of San Jose. Multiple airlines fly nonstop from Seattle to San Jose, or get a connecting flight to Monterey.
Learn about Steinbeck
The National Steinbeck Center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily at One Main Street in downtown Salinas. $6.95-$12.95; steinbeck.org. The center’s annual Steinbeck Festival, a three-day celebration of John Steinbeck’s enduring legacy, is May 5-7, 2017, with this year’s theme “Migrations.”
John Steinbeck’s birthplace and boyhood home, a restored Queen Anne-style Victorian built in 1897, is now a restaurant, The Steinbeck House, serving lunch Tuesday-Saturday, at 132 Central Ave.; steinbeckhouse.com.
Unearthing this side of Salinas was the point of my trip. The town and its surrounding land, called the Valley, are an inland region of Monterey County, two hours southeast of San Francisco. The author John Steinbeck was born in Salinas in 1902, and the area is known for its crops: 59 percent of the country’s lettuces and 53 percent of its broccoli grow in the Valley, according to the office of the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner.
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But with the region’s limited hotels and the popular Monterey County coastal towns of Carmel and Monterey as competition, it has never been a tourist attraction.
Lately, however, that has changed. New agricultural tours are giving visitors the chance to learn about the produce grown in mass quantities by recognizable brands such as Dole and Earthbound Farm, and the wine industry is getting attention because its winemakers have opened tasting rooms in Carmel. And the long-neglected downtown is being revitalized as entrepreneurs make it a vibrant hangout.
Even without these draws, the scenery alone — rural roads lined with piercing green fields — is worth a trip. Cogley’s description of Salinas evoked how Steinbeck immortalized his hometown in his work, most notably in his 1952 novel “East of Eden,” in which he writes poetically about the tawny hills, the lupine and poppy flowers and lettuce fields.
Touring the fields
I became more immersed in the richness Steinbeck captured after taking an agricultural tour with Evan Oakes of Ag Venture Tours (agventuretours.com). Oakes, a viticulturist who has an undergraduate degree in agriculture from the University of California, Davis, and a master’s in agriculture from Fresno State University, leads half- and full-day excursions through the Valley in his 14-passenger white Dodge van; the highlight is when he stops at a field to share interesting tidbits about what’s in it.
During my morning with Oakes, as we drove past fields with hundreds of heads of romaine and butter lettuce, I learned that the Salinas Valley grows so many vegetables and fruits because “the depth of the soil is an ideal environment for crops to flourish and be sustainable,” he said.
For those in search of more sybaritic pleasures, there is a robust wine region as well: the Santa Lucia Highlands, part of the mountain range shielding the Valley from the Pacific Ocean, and flourishing with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.
Many of the brands have been around for decades, and some bottles can be priced in the high double digits. They’re also on wine lists at a number of high-profile restaurants. The first winery I visited, Morgan, began in 1982 and produces wines sold at restaurants like Per Se in New York.
The wine may be of note, but the wineries themselves lean toward the bare-bones. Sleekly designed tasting rooms are characteristic of many wineries today; in the Santa Lucia Highlands, few have tasting rooms at all, but their earthiness is also their appeal.
Morgan, for example, is on the rural River Road, and the initial sight after driving up a dirt road to the hilltop winery was an industrial-looking warehouse. The tanks and barrels where the wine is fermented and stored were inside. But then I saw the folding chairs that the proprietor and winemaker, Dan Lee, had arranged for us on the edge of a hill overlooking the mountain range and the sprawling valley. It was an idyllic setting, and we savored it underneath a sunny sky punctuated by an intermittent breeze while sipping Lee’s crisp chardonnay and silky, spicy pinot noirs.
As fancy as it gets
The morning of drinking had spiked our appetite, and the lure of our next visit, to Paraiso Vineyards, was the promise of a good lunch. Run by a husband-and-wife team, Jason and Jen Smith, it’s as fancy as it gets in the Valley. Though the couple have a tasting room in Carmel that is tucked away in a charming courtyard resembling an Italian piazza, their winery in Salinas has a patio where they lead tastings and recently began serving meals.
“We are in the middle of nowhere, so we needed to have some amenities to give people a reason to visit,” Jen Smith said.
Our spread of two salads (a leafy green with artichokes and a spiral pasta with diced vegetables), a cheese and charcuterie platter, mixed berries and, of course, their wines — a rosé of pinot noir, a chardonnay and two kinds of pinots — was simple and flavorful, and we enjoyed it unhurriedly with the Smiths to keep us company.
While we ate, they told us how the changes in Salinas have made a difference in their lives. “With more people visiting, the Valley doesn’t feel as far removed,” Jen Smith said, “and instead of heading to Monterey or Carmel for a good time, we go to downtown Salinas, which never used to be cool but now has a scene.”
Exploring the town
On our visit the next day, we saw what she meant. We started at the National Steinbeck Center, which opened in 1998 to honor the author, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962. It offers clips of movies made from Steinbeck’s books, video interviews with one of his sons and memorabilia, including the 1960 GMC pickup the author drove for “Travels With Charley,” a narrative published in 1962 on his trip around the United States, with his dog, in which he connected with everyday Americans.
Not too long ago, downtown Salinas was defined by a dearth of people and shuttered storefronts on Main Street. Today, pedestrians stroll along the avenue checking out the new restaurants and stores.
A major force in the downtown transformation is Bruce Taylor, the chairman and chief executive of Taylor Fresh Foods, one of the world’s largest vegetable companies, with $3.1 billion in revenues in 2016. Taylor grew up in Salinas and said he envisioned a town where both residents and travelers would be excited to spend their leisure time. “Anyone should be able to come here for a great meal and to spend a fun afternoon out,” he said.
To help increase foot traffic and give businesses an incentive to open, he moved his company’s headquarters from the outskirts of town into a gleaming new five-story building on Main Street. He is also planning to open a boutique on the building’s ground floor selling crafts from San Miguel de Allende in Mexico (a pop-up version of the store was open in December). The city’s first Starbucks is to open in May.
“Salinas is a collection of different themes,” Taylor said. “There’s always been the Steinbeck bit, and now there’s agricultural, wine and the downtown for people to get to know. Put all these together, and you have a worthwhile destination.”