Based on decades of experience in the agriculture industry, tour guide Evan Oakes says there's one farm product every Monterey County visitor should taste: baby artichokes.
"If a local restaurant has any kind of baby artichokes on the menu, order them. They're very rare, and they're unique to our area. Chefs sometimes use them in a seafood pasta, or maybe in an omelet," he says. "They're delicious any way they're prepared."
If you can't get baby artichokes, go with a classic stuffed artichoke, he says. "An artichoke stuffed with crab or shrimp is a really amazing dish, and of course you save the heart for the end. That's the grand finale."
Oakes, an agricultural scientist with a specialty in viticulture, started Ag Venture Tours in 1997. "I was the type of person who went on guided tours when I traveled, and I realized that I had an interesting background because I worked in agriculture," he says. "I wanted to integrate our two biggest economies in Monterey County, which are agriculture and tourism."
He leads farm tours and wine-tasting tours, and he customizes each trip according to his clients' interests. "I try to make wine tasting really enjoyable for people," Oakes says. "I can take them through the experience in a fun and educational way."
Oakes names Hahn Estate in the Santa Lucia Highlands as a top choice for wine tasting. "Hahn is always a great experience. The views from the tasting room are amazing, and they have a great portfolio of wines."
In Carmel Valley, he suggests visiting Bernardus Winery, which is famous for reds, and Ian Brand, which has "a unique selection that focuses more on Rhône varietals." For sparkling wines, he swears by family-run Odonata Winery on the River Road Wine Trail in Salinas.
Monterey visitors should also put seafood on their itineraries, Oakes says. "Anywhere in Monterey County, the seafood quality will be excellent," he says. One of his top picks is Phil's Fish Market in Moss Landing Harbor, a restaurant that's been around for 35 years.
"Phil's is quite the experience," he says. "They have an extensive menu that no one in our area can beat. Their specialty is cioppino—seafood stew with a tomato-based broth—but their seafood salads are also amazing. And it's just a short walk to the ocean behind the restaurant."
Oakes says Monterey's mix of seascape and farmland makes it an eater's paradise, and also a place where people care about the environment. "The Salinas Valley is literally right next door to Monterey Bay. Essentially we have a national park right next to the world's largest garden, so everybody wants to keep the environment healthy," he says. "I love the beauty of this place, so I'm glad the community values that and protects it."
FIVE MORE FAVORITES
To experience Monterey's land-and-sea bounty, Oakes also recommends these spots:
Farmers market: "My favorite has always been the Old Monterey Farmers Market on Alvarado Street. They block off the street for it every Tuesday starting at 4 p.m. It's a serious farmers market—the produce is amazing, and there's a really diverse selection of flowers, arts and crafts, jewelry, clothing, and tons of food and bakery vendors. Some of the food stalls have great prepared food—Greek, Mexican, Japanese, every cuisine you can think of."
Coastal bike ride: "Nothing can compare with the paved Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail that runs along the coast. It runs for almost 20 miles from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south, and you can find places to rent bikes all along the path. It's just a beautiful stretch of oceanfront. I especially like the section that runs past Lovers Point in Pacific Grove."
Artichokes: "I'm very close to the family who runs Pezzini Farms, a farm near Castroville. They've been there for almost 100 years. They have a really nice farm stand with the best artichokes. They have a great market and a food truck that sells very good deep-fried artichoke hearts, probably the best in the area. My tip is to get the lemon-dill sauce to dip them in. The family is Filipino and they also make and sell lumpia, which is like a Filipino version of egg rolls. They're delicious."
Boutique shopping: "There are a lot of fun little places to browse in downtown Pacific Grove. BookWorks is pretty cool—it's a bookstore, gift store, and coffee shop. There's an interesting shop called Tessuti Zoo. They have a lot of fabric arts, artisan jewelry, folk art, wall hangings, clothing, and knick-knacks. Everything is really colorful and artistic. The Wardrobe is a consignment store for women's clothing and accessories, and you can often find really nice stuff there."
Sunset: "Everyone loves going to The Inn at Spanish Bay at sunset. You order a cocktail, listen to the bagpiper play, and hope that the fog doesn't roll in so you'll be able to catch a sunset. The skies are clearest in the wintertime, but even if it's foggy, it's a great experience."