Hi, I just checked in and am hoping you can tell me some good restaurant options.
Yes, I just got here and I'd love to try one of the local favorites, or if there is an interesting chef, or somewhere known for its unusual menu?
Well, there's a diner just down the road, or a family type dining Italian place on the corner, and there's also a take out Chinese place, that isn't your typical Chinese take out, and that is also quite delicious.
Okay, well, is there somewhere in town that has a chef that has created an interesting menu, or a place that is a local favorite?
No, there isn't.
Oh front desk girl, if you don't know, just say you don't know, it's okay to not know. This girl was young and was doing her best to sound informed, but she had that customer service tone to her voice and when she said "quite delicious" I should've just thanked her and hit up Google, as I did after she with conviction, told me that in all of downtown Santa Cruz there were no chefs doing interesting things with their menus and no local favorites that visitors should try. This is a college town, I grew up in a college town, and if there's nothing interesting, there is always an awesome, or awesomely divey, local haunt. It was funny and annoying all at the same time given that I arrived in Santa Cruz around 8:30pm and the clock was ticking down rapidly - most kitchens were closing at 9pm.
I had to find a place, determine how far the walk would be, get cleaned up, walk there and order by 9pm. From Google to Yelp, I was having trouble making a decision, the time pressure was too much. But then I read "Afghan" and then read "pomegranate sauce" so I immediately clicked on the link for Laili and...holy goodness. I wanted to run down and face off with the girl at the front desk, "How were you possibly directing me to Chinese take out, when this place is three blocks away?!?" But again, this clock thing was killing me. I called Laili and they said the kitchen closes at 9pm. But what if I run? What if I get there right at 9? It was no use. I hung up dreaming of pomegranate sauce. And then the call back...."What if I place my order now over the phone, get cleaned up and race over? That way, my order is in 15 minutes before the kitchen closes." The hostess didn't know what to say about this, so she rounded up one of the servers who happily took my order and said she see me in a few minutes.
One quick brushing of the teeth, a mild attempt to cover up some very dark under eye circles, a clean pair of jeans (same dirty shirt), a dash out the door in absolutely the wrong pair of shoes for a long three block sprint, and I was in the door face to face with Nicki, the open to an innovative ordering process server, who had taken and placed my order just about twenty minutes ago. Little did I know I had just walked in to my new favorite restaurant.
Laili's menu covers the "flavors of The Silk Road" which was a huge area covering the Mediterranean to China, India to Africa. But what Nicki told me is that the owner's family came from Afghanistan so, along with these Silk Road flavors, she has incorporated lots of old family recipes into one of the most interesting menus I've ever seen. I took a seat in the back patio and felt like I'd been transported to some exotic land. The space is beautiful, the garden is gorgeous and it was such a nice surprise because from the street you wouldn't even know there was an outdoor area.
The flatbread with tabouli came first and was so full of flavor I had to force myself to stop eating it or I was going to be full before my meal arrived. The bread was very thin and light, but was big enough for about six people. Then it arrived...a spontaneous choice as I had all of 30 seconds to read the menu and order over the phone...the plate of aushak dumplings. Holy...goodness doesn't cover it. Holy something. Dumplings of leeks, chard, lentils, qurut yogurt and a world of different flavors. This isn't something I would normally order, dumplings yes, chard and lentils I can take or leave - however in this case I will take them every time. I will do no justice to this dish if I explain how it all worked together, just get there and order it. Next, the roasted chicken in pomegranate sauce. Again, I wouldn't normally order chicken at a place with such an exotic menu, but I was now obsessed with the pomegranate sauce...and to put it mildly, it didn't disappoint.
I skipped dessert because I was so full, but come on, cardamom rice pudding with seasonal fruit?!? I'm still sad that I missed out on that. The whole menu looked wonderful, there were several vegetarian options and it was one time that I really wish I had a table of people with me simply to have more dishes to try. Get there.
And thanks again Nicki!
Image Credits: www.lailirestaurant.com
Image Credits: www.lailirestaurant.com