Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: On the road to discover fine fare

Our foodie friends who live on the San Francisco Peninsula had been emailing and tweeting about a hot new restaurant in San Carlos, the residential town of about 30,000 in San Mateo County. Johnston’s Saltbox has been the place to go since it opened in April, they testified. One reason is the quality of the fare; another is the generous portions. Plus, executive chef Jennifer McAteer Johnston (co-owner with husband Sean Johnston) has worked with celebrity chefs-restaurateurs Jeremiah Tower and Bradley Ogden, a nice entry on her résumé.

We were in the neighborhood last week and tracked down the Saltbox, named after the type of wood-frame, pitched-roof building in which it’s housed. It’s a small place with a big deck. Lunch, dinner and brunch menus (which change every two weeks) push-pinned into a bulletin board out front were intriguing: fried chicken sandwich with honey and pickled zucchini; halibut with almond couscous; house-smoked trout tartine (open-face sandwich); brioche with pork belly.

The problem was with the sign on the front door: “Closed July 4-July 11.” Darn! We had violated our own Rule No. 1: Always call first. A longing peek through the glass door revealed a handsomely appointed space.

On Monday, I reached Sean Johnston by phone. He grew up in coastal Ireland, working in his family’s pub.

“We represent a seasonally changing farm-to-table menu, (sourcing) much of our organic produce from our rooftop garden,” he said. “We really do honor being a neighborhood restaurant that people can walk to, so we don’t take reservations.”

We’ll be back. Johnston’s Saltbox, 1696 Laurel St.; (650) 592-7258, Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekends.

So there we were, on the streets of San Carlos, still hungry. We wandered around and found the dubiously named Mediterranean Delite, which turned out to be a great find. We stepped inside and were greeted by good smells and wall murals depicting desert oases, pyramids and ancient walled towns.

The lengthy menu of Mideastern fare showed the usual suspects – meat and veggie kebabs, falafel, lamb chops, baba ghanoush (eggplant) and shawarma (beef, lamb and chicken). We got no further than the plump, dark chickens going round and round inside a rotisserie.

We shared a plate of succulent, well-seasoned fowl accompanied by fluffy basmati rice, Greek salad and a basket of pita bread ($11). A mint-topped glass of “fresh squeezed mango and guava juice” was an ideal complement ($3). 1620 El Camino Real; (650) 654-9172,; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

Our recent travels took us to other destinations and dishes:

•  The Crow’s Nest in Santa Cruz serves one of the best versions of calamari in Northern California, dusted with Parmesan-herb breading and lightly fried. If you arrive too early for lunch, go for its locally famous blueberry pancakes with maple syrup ($7) and a side of really crisp bacon ($3.25). The views of the ocean, the lighthouse and the Santa Cruz Harbor are fine companions. 221 E. Cliff Drive, (831) 476-4560,


•  A post-breakfast drive to San Francisco led to Epic Roasthouse, a high-end steakhouse with a striking view of the Bay Bridge. Its version of surf ’n’ turf goes for $198 (granted, it includes a 2-pound lobster). Rather than refinance the house, go upstairs to the bar lounge and share a mushroom-spinach-bresaola (air-dried salted beef) pizza crisped in a wood-fired oven ($14). 369 Embarcadero, (415) 369-9955,


•  A brisk walk along the breezy Embarcadero took us to the world-class Ferry Building Marketplace and the James Beard Award-winning Slanted Door (recently selected as this year’s most “outstanding” restaurant in the nation). The choices of modern Vietnamese dishes are many; a good one is piquant Alaskan halibut-bay shrimp ceviche with cilantro, habanero pepper, mango and coconut, with crisp plantain chips on the side ($16). 1 Ferry Building, (415) 861-8032,


•  Moving from high-end to lower is the waterfront Ramp, south of the Embarcadero and next to China Basin on Mission Bay. It began life as a bait shop in the 1950s and was reinvented in 1986 as a restaurant-bar. The place to be is on the meandering outdoor deck, which resembles a roughly constructed movie set. Go for a bowl of clam chowder ($7) and grilled fish o’ the day ($15), and stay for the live music. 855 Terry Francois St., (415) 621-2378,


•  The next day, we segued to Lake Tahoe and the recently relocated and expanded Scusa Italian restaurant. One plan is to start with fragrant garlic bread topped with mozzarella and tomato-basil salsa ($6; think mini-pizza) and fried calamari with roasted jalepeño aioli ($12), and finish with a bowl brimming with linguine and fresh littleneck clams in white wine-garlic sauce ($20). 2543 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, (530) 542-0100,


•  On the Nevada side of the lake is the Zephyr Cover Resort, owned by the U.S. Forest Service and managed by Aramark, the giant “food service provider.” The restaurant has been around forever, and last year underwent yet another remodel and menu update.

Gadzooks! There’s seared duck breast ($30) on the dinner menu, along with pork tenderloin in chipotle-boysenberry glaze ($20). Despite that, the restaurant is really a casual place known more for its hand-crafted milkshakes ($7), homey breakfasts (biscuits ’n’ gravy, $7) and burgers.

Our lunch go-to’s are the Messy Tessie (named after the legendary lake monster Tahoe Tessie), a big burger filled with cheese and fixins’ ($14), and the Farmers Market, a veggie sandwich with mozzarella cheese and balsamic vinaigrette ($12). 760 Highway 50, Zephyr Cove, Nev.; (775) 589-4906,