BJ’s Fish Market in Avila Beach

This week we all stole away from drudgery, meetings and work, to view a spectacle of nature. A pod of humpback whales came to our port and were jumping, eating and frolicking in the water just off the pier at Avila Beach. They were following a bait ball. A bait ball occurs when small fish swarm in a tightly packed spherical formation about a common center. It is a last-ditch defensive measure adopted by small schooling fish when predators threaten them. The predators in the water at Avila included harbor seals, sea lions, dolphins, pelicans and those magnificent whales. We watched as the whales breached at least 30 times, showing their majesty so close, everyone was awed as this was a sight few ever witness. After 2 hours of watching the sea churn with life, we moved over to the beach for a bonfire and banquet.
The baker brought bread, the winemaker shared her favorite vintages, and the farmers picked fresh delicacies from their bounty. I brought the seafood. When I’m in Avila and want to impress with the freshest seafood, I turn to BJ’s Fresh Fish Market. Looking more like an aquarium than a market, as most their inventory is still swimming, every visit is a pleasure here on Avila’s Hartford Pier. I always first try with a fishing line in the water, but in 14 years, I have never caught a fish. I caught an octopus once, but he crawled around in my hand and then squirted away. When it is time to fire up the bonfire sea feast, I tendered over to BJ’s to buy the live fish of the day.
BJ’s has been a staple on the pier for over 30 years. Being a true family run business, his children (now young adults and teenagers) learned to walk on the rickety pier. BJ’s and his wife usually have over 20 different varieties of fish to choose for your festivity. You can pick out a live fish, have them filet it and have sashimi the likes of which you can never compare. Huge busloads of smart Japanese tourist do this daily and I learned to have soy and ginger in my pockets to share in this classic occurrence.

This time I picked out four dozen live oysters. To prepare, I have Gary shuck them, rinse in Tobin James Dreamweaver, then add fresh lime juice, horseradish and a dash of Tabasco or a mignonette sauce consisting of raspberry and balsamic vinegar with a touch of red onions. It is my favorite treat and I alone can eat a dozen in one seating. We also purchased some huge California King Crab to boil over the fire in seawater filled pot. This sea arachnid is a rare treat, but the shells are made of titanium, so hacksaws are needed to get at the delectable meat. It is worth the effort and no lemon or butter was needed. We bought a live 7-pound halibut, wrapped it in butter and herbs, made a cocoon out of foil and sat it on the fire. We ended the meal with thinly sliced Ahi with a ponzo sauce, wasabi and ginger. Poseidon’s celebration was prevailing as the pelicans dived bombed, dolphins leaped and the whales moved over in front of our beach.

Sitting around the bonfire and tasting vintage wines, our new friends were officially in love with beach living as we watched the humpback whales breech into the sunset.

BJ’s market in on Pier Three (Hartford) in Avila Beach about half way down the pier. They are open from 9am to 6pm every day but Sunday, where they close at 5:30pm and the live fish changes daily. It is worth the trip to see crabs trying to escape from the tank or what a live halibut looks like.  

The Nautical Bean

The Nautical Bean Coffee House and Bistro is one of my regular haunts while I anticipate picking up my grandson from school. He and I made a deal; I will take him to school, play smashing word games on the way in the car, then I will go and write for four hours while he molds playdough, learns to count and climb trees. It is an excellent partnership. I have tried every coffee and breakfast place in the San Luis Obispo area and have consistently landed where the food and the coffee were only out done by the wonderful vibe. The Nautical Bean Coffee House is the definition of what a morning vestige respite should be. With a wonderful ambiance, fantastic coffee, virtuous food and free Wi-Fi; this is a writers dream.

Lines out the door of a local coffee shop make me smile. For this is a place with homegrown charisma with worldview pictures done by resident talent, skateboard and unflappable coffee sack art.  The hip music adds to ambiance, but it is the food here that is the star. That and the best darn coffee anywhere. I am crazy about the Nutty Bean, but for extra caffeinated days I try the one with the cross bones, heady stuff. The staff is friendly and the cafe is a great place to write. Owner Brett Jones is down to earth and amazingly kind.

The Eggel is my favorite; a sesame bagel, toasted with scrambled egg, crème cheese, three strips of bacon (which I take to-go for my grandson’s after school snack that he calls “the gift he can eat”) onion and tomato slices.  When I am feeling the need for a traditional bagel, I go for The Rabi Special that is a open faced bagel with a smear of cream cheese, tomato, onion, delicious lox (which is the Yiddish word for salmon) and capers. This sandwich is fulfilling and authentic.

Sweet muffins adorn the showcase, so on sugar inspired days, I nibble on an overflowing blueberry muffin.  If you're after a not too sweet pastry, try the monkey bread, a pull-apart muffin with a bit of apple cinnamon deliciousness. When it is a sandwich I desire to fill my bites between sentences, I go for the Pesto Turkey which is a fresh ciabatta roll with turkey, onion, melted mozzarella, cucumber, tomato, avocado (I hold the lettuce) with a nutty pesto sauce.  My other favorite is the Albacore Tuna Melt with an above average tuna salad with a hint of horseradish, served on thick, toasted sourdough with melted cheddar and tomatoes. I find all the food here top notch and delicious.

For a quick cup, studying or a meeting, this is a perfect spot. Nautical Bean Coffee House and Bistro is a family owned gourmet café located in the Laguna Shopping Center at 11560 Los Osos Valley Road in San Luis Obispo, or call them at (805) 543-3559. They are open Monday thru Friday from 6:00am to 9:00pm and Saturday and Sunday from 7:00am to 9:00 pm. 
It's rare to find kind, unpretentious coffee places where your work can soar.

Big Sky Cafe

I love the small town of SLO and all the traditions. I also adore the big Fremont Theater for seeing new epic releases. In keeping in the theme of Star Trek, we ventured to the much-ballyhooed Fresh Market Cuisine of Big Sky Café. Gary put up a fuss, believing they only severed wheat grass shakes and tofu steaks. He was pleasantly surprised to view the luscious dessert board and instantly ordered a stack of beignets. These New Orleans delights are light French bread pastry smothered in sugar and cinnamon, chocolate, or fresh berries and made a great appetizer for the pastry king. I ordered a glass of Zinfandel (we get our sugars in different ways), a spicy blend of Zinfandel that was a pleasure and paired perfectly with my chickpea hummus appetizer. Hot and fresh grilled flat bread accompanied my favorite Mediterranean dish of puréed chickpeas with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic that is simple to make, but only tastes good in the hand of a skilled chef. I search the world over for good hummus and Big Sky Café in now on my list. 

I immediately was drawn to the Catfish, as it is my favorite, if done correctly and farm raised. I asked the waiter where it came from and he went so far as to pull the invoices to answer my request. The catfish was grilled and served over sautéed vegetables all basking in a sweet and hot Thai sauce that was superb. Along the sides were Sushi balls that consisted of sushi rice, rolled in sesame seeds and then flash fried-delicious! 

Gary went for the Mediterranean salad medley, for he loves beets and does not ever get them at home. It was a savory combination of delights including baba ghanouj (a spicy eggplant and tahini sesame seed paste), Italian white bean and tuna salad (simply scrumptious), cucumber tzatzki (a yogurt crème over freshly cut cucumbers), Adriatic beer and potato salad (better than German), beets with a crème sauce and hummus all served with grilled flat bread. He ate every bite and made me try the beets.

We split the Caribbean pork roast with yam risotto and peach chutney, all the while feeling like we were back on the island of Grenada and listening to a steel drum band. We shared the Braised Lamb Shank, a recipe from Buenos Aires, that included
cabernet braised lamb shank, simmered with parsnips, onions, dried apricots, garlic, serrano chiles, tomatoes, cumin & other mild Latin spices. It was served over potato-zucchini latkes. The food was fresh, perfectly prepared, and wonderfully different for our California palettes.

Big Sky Café serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. I cannot wait to try some more of their dishes including the Portobello mushroom Benedict and the Portuguese piri piri chicken with grilled polenta.

This is my new favorite place to bring people with stilted palettes and claim Mac and Cheese as their favorite meal. Located in downtown San Luis on Broad street, there is parking a plenty across the street and a specials board that keeps college professors to die hard meat and potato guys, coming back to try something new. See the whole menu at Or just come in for the Chile Chocolate desert that Gary gets drunk on chocolate at 1121 Broad Street in San Luis Obispo, call at (805) 545-5401.