Santa Barbara Vino Train

Over Labor Day weekend, two high school friends and I boarded the Vino Train to Santa Barbara to celebrate each of entering a new decade (eeks!) this year. I hadn’t been to Santa Barbara since college, and was excited for our daycation in such a beautiful town. The Vino Train, while attached to the Amtrak Surfliner, is no regular train car–we rode in a 1949 Pullman car complete with a bar and barber shop, and the experience was like none other.

The Vino Train is a family business–Conductor Bill owns the train cars, and he employs family and friends on the train. Everyone was incredibly nice and made the ride a lot of fun, and they definitely welcomed us into their family!


All aboard the Vino Train!

We arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 7:30 a.m. and made new friends while receiving our lanyards and waiting to board. Once seated, Conductor Bill welcomed everyone and we were immediately served mimosas and a fresh breakfast consisting of homemade waffles, fritata, chicken sausage, fruit, and more. The train even has cool tables that cups fit into so you don’t spill your drink. The day of our ride, the volunteer wine guide wasn’t working, so we were on our own when it came to finding tasting rooms. We immediately took to Yelp (and of course noted the free pours with check-in), and planned our first tasting room visit.


The awesome Conductor Bill!


No spilled mimosas here.

With our new friends, we got to Corks n Crowns right when they opened, so we practically had Ben all to ourselves. Not yet knowing better, we all ordered different flights (and had free check-in pours), and tasted each others as well. (Fast forward a few hours, and we realized three girls + three flights = too much wine.)


Ben at Corks n Crowns.

Ben was kind enough to suggest we head to Drake and Chatter next, and Brett, although camera shy and working his last day at that location, was awesome as well. Drake had a specific tasting flight as they are known for their pinot noir, so we all tasted the same wines. After an hour tasting and chatting with Brett, we were all a bit toasted and beyond ready for lunch.


Fun decor at Drake and Chatter.


The group, definitely ready for lunch!

We split from our new friends and headed to Lucky Penny (suggested by both Ben and Brett) for lunch, and had amazing pizzas and sandwiches out on the patio. When we arrived in Santa Barbara, the coastal fog hadn’t yet worn off, so it was pretty cool, but by lunchtime the weather was beautiful.


Delicious pizza!


Get the pesto sandwich with extra pesto.

After getting some much needed food in our bellies, we headed to Deep Sea Tasting Room out on the pier, and met up with our new friends again. At this point we thought we had smartened up, and ordered two flights for the three of us, but somehow still ended up with 12 glasses. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn anything at this tasting room since it was incredibly crowded and we were sitting outside on the pier rather than inside at the counter. Side note: Get in as many tastings before noon because after that, the rooms get super crowded.


Not a bad view from our third tasting room.

Since it was in the 80s and we had been sitting in the sun, we decided ice cream was in order! We made a quick stop at the ice cream shop just downstairs from the tasting, and walked to our final tasting at Kunin.


At Kunin, our final tasting.

Kunin was also incredibly crowded, so we enjoyed our tasting at the communal table. By this point, I was pretty much done so I just took a sip of each of the wines in our (I think two) flights. We didn’t have much time left; it’s pretty amazing how quickly five hours of tasting wine just flies by!


Can you tell we had fun?

We walked back to the train station to meet up with the rest of the Vino Train riders, and took some pictures before boarding. Once seated, we were offered dinner and yes, MORE WINE. This may be the first time in my adult life I actually passed on wine and opted for soda instead.


Yep, even more wine on the train!

A couple hours later, we returned to Union Station, hopped on the subway, and were back in Hollywood before we knew it. We decided this was our new annual girls’ trip, so we’ll be on board the Vino Train again Labor Day weekend. See you next year Conductor Bill!

Cupcake (ish) Tour of Hollywood (adjacent)

Back in June, I went on another local food tour, this time the Cupcake Tour of Hollywood, or as I call it, Cupcake-ish Tour of Hollywood-adjacent. It wasn’t all cupcakes, and it wasn’t really in Hollywood. But on to the details…

We walked a couple of miles and tasted six different treats including cupcakes, macarons, and pies. Everyone on the tour had a lot of fun, and like on the chocolate tour, our guide pointed out fun landmarks and shared interesting bits of local information. I enjoyed the chocolate tour of Beverly Hills more, but this could be a lot of fun if you’re visiting LA and looking for something different to do.

We met at Georgetown Cupcakes on Robertson where we tried mini red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. This cupcake ended up being my favorite of everything we tasted that day–it was moist and the cream cheese frosting wasn’t cloyingly sweet.

Mini red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting from Georgetown Cupcake

From there, we walked down to Tartine O Chocolat on 3rd Street, where we sampled salted caramel hazelnut macarons. I thought it was OK, but it definitely doesn’t compare to ‘Lette in Beverly Hills.

Salted caramel hazelnut macaron from Tartine O Chocolat

We then continued down 3rd Street to Joan’s on Third and tasted full size chocolate marshmallow cupcakes–chocolate cake, a bit of marshmallow filling, and chocolate ganache. The chocolate was nice and rich, but I wish there was more marshmallow inside. Side note: If you go there, get their Chinese chicken salad, I am obsessed with it, it’s so good!

Full size chocolate marshmallow cupcake from Joan's on Third

We took a break from cupcakes and stopped at Simple Things for a mini salted caramel pie. By this point I was beginning to feel crazy full so I only ate half of the mini pie, but it was delicious and my favorite non-cupcake treat on the tour.

Mini salted caramel mini pie from Sweet Things

Next up was Sweet E’s which used to be on Robertson, but is now connected to Toast. We sampled mini neapolitan cupcakes and it was my least favorite of all the cupcakes we tried. I love their signature swirl though!

Mini Neapolitan cupcake from Sweet E's

Our final treat on the tour was Magnolia Bakery’ mini vanilla cupcake with butter cream frosting. I know a lot of people love Magnolia, but I find their vanilla cake to be kind of dry and dense.

Mini vanilla cupcake with butter cream frosting from Magnolia Bakery

It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, and fun to explore the area by foot. If you’re looking to do the tour, definitely check out Amazon Local as they have discounted tickets. Have fun!

Salted Caramel Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Leave it to me to get bronchitis in June. Not only was I incredibly sick and living on matzo ball soup and hot tea for two weeks, I wasn’t baking and had to miss two birthday parties and a wedding. Not fun! But the minute I started feeling better, I found myself in the kitchen whipping up these easy and delicious cookies.


Chocolate chips, caramel pieces, and sea salt–what better combination is there? None, at least in my opinion! Plus, they’re soft and chewy, which is the perfect texture for a chocolate chip cookie. I made the mistake of using the Kraft caramel bits which I had forgotten don’t melt very well in cookies, so when you make these, buy the individually wrapped caramels and cut them into pieces. It’s more work, but will be worth it for the gooey caramel factor!

2 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, at room temperature
1 egg yolk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
16 wrapped caramels, cut into 4 or 5 pieces each
sea salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Mix the flour and baking soda in a bowl and set aside.

With an electric mixer or stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugars together. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla and mix well. Gradually add the flour mixture and stir until a dough forms (may take a couple minutes of stirring). Fold in the chocolate chips (do not add the caramels yet). Do not overmix.

Chill dough for at least 30 minutes (or up to 5 days) in the refrigerator. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto ungreased baking sheet. (Keep dough refrigerated between baking batches.) Press a few pieces of caramel onto the tops of the cookies. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until edges are slightly browned. The centers should appear very soft and puffy. Sprinkle each cookie with sea salt while they are warm. Let cool completely.

Recipe from Culinary Chat.

Dinner at Cucina Enoteca in Del Mar

I’m a sucker for brands who interact well with their customers (and especially potential customers) on social media. Last month I tweeted that I was super excited for dinner at Cucina Enoteca with my high school best friend while down in San Diego for Mother’s Day weekend, and within two minutes, @CUCINAenoteca responded, favorited my tweet, and kept the conversation going. I hadn’t even been to the restaurant, but I already knew I would love it.

And love it I did! I should mention that I had been to their sister restaurant in Hillcrest, Cucina Urbana, years ago, and was thrilled when I read that Cucina Enoteca was opening in Del Mar, just a few miles from where my parents’ live.

The minute I walked in, everyone was incredibly welcoming and our server, Evan, was friendly and had a great sense of humor. He never once seemed annoyed that we were there for three hours, nor did he push us to quickly select our next course. This was a night out with a friend I’ve known since we were 15, and a rare dinner without any children, so we took advantage and caught up on the last few months. It was so nice to not feel rushed! We wasted no time in ordering drinks–Julie got a red wine flight and I had the tequila mule (jalapeƱo infused tequila, lime juice, ginger beer). We both loved our selections.

Julie loved her very generous flight pours.

Of course, we had both perused the menu ahead of time and thought we knew what we wanted to start with (stuffed fried squash blossoms), then Evan shared the specials and we opted for the shishito peppers with candied cumquats and walnut butter.

We also selected one of the vasi (mini mason jars with tuscan toast) items and fell in love with the creamy burrata and roasted garlic. I think I went to sleep dreaming of it, it was that good.

Not stopping there, we each ordered pizza (which we subsequently took the majority of home–you’re welcome dad). Julie went with the goat cheese and squash blossom pizza (it was beautiful, and I forgot to take a picture of it) which had grilled corn, cherry tomato, lemon preserve, and aged balsamic. I had the chicken meatball pizza with smoked mozzarella, arrabbiata, and swiss chard. Their crust is light and chewy, and just so amazing. And I was stoked they have chicken meatballs!

For about 30 seconds, we actually considered dessert, then decided we were both too full to eat another bite. But the server at the table next to us had just delivered a nutella/donut treat that looked absolutely amazing!

Finally, make sure you stop by the ladies’ restroom before you leave. They have paper and pens so you can write a wish and put it on the wall, so cute!

If you’re planning a trip to North County, this a restaurant you definitely want to check out. Their food is delicious, very well priced, and the service is stellar! On our way out, Augusto, the manager, asked us how we liked our meal and chatted a bit. Thanks Augusto, I can’t wait to come back!

Some notes:

  • Check out their website for 3-6 pm specials.
  • There’s a wine shop too, so you can choose a bottle to enjoy in the restaurant, or buy one to take home.
  • The Counter #theNEWgoods and a Giveaway

    Disclosure: The Counter provided me with gift cards to enjoy a meal for the purpose of this blog post. I happen to love The Counter, so I jumped at the chance!

    I’m what some people may consider a picky eater. I’m very particular about what I like and don’t like, and that coupled with the fact that I haven’t eaten beef or pork for 20-something years makes me the person no one wants to share a meal with (or the person the chef hates). Fortunately, there are restaurants like The Counter, where you are encouraged to build your own burger, rather than get shamed for making substitutions! And I’m lucky that there is a location walking distance from my apartment, so it’s a great local place to meet up with friends.

    Two quick things first: 1. They have two hours free parking with validation. This is a rarity in Hollywood, so it’s a huge plus for friends that don’t live as close as I do. 2. I just discovered they have sangria. Need I say more?

    Build Your Own Burger

    Anyway, for those of you who want to order off the menu, there are a bunch of new delicious Expert Builds menu items to choose from the next time you’re there!

    • Red Eye: hormone and antibiotic free beef topped with melted tillamook cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, ripened red tomato, a sunny side up egg on an English muffin with a side of sweet sriracha
    • Un-Brie-lievable: 100% natural ground turkey on a bed of organic mixed greens topped with soft-ripened brie, ripened red tomato, dried cranberries on a multigrain bun with a side of apricot sauce
    • Bison with Bite: organic bison topped with tillamook cheddar, spicy pickles, sliced red onion on a brioche style bun with a side of house mustard and spicy worcestershire
    • Southeast Asian Ahi: ahi tuna topped with pickled carrot and daikon slaw, ripened red tomato on a brioche style bun with a side of nori-soy sauce and sweet sriracha
    • Anaheim Jack: 100% natural chicken breast topped with jalapeno jack, Anaheim peppers, red onions on a ciabatta bun with a side of roasted garlic aioli

    My friends and I used the new menu items as inspiration for our dinner choices, and we all loved our meals. The counter has a wide range of protein options (beef, turkey, bison, tuna, and chicken), as well as a veggie burger for those that don’t eat meat, so we did a little swapping and were super satisfied.

    I had the Anaheim Jack with turkey rather than chicken, and it was delicious. I loved the spice from the jalapeno jack, and the garlic aioli was divine. And they sure don’t skimp on the peppers!
    The Anaheim Jack with a turkey burger instead of chicken #theNEWgoods

    One of my friends had the Un-Brie-lievable over lettuce instead of the bun, and swapped the turkey burger for a veggie burger. She said she was pleasantly surprised at how well the brie and cranberries went with the tomatoes. Two thumbs up! Side note: Isn’t it pretty?
    The Un-Brie-lievable, with a veggie burger on lettuce #theNEWgoods

    Of course, we also enjoyed some sangria, because well, it was 70 degrees out and…sangria!

    And a trip to The Counter isn’t complete without an order of fries. We went for the fifty-fifty with sweet potato and parmesan fries; the sweet potato were our faves.
    Half sweet potato fries, half parmesan fries.

    Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another bite, we decided to order the oversized chocolate chip cookie a la mode with three spoons. I’m a sucker for a warm chocolate chip cookie with ice cream, and I wasn’t disappointed. We ate every single bite!
    Oversized Chocolate Chip Cookie a la mode.

    Want to know what The Counter is up to on social? Follow them here:
    Twitter: @CounterBurger
    Instagram: @thecounterburger

    Jealous yet? Don’t be! The Counter is also providing one lucky blog reader with a $25 gift card, so enter below!
    a Rafflecopter giveaway

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