I’ve now had the opportunity to break bread and talk surf with two of San Diego’s iconic surf writers, the late Gary Taylor and Chris Ahrens, acclaimed author and writer of The Coast News’ “Sea Notes” column.
Gary became a good friend and writing muse who hooked me up with my first food column for the Surf City Times. His sudden death at a young 45 was a shock and was a big loss in my life. As a Michigan native and former Great Lakes surfer, both Gary and Chris were and are celebrities in my world, with stories that could fill books, as they have for Chris. I found both men to be warm, engaging storytellers with a curiosity and genuine appreciation of my Great Lakes surfing and food that meant a lot coming from surfers and writers of their stature.
I had not met Chris until recently, when he agreed to meet me for dinner and conversation to discuss how food and surfing coexist and the changing food scene in North County over the years. I let Chris pick the spot and was very happy when he requested La Especial Norte, home of what many, including Saveur Magazine, consider some of the best soup anywhere. That’s another column though; let’s just say the food and vibe were a perfect setting for the interview and that I could fill three or four of these columns with what we covered.
Chris moved to Encinitas in 1969 at age 21 from Los Angeles where he grew up and honed his surfing skills and knew all the places for cheap eats between Montebello and Huntington Beach. Cheap eats included burger joints, city markets and taco shacks where a filling meal could be had for a dollar. Baked bean sandwiches were also a staple. Encinitas in 1969 was a far cry from today’s semi-gentrified city and was considered more of a no-man’s land and mecca for shapers, hippies, and peaceful easy types.
Vegetarian eateries were everywhere and Chris, being an early entrepreneur, started a vegetarian food truck that fed hungry surfers at Beacons and other local surf spots. He would surf until it was blown out then head up to the parking lot and feed the surfers. The truck also serviced the local shapers including legends in the making Velzy, Takayama and Hinson.
Little did Chris know he was pioneering a gourmet food truck movement that, 40 years later, has spread across the country. Those early days in Encinitas also included stint living with big wave surfer and waterman Ken Bradshaw who was a staunch vegetarian who would berate Chris for his occasional forays into less than healthy cuisine.
When I asked Chris to recall places he frequented after surfing in those early days, he mentioned a place called the Fish House West, where Los Olas resides today and that served Abalone sandwiches for $1.25. There was an A&W where the current Leucadia Pizzeria stands, and a place called Frank’s Burgers where five burgers for $1 drew hungry surfers.
The Encinitas Café was and still is part of the surfers mix along with a variety of Mexican food joints. Chris commented that Encinitas is truly “blessed with Mex,” which is oh so true. His current top three Mexican restaurants is La Especial Norte, Juanita’s and Jorge’s.
Chris traveled the world surfing and writing and his travels exposed him to some high-end fare as well. He talked his way into a job as a waiter in Guam and Australia at a place called the French Revolution. They were short stints that enabled him to continue his travels but opened his eyes to the world of haute cuisine. That world did not arrive in Encinitas until the Chart House showed up on the scene, which caused a minor uproar at the time as high-end vehicles that came in from other parts of town for dinner there weren’t as commonplace as they are now.
Of course times have changed in coastal North County and over the years Chris’ appreciation for quality food has evolved along with the culinary scene. It didn’t hurt that he married a foodie whose passion for food has rubbed off on him as well. He has tagged along with his wife Tracy to appearances by Anthony Bourdain and they attend in-home, chef-hosted dinners around town whenever possible. His current, yet constantly evolving Encinitas top three includes Trattoria i Trulli, upstairs at the Beach House and newcomer Zenbu in Cardiff.
The plethora of options for an after-surf chow down are almost overwhelming these days, which is why a lot of surfers still gravitate toward the simple, low-key, low-budget but high-quality places that have stood the test of time around town. Sharing a meal with Chris Ahrens gave me an appreciation of the rich surfing heritage in the area and the people like him who helped shape it.
Filed Under: Lick the Plate