Published June 7, 2018
For a relatively sleepy place, SLO has a lot of neon glow.
This realization dawns on me somewhere between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., while in search of nocturnal flavor in May.
It's not just the regular suspects that burn into my retina: OPEN. CLOSED. COLD BEER. VACANCY.
It's in the luminous, orange-and-blue brilliance of the SUNSET Drive-In sign on a moonless night. The unapologetically pink MADONNA INN horse-drawn wagon, its perpetually trotting hooves floating against the lilac-and-navy luster of a new dawn.
How had I not noticed this before?
Consider my reinvigorated love for SLO's neon just one nocturnal nugget collected in the calorie-laden field notes that follow. I set out to meet the movers, shakers, makers, and bakers who roll up their sleeves while most of us crawl under the covers. What I got was a thick slice of life. It's all true, folks—right down to the crumb.
So pour yourself some black coffee. It's going to be a long night.
10:45 p.m., Thursday, May 10
The time I usually slather on four different face creams
I kiss my snoozing husband goodnight. On the drive downtown, a few nervous butterflies awaken in my stomach (of course, I skipped dinner). The last time I felt this way I was on my way to TP someone's house.
11 p.m., Thursday, May 10
The time I usually push two dogs and a stack of books out of the way and slip into bed
Denny's seemed like a natural start. I am comforted to find that groups of precocious teenagers still nurse sodas late into the night while talking very loudly about sex, politics, and rock bands. I consume two cups of black coffee and one chocolate milk shake (only 800 calories).
11:32 p.m., Thursday, May 10
The time I usually tear my eyes away from Instagram/email/Wikipedia and attempt go to sleep like a normal human
Downtown SLO smells of illegal cigarettes, semi-legal pot, cheap perfume, and the lingering memory of tonight's farmers' market (just a hint of barbecued pork ribs and kettle corn).
I marvel at the FREMONT Theater, with its florescent Art Deco swoosh, a lone peacock set against black hills. I decide that my favorite sign is BULL'S TAVERN, with its wonky bovine mascot and lopsided lasso encircling a lime green martini glass. It reminds me of the kind of WWII era flash you'd see peeking from beneath the fuzzy white hairs of a grizzled old sailor's chest.
Groups of laughing college students roam Higuera Street. They are giddy and buzzed and alarmingly underdressed in cutoff shorts and tank tops.
It's 50 degrees, and I am wearing smart layers, like my mother taught me.
It suddenly hits. I'm 10 years older than these smiling, semi-sloshed kids! Oh my God. I am the "weird lady with the recorder." I can already tell that I'm going to be someone's Instagram story.
12:01 a.m., Friday, May 11
Officially past my bedtime
Usually, I'd be deep in slumber, my Chi-weenie snuggled in the crook of my arm. Instead, I am striding toward my first stop: Woodstock's. A few couples share slices in the booths near the window, the perfect nook for people-watching at witching hour. A homeless man goes table-to-table, salvaging abandoned crusts. The music is more "clubby" than usual.
The vibe is upbeat yet placid, like the end of a really great pizza rave where everyone stayed hydrated and had a good time.
Nocturnal nugget No. 1: If you're going to make pizza, expect to get slapped in the face a few times.
Pony-tailed and capable, Anaïs Fay flings globs of pizza dough into the air with alarming accuracy.
She runs the balls of dough through a machine, slaps them between her palms (thwack!), and aims for the ceiling. A nimble finger is employed at just the right millisecond, effortlessly stretching the floury blob into some sort of edible hubcap.
Fay explains that she has those weird little dots above her name, but she's "not even French" (she's Greek). She flips the pizza higher and higher as I hoot and gasp.
"They don't teach you how," she says. "My friend Patrick could flip the dough behind his back. When he got fired, I decided I would take his place. You just have to do it."
Apparently, it took about five months to reach this level of skill.
"It's like learning to do a layup. Sometimes I still whack myself in the face," she says. "You have to throw it away when you do that. "
Shift manager Kasi Hampton tells me Woodstock's makes something like 2,300 pizzas per week, and Fridays they close at 1 a.m. Someone turns the electronic dance music up a little louder (I get the feeling this is part of closing procedure).
When I ask Hampton if she's a night owl, she's understandably cagey.
"Let's just say if I stay up late at home, I'm laying on a couch watching T.V.," she says.
She admits it's hard to keep up the happy persona when it's nearly 2 a.m. and some guy is leering at you from across the counter.
"Sometimes people will come up to us and will just want to tell you all these stories of things that happened to them that night," she says, adding that these people almost always order ready made slices of pepperoni (I get it. Too many beers + pepperoni pizza = survival).
She says the best part about the late shift—besides being able to help out fellow college students in need of an Uber or a shoulder to cry on—is that you get to talk to a lot of different people. This is exactly what I say to friends who ask why on earth I continue to work as freelance writer!
"Big Nick" Hammink is one such character. Broad shouldered and goofy, he is one of five other Nicks who currently work at the restaurant. At 6-foot-5, he tells me he's exactly one inch taller than the second biggest Nick around.
He tells me each employee gets one personal pizza per night.
Hampton prefers hers crisp (she lops off Woodstock's signature folded crust and bakes hers until it's crackery).
"Sometimes it's hard to keep eating pizza everyday. But once you start eating it, you're like, 'Yeah. I'll have a second slice," she says.
All the customers are out by this point, and the music blasts. Big Nick is dancing like a maniac. I flip out my iPhone. This will make an excellent Instagram story.
He shakes his butt to the song's bellowing refrain: "Get the f*ck up!"
Fay informs me the song is Pharoahe Monch's 1999 hit, "Simon Says." I jot it down and turn for the door, feeling surprisingly pumped.
THAT PIZZA, DOUGH Woodstock's Pizza employee Anaïs Fay flings pizza dough into the air with alarming accuracy, even while most of SLO is tucked into bed.
The time when I might be rudely awakened by a pesky raccoon sniffing around the chicken coop
I pull into the SloDoCo Parking Lot. The a.m. radio crackles.
AM Coast to Coast caller: "It is obvious that we are being visited by numerous alien species. But isn't it quite possible that these species might have opposing views?"
I wish I could chill in the parking lot and consider the cosmos further, but I'm on a mission. It's time to investigate some UDFOs (unbelievably delicious fried objects).
Nocturnal nugget No. 2: Studying after midnight is better with doughnuts (and probably Adderall).
Apparently, I have walked directly into Cal Poly midterm mania. SloDoCo looks like any coffee shop on a weekday afternoon, except—to my knowledge—it's nearing 1:30 a.m.
Laptops. Binders. Backpacks. Sly flirting.
I knew the doughnut shop was open 24 hours, but I'd never expected to find so many studious young people, brows furrowed, quietly tapping keyboards.
Of course, not everyone is going through an existential crisis. A young woman approaches the counter with gusto. Late night employee Sameer Wahba regretfully informs her they've sold out of her top choice.
I have to ask.
Why so bummed?
"It's, like, a peanut butter Nutty Buddy," she wails, eyes full of disappointment.
She whips out her iPhone to explain. The SloDoCo Instagram post shows a cluster of dark brown, shiny donuts covered in glossy 3-D squares that appear to be sprinkled in powdered sugar.
The post reads: "Stop counting calories (smiley face with glasses emoji), and start counting donuts (doughnut emoji). These peanut butter puppy chow raised rings are raising their Chex (bowl emoji) in the air like they just don't care. #letseat #foodarefriends."
There are 67 comments. I don't understand most of this post.
The three workers on staff arrived at 8 p.m. to curb these kinds of powerful cravings (they'll be prepping and frying till 3 a.m.).
Wahba may sling doughnuts, but he's also a good guy to have around in an emergency.
"One time, I had a guy come in super drunk, and when he paid, I realized his whole hand was covered in blood," he says casually.
This might be totally freaky to someone who isn't a certified EMT.
He continues, "I sat the guy down, cleaned and bandaged him up. This kind of stuff is super enjoyable for me. It's real-world experience."
Fellow late-night employee Jack Jonas is not this hardcore (he's just really into snacks).
"The only thing that gets me upset is when people come in and ask how many calories are in a doughnut," he moans. "No one is walking in here thinking they are going to be eating healthy."
And the most popular?
"Usually the galaxy ones because they are so pretty," he says, gesturing to a rack of infinite realities.
They do kind of look like self-contained universes, as if all of life's complexities were contained within the squishy contours of a fatty sphere. This work is done by a creative baker who arrives at 5 a.m. Another masterpiece to note: The doughnut that looks exactly like a hamburger.
Jonas personally loves the Cinnabomb, literally a cinnamon roll contained inside a glazed doughnut) and (duh) the Maple. Glazed. Bacon.
"You gotta like sweet and savory," he says. "You know, when you let that syrup drip a little onto your bacon or sausage?"
Let's just say that Mr. Jack Jonas and I are on the same wavelength, spiritually.
Next in line: a jovial gang of freshman Cal Poly engineering students.
I am almost too scared to ask.
"Oh, no. We aren't studying. Just a late night doughnut run!" the leader, Vincent Bacnat, says. One girl in the group admits to studying in her dorm before the group Facetime call came in.
"So, now what are you going to do?" I ask.
Drink some cheap beer?
Race shopping carts till someone calls the cops?
"Eat doughnuts!" they sing, almost in unison.
I realize that SloDoCo is not a pitstop on the way to some loftier late-night goal. This is the entire endgame.
After promising they will Google New Times (whatever that is), they take their bag of buttermilk doughnuts to go.
I am vaguely envious. Wish I had friends like that.
Photo By Jayson Mellom
STUDY BUDDIES Sure it's 3:30 a.m. at SloDoCo, but Cal Poly students are still at it. The studying never stops when the fried bacon-glazed snacks are available 24/7
2:38 a.m., Friday May 11
The time I wake up to pee
I love the smell of gluten in the morning.
The new Breaking Bread production facility located on 3536 South Higuera St. is lit, making the strip mall feel doubly abandoned. I watch baker/owner Mark Evans through glass double doors. He is listening to what I can only describe as aggressively loud jazz. On my fourth knock he lets me in, an impish smile framed by white whiskers.
Nocturnal Nugget No. 3: Want to make good bread? Use your jazz hands.
The scent is heaven. It's like the essence of every bread basket I've ever tried and failed at not eating has joined forces in my nose.
This new, larger space has been open two weeks (Evans tells me baking at the original 1074 Higuera St. spot had turned into a contact sport).
Evans does a choreographed dance. It's precise, exact. A digital clock on the wall blinks red: 2:41 a.m.
Production began at 2 a.m. His wife of 40 years, Glenna, will join in at 4 a.m. to help with the muffins and scones. I peek inside a nearby mixer to see what looks like thick white taffy going round and round. The seedy mixture of multicolored grains glisten like beads.
Evans points out the gluten developing in the dough (a sort of quilted effect).
"So that's the devil," I say.
"It is gathering strength!" he retorts (I would argue that plenty of commercially made bread is evil, but that's for another story).
This 95 pounds of six-grain bread is bound for great things: Some will go to Nourish Café, Sally Loo's, and local farmers' markets. There's seven doughs on today's roster, including cranberry walnut and pretzel buns (bound for Beda's Biergarten, their first wholesale account).
Evans moves wheeled racks filled with croissants (chocolate hazelnut, almond, and the holy grail: ham and cheese).
He tells me baking was supposed to be a second career "slow down." Ha!
A former engineer, Evans can't help but be good at his job; he is a chronic problem solver.
Take the marzipan croissants. He off-handedly developed a way of filling the pastries before baking (the classic French technique is to do so afterward).
I ask what his secret sauce is.
Baking can't be all math and measuring, can it?
"You can follow a recipe, but to really detect the subtle differences, to know the timing on the fermenting; all that stuff, it takes years," he says.
"Like jazz?" I offer. "You can't teach good jazz!"
He laughs (bless his heart).
My wired-yet-tired dad jokes are getting worse by the hour.
The time I am basically a dead person
Siri keeps saying I have arrived, but she's a liar.
I'm in a residential neighborhood of Los Osos and I can't find Pagnol @ 3rd Street Bakery, which began in owner Mark Stambler's Silver Lake kitchen and expanded to a quaint home-turned-bakery (supposedly located at) 1229 3rd St.
Aha! A tiny cottage strung with Christmas lights! Inside, a yellow glow transforms cramped quarters into a dreamy one-man factory. I've stepped inside Hansel and Gretel's magic bread box. Head Baker Marcus Marren says that it's easy to miss; Los Osos is "The Australia" of SLO. This is funny because it's true.
The scent is intoxicating, but different. Earthier?
"The butter's in the air," says Marren, whose octopus arms never seem to rest. "Everything is sourdough here, even the croissants."
A 20-year veteran baker, he slices and sprinkles judiciously. Hovering over a rack of rounds like a helicopter parent, he rattles off the itinerary: Made and shaped yesterday, these loaves will go out tomorrow, after a long, cold fermentation.
Marren scores today's dough with a knife then transfers the loaves to a large oven. A small hose steams the crust (this gives each specimen a shiny finish). It is a tidy little operation.
Stambler will rise just before dawn, packing his 2001 Honda Civic with bread bound for stops across the Central Coast, all the way up to Cambria.
Marren says this French inspired bakery is about what they don't use in their bread (baking soda, baking powder, prepared yeast) as much as what they do use (fresh milled organic whole grain flour; distilled water; sea salt; Sonora flour; and caraway seeds, for the rye).
"We love the wild yeast," he says, each hand gesture releasing more white dust into the air. This guy can (and will) talk bread 'til the sun rises. He barely looks at the whiteboard full of orders, which looks to me like a tangle of ancient hieroglyphics.
I ask if he thinks bakers have a certain reputation.
"Oh, of being cranky?" he says, knowing just what I mean.
"Bakers are independent. It's a lot of hard work, and you have to be pretty tough. There are 10 chefs for every baker out there. It's not a stir fry. A stir fry, you can decide to throw an egg in the pan at the last minute. This is not that."
We talk in raised voices (and probably sound like lunatics to anyone passing by) due to the caffeine ingested plus the constant din of a flour mill.
"All our bread was whole grain wheat berries the day before. You can't get much fresher than that," Marren says. "This is it: grain to flour, flour to dough, dough to bread."
He hands me a warm sourdough croissant filled with nutty almond paste—an excellent late-night dessert/early breakfast. Slightly tangy but absolutely compelling, it is a chip off the old block.
"Little kids can't even talk yet, but you can see how happy they are when they eat this bread," he says. "When they see me, they associate me with that."
OK. Not everyone associates Marren with hearts and rainbows. He was at Baywood Alehouse recently when a woman raised some beef.
Apparently, her husband is a very good customer, shelling out at least $30 each Sunday.
"She said she had to rearrange her whole budget because of me. Ten years of having no bread in their budget, and all of a sudden there is this huge expense at the end of the month," Marren grins, obviously proud. "I promised her I'd steer him away from the fancy loaves, maybe even toward a few day-olds."
Allowing flaky, buttery crumbles of sourdough croissant to rain down onto my lap as I drive Los Osos Valley Road home, I get it.
The habit, that is.
The sun is rising and my brain is buzzing with a desire to roll on to the next doughy destination. I want to follow the crumbs.
Perhaps this is why Nocturnal Nugget No. 4 rings so true.
The first croissant is always free.