There are a number of advantages to taking Route 101 instead of I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The scenery’s much improved, and the food, way better. If you take the Interstate, you’re pretty much stuck with the always-packed In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City, Tita’s pupusa truck in Buttonwillow, or steak at Harris Ranch. But really, you’re probably better off driving straight through. If you take the 101, it’s fairly easy to find interesting pockets along the way. On my last trip north, in December 2009, it became evident that a return trip was in order to visit a number of restaurants that were closed for the holidays, including Hush-Harbor Artisan Bakery.
The homey cafe is planted in the northeast corner of Virginia Plaza, within earshot of the 101. Artisan Baker Donnie Monroe and “the baker’s wife” Penni opened Hush-Harbor in January 2002, deriving the name from the secret meetings on plantations where slaves would pray and find spiritual fulfillment. The couple collectively spent 50 years in aerospace, and became familiar with the area while camping before moving north from Riverside. Donnie Monroe trained in San Francisco and apprenticed in Riverside before going becoming a baking entrepreneur.
The interior features mottled red walls, posters and album covers of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. They’ve even been known to host live jazz.
It was tough to decide between quiches like salmon and artichoke, turkey broccoli and caramelized onion, and garlic shallot. When standing at the counter, a female employee said, “You’re lucky to be able to make this choice.” My pick was asparagus and new potato ($7.50) bound with cream, with a somewhat dry crust and crusty cheese roof. In a display of flair, the wedge appeared with oranges, grapes, pineapple and honeydew.
A thrifty woman walked in asking for day old pastries, and the employee said, “We don’t sell day old pastries.” That was a good sign that I was in the right place, and a clear indicator that at least one pastry was necessary. Monroe produces baked goods with help from pastry chef Garrett Humphrey.
My cinnamon roll ($2.75) was one of the better versions in recent memory, with coils separated by sticky chopped pecans. The bun sported a tangy apricot glaze.
There was a lot to like about my slices of sour Kalamata olive thyme bread, which exhibited good chew. Through the window, Donnie Monroe was scoring baguettes before they went in the oven.
Silicon Valley was my intended target, so it was important to exhibit at least a modicum of self-restraint. Otherwise, it would have been smart to continue down Hush-Harbor’s sweet path, indulging in good looking blueberry peach pie, red wine creme brulee with fresh figs and chipotle pecan brittle. Let’s just say my next drive north will be on the 101.