Sarah Griss. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Food

Eat, Drink, Savor: The dishes of San Juan Bautista’s Lolla

This small cafe in a small town offers well-crafted sandwiches and luncheon fare.

In 2018, Sarah Griss founded Lola In one of the smallest commercial spaces in San Juan Bautista, a spot that was once home to the town’s telephone switchboard. With just a small front counter and no indoor seating, Griss has still carved out a significant business in the Third Street Historic District, serving lines of dedicated customers five days a week.

“We love the community we are in, and we are so appreciative of our customers,” Griss said. “One great thing about San Juan is that it is a tight-knit community, so all the business owners are supportive as well.”

Part of that support has been in the form of collaborations with other restaurants, bars, and breweries in town. Some notable recent menu specials include a chile relleno sandwich with chiles from Jardines and sandwiches made with sourdough bagels from Black Pot Artisans.

The next collaboration will be more of a city-wide affair.

“We are starting this thing we call ‘Aloha Fridays,'” she said. “All of the local restaurants that are participating will be doing some kind of special, whether it is a Tiki drink at Daisy’s Bar or something else tropical-themed, perhaps just wearing Hawaiian shirts—the worse the better. I have not nailed down what I want to do yet, so you will just have to wait and see.”

Lolla’s modest size, in some ways, dictates how many regular items she can offer on her menu, but she has found ways to work around it.

“We have very little refrigeration here,” she said, “but that is wonderful because it means we have to make everything fresh daily. So we started with a basic menu of four sandwiches and everything else like the soups rotated. But now we have a specials board that is sometimes bigger than our classic menu, which makes things a little more fun.”

Griss had an unsteady time during COVID, with several shutdowns, and now is coping with new difficulties as the pandemic eases up.

“We have been met with some challenges,” she said. “Obviously, things have gotten a lot more expensive. It is challenging because there is only so much you can charge for food. I think we have raised prices once, but otherwise, we are absorbing the costs and not passing them on to the customers. I would rather close my doors than get a lesser product. It is sad because I think you will see smaller, less expensive restaurants go under.”

No matter what, Griss is not planning on wavering on the quality of her ingredients.

“First and foremost,” she said, “I love the availability of local produce. I can get a tomato or lettuce that is grown right down the street. So everything we are getting, we are getting it at a peak freshness. That is such a luxury!”

Lunch at Lolla

Caprese Salad – Organic heirloom tomatoes from Coke Farms, imported mozzarella, and house-made parsley-almond pesto are combined in this Italian staple. “Right now, we are able to get these tomatoes at the peak of their season,” Griss said. “And it’s a short season, so we put them in everything!” The presentation of this salad is always very simple, but here the deep burgundy-red tomatoes, the pure white mozzarella balls, and the green-tinged olive oil all testify to the quality of the ingredients—and you really can’t beat the taste. of tomatoes that are this fresh and juicy. The almonds in the pesto are course-chopped, giving the whole dish a little bit of a crunch, and the sharpness of the parsley ties everything together wonderfully.

Wedge Salad – A wedge of iceberg lettuce is covered in Point Reyes bleu cheese dressing with bleu cheese and bacon crumbles, together with heirloom tomatoes and fresh chives. “We started off with the wedge as a special,” Griss said. “But it has become so popular we leave it on the menu now.” The star here is the bacon, fingernail-width bits cut thick that are cooked in-house to just under the point of crispness so they maintain chewiness and moisture from the fat. It is a nice salty counterpoint to the cheesy sourness of the dressing and the tart tomatoes.

Pastrami Melt – Dutch Crunch bread from Sunamo’s in Watsonville is filled with pastrami, swiss cheese, Lolla sauce (garlic aioli), house-pickled red onions, heirloom tomatoes, pepperoncini, red leaf lettuce, and a drizzle of house-made thousand island dressing. “This is another item that was a ‘special,’ and we were yelled at the first day we took it off the menu,” Griss said. The presentation is delightful—served on an antique china plate, the sandwich is a rainbow of inviting colors. And the taste is perfect, hitting all the right sweet/sour/salty/savory notes. The sauces enhance the veggies without overpowering them, and the pastrami is beautifully lean. Highly recommended and certainly deserving of a place on the permanent menu.

Elderflower Fruit Salad – Griss refers to this salad as “straightforward,” but it is considerably more complex than she is letting on. Local fruits, including strawberries, oranges, and blueberries, are tossed with kiwi and elderflower cordial, then topped with French lavender, which gives the dish a little bit of a crunch. The elderflower works very well, offering a different note of sweetness and aroma, sending your expectations of the flavors in an entirely new direction. It is a nice twist and very refreshing—this is a must-try.

BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.

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