The last time I fell hard for a Southern charmer, I got burned. Moments after my affection for Roux’s creole magic went public, the chef’s departure and temporary closing of the restaurant was a Laguna Beach scandal. We all got stung.
So, was it too soon to jump back into the skillet and take a shot at Tupelo Junction Cafe? Nah, since you can’t win if you don’t play. Plus, a fine bloody mary heals a broken heart. Fresh cinnamon apple beignets work, too. It also helps when the Southern sensibility has a home-grown edge. San Clemente native Amy Scott says she waited years for the right Orange County spot to become available so she could close her 16-year-old downtown Santa Barbara mainstay and bring it here. When the peninsula cottage near The Cannery came up, she pounced, and Tupelo opened in December.
Except for the change of address and staff, it seems an intact transplant. Winning dishes earn kudos from neighbors who welcome an all-day spot they can walk to from their Lido Isle homes. Parking for the rest of us is a game of chance, but it doesn’t dim the demand here. Scott wisely sticks with tried-and-true performers—comfort fare with a broad Southern accent and enough specials to prevent menu burnout.
Breakfast and brunch are crucial in this beach town, and plenty of sweet and savory options speak to those appetites. Toasted day-old baguette slices suck up the eggy, vanilla-spiked batter that crisps on the griddle into wondrous French toast, set in a puddle of dark berry compote that isn’t overly sweet. An ivory quenelle of whipped cream lifts the dish above same-old status. If you’re leery of truffle-oil abuse, don’t fear the scramble of eggs, wild mushrooms, asparagus, and black truffle cheese. Skimpily dressed baby greens keep this dish on the light side of rich. Also appealing is the egg scramble with Nueske bacon, fresh spinach, caramelized onion, and Gouda bursting with umami notes.
Two sandwiches stand out at lunch. Fried green tomatoes, bacon, and avocado check the BLTA box with style. The white cheddar burger boasts flavorful char that plays well against fried pickles, caramelized onions, and hand-cut fries. On those May-gray days, Maine lobster in a chowder of potatoes and sweet corn hits the mark. And when salad is the imperative, order the flavor-forward red pear mix with candied pecans and blue cheese crumbles over fresh greens.
A scratch kitchen in a folksy neighborhood hang? This is it. Items that could be brought in but aren’t include pecan cranberry granola, buttermilk herb dressing, and all salsas. Even the Worcestershire sauce is house-made. Spendy essentials such as real maple syrup, Republic of Tea, Peets Coffee, and that delicious applewood-smoked Nueske bacon, alongside top vendors that include Newport Meats and Superior Seafood, confirm corners aren’t cut here. Another reason Scott succeeded so quickly upon opening is her able kitchen staff, many held over from previous tenant The Porch. Jose Espinoza helms the kitchen, inventing specials such as barbecue pulled-pork sliders with peanut slaw.
On-trend cocktails, discounted wine, and 10 irresistible tasting plates make for a super happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. daily. Use it to sample smaller portions from the main menu. Think bloody mary-braised ribs with cornbread and sesame coleslaw. Or bacon mac ’n’ cheese with a side of collard greens. This is the time to test-drive the inspired red beans and rice with roasted shallots, tomatoes, corn, wilted greens, and shredded Parmesan—the entree size is daunting, even for famished gluten-free vegetarians.
Dinner can be indulgent. Clean flavor and good texture on the pecan-crusted trout stand up to satiny beurre blanc sauce, pairing nicely with potato-crab hash and sautéed haricot verts. The ribeye steak packs a lot of beefy brawn into 8 ounces, making the side cup of Worcestershire practically overkill. (The steak also appears with two eggs at breakfast.) At dinner, it shares the plate with a hefty, cheesy, twice-baked potato sure to max out your retro meter. I’m hoping for a return of the fried chicken with pan gravy on old-school mashers. Scott’s beignets transcend the doughnuts-for-dessert fad. Fried to a craggy, dark-golden crunch, the apple-cinnamon batter creates a fluffy sponge for crème anglaise ribboned with homemade caramel sauce. Be grateful they’re served from open to close.
I can see why the pansy-festooned patio fills up first—the interior needs a higher cozy factor to offset the dark, hard surfaces warmed up mostly by the engaged servers and happy customers.
Thanks to this homey newcomer, I’m past my recent heartbreak. Ownership with deep local roots, a proven concept and menu, plus a treasured address are all reasons to trust this will be a lasting liaison.
5 BEST DISHES
→Bacon spinach scramble
→Fried green tomato
PRICE RANGE $6 to $26
FYI This butter-yellow cottage is the original site of famed Aubergine (1995).