The crawl out of Los Angeles includes a pass through Agoura Hills, a city dubbed "The Gateway to the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area". The city, first settled by the Chumash Indians, and later by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in the 1500s, once served as a staging area for Paramount flicks in the 1920s -- providing it, temporarily, with the name "Picture City". No kidding. It says so right there on Wikipedia. It also says that the city adopted the name of one of its prominent residents, a local Basque-French immigrant-turned rancher, Pierre Agoure, Most likely (one infers) after the one-two of depression and war put a kabosh on Paramount's use of the hills as cinematic backdrop.
Lore abounds on 101, but since it's pitch black beyond the windshield and since we've finally managed to shake the bump-bumper-grill-grind, it really isn't the time to be lingering over "what wases". No, now that we can actually stretch out and move at some sort of decent speed, it is definitely time to open it up and gooooooooooooo! So: goodbye, Agoura Hills. Hospitable home to a slew of 80s-rehash acts such as Peter Frampton, REO Speedwagon, Boys II Men, and Alan Parsons, Fixing that past in our rearview, we push on -- through Ventura County and on up to the next gateway.
That would be Buellton, the so-called "Gateway to the Santa Ynez Valley".
Buellton is one of those places you can't not stop at. You know? Because to fail to do so would invite more trouble than the 45 minute stop is worth. As in, having to contend with the following interchange for the next two weeks:
"Oh, you went to San Fran? So how'd you go?"
"Oh. So'd you stop in Buellton?"
"No, actually . . . we didn't."
"You mean -- now let me get this straight: you drove up one-oh-one and you didn't stop in Buellton?!"
"You . . . didn't go for the soup."
"No. Actually . . . no."
"You don't like soup?!"
"Well . . . we were in a rush. Actually. Plus that and . . . we weren't hungry."
"Yeah, but . . . you go up one-oh-one, you make room for soup. Everyone knows that!"
"Yeah . . . I know . . . "
You see? Everyone knows that. Which means that there'd be no end to hearing about it.
All true. But also true is that there is nothing there. In Buellton. Save the fact that stopping there is a California tradition. Buellton being home to Anderson's Split Pea Soup. (And, yes . . . absolutely nothing else!).
What Anderson's is, is explained here. Basically, though, it boils down to a thick bowl of tangy green soup and a clever marketing ploy that has percolated over the past nine decades. (So much so that no one can get past that great black hole of Buellton without getting sucked into stopping and forcibly plunking down four-fifty for a bowl of split pea).
The whole soup thing started back about the time that Paramount was calling it a wrap in Agoura. On the heels of an influx of Danish settlers into Buellton arrived a guy named Anderson (probably one of about one thousand two hundred and three), who set down stakes on a parcel that, fortuitously, emerged contiguous to the soon-to-be, suddenly-diverted one-oh-one.
You know: there's "good" in life, and then there's "lucky". And sometimes it is better to be the latter rather than the former.
According to the official PR, Anderson -- who was a chef by way of New York and LA -- and his wife began serving food to salesmen and truck drivers who drove the main highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The fledgling restaurant also drew in the crew trekking up to Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Word of mouth put Buellton on the map and soup in everyone's mouth.
Truth be told, it isn't very much to get all discombobulated and commotional about. Once you start sprinkling Saltines over the surface and begin ladling the thick broth faceward. Still, it is a distinctly American experience.
We have to grant it that.
As for the soup? Well, as a gastronomic experience, it is about on a par as the cheesy cartoon characters they've concocted to adorn the Anderson entryway. Thick, over-stated, inelegant, heavy-handed . . .
Indeed, everything in Anderson's comes with extra-thick gloss. From the signature soup, to the Fettucini Alfredo my son ordered for his meal (with its half-cup extra-too-much Romano cheese, creamed into the noodles that had his stomach yelling "ENOUGH" half-way through), to the smaltzy "Christmas Shoppe" which sells tree ornaments, tinsel and snow-themed trinkets year-round.
The gloss comes, too, in the plywood photo op -- where slap-happy, blacktop benumbed travelers can sub in for "Hap Pea" and "Pea Wee". The former inadvertently pounding the hapless latter, as they labor to split the beans that will make the soup that, presumably, the subs will soon sip or else have just supped.
Yes, Buellton is a must-stop for any 101 voyager. To avoid it means to invite unnecessary ridicule.
But on the positive side, remember: it is only a stop. For most of us, it is but a forty minute respite between the evening push-off and the night's final touch-down. A way station between journey's beginning and end.
At the same time, while Buellton may not be much for many, it is home to some. According to this web site, there are any number of projects under way in Buellton, including: a new Jack in the Box east of Highway 101 and south of Highway 246, remodeling of the "Quick and Clean Car Wash" west of the intersection of Highway 246 and Avenue of Flags, and construction of the Santa Ynez Valley Inn and Racquet Club. A sign that, despite the "I can't wait to finish this friggin' soup and get back in the car and go" quality that lingers in the air at Anderson's, Buellton is more than a place for a meal. It evinces actual signs of growth. Dare I say it?: Buellton may just be a place of promise beyond an obligatory bowl of soup.
A place, perchance, to locate the less usual. A space to encounter something even more exotic and treasured. Something that might last the long night's drive on the road to come. Something like . . .
Buellton's very own atomic sour jawbreaker?