World’s Largest Artichoke, Giant Artichoke Restaurant
Castroville, California bills itself as the Artichoke Capital of the World, and as discussed in the article on the Castroville Artichoke Festival, it is well justified. When you have the chutzpah to adopt such a lofty title for yourself, it only stands to reason that you’ll want to erect a monument to establish your dominance and strike fear in the hearts of also-rans and other vegetable king wannabes. In 1963, this monument took the form of a 20-foot tall steel and concrete artichoke, the symbol of Castroville’s fame and prosperity. Of course, giant vegetable advertising didn’t hurt Ray Bei’s vegetable stand, which eventually grew into the sprawling stop for all things artichoke simply known as “The Giant Artichoke”. This includes a continuation of the original vegetable stand featuring fresh and frozen artichokes and even dried artichoke flowers. You can also get local honey (still in the honeycomb), nuts, a variety of vegetables and fresh and dried fruit. A walk through the heart of the artichoke (an empty inverted green globe hallway) takes you into the restaurant.
The front of the restaurant features a gift shop where you can purchase your standard artichoke souvenirs such as shot glasses, postcards, T-shirts, but ironically no mini tribute knock-offs of the goliath guarding the entrance with its concrete petals and metal thorns. The restaurant is simple, decorated with Artichoke Festival posters from the good old days, and the immediate expectation is you’ll be offered an artichoke as a side dish for everything on the menu. Fortunately there’s a variety of artichoke food options to choose from, or you can simply cut to the chase and get the artichoke platter which features a three-way bonanza: fried, steamed and artichoke bread. Claudia was full from the food from the festival and opted for a bowl of the cream of artichoke soup. I imagine this dish is a no-brainer, as soup is the perfect way to market the previous day’s menu surplus. The food didn’t take too long – I felt that Yoda and Kermit the Frog would have enjoyed the presentation, since it was a veritable testament to the color green. The steamed artichoke was tender without being wilted, but the fried hearts were a dark brown color, usually a sign of being left in the oily bubble bath a little long. They were crispy without being crunchy with pretty green juicy centers. I wasn’t sure what to make of the artichoke bread – it was the consistency of zucchini bread with similar flavor, but with a green hue that hinted at the possibility of food coloring doping. The soup was full of flavor, but depending on the spoonful it was sometimes difficult to differentiate from cream of broccoli until you hit upon the familiar slightly bitter aftertaste (a tell-tale by-product of the cynarine compound produced by the vegetable). The food exuded the essence of the armored vegetable and was both flavorful and relatively inexpensive. The only disappointment was the city’s missed opportunity of concocting an artichoke ice cream – it would have been a fitting desert as well as a nice feature at the festival. Don’t get me wrong here; this is road food, not haute cuisine, but when in Castroville, do as the Castrovillians do.
Should you drive from Peoria, Illinois non-stop to eat at The Giant Artichoke? No. Should you make this a stop traveling the length of Highway 101 from San Diego up through the redwood coast or on your quest to see all the California Missions? Sure, why not? Should you dine here in the shadow of the vegetable behemoth born in the days of Camelot and the New Frontier while attending the venerable Castroville Artichoke Festival? Most assuredly. It’s a great way to try a variety of artichoke preparations, see the uncontested world’s largest artichoke and attend the famous festival all in one fell swoop, crossing the three items off your California bucket list. Make that a bucket of artichokes, please.
Giant Artichoke Restaurant
11261 Merritt St
Castroville, CA 95012
GPS Coordinates: 36°45’44.81″N 121°45’10.99″W