Happy Garlic Day

FLAVORFUL BITES Garlic City Cafe owner, Socrates Diego and his son, chef Armando Diego, take a break to enjoy the restaurant’s own Garlic City Soup and Garlic City Burger. Photo: Brad Kava

There should probably be a parade on Tuesday, April 19 in Gilroy. After all, it’s National Garlic Day and we are, of course, the Garlic Capital of the World.

Instead, the “holiday” is celebrated in Gilroy like every other day: with plenty of garlic dishes in local restaurants but no fanfare.

No one knows where National Garlic Day originated, not even the folks at Christopher Ranch, which processes 70 million pounds of the spunky vegetable a year. (Yes, it’s a vegetable, like onions, shallots and chives.)

“We in the garlic industry have no idea where this came from,” says Patsy Ross, marketing director at Christopher Ranch, which put Gilroy and garlic on the map. “We would never celebrate garlic in April in California. We don’t harvest until the summer. Maybe a grocery store started it. These things have taken on a life of their own. We don’t do anything for it. We might post on Facebook and say ‘Happy Garlic Day.’”

Meanwhile, she adds: “Garlic is such a fun thing. People either love it or hate it, but they are passionate about it.”

We in the South Valley can celebrate the holiday in our own way: by checking out some of the most surprising garlic meals in local restaurants.

“We get people coming from all over to eat garlic here,” says Socrates Diego, 45, who has owned Garlic City Cafe (7459 Monterey Rd.) for the past seven years. “They come from Sacramento, from Washington, just for the soup. They want the recipe. They say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to open up a restaurant. I just want the soup. I give it to them. I’m not worried.”

His most popular garlic items are the Garlic Chicken Sandwich, the Garlic Soup and the Roasted Garlic City Burger. It’s the latter that blew the Dispatch foodies’ minds. The burger is to other garlic burgers what Mount Everest is to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

On top of a well-cooked piece of chopped meat are 20—yes, I counted—whole cloves of sweet and fiery, roasted Christopher Ranch garlic. Like, who needs the burger? It’s just there to offset Gilroy’s mainstay crop.

We can pretty much guarantee you won’t find a more garlicky garlic burger anywhere, and you can’t pass through this town without trying it and posting a photo of it on Yelp to blow your friends’ minds.

And then, for good measure, there’s Garlic City Cafe’s soup, which is a mix of garlic, cream, bay leaves and spices. It’s sweet and hot at the same time, and it’s subtle, not overpowering; the garlic is finely pureed. Like a lot of places in town, Diego has garlic fries and ice cream, but the ice cream comes from Marianne’s in Santa Cruz.

Garlic City is a downhome cafe, nothing fancy, but the kind of authentic road food place people would travel for miles to sample; it’s Gilroy’s answer to Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero and its artichoke soup and abalone.

Speaking of garlic fries, which are everywhere, who would expect to find some of the most esoteric and fulfilling fries in an Irish pub?

Claddagh’s (1300 First St.) owner Leslie Benson came up with her Claddagh Ultimate Fries in five seconds. She wanted to do something different and just threw together her favorite things on a giant plate of fries: bacon, hot sauce, ranch dressing, blue cheese and red pepper flakes. It’s a meal in disguise.

Every bite has a surprise and for those who are as afraid of carbs as some are of spiders, forget it. This is addictive, totally bad for you, but so, so good. OK, maybe the cheese and bacon offer some protein to balance things out.

As the closest pub to the Christmas Hill Park, home of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Benson said she was compelled to have plenty of garlic items on her menu.

She also has garlic mushrooms and artichokes as an appetizer, Garlic Chicken Tikka Masala and a garlic-based alfredo sauce. (This is an Irish pub, right? No, it’s a Gilroy Irish pub!)

“They can be driving from up north or from the south and they come in because they’ve seen something about us,” she says. They figure when in Gilroy, do as the Gilroyans do and eat the stinking rose.

For six years Mama Mia’s Italian Restaurant (1360 First St.) has supplied garlic fries, garlic calamari and garlic bread to July’s three-day Garlic Festival. They bring 65 five-gallon buckets of garlic to the fest.

“Garlic is everything,” says server Mark Jacobsen, who has worked at the restaurant for 13 years. “Everything is cooked with garlic. Our marinated chicken has garlic in it. Every dish here has garlic, our marinara, our pesto.”

Their most popular garlic dishes are the Lebanese Garlic Scampi and the Penne con Pesto, which has heapings of shrimp, big pieces of garlic and vegetables over penne. The menu has a whole section devoted to garlic, but the thing to try is the pesto penne. It’s rich and tangy, with enough garlic to wake you up and enough basil to make you feel like you are eating healthy greens. It’s strength is in not being too creamy, as some pestos are. It’s straight and to the pungent point.

We got a sneak peak of a Garlic Shrimp Salad at the new Cafe Thyme (433 First St.), which is the brick and mortar offshoot of the longtime caterer Just in Thyme, scheduled to open in mid-May.

Chef Scott Murdock, who works with owner and executive chef Diane Sturla, said he has to find the right garlic balance for locals and out-of-towners.

“Garlic is a delicacy for out-of-towners, but here it’s a staple,” he says, warning that locals have a higher tolerance and love the clove more than those with a less saturated palate.

“So, even just a little bit of garlic, they notice right away,” he says of visitors. “It’s better to use it correctly. We’ve been in Gilroy long enough to know what good garlic is and not to overuse it. You don’t have to make super garlic or over-garlic, unless you are a local resident, because we love garlic.”

His shrimp salad is a revelation, with Texas-caught shrimp (more flavorful than imports), grilled cheese, buttery croutons to die for, arugula, fresh, raw peas and, yup, some hefty cooked garlic cloves.

Gilroy’s historic former city hall and jail, now known as Old City Hall (7400 Monterey Rd.), serves garlic bruschetta for those who don’t want to fancy up their cloves too much.

Fresh-chopped tomatoes mix with the garlic but don’t get in the way and the other ingredients—red onions, parmesan, basil and balsamic vinegar—make it a playground of spices for your mouth. The restaurant’s garlic burger comes with roasted red peppers, roasted garlic and bleu cheese. Its garlic fries are mild with just enough garlic and parsley to enhance the flavor without being overpowering.

Vanessa Deleon and Scott Harvey contributed to this report.
We know we didn’t get to all the great Gilroy garlic dishes. Post your favorites in the comments below.