Castroville bills itself as the “Artichoke Capital of the World.” And well it should. Artichokes are what this whole area is about. If you travel north of Monterey and Carmel, you will notice three kinds of crops seem to predominate: strawberries, brussels sprouts, and artichokes. The nearby fields are full of these flavorful giant thistles, and Castroville is the center of the artichoke universe. I always like to stop at one of the roadside stands when I’m in the area. Artichokes here come in all shapes and sizes, from huge rounded globes to small, soft babies that you want to fry or pickle. Some of them, I have only seen in this local area. Want an artichoke the size of a head of cabbage? These giants only seem to show up in a very few specialty markets and Castroville.
Every May, the town hosts its Artichoke Festival, in homage to the spiny vegetable. Back in 1947, an aspiring actress and model was crowned the first Artichoke Queen, and later went on to become known as Marilyn Monroe. This annual event features artichokes prepared in any way imaginable, local wines, artichoke arts and crafts, and an artichoke parade, as well as a farmer’s market and antique car concourse.
But one of the best things about Castroville is the Giant Artichoke restaurant. Featuring a fiberglass and plaster giant artichoke in the center of its façade, billed as the “largest artichoke in the world,” this restaurant features all things artichoke, from basic steamed artichokes to the most amazing deep fried artichokes. We stopped to pick up a sack full of these delicious morsels to take on a picnic. Since they are cooked to order, I browsed the store on the farther side of the giant artichoke that adorns the front wall.
There are artichoke accessories from seasonings to special dishes, as well as an array of all sizes of artichokes, various fruits and vegetables, and another specialty of the area: brussels sprouts still on the stalk. They’re a little awkward to carry and store, but these brussels sprouts and the freshest and sweetest you’re likely to find!
But then our deep-fried artichokes were done! They came out of the fryer too hot to eat immediately, and were tucked into a brown paper bag, along with a side container of ranch dressing and lots of napkins. The wonderful savory smell of them was enough to make you want to tear through the bag and wolf them down, but we made ourselves wait. A little ways down the road, we rolled out a blanket in the shade of a tree and savored them. The breading was slightly crunchy, and the artichokes soft and flavorful. I couldn’t decide if I liked them better with or without the dip, so I alternated. All too soon, they were gone. And then we regretted not getting more.
If you want more than just deep-fried artichokes, the restaurant can also deliver an array of other dishes, artichoke-themed, of course. You can get a platter of a steamed artichoke with accompanying deep-fried artichokes, or try their artichoke bread. But be warned, this is a genuine Roadside Attraction. Beyond its giant theme vegetable, Castroville’s Giant Artichoke Restaurant has the character of a dive-y roadside coffee shop, but you don’t come here for the ambiance. You stop for the artichokes. And they also have barbecue, if you’re so inclined.
So, next time you’re venturing up the coast from the Monterey Peninsula, swing by Castroville. You don’t need to be there on the weekend of the festival. Just pay homage to the giant thistle off Highway 156. The artichokes are waiting for you!
Giant Artichoke Restaurant
11261 Merritt St
Castroville, CA 95012
Giant Artichoke Fruits & Vegetables
Street: 11241 Merritt St
Castroville, ca 95012-3405
Phone: (831) 633-2778