Santa Paula, California, USA – Part 1

The Customs and Border Protection officer at Tom Bradley Terminal, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) took my fingerprints, scrutinised my passport and the form I’d filled out crookedly on the plane, then looked directly at me.
“How many times you been to the States?”
“This is my first time.”
“How long are you here for?”
“Just over three weeks… 23 days.”
“How much cash do you have with you?”
“Two thousand American dollars.”
“Where are you staying?” he asked, even though I’d written it on the immigration form.
“The Santa Paula Inn.”
“You got family or friends in Santa Paula?”
“No, I’m just here on my own.”
“So what’s in Santa Paula?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What brings you to Santa Paula?”
“Hot air balloons,” I replied, unnerved by all the questions, even though the sensible voice in my head told me he was just doing his job and I had nothing to hide. “I’m going to a hot air balloon festival in Santa Paula.” I felt like I was blabbing on but thought I needed to explain myself better, so I kept talking. “I’m going to a photography workshop. I’m… we’re… going to photograph the hot air balloons at the festival.”
“You a photographer?”
“Not professional, it’s just my hobby.”
He stamped my passport and handed it back to me. He looked like he might smile… but didn’t.
“Thank you and have a nice vacation, ma’am.”

I’d flown Perth to Sydney, then Sydney to Los Angeles, and even though it was more than 24 hours since I left home, I had time-travelled and ended up in yesterday.

As I don’t drive, a key aspect of my organising for the trip was my transfers. Santa Paula is in California’s Ventura County, 1 hour 15 mins drive from LAX, too expensive as a cab ride. I’d booked Roadrunner Shuttle, a shared shuttle service that would take me from the airport to my accommodation in Santa Paula and back to LAX again at the end of my stay. It was a warm afternoon and unfortunately, the air-conditioning in the van wasn’t working and the windows didn’t fully open, so it was a stuffy ride. There were two other passengers and I was the second to be dropped off.

And so here I was.

Santa Paula Inn Santa Paula Inn.

I arrived before the check-in time of 3pm and as I expected, my room wasn’t ready, but the manager had a word with housekeeping so that my room would be the next one serviced.

You get two 23 kg check-in bags for free when you fly with Qantas, but as I had multiple domestic US flights ahead of me with fees charged for each check-in bag, and I only had myself to lug my things around, I figured two suitcases would just be a hassle. My room at the Santa Paula Inn was on the first floor and I was glad I only had the one suitcase to haul up the stairs. As it turned out, this wasn’t the only place I’d have to drag my suitcase up stairs.

My room was small but clean and comfortable, with a queen bed, bathroom, TV, fridge, microwave and coffee maker. Free wifi, too.

My room My room.

My bed The fan above my bed kept me cool enough.

Terrace Down the hallway was a door that led out to a small terrace.

The view from the terraceThe view from the terrace. I made a mental note to check out Vince’s Coffee Shop.

CourtyardDownstairs, a patio.

I was tempted to just sink into the bed and relax, but didn’t want to waste my first afternoon in America. It seemed like ages since my breakfast on the plane – spinach frittata, pork sausage and beans – I suddenly felt ravenous and craved some ‘real’ food. I’d done my research back home and knew there was a bistro serving Southern/Cajun fare less than 5 minutes walk from the inn. Early dinner beckoned.

Side entrance to Rabalais', Southern Cajun Bistro and Bakery Side entrance (Davis Street) to Rabalais’, Southern/Cajun Bistro and Bakery.

I sat by the front window and ordered a glass of unsweetened iced tea. I couldn’t decide between shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes, both of which I had never tried before, and in the end ordered both even though it was possibly too much food for one.

One thing I liked in the US right away which we don’t get in Australia is the free refills of fountain soft drinks, including iced tea. I drank a lot of root beer (my favourite soft drink but a rarity on restaurant menus in Australia) and iced tea while I was in the States. I tried sweet iced tea and found the sweetness cloying after a few mouthfuls. ‘Half sweet and half unsweet’ was pretty good, but most of the time I chose unsweetened iced tea, which is very refreshing.

Unsweetened ice tea Unsweetened ice tea (AU$2.95, free refills).

I loved the fried green tomatoes. The thick slices of tomato were fried in a crisp cornmeal crust, the green flesh firm and tart. I couldn’t stop eating the homemade potato chips.

Fried green tomatoes, served with potato chips Fried green tomatoes (US$9.95), served with homemade fresh cut potato chips, lemon and remoulade sauce.

The bacon seared Cajun shrimp were bursty and spicy, served with sauteed spinach and sweet caramelised onions, all piled on top of the stone-ground grits, which were blander than I’d expected – you really needed to eat it all together. The single slice of French bread was beautifully soft and a wonderful luxury after the abominable bread roll on the plane (Qantas, I really wish you’d stop serving those!). A bowl was US$12.95, a cup $6.95 – the cup was more than enough.

Shrimp and grits (cup) Shrimp and grits (US$6.95 cup).

Slip an extra shrimp on the barbie
Thanks to a series of TV advertisements by the Australian Tourism Commission in the mid to late-80s, ‘shrimp on the barbie’ has become a popular phrase associated with Australia. But we call them ‘prawns’ here, not ‘shrimp’. You won’t see the word ‘shrimp’ on Australian restaurant menus, as ‘shrimp’ to many of us are the tiny translucent prawns that dart about in rock pools and freshwater creeks that are not worth eating.

We love eating prawns, but as they’re an expensive way to feed a family or party crowd, we’re more likely to throw sausages, steak or even lamb chops or chicken on the barbie. I ate shrimp and grits and would never call the dish anything else; but in my mind, those Cajun shrimp were beautifully cooked, tender prawns.

But although shrimps in America are prawns in Australia, to a crustacean expert, shrimps and prawns are related but different animals – here’s a pretty good explanation of the difference between prawn and shrimp.

It was in between lunch and dinner and not very busy in the dining room. With wifi, air-conditioning, free refills of iced tea and a mountain of food, I took my time over my meal and really enjoyed myself. I’d only be in Santa Paula for three nights but I knew I’d come back to Rabalais’.

Caption‘Santa Paula, Citrus Capital of the World’ is painted on the Davis Street wall of the Rabalais’ building, one of nine town murals that celebrate the history of Santa Paula.

DSCF9478smI walked up and down Main Street numerous times during my short stay in Santa Paula.

Quick facts about Santa Paula

  • Santa Paula is located in Ventura County, Southern California, approximately 104 km (65 miles) north of Los Angeles.
  • The population of Santa Paula was 30,091 in 2013 (US Census Bureau).
  • The town became the early capital for the motion picture industry in the (pre-Hollywood) 1900s and continues to be a filming location for television programs and movies. I didn’t know this at the time, but I saw the The Santa Paula Train Depot many years ago, when it appeared as an Australian outback train station in the mini series The Thorn Birds.
  • Santa Paula was the birthplace of the Union Oil Company and an early centre for California’s petroleum industry. The ground floor of Union Oil Company’s original headquarters on Main Street in downtown Santa Paula is now the home of the California Oil Museum. The building has been declared a California Historical Landmark.
  • Santa Paula’s economy is based largely in agriculture – it is a major distribution point for the citrus industry in the United States. The Limoneira Company, one of California’s oldest citrus growers and one of the largest lemon producers (as well as the largest grower of avocados) in the United States, is based in Santa Paula.

Visitor information: Discover Santa Paula

Mentioned in this post

Roadrunner Shuttle
Telephone: +1 800 247 7919
I booked a round-trip shared shuttle via Roadrunner’s website.
The cost to me was US$94 – $80 for two rides, $12 gratuity (15%, which I chose to pre-pay) plus $2 gas surcharge
For the return trip to LAX, I provided Roadrunner with my flight departure time, and they advised a pickup time that would ensure I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight. It worked pretty well.

Santa Paula Inn
111 N. 8th Street
Santa Paula, CA
United States
Telephone: +1 805 933 001
Check-in 3pm, check-out 11am
I stayed for 3 nights in a queen room – cost was US$351.97 including taxes

Rabalais’ Bistro & Bakery
861 E. Main Street
Santa Paula, CA
United States
Telephone: +1 805 525 2109

My solo USA trip (2014) – about this series

I travelled on my own to the United States from late July to mid-August 2014, during my long service leave. I went to California, Wyoming and Colorado to photograph hot air balloons, cowboys and wild horses, and catch up with an old school friend. I researched, organised and paid for the trip myself.

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  • I did a drive down the West Coast with a friend a couple of years ago from Seattle to LA, but didn’t stop in at Santa Paula. It looks like a really small, quaint town.

    And funny that you got questioned so heavily at customs – I did too! I guess they’re just a lot more careful now, with the paranoia around international terrorism, communicable diseases, etc.

    • Amanda, and it happened again when I returned to the States in late September with Jac. I hate how unnerving the whole process is – it’s designed to be serious and menacing and keep you uncomfortable, I think. Luckily we can put it all behind us once we pass through the doors.

  • Pam Roth

    I LOVE fried green tomatoes with a little horseradish cream sauce..I made them once this year and need to fry up some again before the snow flies.

    • Pam, that sounds good. I found I didn’t really need the remoulade sauce with the tomatoes – the spicy crust was so tasty, and I liked the taste of the tomatoes so much I didn’t want it to get lost in sauce. Can’t wait for the next time I eat fried green tomatoes… whenever that will be…

  • Craig Hind

    Nice post! I haven’t been to the US yet, but will get there one day. Too busy exploring Australia, and Asia is possibly next.

    Those customs officials are a surly bunch, not that I’d know from experience, but from pretty much everyone I’ve heard from they are universally surly.

    I fully agree with the prawn vs shrimp thing. To me the very word shrimp just implies tiny, but then that might just be because that’s how we’ve always interpreted them. Shrimp equals small… The question is were your prawns bursty? :-)

    • Haha Craig: “The bacon seared Cajun shrimp were bursty and spicy” Too many places I am yet to go to myself – not enough time or money. I had a friendly official at Austin Bergstrom Airport in October. I was very surprised!

  • Deborah Shane

    We have different sizes of shrimp. How’s “Jumbo Shrimp” for an oxymoron? I think you have to be from the South to really enjoy grits plain. It’s really just a bowl of starch. You get it with breakfast in the South even when it’s not mentioned on the menu. I got them the first time and had to ask what they were…the waitress looked at me like I had three heads and fired back “Them’s grits!”.

    • Deborah we have different sizes of prawns and yes, ‘jumbo shrimp’ IS an oxymoron! We have jumbo prawns and king prawns as our biggest. I like those but am also partial to school prawns, which are smaller, usually deep-fried and eaten shells and all (I’ve attached photo below). As far as starches go, I think I much prefer potatoes or rice. That’s why I was so happy in Hawaii – rice at breakfast every time!

      • Deborah Shane

        And “sweet tea” is very cloying to us non-Southerners. Next time try an “Arnold Palmer”, which is half plain tea, half lemonade.

        • Cheers, Deborah. A couple of people did suggest the Arnold Palmer, but I preferred plain old unsweetened, boring as that may be!

  • Cindy M

    Grits and fried green tomatoes in California??!! I wouldn’t have imagined (seriously). The terrain, etc., similar to my neck of the woods. Never been to Calif; San Francisco will be a destination, hopefully, in the next 2 years.

    • Yeah, pretty funny that I got my first taste of shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes in California. :P

  • I wonder if they are family…. hahah all of my family from my dads side are Cajun folk from Louisiana… and yes, my last name is Rabalais… I will try to get there on my next trip to So Cal. Hey, as a coincidence…. I’m a photographer too… http://www.studio530photo.com

  • baggss

    Nice review! I happen to Live in Santa Paula and it was interesting to read about some local things through different eyes. I’m looking forward to the rest of your reviews on Santa Paula!

    • Cheers! I think it is always interesting to see what visitors think of our hometowns. Hopefully I won’t get anything terribly wrong! :)

  • Jessica

    Yessssss! I’ve been patiently awaiting your US food posts, because I’ve always had such a fascination with America. I’m yet to travel there myself, so am living vicariously through you in these posts. LOL.

    • That’s the bad thing about all the travelling this year – the blogging backlog is hideously huge now, so it’s going to take a while to work through it all. But there’s lots of cool stuff to come, hopefully you’ll enjoy it.