If anyone could give you a grand tour of the Casa de Fruta complex on Highway 156 it is managing partner Suzan Slater, who was practically born in the fruit stand that her father Eugene and his brothers George and Joseph opened in 1943.
“The story goes that a week after my mom delivered me they kept me in the back room of the gift shop while they worked,” she said. “So, in a real sense, I have been here all my life.”
Casa de Fruta, which is in Santa Clara County, is the ultimate in roadside attractions, getting over 2 million visitors a year, but unlike most roadside attractions, it does not exist to sell overpriced tchotchkes and tourist trap items you’ll discard once you get home. This is not to say that Casa de Fruta is not geared toward tourists, which is obvious from the brightly painted carousel, the miniature train that makes its way around the complex and back to the station and the flock of peacocks who wander the parking lot, occasionally displaying their regal feathers.
But Casa de Fruta also sells an old-time atmosphere and quality goods, though vastly expanded since the early days. There is an emphasis on local produce from their own and neighboring farms, carrying fresh and dried fruits of every kind and bins full of candy and nuts.
“We’re bringing in a lot of the fruit from other sources in this area,” Slater said. “We definitely grew all the fruit in the beginning, with orchards full of apricots, prunes, apples, pears, plums and walnuts. But over the years we have needed to bring in more items from other growers to fit the demands of the community.”
Casa de Fruta boasts four separate culinary specialties: the restaurant, the fruit stand, Casa de Sweets and Casa de Wine.
The restaurant is a typical highway truck-stop diner with comfort food and great pie, but can also serve up prime rib, New York steaks and, featured around Thanksgiving and Christmas, full turkey dinners with all the fixings. And you can’t have dinner without a slice of their exceptional pies, available in 14 seasonal offerings.
Slater said the on-site bakery can produce up to 300 a day during the holidays, with Marionberry being the most popular, outside of the seasonal demand for pumpkin.
“We started out just with a homemade recipe,” Slater said, “and we just put our finest ingredients together for the different varieties. We had a barbecue building and switched it to a bakery. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do with these ovens?’ and the obvious answer was pies.”
The fruit stand and Casa de Wine are gift-giving paradises, with tables filled with preserves, syrups, jellies, salsas and steak sauces. There are walls dedicated to hot sauces, pickles and olives. And Slater is always looking for more.
“My daughter did a report on North Dakota, and she needed to bring something from there for the class,” she said. “The state fruit is the chokecherry, and I thought, ‘Well, we will find them somewhere, wherever we have to go.’ So I searched online and found it, and now it is at the stand for us to sell. There are a lot of things here that people are going find here that they’re not going to find somewhere else.”
Casa de Fruta Roasted Garlic Salsa – A rich and complex salsa, diced tomatoes, garlic, jalapeno and green bell peppers, and a dash of lime are set against strong notes of roasted garlic. The overall impression is of absolute freshness—the tomatoes still have their garden-fresh tartness, and the garlic tastes as if it came straight out of the oven. This versatile condiment complements anything you want to pair it with, from chips to a cheese plate to roasted chicken. It could also be used on a salad in place of dressing and is delicious straight out of the jar. Casa de Fruta also makes a Vidalia Onion and Peach salsa which I am anxious to try.
Casa de Fruta California Pomegranate Jelly – The folks at Casa de Fruta love their pomegranates, as you can tell from a product line that includes pomegranate juice, pomegranate wine, pomegranate champagne, pomegranate ice cream, and this pomegranate jelly. “This is Joe Zanger’s work,” Slater said. “He does the wine, and so when he did the pomegranate wine, it was very popular, So he decided first to bring in the juice, and all the rest followed.” The aroma is floral and musty, and the sweet, tart flavor eases onto your taste buds rather than leaps. I don’t use jellies much, but this would work nicely as a ham or pork loin glaze.
Casa de Fruta Vidalia Onion Steak Sauce – This rich ketchup-based sauce has enough molasses to edge it toward being barbeque sauce, but it is more supple and subtle than that. The finely diced Vidalia onions give it a crisp texture, and seasonings, including mustard seed, tamarind and turmeric, provide warmth at the back of the throat. Slater described it as “robust,” and it is certainly perfect for steaks. It would be great on a burger, drizzled over roasted potatoes, or dabbed onto scrambled eggs. This was my favorite out of everything I tasted, making me want to try some of the other half-dozen steak sauces they produce, including Merlot- and Cabernet-based versions.
Casa de Choo Choo Chunk Cherry – A dark purple ice cream made by Marianne’s of Santa Cruz and available only at Casa de Fruta. The cherry-flavored ice cream is enhanced by large pieces of chewy dried cherries that harmonize nicely with slightly bitter dark chocolate chips. They also stock delicious seasonal pumpkin ice cream as well.
Fresh Apricot Turnover – Casa de Sweets is across from the fruit stand and, as the name implies, is a sugar-filled wonderland, selling everything from homemade fudge to chocolate-dipped fruit, candy apples, and these wonderful turnovers. This is a classic turnover like my grandmother made: buttery puff pastry, generous Blenheim apricot filling, and a sugar-sprinkle topping. Irresistible.
BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.