SANTA NELLA — It’s a drive like no other in the 209.
And at the end of it is a restaurant unique in today’s world of Applebee’s and Chili’s where the kitchen staff does more than open bags to fill orders off their menu.
The place is Santa Nella Village in Merced County.
The drive is California’s unofficial version of the autobahn better known as Interstate 5 from Tracy to the Grapevine in the Tehachapi Mountains.
The restaurant is Andersen’s that likes to brag they’ve been splitting peas since 1924.
Admittedly there isn’t much to do in Santa Nella besides enjoy a meal at Andersen’s, hit predictable freeway exit fast food joints, or gas up at national chains or regional gas stations such as Rotten Ronnie’s. You can also book a room in the middle of nowhere at the 158-room Mission de Oro Hotel.
It is one of two familiar landmarks to tens of thousands of drivers that whiz by on Interstate 5 each day. The other is the windmill at Andersen’s Restaurant.
While it is no Madonna Inn of San Luis Obispo fame with the theme suites such as pseudo caves and other outlandish designs complete with arguably the most photographed men’s lobby bathroom in California — a urinal fashioned like a grotto where a waterfall is turned on when you break a beam of light to do your business — the hotel is still catchy.
It was built in 1976 to resemble a Spanish mission with long wings of rooms surrounding a courtyard. The piece de resistance is the 9-story bell tower with 53 bells.
There are even busts of two U.S. presidents on the grounds complete with plaques. One is of Dwight Eisenhower who rolled out the Interstate freeway system in the 1950s that literally put Santa Nella on the map with Interstate 5. The other is of President John F. Kennedy who authorized funding for the nearby San Luis Reservoir and visited the site in 1962.
These little tidbits certainly aren’t on the scale of Old Sacramento or as cheesy as the world’s largest ball of yarn which thankfully is not within 1,500 miles of California.
So why the drive?
It’s a 49-mile trip from Manteca, after all, through what appears to be the middle of nowhere in traffic that rarely has an issue of traffic moving under the posted speed limit unlike the section of Interstate 5 between Stockton and the 120 Bypass that at times is a 20-mile rolling traffic jam.
The fact it seems in the middle of nowhere is the point.
Once past Highway 132, Interstate 5 is joined by I-580 along the edge of the Coastal Range.
After that point the vista is 100 percent rolling hills with nary a structure and minimal power lines to mar the view to the west.
Yes, it’s now almost all golden save a few eerie “stick” orchards here and there of almond, peach and walnut trees that have fallen victim to the drought.
The biggest manmade features to the west are the energy plant that creates electricity from burning biomass as well as the Turlock Irrigation District plant that burns almond shells to generate power. Going south you can’t make out the power plants but the 25-foot high screen fence installed to catch waste paper from biomass deliveries that might get caught in the wind and blow toward I-5.
There is also a vista point midway atop a high hill next to the freeway. It provides commanding views of the Coastal Range to the west and a sweeping view of an endless patchwork of orchard and crop land along with the water filled concrete ribbons of the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal. Both originate from pumping stations northeast of Tracy on the edge of the Delta. One point needs to be made clear: Depending upon wind conditions, wildfire smoke, and run-of-the-mill smog the views can be less than stellar this time of year.
On the return trip to the right you will pass endless almond, walnut, apricot and orange orchards as well as the remnants of orchards sacrificed due to the drought to try and direct enough water to keep other fruit and nut trees alive.
If you want to see more firsthand impacts of the drought, take an eight mile drive west out of Santa Nella to Highway 152 toward Pacheco Pass. There you can see the off-stream reservoir capable of holding 2 million acre feet of water that is now at 12 percent capacity compared to its historic average of 28 percent for mid-September. San Luis is just 400,000 acre feet smaller than New Melones on the Stanislaus River and just a tad larger than Don Pedro.
A trip on a recent Saturday was a spur of the moment idea to try a different dining spot than those offered in Manteca and Tracy as well as a change of scenery.
It definitely gives you a view of the western edges of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties that make up the Northern San Joaquin Valley you don’t see during daily travels or by commuting.
Lunch at Andersen’s came in at just over $50. That included an old-fashioned Monte Cristo sandwich that was more than generous and fresh along with a side order. Cynthia opted for fries that she noted were large, fresh, and hot unlike cold ones served up at the Tracy In-n-Out during two back-to-back visits. She also had a bowl of split pea soup served with four freshly baked onion cheese rolls as well as crackers plus a side order of soup garnishes that include cheese, croutons, diced ham, crisp bacon, and chopped scallions.
The soup can be ordered by the cup, the bowl in a soup and salad combo, in a bread bowl or an all-you-can-eat version that includes rolls and either a chocolate or vanilla shake (or choice of the usual beverages).
I admit I wasn’t sure I was going to like lunch given I wasn’t in the mood for split pea soup that they serve more than 500 gallons made from scratch daily.
After all, we’re talking about a coffee shop with entrees, salads, sandwiches, appetizers, and desserts clearly targeting an older clientele. It’s not a criticism it’s just that most travelers tend to gravitate toward the fast food standards such as McDonald’s. If they are going to eat their meals inside and not in a car they have no qualms with plastic molded seats. Andersen’s seating is comfortably padded and designed to make lingering enjoyable.
At any rate I ordered the Very Vegetarian sandwich believing it would be a crapshoot with long odds of being decent. I was wrong. It easily made the top 10 of vegetarian sandwiches I’ve had since swearing off all meat — poultry and fish included — 35 years ago. It included grilled eggplant prepared before sliced just right, pesto, lettuce, tomato, red onion (which I asked not to be included), feta, sub-dried tomatoes and provolone cheeses served on a fresh multigrain roll. I opted for a fresh potato salad as the side which was significantly more generous than the small serving you normally get in a restaurant.
The $54.87 tab included two soft drinks and taxes.
The wait staff was top notch and friendly.
There is also a Danish bakery and gift shop with cheese.
Andersen’s certainly knows their clientele given in the lobby there was an impressive collection of children’s books as well as crossword puzzle books and other reading material.
I mention that because after browsing Cynthia couldn’t resist buying one centered on the need to be kind to read to our great-granddaughter Rebel.
All in all a trip to Santa Nella can be a nice drive and lunch/dinner within a three to four hour time frame. All in all, a low-key pleasant way to spend an afternoon with the added bonus of a somewhat different dining option than you’ll find in Manteca, Tracy, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres or Turlock.
To view the restaurant menu go to peasoupandersens.net.