Since we were in Santa Barbara and I took the group up to the Santa Ynez Valley, we had to spend some time in Solvang (sunny field in Danish). I have to admit, I was skeptical about visiting a town in California that claimed to be the “Danish Capital of America.” I figured it was just a big tourist trap with endless gift shops but once I saw the quaint streets of this little village I was more than a little bit intrigued.
The town itself was small enough to walk from one end to the other; it was perfect for my Mom and emo who love to walk but my 12 year old cousin, the only real California girl in this series of posts entitled California Girls, used to being chauffeured everywhere wasn’t too thrilled. Her little voice of opposition was quickly squashed by the three of us and we walked through nearly every street in Solvang. We felt as if we were in a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale (or a Danish theme park). We saw structures replete with windmills and wooden roofs, and on almost every street there was a Danish bakery. Along with all the Danish architecture we found a replica of the Little Mermaid statue as well and a sign that showed the distance to Copenhagen. At most restaurants in town the waitresses were dressed in the traditional Danish garb. Everything was so Danish that my Mom commented that even Denmark and certainly Copenhagen would not look as Danish as the town of Solvang.
I learned this year Solvang is celebrating its centennial, that in 1991 a group of Danes looking to establish a Danish colony founded Solvang on 9,000 acres of land. Based on what I read, the population of Solvang is only about 5,000 at present but with its unique look and history, it’s become a popular family vacation destination. We were determined to try any and all Danish specialties and prepared to thoroughly enjoy ourselves. Near the small town square there was an afternoon farmers market we were happy to browse through and as expected there were more than a dozen gift shops all about town. After stopping at one of the stores and purchasing a blue and white ceramic windmill refrigerator magnet (Mom’s collection is forever growing), we scoped out where and what we’d have for dinner.
We found a family and wallet friendly Danish restaurant called the Little Mermaid. If I remember correctly a dinner combination special of soup (it was split pea soup that day) or salad, a main entrée with three sides was well below the $10 mark. The portions were so large that I skipped ordering my own meal and shared what my Mom and emo had. It was a bit of a smorgasbord; emo’s dinner plate consisted of braised red cabbage, boiled potatoes, green peas, and large meatballs with gravy (a la Swedish meatballs). Mom had their Danish steak, which looked like Salisbury steak with a fried egg on top. It came with peas, steamed broccoli, and sautéed vegetables. The food was by no means gourmet (think IKEA cafeteria) but our smiling waitress her red Danish outfit with a frilly white apron was charming and we left the restaurant quite happy. Before we left our waitress posed for a photo with us and the next morning we saw her working at another store dressed in her Danish outfit yet again. Mom and emo wholeheartedly approved of her as they excitedly waved hello; we love hard working people in our family. One thing to note: they make aebleskiver (pancake popovers) at the Little Mermaid but only in the morning…
There were other must-eat things on our list so the next day we had Danish pancakes from Paula’s Pancake House. I knew from reading all the Solving restaurant reviews that the wait can be brutal in the morning for breakfast so we purposely went to have our pancakes for lunch. It proved to be the right decision. All morning when we walked by the crowd in front of the restaurant was huge, even though it was a weekday. But around noon we didn’t have to wait at all. They had other breakfast items and had a full lunch menu but we scarcely glanced at anything else. Our mission was to have their Danish pancakes and that’s exactly what we had. We’d seen some gorgeous strawberries the day before at the farmers market so we ordered our pancakes with fresh strawberries.
The pancakes were so big that the large oblong plate could barely contain them. They were unusually thin but not so flat as a crepe. They had the same appearance as an American pancake with its characteristic golden brown color. They came with butter and syrup but the strawberries were so sweet that I didn’t need anything else. The pancakes were soft, moist, and had a nice bounce to them. I was totally sold on these pancakes.
Lastly, we didn’t have any Danish cookies but we did have an order of aebleskiver before we left Solvang. I don’t exactly know how to pronounce the word “aebleskiver” but they were small fist-sized balls dusted with powdered sugar and served with raspberry jam. We ordered them from Solvang Restaurant’s takeaway window and ate them while they were hot right. From what I could tell they were made from a pancake-like batter and cooked over a special pan to give it their spherical shape. The cooking process was similar to that of the Japanese street food tacoyaki but without the octopus. Once the batter was poured into the mold and half cooked, they were flipped over to puff up and finish. They were quite good but with three aebleskiver(s) to each order we had plenty to go around amongst the four of us.
While we were in Solvang we visited two different missions and a nearby waterfall, but I’ll leave that for tomorrow.
The Little Mermaid: 1546 Mission Drive, Solvang, CA
Paula’s Pancake House: 1531 Mission Drive, Solvang, CA
Solvang Restaurant: 1672 Copenhagen Drive, Solvang, CA
Official website for Solvang: www.solvangusa.com