Walkable Feasts

Allison Costa’s journey from local food writer to Ventura Food Tours.

By Kate Edwards

Photo by T Christian Gapen

Ventura Food Tours participants hit the streets for a culinary adventure that is anything but pedestrian.

Allison Costa is passionate about food.
Of course, she likes to eat it — who doesn’t? But this vivacious Venturan also likes to talk about it, write about it, read about it and make it. Perhaps most of all, as she says herself, “I love telling people where to eat and what they should eat!”

That passion explains the success of Costa’s company, Ventura Food Tours, which uses walking tours to introduce locals and visitors to the flavors of Ojai and downtown Ventura. Moving into its fifth year, the company has become so popular that she expanded into Santa Barbara in 2015 with a second firm, Santa Barbara Tasting Tours. In all three locations, her customers get to sample excellent food and drink at some of the best and most unique eateries in the area.

Costa’s route to local food tour maven began after she and her family relocated to Ventura about 10 years ago. With small children to care for, she was looking around for a part-time job that wouldn’t interfere with family life. She came across an online ad for a restaurant critic for the VCReporter, applied, got the job — and loved it. As she says now, “It was perfect! I could do it from home — go out to eat, then write a review while the kids are napping!” Soon, she was writing reviews, profiles and other pieces for several local publications, including Ventana Monthly and Edible Ojai.

Eventually, she realized she wasn’t going to be able to make a career out of writing. Having previously owned a small stationery business, she knew she liked working for herself. But what to do? “I knew I wanted to do something with food because that was clearly what I was passionate about,” she says, “[and] I’d built up a pretty good network — people knew me from all the writing I did.” In early 2011, she heard about people doing food tours in Los Angeles and thought that sounded interesting. She went and took a few tours herself and quickly realized that she’d found her calling.

The initial hurdle was getting the local restaurant owners on board. As Costa remembers, “When I first started, the businesses were like, ‘What’s a food tour?’ It was five years ago. Now, people know what food tours are, but [at first], it took some explaining.” She also had to make it clear that she wasn’t looking for any freebies. “I think restaurants get hit up a lot for free stuff,” she says, “so at first I think they just thought, ‘Oh, it’s just somebody else asking for free stuff.’ I learned to quickly say, ‘I’m not asking you to give me anything for free, I just want to bring people to your restaurant and give you guys a chance to shine.’ ”

And shine they do, as a group of 16 or so adults — and one voracious baby — learned during a recent Ventura Food Tour of half a dozen downtown foodie gems. The group enjoyed clam chowder and succulent tempura fish at Spencer Makenzie’s followed by mai tais, poke bowls and pepper-crusted seared ahi at kitschy VenTiki. After gelato tasting at Palermo, there were wine and cheese at Paradise Pantry, including an earthy parmesan drizzled with nirvana-inducing calamansi-infused crème from Hawaii. The tour then stopped in at Vom Fass to taste infused oils, vinegars and a few spirits — a big hit with the guys — as well as nosh on small plates of pulled-pork sliders and a delightfully spicy macaroni salad (recipe below). The tour ended a few doors away at Sunflowers on the Square, where everyone enjoyed bakery owner Nancy Pedersen’s deservedly famous lavender limoncello cookies. (When signing up for a tour, participants notify Costa of special dietary restrictions. Within reason, the eateries then provide tasting substitutions for those participants.)

Along the way, the group got a bit of a local history lesson from tour leader, food writer, chef and college teacher Amy Madsen. (Costa’s tour guides are all food writers or otherwise connected to the local food scene.) Participants learned about the literary history of the Erle Stanley Gardner Building, the importance of the lima bean motif on the Courthouse, and the presence of the old jail underneath the current Capriccio restaurant at Palm and Main streets. These mini history lessons have been an integral part of Costa’s tours from the start. As Costa says, “For people who are new to the area or it’s their first time in Ventura or Ojai, I want them to leave the tour feeling like ‘Oh, I kind of get Ventura, or I kind of get Ojai.’ ”

When asked about future plans for her burgeoning empire, Costa admits, “At this point, I couldn’t grow it anymore — I’m really maxed out.” With a half dozen or so tours each week (she gets a lot of private tour business from local destination management companies) and three children at home, Costa is so busy that she no longer leads weekend tours herself. She says, “I need to be the backup in case something goes wrong.” She still leads weekday tours, as well as the trial runs that she takes friends and family on when testing out a new tour. She does regret not being able to do more, saying, “I wish I could lead more tours as it is so validating.”

Of course, balancing a successful business and a busy family also means that Costa doesn’t often get a chance to take a day off and fully indulge the passion for food that got her to where she is now. When asked what her dream day of eating in Ventura would look like, she said, “I would start my day with a cup of Beacon coffee and the ginger chocolate scone from Sunflowers on the Square or a peanut butter bagel from Bagel Rock.” Lunch, she says, would be “a fish taco and ahi pocket from Spencer’s or the pulled pork PB&J from Scratch food truck.” She would finish off this perfect day with “cocktails at VenTiki, followed by one of the gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and a big glass of red wine at Paradise Pantry.” Sounds divine. Sign us up. 

Ventura Food Tours 805.295.8687

Barbecue Macaroni Salad
Courtesy of Vom Fass

Serves: 8-10
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
2 celery ribs, diced
6 scallions, sliced thin
2 tablespoons Waldburg Apple Balsamic Vinegar
1 tablespoon chili oil
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup barbecue sauce (such as Bull’s-Eye Original)
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook macaroni according to directions in salted boiling water. Cook a little al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse with cold water until cool, then drain once more, briefly, so that macaroni is still moist. Transfer to large bowl.
Stir in bell pepper, celery, scallions, vinegar, chili oil, chili powder, garlic powder and cayenne and let sit until flavors are absorbed—about 2 minutes. Stir in mayonnaise and barbecue sauce and let sit for another 5 minutes to allow liquids to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve. (Salad can be covered and refrigerated up to 2 days. Check seasoning before serving.)

Allison Costa.

Bartender Josh Papuzza shakes, stirs and garnishes up a tropical storm to keep food tourists in mai tais, the signature drink of VenTiki Lounge and Lanai.

Tour leader Amy Madsen brings the group to Paradise Pantry for wine and cheese tasting. Each tour includes several local eateries selected for their originality, excellence and proximity.


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