When itching to get out of town, here’s a hint—follow the Cliff Swallows
Having been well behaved in Covid-19 quarantine for many months, considering a hotel stay was anxiety-inducing. I poured over online articles on the topic of traveling safely, researched what protocols hotels were following to keep guests safe, and weighed out the risk factors. It seemed like the chances of catching the dreaded coronavirus were higher at a grocery store, and with a special occasion to celebrate, taking a quick trip would be worth it if I could find the right place to stay.
Recognized as the birthplace of Orange County, San Juan Capistrano is just about an hour north of San Diego and the historical attractions that offer outdoor entertainment were highly appealing. Having moved three times in my fourth-grade year, I missed out on the opportunity to study California’s 21 missions. I've secretly wanted to buy one of the mission kits one finds at craft stores and construct it so I could feel included in the experience ever since but this trip would compensate for that.
The recently opened Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano is practically a stone throw from the I-5 and neighbors the infamous Mission itself. Part of Marriott’s boutique-inspired Autograph Collection, every detail of the Inn is meticulously styled and designed with a nod to honoring and preserving the areas rich history. The modern architectural updates and grand scale offer otherworldly elegance to Adobe villas, and Monterey and Spanish Revival buildings. Twinkling lights, fire pits, and water fountains complete sitting areas in an elegant grove of old olive trees preserved at the entrance, creating a barrier from the busy foot traffic and vehicles on the street.
Given the newness of the hotel, everything about the accommodations was nothing less than opulent. Having been literally sick of staring at my walls, cuddling up with a plush terry cloth robe with in-room cocktails while watching movies with my son was about all the excitement I needed. I hadn’t had more than a few hours apart from my teenager outside our home in months, so it was easy to impress. Sipping on a glass of sparkling Anna Cava while luxuriating on a private balcony to watch the sunset over the ruins of the Great Stone Church was an unexpected bonus.
The real highlight of the stay was a tempting dinner at Ysidora, led by chef Aaron Obregon. Originally from Mexico City, meals prepared by Obregon from back in the day at D Bar in Hillcrest remain personal favorites. He was most recently at Albaca in Coronado, but as soon as he learned about the position, Obregon knew he wanted the opportunity to start Ysidora and El Café Real, the Inn’s fast-casual takeaway concept. Well known for his modern Mexican techniques, Obregon was excited to develop and work with Spanish dishes and flavors inspired by a trip to Spain that took place before the pandemic.
He shares that making a move for the executive chef position in 2020 was intimidating because the pandemic had shifted so many of the plans for the property while it was in development and construction. An outdoor courtyard intended for use as an event space has become the restaurant’s main dining room. Hiring cooks and servers with the uncertainty of what could be more closures left room for concern, but favorable reception from the community has been substantial enough to keep many staff members busy with full schedules, and he expresses gratitude for how well things have gone for the team despite everything.
The restaurant’s namesake is Ysidora Forster, a matriarch of the Mission who was born in San Diego in April 1808, and the menu features tapas, flatbreads, entrees, and desserts, plus brunch on the weekends. We opt to start with a few items on the tapas menu. The red mojo ceviche had a robust and briny flavored sauce with locally sourced yellowtail, cucumber, tomato, onion, and bites of cool avocado. Montadito de res, or beef sliders, with Spanish chorizo jam and manchego cheese and a small plate of patatas bravas garnished with the perfect amount of red mojo seasoning and aioli were savory and satisfying. My son’s entree choice was Spanish grilled octopus with chickpeas and olive tapenade. The olive oil, Reverence, is poured from a private label blend of Mission and Arbequina olives pressed for the Inn by Nuvo, a gold-medal olive oil maker popular in LA farmers’ market.
Had it not been for my 15-year-old’s preferences, I would have ordered the seasonal salad that pairs wood-fired fruits and vegetables with cashew cream and watercress. You must know I love cashew cream but the kid decided on the cuatro quesos flatbread for me (so he could try a piece) and it was already going to be too much food. Seriously, the things we do for our children but botanical lavender and alcohol spiked frozen drinks make it tolerable.
It was the big manchego cheese tart with glazed grapes the chef insisted on that really won our hearts. This completely original rendition is something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. And you can’t go wrong with a churro cake, ever.
We packed up sizable portions of octopus, flatbread, and cake leftovers, which kept well in the convenient mini-fridge back in our room. My son purposefully saved half of his entrée to have for dinner at home the next night because he wanted to savor it. Have I mentioned this kid knows how to eat?
With no need to drive after dinner, I make a couple responsible choices with a La Nina margarita from the Wandering Barman and a can of Nomadica sparkling rosé from the well-curated selection of single-serving adult beverages in the hotel’s guest shop and return to the room. The night passes quickly while we watch movies and take family members in other parts of the state on virtual hotel room tours. I read about the history of SJC, the legend of the Cliff Swallows, and Ysidora Forster on my phone, and try an 18-step beauty blogger skincare routine that I normally don’t have time for.
Selecting a late checkout was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself because blackout curtains and plush bedding forced us to sleep in. After a quick brunch of smoked salmon baguette toast for me and the towering Flamenco burger with a fried egg for my companion back at Ydisora, we were off to see the Mission.
The landmark is easy to wander through with optional guided audio tours, alluring gardens, and sanctuaries to observe. Koi pond fountains offer quiet moments of reprieve amongst archival experiences that paint a picture of what life would have been like for the Mission’s founders and the indigenous Acjachemen that lived in Southern California’s coastal areas more than 200 years ago. With face masks in place and most features and exhibitions outdoors, it was the most ideal situation for a first experience at such an attraction in public since before covid, and bonus, the keychain hand sanitizers available in the Mission gift shop carry a most pleasant scent.
We leave the Mission to window shop at a couple of spots in historic SJC and eyeball the menu at Heritage Barbecue as I start to plan a future return. I had the foresight to ask Obregon if he would recommend the central Texas-style joint, and his advice is to get there early.
I had to pat myself on the back again for selecting late checkout as we took short, lazy naps in the hotel room before packing up to make the late afternoon drive home. As far as 26-hour overnight trips go, this one was more decadent and reinvigorating than I could have hoped for. Until we’re ready to travel again, I’l be daydreaming about the good food and future family trips and attractions that I can only hope to look forward to as a reprieve from the monotony of quarantine life.
*To be transparent and sensitive to health and safety regulations, this trip was taken in early November 2020 before increasing winter rates of Covid-19 changed California State mandates on business operations. The hotel continues to serve guests following all state safety regulations and offers room service as an added convenience. While onsite dining is restricted, both Ysidora and Café Real continue to offer takeout service and delivery through Door Dash and Grub Hub (menu available here). The Mission is currently closed to follow the State’s stay at home orders and services or further advisories may be subject to change. Please heed travel advisories, check with businesses or local officials for the most up to date information, and be mindful to follow health recommendations for the safety of fellow patrons and employees.
Accommodations provided by the Inn at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
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