Last week I did something I hadn’t done in nearly a year: I set my e-mail to auto-response, turned off Slack notifications on my phone, and didn’t think about work for three days. It was glorious. I was in California for a wedding in Napa, and decided to fly first into Los Angeles and drive up the scenic Pacific coast. On our second morning there, we were 45 minutes outside Santa Barbara on US-101 when a road sign caught my eye—it flashed by so fast I only made out a few words, but they were enough for me to take the next off-ramp: “Buellton, the home of split pea soup.”
Even from a distance there was no mistaking pea soup was nigh: a towering sign off the freeway, shaped like a green bowl, with the words Pea Soup Andersen’s emblazoned in 1960s Walt Disney font. The restaurant building was surrounded by palm trees and resembled a Swiss cottage. What I didn’t expect, walking in, was I’d be transported into a split pea soup-themed amusement park, frozen in the ember of mid-century Americana, and that it’d be kitschy and corny and wonderful.
The restaurant was founded here in 1924 by a Danish man named Anton Andersen. He and his wife Juliette originally named it Andersen’s Electric Cafe, because among their possessions was something rare and prized in that era: an electric stove. Soon one dish surpassed all others in popularity: Juliette’s split pea soup. They were cooking so many bowls that the restaurant was forced to order peas one ton at a time. The “Pea Soup Andersen’s” moniker was adopted, and today, the Buellton flagship and its newer Santa Nella location (250 miles north) boast of serving two million bowls of pea soup each year.
I’m greeted at the entrance of Pea Soup Andersen’s by a year-round Christmas gift store. Further in, more tchotchkes beckoned—the front half of the complex is devoted to all things peas (bags of dried peas, cans of pre-made pea soup, pea magnets) and the standard tourist bric-a-brac that offered physical proof you visited here before Instagram existed.
It was 9 a.m., and the restaurant had a handful of customers quietly eating breakfast. Many had—what else?—pea soup on the table, but I didn’t want to gaze too intently; I wanted to save my virgin eyes the surprise.
Our waitress was named Dana and she was, not surprisingly, gracious and utterly charming—I expected nothing less from a restaurant whose cartoon mascots are named Hap-pea and Pea-wee. I told her our story, one she likely has heard a thousand times before: We were driving up the freeway, saw a sign for a town famous for split pea soup, and just had to pull over, even though we ate not even an hour ago.
We put in our orders of split pea soup. There was no moment of anticipation, no dramatic build up—our two bowls arrived, no joke, in under 20 seconds.
Pea soup wins the prize for dish best exemplifying not judging a book by its cover. This soup was a hideous uniform green, no bits of orange carrot or red ham embedded within for contrast, just a smooth paste of steaming springtime mud.
And boy was it ever delicious.
We had been eating with our inhibitions turned off the previous 24 hours. Meat. Gorge. Meat. Gorge. Fried chicken. Meat snacks. In-N-Out burgers. Road trip garbage diet. Here, now, was a perfect encapsulation of vegetables and its potential. The pea soup was indulgent and velvety without a drop of cream—just water and nature. It was vegan. It was warming and satisfying. Then Dana dropped a loaf of onion cheese bread on our table, on the house. We used this to sop every last drop of green in the bowl.
I don’t know how the siren call of pea soup sang its melodious tune, but here we were on our second breakfast of the morning, because of an effective freeway billboard. I told Dana, “We are so glad we stopped.” We really meant it. Then we left a fiver for her troubles and continued driving north.
- 2 qts. soft water (filtered)
- 2 cups split peas
- 1 branch of celery, coarsely chopped
- 1 large carrot, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1/4 tsp. ground thyme
- 1 pinch cayenne
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt and pepper
Boil hard for 20 minutes, then slowly until peas are tender. Strain through a fine sieve and reheat to the boiling point. Serve.