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The Bohemian's Best of the North Bay 2005
Food & Drink
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Best Pizza Place in Which to Find a Semi-Animatronic Mannequin Dressed as a Mountain Climber, a Fairy Tale Witch or Santa, Depending on the Time of Year
He or she is known to the folks at Pinky's Pizza Parlor by the simple but accurate name of the Waver. Evidently dissatisfied with the sole effect of a glowing neon sign promising that Pinky's will not foist "limp-crusted sissy-boy pizza" on its hungry customers, the owners have taken to hanging a body from the outside of the building as well. Sure enough, it's the Waver, clinging with one fake hand to the street-facing wall of the venerable pizza place, while waving--with incredibly lifelike, back-and-forth action--to passing vehicles with the other hand. All through last year's holiday season, the Waver was dressed as good St. Nick, no doubt inspiring numerous young ones to ask their parents, as they whizzed past, to explain why Santa Claus was hanging from the side of a restaurant when he should be at the North Pole getting ready for Christmas. Previous to that, the Waver was adorned in classic Wicked Witch of the West garb, as if the poor girl had fallen from her broom and was waiting for her witchy sister to swing by and give her a lift. Currently, she is a he again--or maybe not, it's hard to tell--dressed in classic pizza-delivery-guy apparel. The Waver's gender may be in question, along with his or her calendar-based identity, but one thing is certain: it sure is friendly. Pinky's Pizza Parlor, 321 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma. 707.763.2510.--D.T.
Photograph by Michael Amsler
Chef We'd Most Like to Prepare Us Breakfast in Bed
Oh, blush. Despite the fact that we barely got fed and there was a strictly no-licking-the-bowls policy, acting as sous at a private Sur la Table dinner class with chef Randy Lewis was easy on the eyes, girls. There's something about a boy who cooks. He's got an adorable Southern twang from his years in Louisiana and some mad skills with the vittles. And, uh, no ring on his finger. Sadly, Randy seems to be spending more time in San Francisco on a new venture than in the North Bay (despite his interest in Santa Rosa's seven-O-seven). Seems we Northern gals are out of luck. Regardless, this boy doesn't just cook, he smolders.--H.I.
Photo of Casa Mañana's Liseth Maldonado by Rory McNamara
Best Place for Mole, Introspection and Mexican Wrestling Masks
Casa Mañana has all the comfortable feeling of being invited to dine in someone's living room--that is, if that someone were an artsy, poetic, Mexican hipster with a penchant for iconographic interior decoration and indigenous wrestling masks. My first time meeting Mañana's owner, Josiah, was a rainy Saturday night when I traipsed up the wraparound porch into the tiny 200-square-foot dining room of his taqueria. I wound up talking with him for an hour about the blues, Fairfax locals and food as he fielded phone calls from friends, family and delivery guys. I felt as though I were a welcome guest in his home, and I asked him to feed me whatever he thought would be good. My dinner was a chicken enchilada smothered in a delicious mole sauce, fried plantains, beans, rice and cabbage salsa. I settled comfortably at one of Casa Mañana's two tables with mismatched chairs, and decided I had found a second home. Casa Mañana, 85 Bolinas Road, Fairfax. 415.454.2384.--E.L.
Photograph by Pablo C. Leites
Best Example of the 'New York Times'' Critical Taste
Immortalized in a Cropduster song, mentioned in Tom Waits' "Filipino Box Spring Hog" and hailed by a little newspaper called the New York Times as "the second best bar in the world," Red's Recovery Room is a divey little shack. But those who frequent it know that the Times is right, and they know Dee the bartender. She's worked at Red's for over 25 years and tells true stories that the best fiction writers would envy. Swearing like a sailor, she drinks right along with you, screwing up your drink (in your favor) by making it too strong, and she plays ferocious pool. On a recent night, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here provided the soundtrack as Dee poured free shots of hot sauce. An axe rested lodged in a pile of firewood, which struck me as a dangerous thing to have in a place where people drink. But that's Red's. Leave your pretensions at the door, and let Dee take it from there. Red's Recovery Room, 8175 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati. Opens at 10am daily and closes at . . . well, you know when closing time is. --M.P.
Best Place to Enjoy Both an Enchilada and the Art of Xavier Cugat
Casual diners at La Bufa restaurant have gazed with amusement at the painting of two tired workers collapsing over a burro. Closer inspection reveals a surprising signature in the painting's corner:"X. Cugat." Well-known as a regular punch line on I Love Lucy and as one of Charo's many husbands, Xavier Cugat was crowned the King of Rumba in the 1930s, shortly after his discovery by Enrico Caruso. In the next four decades, the King ruled over the mambo, the cha-cha, the samba and the conga as well. But who knew he could paint? Divorce was something Cugi knew all too well; in a dash of the apropos, it's thanks to a divorce settlement that the paintings hang on La Bufa's walls. La Bufa, 703 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.573.8915.--G.M.
Best Greasy Spoon
If you like your linguica as long as your arm, your burger slathered with chili and cheese, and your Diet Pepsi served in a plastic glass on a Formica table, then it's pretty hard to beat the Cook House, right down A Street from Juilliard Park in Santa Rosa. A modest white cottage with blue trim, the Cook House is a throwback to more innocent days, before eating required a Ph.D. in biophysics. For the past 10 years or so, Steven Sanders (no relation to the Colonel of KFC fame, he assures us) has been slinging hash here, and judging by the respectable crowd lining up daily for breakfast and lunch, it's wonderful hash indeed. 327 S. A St., Santa Rosa. 707.526.2689.--R.V.S.
Best Timing for a Happy Hour
There is a special place in many people's hearts for their neighborhood dive bar. At a dive, there's no need for dress codes and fancy décor--it's all about the drinks. And at the Round Robin in Santa Rosa, it's also all about the happy hour. Popular custom usually places happy hour somewhere in the late afternoon or early evening. But the Round Robin, the smartest dive in town, knows when to have its happy hour--when people actually want to drink. That's why its happy hour is from 7pm until 10pm. The deal ain't bad, either: buy any beer and get a well shot for just a buck. The shots used to run a quarter, but one assumes that created an unbearable increase in toilet traffic over time. Next time you're planning an alcohol-fueled night on the town, take your time and enjoy your dinner. You'll have plenty of time to make it to the Robin for happy hour. Round Robin, 616 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.575.1354.--J.L.
Happiest Happy Hour
Any drinker worth the salt on the side of his or her margarita will tell you that you need to have a good, solid food base in your stomach to display any sort of drinking prowess. To that end, Rafa's Mexican Food in Cotati has got your back. Happy hour, called here the "early bird special," entails a full pitcher of beer with a free plate of nachos. The beer choices are slim--Sierra Nevada for $6.99 and Budweiser for $5.99 a pitcher--but the numbers just can't be beat. These prices would be a good deal for just the pitcher, regardless of the free and filling food thrown in. Rafa's calls the plate "nachitos," but don't be fooled by the diminutive ending; there is nothing small about this mountain of chips piled high with yummy goodies. Throw out the "more room for beer" argument: eat, drink and be merry. Rafa's Mexican Food, 8230 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. Early bird Monday through Friday, 2:30-5:30pm. 707.795.7068.--J.L.
Best Place toPick Up a Blonde
"Cloverdale" and "sophisticated" are two words not often heard in the same sentence--unless the subject turns to Ruth McGowan's Brewpub, nestled on the corner of First and Main streets in downtown Hooter--er, Cloverdale. Mary Ann and Mike Brigham opened this clean and well lighted establishment in 2002 for two express purposes: "I wanted to drink good beer made in Cloverdale, and I wanted a place women can feel comfortable in," Mary Ann explains. By every measure--food, drink and clientele--they've succeeded wildly, but perhaps nowhere more so than with Caroline's Blonde, a light and creamy ale that balances wheat and honey malts with slightly spicy hops and goes down easy as lemonade on a hot summer day. Caroline's Blonde takes its name from Mike's mother, and the brewpub itself is named for his grandmother. (Both women passed away during the past year.) "We lost two of the strongest females in the family," laments Mary Ann, who's no slouch herself, sitting on Cloverdale's city council, formerly serving as the town's mayor, and owning and operating the local print shop in addition to the brewpub. Perhaps that explains why down at the pub she's often confused for another strong woman: Ruth McGowan. "Everybody does it," she laughs. "I even answer to it." Ruth McGowan's Brewpub, 131 E. First St., Cloverdale. 707.894.9610.--R.V.S.
Best Place You Wouldn't Expect for a Burrito
Nothing hits the spot quite like a tasty burrito. But with so many choices, how does one decide where to purchase his little piece of tortilla-wrapped heaven? Well, if one is lucky enough to live near an Oliver's Market, the choice is strangely clear. No one really thinks of going to a grocery store for Mexican food, but the taqueria inside Oliver's Market is a hidden treasure, offering fresh burritos at competitive prices. There are lots of options for building your Mexican treat, and you can even get your week's groceries while you wait for it to be made. Kudos to the good folks at Oliver's for realizing that a taqueria can be installed as easily as a deli, and the burritos can be just as delicious. Oliver's Market, 560 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, 707.537.7123; and 546 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati, 707.795.9501. Taqueria open 7am to 8pm daily.--J.L.
Best Place to Vomit on the Table and Have It Be No Big Deal
Let's say you're dreadfully hungover, to the point that water and aspirin are merely a weak joke. And let's say that you make the foolhardy decision to go out to eat. Let's further posit that, in an attempt to settle your insides, you make the poor choice of ordering up a slice of pepperoni. Let's finally suggest that when you sit down, you promptly throw up all over the table. Most restaurant workers would be fuming! The friendly staff at Mombo's Pizza, however, might bravely prove themselves to be more than understanding. "I guess this means you don't like our pizza very much," they could very well joke, assuming that we're only speculating. They might possibly even do their best to make an embarrassing situation actually sort of funny. On top of it all, they could imaginably offer to help clean up the puke. Amazing. And possibly true. Mombo's Pizza, 1880 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.528.FAST.--G.M.
Best Simulation of an Underwater Christmas Morning
Once upon a time, a restaurant review compared eating at Cafe Japan to eating fresh strawberries when all you'd eaten all your life were strawberry preserves. This bright metaphor still holds true for the teeny, tiny cafe that puts forth the freshest and friendliest sushi in the county. Owners Jen and Yo are always on hand to provide the sweetest service (Jen) and the most delightful fish treats (Yo). Although the place is quite small, there is outdoor seating with an entertaining view of the characters that fill downtown Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square, and the tables inside are cozy and well-decorated. Be sure to ask for the hot sake mixed with plum wine, as well as the chef's choice sushi combo. Yo's selections are always impeccable, and when the nine or so pieces of sushi arrive, it's like an underwater Christmas morning. Cafe Japan, 98 Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa. 707.566.7650.--E.L.
Best Place to Nibble Caviar by the Ounce
Though the sawdust has barely settled and the hand-hewn bar has hardly seen a gin and tonic, the much-anticipated Cyrus Restaurant is officially open for business. Finally. Hailed by some as Sonoma's answer to the French Laundry, this super-luxe eatery is first and foremost about service. Run by former Gary Danko alums Nick Peyton (maitre d') and Doug Keane (chef), the table greets dinners with the immediate arrival of a warm amuse-bouche, as well as caviar by the ounce, a stellar cheese cart and French/California food from a prix fixe menu. More good news? Dinner will run you somewhere between $52 and $74 per person--not exactly cheap, but a veritable bargain for the level of service and cuisine rarely found outside Yountville. Cyrus, in the Hotel Le Mars, 29 North Street, Healdsburg. 707.433.3311.--H.I.
Best Conscientious Cuppa
Taylor Maid's slogan is "A mindful cup," and the company, indeed, is one of the most mindful coffee traders and roasters around. Each of its roasts is organically shade-grown and fairly traded, not to mention being some of the most delicious beans available on the market. The company's campaigns to improve environmental and social conditions in the coffee industry, as well as supporting the small-farmer movement, have taken president Mark Inman of Sebastopol from classrooms in the United States to coffee laboratories in the hills of Nicaragua. Taylor Maid also has a complete line of loose-leaf teas, and while the prices on a tin aren't cheap, it's the best tea this beverage snob has frankly ever quaffed. The coffee prices are the standard $8 to $10 per pound, but the quality on many of the blends far surpasses the burnt blackness of many other local roasteries. Taylor Maid also has an organic farm, which offers up perennial herbs, fruits and vines--well worth a ramble. Taylor Maid products are available online at www.taylormaidfarms.com.--E.L.
Best Goat's Milk Ice Cream
Here's the short of it: black mission fig ice cream. But not really ice cream. Goat's milk ice cream, with that slightly goaty tang. Based in Sonoma County, Laloo creates the most insanely naughty frozen goat's milk treats in even more insanely cute packaging. And I'm a sucker for cute. Other flavors include Scharffen Berger chocolate Cabernet, chevre cheesecake and pumpkin. Made in small batches, it's currently only available in the Bay Area. But we have a sneaky suspicion that with all its, er, nutritional benefits, you'll be seeing it in the hands of celebrities and debutantes within the month. Laloo's ice cream is available at Oliver's, Fiesta Market, Petaluma Market and Sunshine Foods.--H.I.
Best Way to Get Sassed and Saucy and Fed, Too
While so many parts of me want to hate J Winery for being big and corporate and having "food marriages" and selling $50 polo shirts, I can't. I just love J for so many reasons. First, the winery makes sparkling wine and Pinot Noir. Period. It doesn't mess around with lots of mediocre varietals, instead sticking with what grows well in the Russian River Valley, and J does it well. And all of J's wines are good, really good, which can't be said for most wineries. Secondly, the food-flight pairing J offers to accompany the winetasting is fabulous. It's inexpensive ($9), and the pairings do a fantastic job of accentuating the wines' corresponding characteristics. And one of the greatest things about J? The tasting-room sass. Be sure to go on one of the days when Ron is working (not Monday or Tuesday), and just to try to avoid snorting sparkling wine through your nose. J Winery, 11447 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. 707.431.3646.--E.L.
Best Place to Pay Wine Country Prices for Wine Country Food
High-end restaurants pop up around Sonoma County faster than grapes on the vine, it seems. Many of these are overpriced, catering only to passing tourists who are looking for a stereotypical fine-dining experience. Manzanita restaurant, opened by former Willowside owner Michael Hale and chef Bruce Frieseke, however, is a far cry from those establishments that rely on the backdrop of wine-country-everything to make marginal food seem exciting and worth the wine-country-everything prices. The menu at Manzanita is updated frequently, and the desserts (some of the best in any county) rotate weekly, although, thankfully, favorites like the delicate panna cotta and mouth-melting fruit crisps make frequent appearances. The service at Manzanita is flawless: attentive without being overbearing, polished and professional without pretense. Hale, who worked as a sommelier in some of San Francisco's finest restaurants for years, has put together a phenomenal wine list that combines the best of small, local wineries and numerous French varietals. Be sure to look at the reserve list as well. Manzanita, 336 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. 707.433.8111.--E.L.
Best Place for Monkfish Liver Sushi
Even I won't eat the stuff, but I hear there are those among us who simply live for this delicacy. Have you ever seen a monkfish? Called "poor man's lobster," it is quite possibly the ugliest, most horrible-looking creature this side of the flounder. But if you absolutely must eat the poor thing's liver, call ahead to Senju Japanese restaurant. We've noticed it several times on the daily specials (and I thought eel was gross). Our neighbor, who is quite possibly the world's most fastidious fish gourmet, swears by the monkfish (the whole thing, not just the liver) from Santa Rosa's Whole Foods, where he gets it the minute it comes in. I'll leave you on your own for this adventure. Senju, 8960 Brooks Road S., Windsor, 707.836.1699.--H.I.
Best Place to Find Off-Duty Chefs
Where do chefs hang out when they're off duty? In Yountville, you'll likely find them after work at the Bouchon bar. In Napa, Pizza Azzurro is a favorite hang out. Run by a former Tra Vigne and Lark Creek Inn alum, the pizza is simple and thin, and ranks as some of the best in the North Bay. Attitude is at a minimum, and prices (at least for Napa) are reasonable. They also have a pretty nice selection of beer, which of course is the only sane thing to drink with pizza if you're over 21--no matter what part of wine country you're in. Pizza Azzurro, 1400 Second St., Napa. 707.255.5552.--H.I.
Best New Wine Label Packaging
The wine industry is bound and determined to pry that vodkatini out of your hand and get you twenty- and thirty-somethings drinking something a bit more civilized--like wine with a screw top. The best of the bunch, at a slightly pricey $15, is from Mia's Playground. Available in hot new flavors like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel squeezed from 100 year-old vines, this wine is more than just pretty decent. And it should be--the grapes come from some of Sonoma's best vineyards, and Mia is a Sebastiani, as in Don Sebastiani and Sons Wines, the makers of the Smoking Loon and Pepperwood Grove varietals, among others. The label will take you at least half and hour to read and features little sis. Mia is from a line of screw-top wines launched in 2004 by the family when they revamped the Quatro label. Mia's Playground is available at Cost Plus World Market, 2685 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.526.0600.--H.I.
Best Use of Sour Grapes
Verjus isn't something most Americans are familiar with, despite its popularity in other wine-growing regions. Something like vinegar, verjus is the unfermented juice of semiripe wine grapes. Husband and wife team Justin Miller and Karin Warnelius of Terra Sonoma gather up grapes they've thinned from their vines in late summer and bottle up this concentrated elixir. Use it for dressings, marinades or pretty much anything else that works with vinegar. Just think of how continental you are. Terra Sonoma, Geyserville, 707.431.1382. Available at Jimtown Store, Ansteads and Traverso's Market.--H.I.
Best Place to Get Yer Goat
The American palate doesn't much go for goat. God bless it, goat just has an unmistakable gaminess to it that makes it more of a delicacy than a staple. But other cultures have wised up to goat's potential, notably Mexican and Filipino cuisine (both cultures that have a strong presence in Northern California; south of San Francisco has the highest number of Filipinos outside Manila). Here in the North Bay, many Mexican restaurants offer birria de chivo--goat soup--on the weekends, and for the more open-minded gourmet, it can become an addictive taste. Los Potrillos in Rohnert Park serves it in a shallow bowl with a delicate sauce, onion, cilantro and fresh tortillas. Deliciously simple, goat offers a slightly different take on meat-eating, with a richer, more wild flavor. Perhaps experimental metal band the Melvins had bellyfuls of the stuff when they wrote disturbing songs praising goats ("Black Bock" on Stag and "Night Goat" on Houdini). For Filipino goat, head directly to Vallejo. Taqueria Los Potrillos, 370 Rohnert Park Expressway W., Rohnert Park. Get your goat Saturday and Sunday only. 707.585.0410.--M.P.
Best Rise from the Ashes
When he opened Popina in '03, chef Randy Lewis was pushing against some tough odds. Santa Rosa just wasn't ready for witty T-shirts on their wait staff and Yountville-priced entrées--no matter how good they were. Lewis argued that using strictly local, fresh produce was a costly venture for him, hence the high prices. But locals weren't buying it. Literally. So, the restaurant quietly closed, and Lewis headed to other projects. But within a few months, the chef was back, opening seven-0-seven. With more approachable food, a less smug vibe and prices that don't pinch quite as much, the fit seems better. Our only fear for its future? The sleepy location tucked into a suburban neighborhood may prove to be a tough sell. seven-0-seven, 1612 Terrace, Santa Rosa. 707.523.0317.--H.I.
Best Place to Experience Ethnic Confusion
I love Avatars, for it is the future. Multiculturalism reigns, boundaries and minds are open and experimental cooking can be wildly successful. Avatars admits to some self-described "ethnic confusion," pairing two unlikely cuisines--Mexican and Indian--with delicious results. This is not your average, snobby fusion cooking; Avatars is a down-home place, small and cozy, where you can experience Punjabi tostadas and enchiladas, homemade samosas, soups, seafood and dessert, and wash it all down with a mango or salty-sweet lassi. You are always warmly welcomed at Avatars, and there is always much interesting fare to choose from, utilizing unique ingredients like pumpkin and jerk seasoning. You can also find gumbo and burgers--Avatars truly has something for everyone. But don't take my word for it. Stop on in and let them tantalize you with vivid descriptions of what's cooking and how good it is. It's not boasting or conceit: they're only telling the truth. Avatars, 2656 Bridgeway, Sausalito. 415.332.8083.--M.P.
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From the March 23-29, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.