The Springs district is poised for rebirth and new restaurants are leading the way.
The scrappy unincorporated towns of Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano and Aqua Caliente along Highway 12 have long been the utilitarian side of the posh Sonoma Valley. Instead of plush wineries and spas the area features convenience stores, auto repair shops and lots of good Mexican food (see "Traveling the Taco Trail" from Aug. 8, 2012).
The roadway is currently torn up with a sidewalk installation project and other street improvements, but when done this lively part of town is likely to take off as more businesses move in and visitors stop to check out this often overlooked part of Sonoma County. It's got soul. And good food.
In November, Cochon Volant BBQ Smoke House took over the Hot Box Grill. It's a gem—just the barbecue joint the Springs needed.
Chef and owner Rob Larman's culinary experience goes beyond barbecue, but smoked meat, especially the pork variety, is clearly his forte. Cochon Volant's Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($10) is superb. The vinegar-spiked sauce gets a further boost from the addition of seedy, whole grain mustard and pickled red onions. The pork is tender enough to cut with a spoon, deliciously smoky and served on a soft but sturdy potato bun.
For my side dish, I choose "something green," a changing green vegetable. I expected kale or collard greens or some such, but got broccoli. Broccoli? I was skeptical, but the oil and vinegar marinade on the chilled vegetables cut the richness of the pork. It could have been a throwaway side dish, but the attention to detail made it memorable. The thick-cut house-made pickled cucumbers were a great foil for the pig, too.
I was less impressed with my side order of the ranch beans ($3). They were loaded with smokiness, but they needed a big shot of salt to tie them together.
Curious how other smoked pork would fare, I tried the pork shoulder. Good lord. Sold by the pound (as are other meats like brisket, chicken, ribs and sausage), the pork was sliced from an end piece with a beautiful, bark-like exterior. The deeply smoked meat was as tender and delicious as any barbecue I've had.
The perfect side dish is the surprisingly good cole slaw. I say surprising because who expects much from cabbage? But the horseradish-laced slaw here adds a clean but potent note that marries well with the meaty slab of pork.
Larman smokes his meat over almond wood in a burly, red, vault-like smoker. Brisket is a great test of a pitmaster's skill. It's a tough cut of meat that requires a long and slow smoke. But go too long and it dries out. That was not the case here. The beef remains juicy and tender, but except for the powerful smoke flavor that suffuses the meat, I found it a little bland. No worries. A dab of one of the two housemade barbecue sauces (vinegary Carolina or Sonoma-style; I liked the Carolina best) takes care of that.
BBQ needs beer and there are some good ones on tap. The Henhouse Saison and Sonoma Springs Kolsch stand out. There is also a BBQ-appropriate wine list.
I regret I've got but one stomach to give to Cochon Volant. There are big salads, catfish sandwiches, smoked short ribs, fried chicken and a burger I've yet to try. I'll be back to sample more of the smoky wonders Larman pulls from that squat red box.