The Bohemian's Best of the North Bay 2006
Food & Drink: Writers' Picks
Best Unsung Culinary Heroes
Calvin and Grace Wong, owners for 34 years of San Rafael's legendary Royal Frankfurter, haven't changed much over the years, and neither has their restaurant. The Royal Frankfurter is a tiny little sliver of real estate, just off Lincoln Avenue, and it serves very little aside from what the sign says: frankfurters. They're good frankfurters, too, heated up all toasty hot on a stove-top grill (along with slightly crunchy buns), served up with practiced efficiency by Calvin and Grace, pretty much exactly the same way they've been serving them since opening the shop in 1972.
Marin County has changed since then, but the only thing that's changed at Royal Frankfurter is the price of the hot dogs pasted to the big old board hanging over the counter. "That's the same board we've been using since we opened, pretty much," says Calvin, now 68. "In 1972," he adds with a smile, "that hot dog you bought today only cost 45 cents." Nowadays, you'll pay between $2.75 and $4.35, depending on which dog you order. Calvin only offers about nine choices of hot dogs, and very little else: some sauerkraut, maybe, potato salad and sodas.
The Royal Frankfurter was one of Jerry Garcia's favorite spots, and a tribute to the Grateful Dead hangs on the wall, along with photos of ships and trains. The Wongs, who came to the United States in 1960, collected the photos from garage sales, feeling the need to dress the tiny 8-foot-wide restaurant with something unusual and interesting for customers to gaze at while munching on hot dogs.
So then, of all the culinary possibilities for a new restaurant, why did the Wongs decide on hot dogs? "Hot dogs are simple," Calvin says with a laugh and a shrug. "Besides, I'm not that good a cook. I can do frankfurters pretty good, but who wants to bother with all that fancy stuff? Let someone else do that. I like hot dogs." Grace points out that there is less profit margin in hot dogs than in some other types of grab-and-go food, but insists they have no need to chase bigger profits. "Some people just aren't happy making a little bit of money, making enough money," she says. "They want to make more money than they know what to do with. Us, we're happy with what we have. We do OK." Calvin adds, "Pizza—that's a thing that has a big profit margin. You want to make a lot of money, make pizzas. You can sell a pizza for $15, $20 dollars, and how much does it cost to make that pizza?"
"Probably less than people pay for one of our hot dogs," laughs Grace. Royal Frankfurter, 811 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.456.5485. —D.T.
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Finally, a North Bay spot where one can enjoy delicious specialty cocktails, small plates of well-made, artisanal eats and feel right at home at a long, skinny bar! Welcome to Bar Code. While bar-restaurant-lounges like this abound just over the Golden Gate Bridge, Sonoma County (and especially Santa Rosa) has been sorely lacking in the hip eat-and-drink department for way too long. The prices, though spendier than your local dive, are not going to break that bank (think $7 for a top-shelf mixed drink, $10 for a fancy cocktail in a martini glass), and the crowd is pleasingly mixed—a combination of happy-hour corporate types, hip young things dressed to kill and well-heeled foodies out on the town. The ambiance invites one to kick back and relax, and Bar Code's wine list showcases the best of what the local boutique wineries have to offer. Hooray! Barcode, 404-D Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Open late afternoons till whenever, Tuesday-Saturday. 707.528.9478. —E.L.
Photograph by Brett Ascarelli
While becoming increasingly more high-end, Napa's restaurant selection is lamentably pushing out the midpriced restaurants. The surge in fancy, high-grade eateries like Angele, N.V. and a host of others leaves hungry chagrined locals groping to find everyday eats. Let's face it, the French Laundry's great, but eating there once a week for a year would kill you. Other than fast-food chains, where's a local to turn? The answer shows up in the most unexpected of places at Napa Bowl's Lane 33 Cafe, a glorious ode to the diners of yesteryear.
At Lane 33, modeled after an old-style coffee shop, nostalgic bowling photos from the '40s and '50s line the walls. The most expensive thing on the dirt-cheap menu is the daily special, which usually rings up at a mere $8.50. Hop up on a barstool, shove up to the counter and watch the chef, Jim, grill a succulent burger with everything on it ($4 includes chips). For just a little more pocket change, order such burger variations as the Mexiburger with an Ortega chili and two cheeses ($5.25) or the teriyaki mushroom burger ($5.75). Homemade soups go for $4.50 a bowl, while the other end of the price spectrum includes juicy roast beef melts, French dip sandwiches and chef salads (all in the $7 range). Of course, the menu offers a full range of foods that pair well with bowling: nachos, pizza and pretty much anything that can be beer-battered and deep-fried.
As if this were somehow insufficient, the cafeteria also offers a full breakfast menu, serving eggs and pancakes to early-bird bowlers. Here's one place that's not about snootiness, wine pairing or even bowling. It's about serving the community right here. Lane 33 Cafe at the Napa Bowl, 494 Soscol Ave., Napa. Open daily from 8am to 9pm. The full bar is open from 10am until the alley closes. 707.224.8331. —B.A.
Photograph by Rory McNamara
Wine writer and sommelier Christopher Sawyer remembers his first bottle of fine wine quite vividly. "It was a bottle of Lynch-Bages that Winona Ryder and I took from her dad's cellar," he laughs with a rueful note. "We were watching Name of the Rose, one of my favorite movies. We just needed something to drink, so we snagged something. I thought it tasted pretty good. Today, that bottle would be worth about $400." Perhaps Sawyer's adolescent experimentation with Bordeaux and movie stars prepared him for his new gig as the "world's first film festival sommelier" for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival this April. "Yeah, I'd say that's pretty flukey," deadpans Sawyer, who will pair wines with the film program and generally lead the vino-drenched revelry.
When not acquiring honorifics (he's known in some circles as "the mayor of Wine Town"), Sawyer pens articles for local and national wine rags. He is also a sommelier at Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma, and will occasionally pick and pour wines for private clients like philanthropist Gordon Getty and Pixar's John Lasseter. "My job is to take people on a trip every time they sit down at the table, to perhaps experience a wine region that they might know enough about—in most cases, it's Sonoma County and its 13 appellations—and to make sure they're having a lot of fun," says Sawyer. As anyone who has visited Sawyer's private Petaluma wine cellar (where he corks some of Sonoma County's finest vintages and spins vintage punk vinyl LPs) can attest, the man is something of a one-man bacchanalia, always ready to share and happy to please.
"It's always an ongoing party and an experience waiting to happen," says Sawyer, who was born and raised in Sonoma County. "I realized when I got to drinking age that this is Little Europe, the land of promise, everything you could ever want as far as a great area to live. As we're seeing in some of these smaller appellations, there's unlimited possibilities. Why should we stop exploring it?" Another cork pops. For kicks, Sawyer says he would pair the Bohemian with "a Côtes du Rhône-style of wine, something like the Cline Cashmere that has a little Syrah and Mourvèdre and other stylistic elements in there. Like the Bohemian, it has some depth—and it's yummy." —D.H.
After visiting Thailand in 2000 and feasting on little plates of pad thai and big bowls of noodle soup, I searched the North Bay for a restaurant whose food would take me back to Bangkok. While nothing quite matches the delight of the green papaya salad sold by Thailand's streetside vendors, the delicately prepared and vibrantly flavorful dishes at Thai House in Santa Rosa come close. The heavenly tom kha gai (coconut milk soup with chicken) gets its zing from galangal (a sort of Thai ginger), and the pumpkin curry (not like the orange Halloween pumpkin but another type of squash) is richly satisfying. At lunch, try a curry noodle soup or anything with basil. Not familiar with Thai House? That's not surprising; even some Fourth Street regulars never dine there because they walk right by it. Once you find the sign, ascend a flight of stairs, or take the elevator that opens into a glimmer of Thailand. Part of Thai House, a perennial winner of the Bohemian's Reader's Picks, is dedicated to traditional floor seating with brightly decorated triangular Thai cushions. You'll be served by waitresses in typical costume. The other section has standard chairs and tables. Wherever you sit, the food will transport you to Thailand. Thai House, 525 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.529.3939. —M.S.
Several of the big wineries in Napa now charge double-figure tasting fees to sample their fermented grape juice. But out in western Sonoma County, some of the best wineries not only let you taste their best wines for free, but also let you sort of loll around afterward eating your own food: in other words—have a picnic on their grounds just as though the entire luscious spread were your own. My favorite place for a post-tasting lunch is Hop Kiln on Westside Road. Built for drying hops in 1905 by a crew of Italian stonemasons, this restored structure is a registered California Historic Landmark. After tasting, buy a bottle of your favorite—three of which just took top honors at the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle winetasting—and spread out your picnic blanket near the duck pond or sit at the tables in the Old Fig Garden. It's hard to imagine a better way to spend an afternoon than, you know, at your own place. Hop Kiln Winery, 6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg. Open daily, 10am to 5pm; no pets, please. 707.433.6491. —M.S.
Given the price of food today, the burritos at Taqueria San Jose are a minor miracle: loaded with chicken, pork or carne asada, rice, beans, cilantro and salsa, these little burros are bursting with flavor. The miracle is that this feast in a tortilla costs just $3.45 and will fill you to the gills. For another buck or so you can upgrade to super and get cheese, sour cream and guacamole. The atmosphere is classic Mexico: tile floors, beer posters with busty gals, a jukebox that plays mariachi music and Mexican pop songs, and a help-yourself, all-you-can-eat salsa and chips bar. Hunkered under the freeway on Fourth Street in San Rafael, Taqueria San Jose is not in the safest neighborhood. One Saturday night, I couldn't get in because the place was surrounded by five police cars; on another occasion, a friend got beat up in the parking lot because he wouldn't turn over his wallet to a couple of thugs. But the burritos are so good that I keep going back. That's good. Taqueria San Jose, 615 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.455.0999. —M.S.
Inside the Taqueria Santa Cruz taco truck sits an amazing, one-of-a-kind transmogrifying machine. While other taquerias crisp their tortillas on the grill, the Taqueria Santa Cruz instead throws its tortillas into the Machine, evidently sending them across the space-time continuum to the celestial kingdom of heavenly tortillas where they are thusly blessed by a wave of the tortilla god's hand. Sent back to earth only minutes later, the resulting tortillas have acquired a crisped-from-within magic that is unparalleled, and all for just five bucks. Located at the Shell Gas Station on the corner of Payran and Washington streets in Petaluma, parked well into the night. —G.M.
Please, kids, don't try PCP. Instead, just order a plate of the spicy shrimp tacos at Las Palmas Taqueria, the consumption of which will give you the most surreal culinary experience on earth. An underrated—and moderately unknown—gem among taquerias, Las Palmas is tucked out of the way between a Greyhound station and a liquorless liquor store; those who discover its fresh ingredients rarely go anywhere else, and the shrimp tacos in particular are an addictive kind of slow torture. The tacos' spiciness is never sharply abusive, but it envelops your head in a noisy cloud of heat and fog. Tears roll down, and it takes a good hour to recover; there's nothing like it. Las Palmas Taqueria, 415 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.546.3091. —G.M.
The Sunday brunch at Mister Magoo's in Petaluma features endless refills of Champagne, delivered to your table in five-minute intervals while you hunker down over beef stew, seafood quiche or poached egg atop ham atop cheese atop puff pastry. Well-loved for its full bar at dinnertime, when Italian dinners are served, Mister Magoo's brunch will fill you up in every way for just $13.95, a price that gets better with each successive refill. It's somehow reenergizing and refreshing to stumble out into the midday sun riding a four-flute buzz. Jim Backus, the voice of Mr. Magoo and the man responsible for the Champagne-fueled novelty recording "Delicious," woulda loved the place. Mister Magoo's, 1375 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Sunday brunch is served from 10am to 1pm. 707.763.4346. —G.M.
If you order a cup of coffee at the Apple Box in downtown Petaluma, and you plan to drink it there at the little riverside cafe, you better have a book and not be expected anywhere anytime soon. At the Apple Box, owned by Zohreh Ansari, every cup of coffee is made to order, from the beans on up. Those beans are ground right in front of you, just enough for one extremely strong cup of coffee, then they're scooped into the paper filter and boiling water is added. The baristas then wait (and wait and wait) until every drop has dripped into the cup (it is, admittedly, a big cup), all of which can take up to 10 minutes or more. But without a doubt, it's worth it. The resulting coffee is delicious and flavorful, almost a food group of its own, and the Apple Box encourages its customers to linger over their drinks while gazing out at the river and the eccentric Petaluma passersby. I'm getting a buzz just thinking about it. The Apple Box, 224 B St., Petaluma. 707.762.5222. —D.T.
Three words: Gorgonzola cheese sticks. If you've got a moratorium on buttery pastries, perhaps riding your bike the distance will encourage a lifting of the ban. Did you see the Tour of California ride through town? Yes, there's an evil uphill climb on Highway 1 before you earn the joy of screaming downhill, tears whipping out of your eyes, bugs lodging in your teeth as you cheese your way right down into the heart of Tomales. The Tomales Bakery is on your left. The rub: you've got to get in the saddle early, cause the joint closes when the goods are gone, so get there before noon, while the getting's good. The cheese sticks are made from a genius buttery puff-pastry dough and have these crisp-brittle melted cheese edges and the tender 'n' flaky insides of a croissant. It's a glorious ride with the shining green hills of the shire, the vast windblown vistas and excruciatingly cute cows. Cheesy-good. Tomales Bakery, 27000 Hwy. 1, Tomales. Open Thursday-Sunday, 7:30am until it's gone. 707.878.2429. —M.J.
When you have time to kill before or after taking in a film at the Century Regency 6, skip the restaurant at McGinnis Golf Center and sail instead to the Far East. Situated oddly on the first floor of an office building directly across from the movie theater, Sushi Boat offers authentic Japanese cuisine in an atmosphere so replete with traditional Japanese nautical décor it makes you feel like you're floating. Under a huge, netted gazebo sits the sushi bar, where you can sit and watch the hand rolls sail around the little moat on tiny sea vessels helmed by action figures like the Tin Man and Queen Amidala. For a long, tasty voyage to Sushi Ville, order the Super Dragon Roll, a gigantic prawn tempura roll topped with delicious unagi and served on a large wooden schooner. The serene atmosphere and nok cha tea can make you forget that you're actually stuffing yourself like the proverbial piggy in public. Bon voyage! Sushi Boat, 100 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael. Open for lunch and dinner daily until 10pm. 415.446.7200. —D.S.
In its first year in business, San Rafael's Sol Food has built quite a reputation. In each corner of Marin, you can hear people raving about the unique tastes, large portions and, above all else, the spicy pique sauce. But what do we in Marin really know about Puerto Rican food? Not much at all, since Sol Food is the sole restaurant in the county to serve that country's food. "A lot of people don't even know where Puerto Rico is," laments owner Marisol Hernandez, a San Rafael native who had trouble finding information about the country as a school kid. The décor of the tiny stand recalls Old San Juan, with endless banana palms and brightly colored walls. Because of his restaurant's delightfully cramped space, Hernandez is forced to use the freshest food, most of it organic. Try the free-range pollo al horno next time you're in San Rafael, and you'll praise the mighty Puerto Rico (wherever the hell it is). Sol Food, 732 Fourth St., San Rafael. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11:30am to 9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am to 10pm. 415.451.4765. —D.S.
There's no better place in San Rafael for twenty-somethings to feel old than at Double Rainbow on Fourth Street. For years, the ice cream shop and cafe has been a place for the young to congregate and do whatever teenagers have done since the days of American Graffiti. Whether enjoying a scoop of sherbet, complaining about your mortgage or relishing in your new promotion, you can't help but long to be gossiping and deciding which party to attend that night as the kids do at the next table. The '50s-style UFO models hanging from the ceiling embody your alienation when you inevitably notice the pervasive style of pants in the establishment. It's true: pegging your jeans really was lame (they still use that word, right?), and your mission becomes clear: buy pants that accentuate your butt crack. Oh, who are you kidding. Damn kids and their ice cream. Double Rainbow Cafe, 860 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.457.0803. —D.S.
Like to eat and run? At the Melting Pot, a Larkspur fondue franchise restaurant that opened in 2005, it's impossible. "You're here for an hour-and-a-half to three hours," confirms general manager Rachel Olmsted. "You're out to have a full evening." Be prepared to relax and feel empathy with cooks everywhere as you place your own meats or veggies into your table's steaming pot. The color-coded forks recall a childhood board game, making for a more sophisticated version of playing with your food. The five-course Big Night Out meal has everything you need, from a steaming cheese and bread appetizer, to succulent shrimp in a garlic bouillon, to chocolate-dipped strawberries so tasty that you'll forever doubt that fruit is actually good for you. As you emerge from your marathon meal, wondering if your car's Blue Book value has gone down, you feel affirmation that there are fewer things better to spend time on than good food with good company. The Melting Pot, 125 E. Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Larkspur. Dinner only; open nightly until 10:30pm. 415.461.6358. —D.S.
Despite all the great eats in the town of Napa, activity in the kitchen ceases promptly at 9pm, at least in those restaurants that smile on smaller-dollared customers. Why this curfew, just when my belly starts to wonder about dinner? Of course there's Denny's, king of the cheap eats, perfect for pie and a cup o' joe, but not for actual dinner. True, really good bistro food can be had at Bouchon, but that's a decent drive north, and it's not cheap; my last late-night snack rang up at $80 for two. (OK, if I'd had self-restraint, I could have escaped with the Croque Monsieur for $5.75.) Happily, Caffe Cicero offers moderately priced American dishes close to home until midnight. So: that makes one. The quest continues. Denny's, 1000 Imola Ave., Napa. Never ever closed. Ever. 707.224.2600. Bouchon, 6534 Washington St., Yountville. Dinner, 5:30pm to10:45pm; after hours menu till 1am. 707.944.8037. Caffe Cicero, 1245 First St., Napa. Open Monday-Saturday until midnight. 707.257.1802. —B.A.
Now an expatriate city dweller, I miss some of the strangest small things about the North Bay. A perfect latte at a coffee shop where one knows all of the employees and customers is one thing. The perfect bike ride directly out from one's front door is another. But one of the main failings of city living is that there is no Andy's Market. What 40 years ago was a small fruit stand on the highway between Sebastopol and Forestville has matured with the town into what is considered by some to be the most prominent produce market in Northern California. In addition to a gigantic selection of fruits and vegetables (which the family-run business also sells to restaurants), Andy's has a grocery section, a wide variety of local wines (and good ones, too!) an all-natural health and beauty section, gourmet specialty foods and amazing barbecue in season. And I swear it is the best place to find the last bottle of that one particular vintage that everyone's been talking about—discounted! I miss you, Andy's! Andy's Market, 1691 N. Gravenstein Hwy., Sebastopol. 707.823.8661. —E.L.
It was one of those Saturday nights when we were out trawling for a good time, ending up at the Seven Ultralounge. But by 11:30pm, it was already feeling like a long night. Don't get me wrong, Seven's tight, it's just that after a few hours, if you're way over 30, with no place to sit and repeatedly forking over bank for the drinks, it becomes time to move on. So we high-tailed it over to the Black Cat, which we assumed would be friendly if nothing else. But it was more than that. From the ghost town of Penngrove's Main Street, we heard the sounds of live dancehall spilling out the windows. We walked in to this: Men-women, black-white, straight-gay, young-old, singles-pairs—and not a rude bwoy in the house. There were only a few people dancing, but I'm pretty sure I saw some bona fide natty dreads among them. The selectors (Daddy Stevo and Talla John) were spinning dancehall and dub and a likkle bit of roots and the MC—or DJ as they call them—Comanche Hi Power was flowing and toasting propa. It felt like 1985 and I was in Jamaica. Or at least back in the Manhattan club-girl days of my youth. Then the side door opened, and in came a cloud of sweet smoke and the rest of the patrons, ambling back onto the dance floor. Of course the dance floor was stark! Everyone was chiefin' spliffs out the back. Sigh. How sweet the smell. How sweet the sound. Yah, mon. DJ Comanche High-Power SoundStation. About once a month on Saturdays at the Black Cat Bar and Cafe, 10056 Main St., Penngrove. 707.793.9480. —M.J.
As the 2005 winner of the Food Network's Pizza Battle, Mulberry Street Pizzeria prides itself on encouraging patrons' new creations. "Someone once described California pizza as a town without a sheriff," says chef and owner Ted Rowe. "We use a New York-style thin crust, but when you get to the toppings, we're strictly California." There are signature pizzas like the unique Three-Beer Pizza, with andouille sausage, jalapeños, onions and Cajun spices (you'll need three beers to wash it down). Or you can try the one that won Rowe the TV challenge, the For the Love of Mushroom pie with a wheat-blended crust under a white sauce topped by heart-shaped sautéed portobello mushrooms, all drizzled with a red wine reduction. The garlic bread is so delicious it's almost like a meal in itself. Mulberry Street Pizzeria, 101 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael. Open daily. 415.472.7272. —D.S.
I had heard their "New York pizza" claims, and if there's one thing New Yorkers have opinions about it's pizza. So as soon as the doors opened at Mombo's Sebastopol outpost, I marched up to the counter and said what I always say in New York: "Gimme a slice." The counter girl helpfully responded in polite NorCal fashion: "What kind?" Puhleez. I almost walked out. But then the sweet pizza-making man beside her started pointing out his favorite kinds to me, something I've never seen back home. I melted. "Plain, please."
I must commend Mombo's on its commitment to thin. Though the crust is more of a vehicle than a joy, it is crisp no matter the toppings, and did I mention thin? Mombo's has good ratios, good pesto and they make a fine caesar salad with carefully browned, crunchy-soft, real croutons. And don't forget the lunch special: 5 bucks for a slice, a salad, a soadie and no attitude. Can't beat that with a bat, not even in New York. Mombo's Pizza. 1880-B Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.528.FAST. 560 Gravenstein Hwy N., Sebastopol. 707.823.PIZA. —M.J.
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