By Marina Wolf
ONE USUALLY EATS in a fancy restaurant for one of several reasons: to celebrate the raise, to impress the parents, to warm up the sweetie for a little woo. But where to go when there’s no reason, no one to impress or seduce, when all that’s needed is comfort, convenience, or just good solid chow?
To the workhorses of the restaurant world, that’s where: the cafes, diners, BBQ pits, pizza shacks, taquerias. … By any name, in any part of the country, there’s good cheap food to be had in the most unassuming places. Jane and Michael Stern coined the term “road food” over 20 years ago to describe this everyday grub, which they “discovered” while crisscrossing the country talking to truck drivers. At the time, food trends were heading toward either haute or health cuisine, so the Sterns’ excitement over such all-American fare was understandable.
Road food has as much to offer the casual diner now as it did then. A road-food establishment is convenient in a very unobtrusive way: no neon signs, no flashy commercials, just a plain building that’s at exactly the right place between point A and point B, where A equals home and B equals the beach, church, work, or any place other than A. Road food is cheap, is simply flavored (which means you don’t have to concentrate to “get it”), and affords a blessed loosening of aesthetic, behavioral, or nutritional constraints. Here you can lick your fingers, use a roll to wipe your plate–if there even is a plate–and ask for a triple helping. They won’t even look at you sideways.
To this day the Sterns remain unparalleled reporters on road food. Their enthusiastic bulletins from around the United States can be seen at the Epicurious web site and, of all places, in Gourmet. But strangely, in all their travels, the Sterns have spent no ink at all on Sonoma County. I’d like to rectify that situation with my own arbitrary guide to some of the off-to-the-side eateries of the county. I won’t even pretend to be comprehensive–these are just personal favorites and tips from friends.
If you know a local joint that serves up outstanding road food–that is, good food and a comfortable atmosphere costs $30 or less for two people, including tip–drop me a line, ‘cuz I want to know.
Ingram’s Chili Bowl
THE DISPLAY CASE on the south wall tells it all: two menus, one from the restaurant’s first year of Santa Rosa operations in 1951 and one from today. The scary thing–the wonderful thing–is that, other than the prices, nothing has changed. The third generation of Ingrams has been dishing out the same platter of killer chili all these years. The thin, rusty sauce with tender chips of beef is made in the back every day, and then left to simmer while awaiting the call to cover foods that normally stand alone, but are better for the union: open-faced cheeseburgers, spaghetti, enchiladas, ham. The chili spreads out over the oval plate, lapping at the edges of a hot pile of hash browns. Breakfast is done here, too, but it’s hard to concentrate on the four food groups when the one that matters–chili–is available all day long, sending aromatic clouds over the assortment of old-timers, youngish businessmen on their lunch breaks, and wide-eyed food writers. Even though a pull at the slot machine near the door didn’t win me a free dinner, or even a second pull, I still felt lucky. Ingram’s Chili Bowl, 3925 Old Redwood Hwy., Santa Rosa. No phone (the fax number on the menu is a joke). Hours: Mondays-Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sundays, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Pack Jack Bar-B-Que Inn
THIS ROADSIDE SHACK, gussied up on the inside with Old West memorabilia and a deer’s head, sits just a little south of Sebastopol on Highway 116. You might drive past a couple of times before you see it, but do keep looking. Independent readers give Pack Jack’s a Best Of award year after year, so our readers, at least, are in the loop. But if you’re picking up the paper for the first time, here’s the dirt: Pack Jack’s digs down to the deep, greasy roots of barbecue and brings up a winner. The menu offers six or seven kinds of roast beast, all slow cooked in a smoky oven for a perfect crust that lies beneath a generous slathering of Bonnie and Marie Harris’ homemade sauce (hot, sweet, mild, or mix-’em-up). A half-size dinner is aplenty, while a regular dinner–one meat, two side dishes–is perfect, and the two-meat plate is just this side of over the top. Leave room for the beans: they’re sweet but not candied, with plenty of spice. Pack Jack Bar-B-Q Inn, 3963 Gravenstein Hwy. S., Sebastopol. 823-9929. Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Fridays-Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Zoya’s Truck Stop Cafe
THE ONLY EXIT leading from Highway 101 to Zoya’s Cafe in Petaluma–a favorite hangout for performance artist and musician Tom Waits–is on the northbound side. We non-truckers have to wend our way around the dark curve of Petaluma Boulevard South before we can crunch into the gravel parking lot to a place amid the behemoth trucks. Once at your table, with its wallside phone and rubbed-pale Formica top, head straight for the back page of the menu, where you’ll find a few simple lines describing the Russian specialties of the house. The cafe’s namesake came to Sonoma County the long way, via China, in the late ’40s, and clearly her culinary heritage survived the journey. This is road food po-russky: Beet-red borshcht, chunky with beef and veggies, makes a meal in itself with some buttered bread, as do the pel’meni–handmade meat dumplings piled into a deep bowl of clear broth. My Russian-American girlfriend shares the secret of garnishing pel’meni: a splash or two of soy sauce and a dollop of sour cream stirred in for cream-of-pel’meni satisfaction. Ask for some frozen to heat up at home! Zoya’s Truck Stop Cafe, 2645 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma. 762-2233. Hours: Daily, 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Willow Wood Market Cafe
THE WILLOW WOOD Market Cafe was part of the first wave of gastronomic gentrification to hit the west county hamlet of Graton a few years back. Now it is a downtown fixture, with its cozy tables accommodating a steady stream of townsfolk who want a bit of chat and a good cuppa joe. Owner Sally Spittles keeps the market stocked with a bemusing mix of British condiments and foodstuffs, gourmet SoCo items, and a few staples like beer and bread. Spittles also provides local artists and writers with ample wall space and a back area for readings once a month. Here you’ll find food for the body as well as the soul. The famous polenta is a sturdy, flavorful porridge that is equal to any stew you care to lay on it (they’re all good choices). And the sandwiches are slightly adventurous without being strange (try the hot ham and brie sandwich, with toasted rustic bread that lets the melty cheese seep through its holes).
Wash down your meal with a bottle of old-fashioned soda like key lime or strawberry. Take your time. Drink it slow. Willow Wood Market Cafe, 9020 Graton Road, Graton. 823-0233. Hours: Mondays-Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.
Betty’s English Fish & Chips
IF YOU HAVE to fiddle with a knife and fork, you are approaching the line between simple and not-so-simple good food. Betty’s Fish & Chips, a plain white storefront on Highway 12 on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa, falls firmly into the simple corner. Though you do get silverware with your hotly glistening platter of fish and fries, no one expects you to actually use it, except maybe on a heavier piece of the tender Icelandic cod that’d flake in half if you tried to dip it wholesale into the tartar sauce. Otherwise use your fingers–Miss Manners be damned. The kids over in the corner are doing it, and who knows better than kids how to enjoy food? The decor is functional British, with a few touristy wall hangings, but the restaurant wisely puts most of its energy into the food. A nice cap to the meal is a mini-pie, made every day on the premises. First time in? Try the lemon cloud pie, a mini-pie shell that holds a thick, rich, well-balanced curd under real whipped cream. Next time you can try the others. Betty’s English Fish & Chips, 4046 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa. 539-0899. Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 12:30 to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Homestyle: Betty Carr of Mom’s Apple Pie knows comfort food.
Pine Cone Restaurant
THIS MAIN STREET cafe in Sebastopol is never totally busy, which makes it a nice retreat from the modern, totally zapped java joints that occasionally–I’ll admit it–are a little too much. It’s always shady in here, and quiet. The soda counter serves straight-up, no-nonsense ice cream treats made from Clo’s ice cream, and the rest of the menu is equally plain and simple: eggy breakfasts with knock-out pancakes, sandwiches on white bread, burgers and hot fries. The counter attracts a certain category of older men–you know, the ones who are always trying to snag somebody else’s newspaper to go with their coffee. But then there’s the nice young man who pipes up with information about Leftover Salmon concert dates at just the right moment. The waitress teases both regulars and first-timers as if she’s on good terms with everybody’s parents. The high-backed booths sink under your weight as though they’ve been expecting you. This is a very good thing. Pine Cone Restaurant, 162 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 823-1375. Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Mom’s Apple Pie
ANY ESTABLISHMENT that names itself not only after a specific dish, but gives you the name of the person nominally responsible for that dish, is worth checking out as a road food possibility. Odds are that the people thereabouts will display a fervent loyalty to the cause. Betty Carr, the mom in Mom’s, has been inspiring that loyalty at the same location on Highway 116 just south of Forestville for about 15 years now. The menu, composed in white plastic letters on a black velvet-covered board, advertises sandwiches, burgers, fried chicken. But the real draw is the pie, one slice at a time or whole pies to go, made from the same recipe Carr learned in a home-ec class over 30 years ago: good tart apples (Gravenstein in season), not too much sugar, and a flaky crust that is never soggy, unless your ice cream melts on it. If you’re not an apple person, try the rhubarb pie, a tart piece of divinity that isn’t trying to hide its origins. Then pull up a chair in the side gallery and watch the traffic go by. Mom’s Apple Pie, 4550 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol. 823-8330. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Rob’s Rib Shack
SOME ROAD-FOOD establishments break the mold by not actually being on the way to anywhere, but by being destinations in their own right. Not in an “But, darling, you must eat here at least once before you leave for Paris” sense, but in a “Hey, I feel like some really good barbecue tonight” sense. Rob’s Rib Shack in Sonoma falls into both of those categories. The brick ovens in France can’t hold a candle to the magical one here: pieces of chicken, beef, and pork get shoved in there and emerge all charred on the outside, tender on the inside. Ah, forget the clichés and just shove your teeth into all the little spaces between the bones. And don’t worry about getting barbecue sauce on your face. First of all, you will. Second of all, even with the extra illumination afforded by strands of pig lights hanging from the low-slung ceiling, the Rib Shack is dark enough that no one will notice. A few yuppie touches here and there, in the achiote catfish sandwich or the Santa Fe smoked-chicken salad, but nothing to get alarmed about. From the outdoor eating area to the slow-burn killer fries, here’s a place that hard-core hogs can call home. Rob’s Rib Shack, 18708 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. 938-8520. Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
IN CLOVERDALE, the land that time and the freeway forgot, where night falls hard and the traffic is driving a lot faster down the main drag since the overpass went up and no one really needs to stop anymore … Well, traffic patterns may shift, but some things never change. The Owl Cafe, a motorist landmark since the ’40s, is still serving the same rib-sticking food–fish and chips, prime rib and potatoes … You get the picture–these are protein-and-carb combos that can keep truckers and college students fueled on the long haul to Arcata, at least. Do ask about the specials, and do get some pie; it’s not made on the premises, but it’s got a decent crust, and the friendly waitresses–there aren’t a lot of male servers in the heartland–will put a lot of ice cream on top if you ask. We came late in the evening and got very attentive service, and even got an eavesdropping earful about a waitress’ ex-husband. Seems he’s taken up with a much younger woman in Texas and … Owl Cafe, 485 S. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale. 894-8967. Hours: Sundays-Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (“8 if we slow down”); Fridays-Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 9 or 9:30 p.m.
The Crab Pot
I GOT BIT by a shark recently. It was after I had bought two cracked and cleaned fresh crabs in the packed little cottage on Highway 1 called the Crab Pot. Outdoors a party of people were busy taking snapshots of their seafood feast at the lone picnic tables, right behind the ramshackle smokehouse. Inside a man spoke in impatient Spanish to two big-eyed children and then ordered several cups of clam chowder, so thick that the spoons stood up in it. I checked out the clean-smelling shellfish and smoked fish that were sharing quarters in the cramped refrigerator case, then asked for an eighth of a pound of shark jerky instead of the half-pound that was listed on the board. In response, the poker-faced woman behind the counter handed me a harmless-looking shred. “You can try it first,” she said. One nibble at the thumbnail-sized piece ripped my face clean off. “Do you make this here?” I asked, my eyes watering at the cracked pepper that thickly coated the shark flesh. “Yup,” she said stoically, toting up the rest of my order on a thickly scribbled piece of paper. “Well, I only have enough money for the crabs and bread, but thanks,” I said, and fled. That was a lie. I had enough money for a bag of saltwater taffy. It took two or three pieces to soothe the flames in my mouth, the revenge of that old shark. The Crab Pot, 1750 Hwy. 1, Bodega Bay. 875-9970. Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. to 5 or 5:30 p.m.
From the January 28-February 3, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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