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I’ve now tried nearly every Mexican restaurant in the county. We have some great places, and some not quite as great. But after my third meal I am convinced that La Costa on South Fortuna Blvd., across from Safeway, is the best Mexican restaurant in the county. La Fiesta Cafe in Sunnybrae makes my favorite chicken mole, but La Costa’s is very close. The chile verde is the best I’ve had, anywhere. Someday I want to try their seven seafood soup, which I guess is only available on Sundays. Their homemade corn tortillas, always fresh, accentuate a great meal. Don’t judge the food by the tacky decor.
No credit cards, so bring cash or a local check.
Some of my favorite meals have come from the places which don’t look like much from the outside. By luck I happened onto The Bay Pastry in San Francisco back in my substitute teaching days when I was assigned to a job at Lincoln High School just around the corner. A tiny little hole-in-the-wall on Taraval about a block and a half a block west of 19th Street on the north side, with a run down sign tucked in between other businesses – easy to miss if you blink while you’re driving. Owned by an elderly Cantonese couple, they have a surprising number of bakery and dim sum items. Some items are better than others. While their curried beef rolls are sometimes (but not always) kind of dry and lacking in flavor, all of their dumplings and sumis have been invariably delicious and fresh. The sticky rice wrapped in the big leaves are my favorite item, especially once loaded up with chili oil. They have good almond cookies and a great sesame seeded soft dough roll with bean paste – not sure what the short name is as I just point out what I want in the glass case.
I don’t know if they make everything there, or are one extension of a larger family business where everything is made centrally. But the best thing about the food is the price. You can work up a great meal for 5 or 6 people for 40 dollars. When you buy up a large order, they tend to round down to the nearest 5 dollars, and on two occasions when I had my kids there late in the day they couple gave each kid a free box of noodles. The couple are very stoic, but they smiled when they saw my Asian kids the first time.
They do have a couple of seats, but it’s mostly set up for take out. The flavors may not be as elaborate as some of the dim sum you’ll get downtown or on a main drag in the Richmond District, but it’s very good food at a very reasonable price. They take pride in their craft, and it shows.
Another Bay Area hidden Chinese food treasure can be found over in Oakland, right down in Chinatown where many of the business signs are solely made up of Chinese characters. All of the restaurants look the same from the outside. Same decor. Often the same colors of signs. Same sizes of store fronts. But some make better food than others.
Shan Dong (yet another restaurant with tacky decor, but great food) is famous for its noodles, particularly the hand-pulled variety. Their dumplings are also delicious. But I strongly recommend their braised fish fillet and their onion pancakes.
On the down side, they do cook with MSG. But the flavor takes me back to some of the Chinese-Californian flavors predating some of the trendy “authentic” cuisines which dominate the affluence culture offerings of San Francisco.
Great friendly service, sometimes from a waitress who will tell you what you “really want to try.”
Another downside is trying to navigate the grid of one way streets and cross-walks which send pedestrians corner wise through the middle of the intersections to find the place and then find parking. What we do is order for take-out and one of us gets out for the food while the other drives around the block. Yeah, the food is that good.
It was a friend up here who recommended Volpi’s in Petaluma; an old family Italian restaurant (food served “family style”) which began during Prohibition as a speak-easy (they’ve preserved the hidden bar). Best pasta dishes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, even better than Marin Joe’s. Great soups. Family style meals finish off with a nice touch of great coffee and a nice spumoni. Stick to their traditional dishes. They’ve got a chef putting out some modernish dishes, but those flavors can be gotten anywhere. Great selection of affordable wines too. It’s on Washington on the edge of downtown Petaluma. After a great meal, walk down to Copperfield’s, one of my favorite bookstores outside of SF or Berkeley.
One day a few years back Gary of The Cuttings was cutting my hair as I told him about a planned trip to Fairfield for some depositions. He urged me not to miss the opportunity for the best burger I’d ever eat at Daves Giant Hamburger. You’ll find it on Texas Ave, just after the road bends upon having left the downtown area. It’s on the left and looks like just about any drive-in type burger joint. I don’t know if it’s the best burger I’ve had, but it’s certainly in the top 5.
The menu is simple. You can order a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a bowl of chili, or a chili-burger. No french fries. No sides. He’s got bags of chips if you really need them. He sells some pies for dessert, but I’ve never tried them. He’s got some soft drinks.
He’s a cantankerous old libertarian and if you’re unlucky you’ll be there after he’s been closed by the IRS over a tax dispute. Usually it’s staffed by perky teenage girls, but when he’s there you may be treated to his lightly sarcastic humor. Don’t be offended. My first time in I looked at the menu and said, “I’ll have a burger.” His response – a wry smile and “no kidding.”
Great quality beef, and there’s something about the way he grills his onions. The lack of french fries means you can spend two hours at the gym to make up for the meal instead of three.
For an excellent burrito try El Sombrero on Center Street in Healdsburg – right across the street from the police station just off the park square. It’s an order at the counter place, and they offer the standard fare but also excellent ceviche, menudo, and Mexican style shrimp cocktail. My kids love the place. They offer a large assortment of meats for their burritos, including some very good beef tongue. Parking’s always easy and it’s a perfect stop on the way to or from the Bay Area.
Lastly, this last summer I discovered Piaci Pizza in Fort Bragg, just west of the main drag on Redwood Ave. Gourmet thin crusted pizza, priced a little higher than your standard fare, but the taste is distinctive. Try their pesto! They also have a huge selection of beers on tap. It’s a small place, so off hours is best if you’re in any kind of hurry. But you know you’re in for a good meal the minute you walk in the door and smell the food. I haven’t tried anything but the pizza, but what I’ve had was top rate.
None of the photos is actually from the restaurants. I got them from Photobucket, and they look closest to my memory of the fare I describe. Except for the dim sum. The food looks different, but I thought it was a cool photo. Oh, and Dave’s giant burger doesn’t have red onions.