Eat Nopal's Santa Rosa+ Summary
Incidentally, I had a chance to try Mateo Granados' Yucatan Tamales today at the Sebastopol Gravestein Apple Fair... nothing but disappointment. The $6 Suckling Pork tamale was completely unremarkable... average at best.
> The masa definitely didn't have the aroma or texture of Fresh Ground (which I would CERTAINLY expect at $6).
> The Salsa was (to use a Robert Lauriston term)... aggressively bland.
> The accompanying Green Salad with pickled onions was a waste of my chewing effort.
The $1.50 tamales from the Beto's Stand (that I have plugged above) are superior in every way.
State of Mexican Cuisine
On to something I might actually be somewhat qualified to discuss... Throughout the West Coast its a constant that restaurants serving the recent immigrant population are generally superior to those in the Suburbs, Artist Urbs or nTH generation Mexican-American communities... this is EXTRA true in Santa Rosa. I can't think of a single place outside of the Roseland barrio (i.e, Sebastopol Rd between Dutton & Stoney Point) that even comes close to the various places in that stretch.
Further, the Mexican cuisine in that stretch is not only outstanding by Sonoma County standards but it is also among the best in all of Northern California. As an example, I should note that the execution at El Michoacano has been quite distinguished relative to what I experienced in my recent whirlwind crawl with Kare_Raisu in the Mission & Fruitvale.
So the point is.... if you are in the Sonoma County area and you like Mexican... or are unhappy with the Mexican you have tried around town.... you need to get down to Sebastopol Rd. pronto.
Roseland enthusiasm aside.... Mexican cuisine is very limited in Sonoma / Wine Country... there isn't much variety, there isn't a single Alta Cocina / Fine Dining place in the area (despite the fact that well regarded chef Mateo Granados has been gone from Dry Creek Kitchen for a long time, doing the Catering & Farmer's Market thing.. you would think a nice Mexican restaurant might be on his agenda). Further, I don't think the foundation is there to support a nice place... at least not for decades.
Wine Country is know for its beauty, great weather, tranquility, and of course for Food & Wine.... it is also known for its high Cost of Living, and very poor Income to Cost ratio... obviously part of the premium of living here. This is also true for the immigrant community... almost everyone I have chatted with says the same thing... we love it here but its too expensive to save money. As I dig deeper I realize that the bulk of Mexicans come from to places... Purepecha Highlands in Michoacan, and the Lower Mixteca of Oaxaca.
> The Mixtecs are the bulk of vineyard workers (particularly in Napa Valley). They come from one of Mexico's poorest of the poor regions, which has faced prolonged drought & environment degradation over the last 30 years. They are a very humble group of people with an intense relationship to nature & land (Mixtec songs tend to venerate mountains, streams & forests)... they are one of the few groups that will tolerate the low pay & physical demands of Viticulture & Agriculture.
> The Michoacan contingent comes from one of Mexico's most beautiful areas (reknown for its Monarch butterfly "covered" pine forests, Day of the Dead processions in Lake Patzcuaro, mountain streams & waterfalls etc.,). The Meseta Purepecha is not nearly as remote or impoverished as the Lower Mixteca and further the Wine Country contingent comes from Mestizo towns (i.e., they grew up learning Spanish instead of Purepecha as their first & really only language)... and desperation isn't the same as among the noble Mixtecs. As I have dug into the reason they concentrate around here... its usually two prong:
>> They were first attracted to the Southbay & South San Francisco by other regional paisanos... then found out about Sonoma County and moved because its the area of California that most closely resembles their homeland. The consensus is that its hard to save money here... and there is LOTS of turnover as people go back to the Bay Area for a year or two... miss Sonoma County... come back up for a couple of years etc.,
Another important thing to know about this migrant community is that it is relatively new... its largely a first generation contingent... and you can see it in the school system with the proportion of Mexican kids substantially higher in Elementary as compared to High School... according to a Social Worker in Petaluma... they are just seeing the first wave of 1st generation Mexican kids graduating H.S.
All this is important to absorb because it indicates the potential for Mexican chow in the area. If we look at Chicago - arguably the premiere area for Mexican cuisine in the U.S. - the growing number of Mexican fine dining establishments is fueled by a confluence of cooks that progressed up the ranks of the Fine Dining establishments, saved enough money, and then brought their saavy, thoroughly acculturated 2nd generation children into the business to come up chic restaurants dishing out more upscale AND more representative, regional & exotic specialties to an appreciative audience.
In Wine Country... the vast majority of restaurant food from Phyllis' Giant Burgers, to Tamales on Sebastopol Rd, to Sushi, Duck Carpaccios, Thai Curries, and Baby Leaf Lettuce Salads is prepared by Mexicans. However, the poor ratio of Income to Cost characteristic of Sonoma County + the very high investment of cost of doing business here means it is highly unlikely that one of these cooks can save up & live out their American dream. Further the critical mass of "1st & a Half Gen" High School & College Students is still 10+ years away.
Add to this other cultural factors:
> Wine Country has historically been a retirement community
> Relatively Conservative, Euro-phyllic Palates among the local Baby Boomer & Flower Power generation
> The lack of Mexican tourism advertising (and hence lack of meaningful tourism from Wine Country to Central & Southern Mexico) precludes the local "intelligentsia" & foodies from getting to know more & become excited about Authentic & Fine Mexican gastronomy.
Now that we have established the bleak prospects for Alta Cocina here... how about Authentic Home Cooking & Regional Specialties... there should be plenty of Michoacanian & Oaxacan Mixtec food... right? Not exactly... a number of factors also constrain their potential:
1) The Mixtecs are just way too poor, humble & marginalized to eat out. As far as I know, Carrenos in Rhonert Park is the only Oaxacan restaurant in Sonoma County... and not many Oaxacans actually eat there.
2) High Cost of Ingredients & Restaurant Wages preclude a variety of regional specialties. Lola's and other local markets carry & turnover Huazontle, Quelites, Xoconostles and at least 2 dozen interesting vegetables that never show up in local restaurants. The problem is that the authentic / classic / home cooked preps for these ingredients cross the line of effort. El Michoacano has some fabulous Shrimp dishes featuring sauces that Larousse would die for but Shrimp is easy to cook... 5 minute things... its another animal to combine those sauces with multi step, labor intensive preps involved in making thrice cooked Huazontle fritters which involve poaching, chilling, battering, frying, braising etc., These are all things that are common in Mexico under the assumption of stay at home cooks (usually working in teams) or the availability of talented cooks available at low wages... but not common in the U.S. where the labor alone could buy a 2lb lobster.
In addition, to the labor intensive nature of the vast majority of traditional Mexican cooking there is another fundamental difference in both economies. Vegetables in Mexico are dirt cheap, food of the poor who can't afford meat. In the U.S. vegetables are expensive - particularly true when talking about locally grown products - and food for the wealthy. Here Green Garbanzos, Favas or Peas go for $4 a pound at the local Mexican markets... in Mexico these go for $0.20 a pound... even accounting for the higher wages in the U.S.... vegetables are still much more affordable to the typical person in Mexico then they are for the immigrant community here in Sonoma County... when adding up the expensive produce & the high labor costs its easy to see how foods that are featured in the daily 3 course prix fixe menus of the regional Fondas & Cocinas Economicas throughout Mexico for about $2 to $4.... here would be a $20+ endeavour... not exactly within reach for the average immigrant (particularly those who with large families to support).
But the silver lining is always there... go around asking for Corundas, Tortitas de Huazontle, Mixiotes de Conjeo, Chileajos & all the specialties from the Lower Mixteca and the Purepecha Highlands... people are friendly and always humbled & proud when their regional dishes are valued & requested... Chowhounds can make a difference.
Beautifully written - thank you for this explanation - and thank you for introducing us to the Roseland district. I had no idea that such a terrific resource was just off the freeway as we're running back and forth on 101. I look forward to exploring more and I hope that I am lucky enough to find some Corundas, etc.!
Honorable Mentions / Promising Places
> They had a change of ownership and the menu is completely different relative to when Kare_Raisu first reported on this place. In the current incarnation, my favorite dishes there are the Tostadas. One of the very, very, very few places around Wine Country that have legitimate tostadas (they fry their own & have authentic toppings)... i like both the Tinga (Chicken braised in Tomato-Chipotle sauce), and the Pierna (baked pork leg, shredded & sauced with a thin, slightly sweet Mole).
> Yeah I hate this ugly unnatural collision of Petty Burgeosie Beatnick as much as the next guy... their menu choices are weird, and cooking is oddly inconsistent but they do have very good Falafels (consistently)... and in fact their whole Meditteranean Plate is solid (yeah even the stupid Beet dish).
> If you can accept dumbed down Thai sweetened for local tastes... this place is very well executed (I recommend upgrading to Prawns as a rule of thumb)... and their Duck in Pumpkin Curry [a common special] is one of THE best dishes in Wine Country I have had the pleasure to consume.
Wayno's Little Shop of Coffee
> Very promising Tri Tip sandwiches & burgers in a friendly, trippy, real rocking & stoning, messy, endearing hippy joint.
East West Restaurant
557 Summerfield Rd, Santa Rosa, CA 95405
40 Calle del Monte, Sonoma, CA 95476
107 4th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Wayno's Little Shop of Coffee
3444 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA
Memorably Bad or Disappointing Meals at Well Regarded Places
> Mediocre ingredients, not particuarly Flavorful... I would take Olive Garden instead any day of the week.
> Terrible service... really dumbed down food... relatively expensive... no reason to go back.
> Extremely bland food, Cal-Mex menu in its worst connotations
> It seems to have gone downhill... would prefer California Pizza Kitchen any day
> Had a daily Prix Fixe... service was campy, food was downright bad
Sea Thai Bistro
> Beautifully designed restaurant with poor service, and food that is no better than my local strip mall Thai at double the price... why?
> Not bad... just not great for the price or hype
> Their signature Turkey Dinner is probably the single most terrible dish I have tasted in Santa Rosa (well actually I think the restaurant at the Sonoma County Airport out did it with its "pulled pork" mystery sandwich).
96 Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar
53 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa, CA
Puerto Vallarta Mexican Restaurant
1473 Lincoln Ave, Calistoga, CA 94515
52 Mission Cir Ste 110, Santa Rosa, CA 95409
Outstanding Fine Dining - $$$$
I haven't had a chance to try a bulk of the local fine dining restaurants, so my perspective is limited but nonetheless the one place I would go back to is Cyrus. I have both praised it & criticized it.... but there is no doubt it far outclasses popular restaurants like The Girl & The Fig, The General's Daughter & John Ash.
I also think its quite a bit overrated and can't conceive its among the very best on the West Coast as many have postulated. Certainly if you go spend $300 to $400 a person like we did its way overrated (ugly dining room, poor atmosphere, most of the food is not life changing as it should be at this level etc.,).... but I would definitely go back... I would do the 3 Course instead of the Tasting Menu (who needs the stupid chocolate milk - seltzer drink & gift boxes filled with cookies?), stick to the dishes with strong Asian roots, stay away from savory courses with sweet ingredients / themes, stay away from the wine pairings etc.,
I would definitely NOT go back to Girl and the Fig, General's Daughter or John Ash
Outstanding Mid Level Restaurants - $$$
> This restaurant is by the same people as Willie's Wine Bar (I have not been to yet)... its quite similar (in menu, concept, style, service etc.,) to dozens of restaurants here in Wine Country... the food is kind of eclectic, generally has strong roots in Classic European dishes and utilizes Local Ingredients... the recipes aren't particularly creative or distinguished withing Wine Country... but I find this exciting because its evidence that Wine Country actually has a cohesive local cuisine that is taking deeper & deeper roots with every new generation of cooks.
> Monti's isn't particularly inexpensive, its in a shopping center, and doesn't do Tasting Menus... but execution is consistently excellent.... I think its a great mid level place. My favorite dishes are the daily Rotisserie specials... particularly anything involving Quail or Duck... they also do a Frito Misto with excellent baby octopus, okay Calamari rings, intriguing deep fried lemon slices & fennel root.
Kabab & Curry
> This place is more expensive ( also nicer) than your typical California Indian restaurant... and the one time we went here... the flavors popped, and ingredients were very high quality... comparable to restaurants I have been taken to by Indian chowish co-workers.
Monti's Rotisserie & Bar
714 Village Ct, Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Kabab & Curry House
507 4th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401
I forgot to add Graffiti... I haven't been back since it was sold to the Lagunitas Brewing people (whose beer I don't like)... and I hope it hasn't gone downhill. Nice atmosphere... particularly the riverfront patio... and excellently executed Wine Country dishes...I think a notch above Monti's
101 2nd St Ste 190, Petaluma, CA 94952
Outstanding Casual / Traditional / Neighborhood Eateries - $$
> Not sure what the status is here... as there was a temporary close down and haven't been back but its best.. the uncommonly fresh, well executed $9 buffet has arguably been the best deal in town.
> Solid Brooklyn style Italian Deli... the Calamari Steak sandwich is absolutely excellent... they have nice homemade dressing & some very good pastas.
> The Molcajete, Camarones Borrachos, Shrimp Wrapped Bacon, Michoacan style Enchiladas Placeras, Beans, Salsas, Handmade Tortillas are all stand outs. Not cheap for a "ghetto" eatery (Shrimp dishes are about $15)... but the ingredient quality, superb execution & the loads of lower income families willing to shell out the $ guarantees the food is worth every dime.
> Standard Thai / Laotian cuisine... the Green Curry is excellent, in general upgrade to Duck... most things are very good at reasonable prices.
Outstanding Cheap Eats - $
> Ethiopian food fairly comparable to places in L.A's Little Africa neighborhood. The $19 Vegetarian Set for two is an unparalleled deal here in Wine Country.
> The Shiro (Garbanzo puree) & the Collard Greens are simply outstanding.
Antojitos La Mixteca (Napa)
> Excellent Oaxacan Mixtec eatery... the Chileajo (Pork Spareribs in a Dried Chile - Sesame sauce is outstanding) as is the Cucumber Agua Fresca, Saudero Taco & Duritos (Puffed Wheat "cracker" topped with pickled pork skins, avocado, crema, dried cheese, salsa & pickled vegetables)>
Antojitos La Texanita
> Excellent Pozole full of fall apart tender pork feet, cheeks & leg meat.
> Delicious Tacos with handmade tortillas.
> Superb Sazon & execution of a fairly standard Cal-Mex menu.
Beto's Tamales Carts
> The Queso with Jalapenos... paired with thick, cultured crema & a guajillo salsa for $1.50 is outstanding.
> One cart parks on Sebastopol Rd. near Delicias Elenita's... the other parks across the street from DMV on Corby
> Lot's of solid casual diner items like sandwiches & burgers... the Country Fried Steak is outstanding for California... fried to a crispy exterior & juicy interior with nice "sausage" herbs & spices, black peppery gravy, Soup made from scratch, smashed potatoes, nicely sweated vegetables, homemade garlic toast.... all for $9.
> Thin Crust Pizza by the Slice in the vein of anonymous NY corner pizza joints... it may be not be comparable to the best in NY... but it is comparable to the typical.
Phyllis Giant Burgers
> It took me a few trips to warm up to them (and learn what to order)... the Mushroom Giant cooked Medium Rare with Bleu Cheese & Grilled Onions (no mustard, lettuce, onions or pickles) is a serious candidate for best burger in Wine Country... but you have to be very explicit when you order it because they will drop in the condiments that destroy the burger.
> Great Pho, Spring Rolls, Chile Sauce as well as the Meatballs, Sizzling Beef etc.,
Antojitos La Texanita
1667 Sebastopol Rd, Santa Rosa, CA 95407
2032 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95407
1880 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95401
966 N Dutton Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95401
2580 Jefferson St, Napa, CA 94558
Phyllis' Giant Burgers
4910 Sonoma Hwy, Santa Rosa, CA 95409
913 4th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95404
I love your reports, reviews and your depth of knowledge but you'rrre reminding me of Harry Lauder.* We will miss you. Aloha.
*And if Lauder created the pattern for every subsequent pop star to follow, he also came up with the perfect way to end it: by degrees. Did you think Sinatra invented the farewell tour? Think again. Sir Harry teased his public with a series of Farewell Tours before finally throwing in his tartan towel in 1935.
But even then he could always be lured out for a final, not to be repeated, last public appearance.