Appetite: 3 gourmet cheap eats on Sonoma

Pub date August 13, 2010
SectionFood & Drink

Not far off Sonoma’s idyllic town square lie these three unique gems – you can eat high quality Eastern European, BBQ or Mexican food at a reasonable price.

EL MOLINO CENTRAL: In a sea of taquerias lining Sonoma’s Highway 12, there’s a new addition I’ve been excited to tell you about that opened early this Summer: El Molino Central. I pulled over after doing a double take — it looks like a charming taqueria, but reading hand-painted “tortillas… tamales… blue bottle coffee” on the side of the building made me say, “Wait… what?”

With no dining space inside, there’s a leisurely patio out back. Inside, it’s an open kitchen where you survey Mexican street food prepared with a high level of care and quality ingredients. The staff hand-grinds corn masa and press tortillas in wood presses. There are even fresh tortillas and pre-prepared dishes to heat up at home. The menu offers merely a handful of items: chilaquiles, tostadas, enchiladas and delightful tamales (I like the white corn and cheese version).

What surprises is the Blue Bottle Coffee menu straight down to New Orleans’ Iced Coffee (perfect on a hot Wine Country summer day). You can get your individual drip or a cappuccino, happily savored with a tamale made from local ingredients.

The place looks plucked out of LA with palm trees and all, but exemplifying Slow Food sensibilities. The shock is the quality level (which costs a little more than an average taqueria, though still under $10)… and the Blue Bottle. You, too, can have your Blue Bottle and homemade tamales in a Mexican food joint. Sonoma is lucky to get this lovably quirky new addition.

Pork Schnitzel sandwich and white corn soup at Lokal

LOKAL: Just off the Sonoma square, Lokal has been getting some love lately from SF folk like Michael Bauer. I’m in when you say Eastern European and Hungarian food — difficult to find done well anywhere, much less in Wine Country.

Lokal won me over with shelves full of records and LPs in the dining room, then with sunny, back patio picnic tables. There’s a fine selection of beers making the patio beer garden-reminiscent. Service has it’s kinks, including a pricing discrepancy on their menu it took awhile to work out on my bill, but the food is a pleasure and is now a favored stop in downtown Sonoma.

Lokal makes a mean German Potato Salad ($5), sweetened by grilled red onions, punchy with mustard, maintaining a fresh profile despite starchiness. A Summer special of White Corn Puree Soup ($3.50 a cup) is sweet and bright. Count me in on the Eva Gabor’s Pork Schnitzel Sandwich/”Rueben” ($12). You almost forget there’s no pastrami in there with a breaded pork cutlet layered with mustard and sauerkraut. There’s a satisfying savoriness here reminiscent of a great Rueben. Lightly crunchy brown bread and house pickles seal the deal.

Jalapeno poppers stuffed with carnitas and cheese at Mondo

MONDO: Mondo, a short drive from downtown Sonoma, has the largest beer selection in the area: 23 on tap and more by the bottle, with a little beer garden courtyard through the restaurant. A couple years ago, this was a sausage and burger joint.

The burgers remain but there’s also the kind of bar food that puts a grin on my face: plump Jalapeno Poppers ($7.50) oozing with cheese and shreds of carnitas (pork). There’s fatty Braised Beef Brisket Sandwich ($9.50) piled with crumbly blue cheese and shaved red onion. For a little healthy balance, try specials like Sweet White Corn Salad ($5) tossed in lime, cilantro, red peppers and red onion.

This is a welcome Wine Country respite where you can break from excess wine for beer and cheap, gourmet bar fare.