Aug 7, 2019
By Peter Posert
I know someone who isn’t perfect. She doesn’t wear The Best clothes or have The Best house. Her body isn’t the shape of a magazine model. Her kids may not be destined for MIT. Her life has ups and downs. Yet somehow, my friend, whom I dearly love, is uniquely perfect in her own funny, quirky, lovable way…
When I survey the cuisine scene of Sonoma County, there is one shining beacon that calls to me for affordable, family-friendly, honest, great restaurant and food experiences. That equals the best of Brooklyn but isn’t trying to be a Manhattan, it’s casual elegance instead of tuxedo fare, it ain’t tryin’ to be a Napa Valley, just a better than average night out.
Our local shining star is typically overlooked in most guidebooks. Virtually everyone’s opinions for restaurant destinations in our upscale wine county world calls for driving on by to get to the perfect and fancy haunts. I think you will be surprised when you really see what is in … Cotati!
There are a whopping 17 independent, local proprietor-owned restaurants in the little town!
The featured flavors are Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, American, Seafood, Nouvelle/modern, Middle Eastern, Italian, and yes, even a couple of BBQ joints. That’s 10 traditions out of restaurants 17 in a city of just 7,500 people – Sonoma County’s smallest incorporated city.
What is even more remarkable is the quality of the local groceries within the hamlet, with representation of upscale organic (Oliver’s), Far East- Asian, an Indian/ Pakistani grocer and the old-school local market.
Just at the edge of town are a couple of authentic Mexican and Latin American grocers in Rohnert Park. While there are all of these local ethnic and neighborhood stores, what goes unnoticed is that in Cotati, there isn’t an industrial scale American chain grocery store in the city and only one fast food joint tucked into a gas station at the freeway off ramp and a sandwich and a take-home pizza place in there somewhere.
It often seems like all our other cities have way too many industrial scale grocery stores and so many fast food outlets that they have driven out the artisans, but not in Cotati, where you can pretty much only choose great locally-owned stores and restaurants.
Within the town are a half-dozen bakeries. There are award winning wineries in Cotati now too. All this only covers the surface of one of our remarkable local gems.
The culinary heart of the city lies just a few blocks from the downtown strip. A zig and zag off the main drag and you’ll be able to find the best park in Sonoma County. We have some great ones, I know. There’s Armstrong Woods, Helen Putnam, Sonoma Mountain, Annandale and Sugarloaf plus the beaches on the coast and on and on and on. None hold a candle to Cotati’s little secret gem of a park.
The great folks at Daily Acts got hold of a basic small residential something that was sort of an unused grass lawn, just 5000 square feet, and transformed it into the Pocket Park.
The food grown there is free to any citizen of Cotati. Instead of spraying pesticides and 60,000 gallons of water annually to keep up a grass lawn that nobody used, they transformed this little lot into a working permaculture garden showpiece and local resource that galvanizes the neighborhood to act in a mindful way about their water and their yards and their food.
When I stop to think about what I’d want from my community, it’s fantastic artisans of the culinary trade, it’s community involvement, it’s a shunning of the forces of industrial American food supply chains and a return to my locally grown food stuffs.
Cotati isn’t perfect, like my friend, but in its own funny quirky way, there is way more to it than meets the eye. A few highlights include:
Burgers? Mike’s at the Crossroads, Super Burger and ACME Burger. A lifetime could be spent arguing which of the trio produces a better burger, and everyone would be right. The sides do matter, but again, it’s a tossup: Super Burger’s out of this world Greek Fries vs. ACME’svibrant pickles on the counter vs Mike’s spot-on potato salad. This may be the best burger town in America.
Chinese? Amy’s Chinese Kitchen, China Chef, China Village and Fou Zhou. Four Chinese to choose from in 1 little city. Amy’s incredible homemade pot stickers, China Chef’s great mu shu, China Village’s fiery hot and sour soup and Fou Zhou’s noodles are all stand-out dishes. You really can’t go wrong in Cotati for Chinese.
Mexican? Mi Ranchito, Mi Pueblo, Cotija and Café Salsa. It is a tie. Spectacular Mexican cuisine can be had in Cotati at any one of 4 cantinas. Molcajete at Mi Ranchito, burrito at Mi Pueblo, phenomenal tacos at Cotija and everything at Café Salsa! It’s all outstanding Mexican fare in Cotati.
Fish and Chips? Yep. Head to Cotati for some of the finest in the county. There’s the classic rendition at Cape Cod on Commerce with the beautifully rendered tartar sauce, succulent and moist coleslaw and jojo potatoes – heck, you could just go for coleslaw and potatoes for snack even! Some folks around here might say fish and chips is the specialty of the house at Friar Tucks…they’d probably be right. The other half of restaurants around town serve the dish as well.
Thai? Tiny Thai’s exuberant flavors burst off the plates with a salivating aroma and strong profiles to their dishes. Lively and spicy eggplant and classically rendered curries are great here. Sweet Thai is the real deal too, with a beautifully rendered signature dish, Pad Thai, that is worth the drive.
Wings? Need some great wings to go with a party or a game on the TV? Forget the wing chains! I mean really, forget those guys. Get on over to the newly opened Wing Man for truly delicious options. There are dozens of choices and incredible fries! Here’s the deal: When a hard-travelling food truck chef makes it work, so well, for so long, with so many fans down the road, and finally gets his own permanent digs, we should all take note. Yes, The Wing Man landed in Cotati with literally dozens of brews for beer lovers.
Diner? Now many of these culinary traditions could be rightly said to part of the classic American cuisine cannon; burgers, Chinese, Thai, etc. Yet one of the American traditions that is often overlooked by the high mucky mucks of gastronomic affectation is the lost child, the blue-plate diner. Cotati has a classic in Marvin’s. You could make a friend or two at the counter at Marvin’s by just mentioning the tasty nibbles there.
The cooking is simply excellent, touching primarily on Americana, Mexican and Californian options. One of many standouts is the Cotati Scramble with the eggs accompanied by deftly marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, handfuls of spinach and a little sausage slathered in cheese.
Thank goodness for the “freezer jam preserves” Marvin’s serves instead of the single-serve corporate jams of most diners. If you’re going to have a breakfast joint, at least get some jam! You’ll come to appreciate Cotati all the more for those little jam jars, too.
Café? There is another restaurant that calls itself a “café” but really, it’s a whole lot more. The Redwood Café symbolizes the vibrant, lively, fun and adventurous spirit of Cotati. It’s a swinging and fun small nightclub with great acts yet without the smoke and stale beer smell. It’s an organic vegetarian-centric beacon of hope. It’s a meeting place for friends that want to talk without the noise of outlandish open kitchens, hard surfaces and loudspeakers of so many modern restaurants.
The scene reflects the city, with young and old, students, businesspeople and old hippies all hanging out. It’s got moms meeting and guys watching sports, and vice versa. Everyone is all tucked into comfortable booths, picnic benches and outside tables, all thrilled with the sublime cooking and the scene. Not to be missed are the wraps, salads, soups and specials. My favorite there, and it’s a whole meal, is the appetizer (meal portioned) Mediterranean Meza with falafel, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, and hummus. There should be more vegetarian plates like this all over the county! A favorite wrap? Try The Garden, but they are all classically proportioned.
The top of the hill in the culinary traditions might very well be the Down To Earth Café. It is unassuming and casual on the surface, but the proprietor’s passion for flavor shines through in every dish. The crispy crunchy shell of the fried green tomatoes is lightly drizzled with a vibrant and lively piquant sauce. Floating on a sea of perfectly frothy mashed potatoes is a nicely sized portion of short ribs accompanied by slowly sautéed vegetables and dollop of horseradish sauce. This is good eatin’ in any chateau. Everything is mouthwateringly delicious at Down To Earth Café.
Groceries? If you want to try to make something out-of-the-ordinary yourself, you’ll have a much better time finding what you need in little Cotati. They not only host one of the fantastic Oliver’s groceries, but the best collection of ethnic stores, all within a two-minute drive of the nearest freeway exit.
Cotati’s Oliver’s Market is clearly the gravitational center of Cotati’s food scene. It boasts the largest produce selection, the biggest cheese and bulk foods departments, and the largest selection of wine, spirits and craft beers among all local employee-owned chain’s stores. How could that be? Why? It’s Cotati.
The shelves at Apna Bazaar, specializing in Indian, Pakistani, and Middle Eastern wares will fill your senses with the wonderment and excitement. It’s worth a special trip for the spice rack alone, but there is so much more to explore, like the depth of the flour choices or dried beans, etc. The more I go to Apna Bazaar, the more I want to go back to Apna Bazaar – it’s that much fun.
Similarly, Asiana has been a destination for many years for my far eastern cooking flights of fancy. I know, the little Asian section of the local mega grocery has the basics, but the richness of the experience, of seeing the whole package, is so much more rewarding and really shouldn’t be missed. From dozens of sake offerings to shelves of sauces, Asiana is one of Sonoma County’s fi nest resources for Asian ingredients and products. The staff provides great service, advice and with happy smiles, too. Worth the trip.
Bakeries? Cotati boasts independent bakeries, too. El Paso is great for pastries – Mexican style. Red Bird is a special kind of bakery – the kind that has been popping up all over our county in the past decade or so – true passionate artisans that demand our attention and we are happy to oblige. Red Bird has incredible breads and savory things to nosh on all day with a small busy sales counter and a few tables. There’s Your Sweet Expectations for spectacular special cakes and macaroons. Cotati is home to a Sift cupcakes outlet and a classic donut shop called Jelly Donuts. What could go wrong in Cotati that a trip to the bakery won’t fix, right? Some days are just chocolate cruller days while others, when the sun is shining are made for eclairs. What fixes up your days? You’ll surely find it in Cotati.
It’s been a long week but maybe you’re ready for a lighthearted relaxing moment without a lot of fuss. There are two great destinations that really count about town. The first covers so many bases; it’s a nice bar with some laughing good times and it’s quiet corners to talk about the day or the weekend or the family or whatever. Do you occasionally need a place to lean back and kick up the feet around the fire pit? The vibe at the Jaded Toad could suit your mood and the ribs, dry rubbed and slow cooked, are as fantastic as the scene is mellow.
Secondly, and check the calendar if they are open, because it’s a ton of fun at Cotati’s only winery tasting room, Karah Vineyards. While there are about a half dozen award winning vineyards in the area, Karah’s is the only one with a tasting room. Karah’s estate Pinot Noirs are the stuff of legend as the berry and fruit tones shine through the moderate oak like a local Santenay. The Pet Nat is so good, you’ll be prone to poetry: Summer stone fruit calls, Bubbling from the glass on the, Sunset deck; Karah. Adventurous too, the Nouveau is a secret joy. If Karah is having one of their Friday night shindigs, you’ll be in good company. Aren’t we all looking forward to a Cotati appellation soon?
The stores are neighborhood affairs, not Dean and DeLuca. Frankly, I don’t think anyone cares about airs in Cotati. What they do in total forms the remarkable culinary fabric of one of our more cuisine conscious Sonoma County communities. When taking another look at it from a culinary standpoint, Cotati shines brighter than most for its adventurous, affordable, family friendly and trailblazing ways that is worthy of note in so many ways.
They are just like Cotati the town; they are quirky, funny and fun, a true friend, occasionally imperfect, but with their own charm and character and I am proud to know them. If you haven’t been down the strip in a while, you should check back in on Cotati.
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