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[whitespace] Albino Carreno
Eric Reed

Baked good: Karina's Mexican Bakery owner Albino Carreno enjoys music and laughter when he works. "We like to be happy," he says with a smile. So do we.

'Best of' local food and drink
--something to chew on

ABUNDANCE. That's the only way to describe the wealth of local produce available in our neck of the woods. It would take forever to gulp and guzzle your way through the bountiful regional shopping basket brimming with chocolates, eggs, preserves, cheeses, fruits, teas, breads, sauces, vegetables, beers, meats, wines, poultry, ciders, et al.--all conceived, created, and concocted within the county lines. So much and sooo damn tasty. Where does one begin to sample this vast culinary landscape? The sight of acres on acres of vineyards alone is enough to make your head veritably spin--and that's before you even pop the cork off the bottle. And let's not forget your dining-out options. Not only is wine country cuisine alive, well, and thriving, but all kinds of other epicurean enticements are here for the ingesting, from steaks to sushi to Sherpa snacks. Is it our imagination or does a brand-new eatery seem to open up somewhere in Sonoma County every other week? Not that we're complaining, mind you--well, maybe a tad. Even elasticized waistbands stretch only so far.

Best Place to Cha-Cha-Cha and Chew a Churro

The earsplitting rhythmic Latino music is blasting at Karina's Mexican Bakery in Petaluma. A riotous party, perhaps? Claro que no! Just business as usual. "We have to have music," laughs owner and master baker Albino Carreno over the din. "We have to have dancing and singing while we work--we like to be happy, and this is a fun place." Amid all the partying, Carreno and his bakers churn out trays of delicious pastries, cookies, churros, and breads that have become staples at some of the North Bay's finest restaurants. There are conchas (vanilla or chocolate sweet rolls shaped like seashells and topped with sugar paste); cuernitos (Mexican croissants for breakfast); molletes (long rolls tinged with brown sugar and anise); pallazos (sweet rolls with strawberry, raspberry, or chocolate swirls); and taquitos de coco (cookies filled with coconut). Other specialties include pan fino (large bread loaves from the state of Oaxaca, where Carreno was born), regañadas (crispy sweet toasts), and tres leches cake (moist and light made with three types of milk, vanilla, and a touch of rum flavor). Latino and Anglo customers alike are drawn to the quality and subtle flavors that Carreno has adapted from family recipes. "We don't make it too much sweet here," says Carreno. "We've cut the sugar and the fat, and we don't use lard. Other places use a lot of sugar, but people can get sick on too much sugar." Karina's Mexican Bakery (named after Carreno's 9-year-old daughter) is located at 827 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma; 765-2772.

Best Local Red Wine, Part I

If you go by national sales figures and the amount of space taken up on supermarket shelves, the two most popular varietal wines in the good ol' U.S. of A. are chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. But are chards and cabs the best wines made in America? Not according to judges at the recent New World International Wine Competition, who bestowed "New World Grand Champion" status upon Kenwood Vineyards' 1995 Nuns Canyon Zinfandel. This bottling was also named best of price class (it retails for $20), best zinfandel, and best red wine. That's a lot of "bests" in anyone's book. The grapes for this wine came from a plot of land situated some 1,200 feet above the Sonoma Valley floor in the Mayacamas range--a vineyard that has been planted, pruned, and picked for more than a century. If you like your zin on the spicy side, you'll love the Kenwood Nuns Canyon. With a name like that, one can't help but wonder if there may have been some divine intervention in the New World judging. Such intervention would not have been necessary, however; this is great juice. Kenwood Vineyards, Sonoma; 833-1000.

Best Way to Butter Your Nut

Because El Niño occasionally renders the Thai Coconut Curried Butternut Squash Soup at Occidental's Bohemian Cafe inaccessible, chef Mark Miller graciously supplies his recipe: 2 tbsp. vegetable oil; 1 diced yellow onion; 4 cups coconut milk; 1 tbsp. Thai yellow curry paste; 4 cups precooked butternut squash (bake whole squash at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes; remove seed pods and peel); 2 cups chicken stock or water; 3 tbsp. brown sugar; salt to taste (optional); Kaffir lime leaves. In a heavy pot, add oil and sauté onion until transparent. Add coconut milk and curry paste. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes while stirring. Add squash, breaking it up while stirring. Purée this mixture in a blender and mix. To thin, add chicken stock or water. Add remaining ingredients. Heat. Mmm.

Best Place to Scarf a Buck

Two bites for a buck is a bargain when you're talking sushi. And the long-standing dollar-sushi days at Sushi Hana have helped make Sebastopol's only Japanese restaurant a thriving enterprise that recently expanded its capacity. Wednesdays and Saturdays are dollar days, when a lengthy menu of popular sushi--sake, maguro, enabi, hamachi, and the ever-popular and more easily pronounced California Roll--are all offered at bargain rates. Predictably, seating gets tight at lunch and dinner, and they don't bother with reservations, but off-peak-hours service is quick and less stressed. Sushi Hana, 6930 Burnett St., Sebastopol; 823-3778.

Best Local Red Wine, Part II

Take a grape varietal that is systematically being uprooted in Australia. Plant it in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley. Give the resulting crop to a winery that is run by a winemaker with Australian roots. What do you get? Some sort of plonk that only an Aussie winemaker's mother could love? Nope. You get the "Best Red Wine" at the prestigious Pacific Rim International Wine Competition. That's the story of Geyser Peak Winery's 1995 Winemaker's Selection Malbec, a mouth-filling wine with a deep crimson color, intense fruit flavors, and alluring spice characteristics. "Malbec may not be well known to the masses," notes Pacific Rim Director James Crum, "but when wineries start winning gold medals and 'best of show' awards for their malbecs, you're bound to see increases in the future. Argentina and Chile have huge malbec plantings, and I think you'll see more and more California acreage devoted to this varietal. It's a great blending grape, but it also can stand on its own two legs." A wine with great legs . . . what more could you ask for? Geyser Peak Winery, 22281 Chianti Road, Geyserville; 857-9463.

Best Way to Eat Around the World

The bittersweet Balkan music infuses the heat of an early autumn afternoon. Children dodge full-flavored wafts of smoke and half-hearted grasps of parents. It's the Glendi International Food Fair, a two-day global village and a gathering of tribes in search of good grub. Started nine years ago to raise funds for a new building for St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa, Glendi (which means "party" in Greek) has established itself as a rowdy gathering that the whole family can enjoy. On the third weekend of September, Slavs, Greeks, Africans, and Arabs--united by Orthodoxy and culinary zeal--prepare dishes from their homelands that mingle on an overloaded plate like a Buffet of Babel. Come on Saturday for the choicest morsels and longest hours. Though the folk music is almost irresistible, no one will hold it against you if you just kick back into a warm, full-bellied buzz. St. Mary's Orthodox Church, 90 Mountain View Ave., Santa Rosa; 584-9491.

Best Place to Get into a Pickle

"People are pickle-maniacs," reports chef Bernadette Burlle. "If we run out of pickles, people go pickle-mad." Burlle, co-owner with her husband, Peter, of Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery in Petaluma, speaks from experience, having found herself in this pickle a few times, with as many as 100 pounds of pickled products per week being served in the summer and some 65 pounds a week the rest of the year. Burlle's vinegar-cured slices of pickle heaven are based on a traditional bread-and-butter recipe enhanced with a jalapeño twist. "I tried to come up with a recipe that would work with any kind of sandwich," says Burlle, whose upscale pub grub includes elegant salads, comfort foods of the roast pork variety, and a changing chalkboard of specials. Whether we're just there for a beer, a slice of chocolate torte, or a girth-defying burger, the pickles always start our meals at Dempsey's. Long may they reign. Dempsey's Restaurant and Brewery, 50 E. Washington St., Petaluma; open for lunch and dinner daily; 765-9694.

Best Place for Sake and Sunblock

Psst! Vegetarians and foodies with a yen for new culinary adventures take heed. This little tidbit isn't on the regular menu, but ask politely and the chefs at Yao-Kiku Japanese Restaurant can usually slice up a stack of their secret specialty, aloe vera sushi. Order the soothing, medicinal plant, and cool Jell-O-like jade dice will arrive swathed in seaweed and precisely aligned on a small wooden tray. Dab on a little tongue-searing wasabi for a gloriously green "fire and ice" combo that will set your taste buds careening. Banzai! Be sure to wash it down with one of the specialty sakes (such as the sparkly concoction containing real gold leaf) served hot or cold in a miniature cup. Yao-Kiku, 2700 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa; 578-8180.

Best Way to Get Your Hands on Jane Seymour

Sorry. In these politically correct times, we'd better rephrase that. Chances are, you'll never get the opportunity to meet the Emmy-winning star of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in person. But you can get your hands on some of this multitalented woman's artwork, simply by spending $13 on a bottle of Korbel Brut Rose. Following in the footsteps of Nicole Miller, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra, Seymour was commissioned by the Guerneville-based F. Korbel & Brothers Inc. to create a watercolor painting for use on the winery's artist series of bottlings. The floral-themed Seymour bottle features hibiscus in magenta and teal shades with gold accents. A gold neck label with Seymour's signature and a teal foil capsule complete the package, which is sure to become a collector's item among wine fans, art collectors, and Seymour worshipers. Korbel Champagne Cellars, 13250 River Road, Guerneville; 887-2294.

Best Place to Discover a Belief in Transubstantiation

Anyone who's ever bitten accidentally into an uncured olive can testify to the sheer ineffability of olive oil. But you don't have to remain mystified: just drive to the Olive Press in Glen Ellen, where you can witness the alchemy firsthand. A co-op that boasts V. G. Buck, B. R. Cohn, and Spectrum among its 15 shareholders, the Press has been operating for only two seasons, but already the annual community press draws in more than 70 backyard olive farmers, who pay 30 cents a pound to pool their harvests. A warm, olive-themed gift shop abuts the pressing room, separated from the hum by only a pane of glass. It's a great place to sample oils and watch the fulsome amber-green liquid issue forth from the gleaming pipeline. Mmm . . . there is a god. Olive Press, 14301 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen; 939-8900.

Best Place to Have It All

This is the true story of how Flavors Unlimited saved my life. OK, it saved my children's lives. I say now with true sorrow and pity that I would have had to dispose of the unsavory little devils last fall while we were trapped in the endlessly snaking line that led to the Russian River Jazz Festival in downtown Guerneville if the line hadn't fortunately snaked past Flavors Unlimited. When we neared Flavors' door, the hideously unhappy creatures--tired from standing in the sun, occupied only by methodically kicking each other in the shins--turned their beseeching faces to me. "In, in, in," I hissed low, so that good mothers nearby couldn't hear me. They returned with frosty cups of love--ice cream swirled with macerated strawberries, chocolate, and mints. They were quiet. Their shins began to heal. They, I, and 13 other people in the proximity were happy. Since then, we've manufactured other reasons to stop by for the frozen yogurt or ice cream blended with a seemingly unlimited choice of fruits and candies. Store manager Steven Foster knows the score. "People who haven't been here before stop by and get caught," he laughs. "We're addictive." Flavors Unlimited, 16450 Main St., Guerneville; open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; 869-0425.

Best Stickers for Your Pot

A wise woman once said: "Don't go grocery shopping when you're hungry." That's good advice because pushing your cart around a temple of food while experiencing a blood-sugar crash can ruin your whole day, squeeze your wallet, and strain your spousal relationship. Beat the rap at Santa Rosa's G&G Supermarket, where a hard-to-find Chinese take-out counter dishes up the vittles of the world's most populous nation. The family-owned market is the home of the 25-cent pot sticker--a culinary masterstroke and a sacred public trust. G&G Supermarket, 1211 W. College Ave., Santa Rosa; 546-5120.

Best Winery for Animal Lovers

It's not unusual to pull into one of Sonoma County's wineries and be greeted by a friendly canine as you exit your vehicle. Several tasting rooms and wine-aging caves also are home to pets of the feline persuasion. These animals know how to cajole a table scrap or, at minimum, a brush of their mane. The world champion when it comes to greeting winery guests is a dog of unknown lineage--aptly named Wino--who resides on the Armida Winery property in Healdsburg. When Bruce and Sandra Cousins came to manage and live on the winery property, they quickly learned that Wino was part of the bargain. Armida was his home, and he'd have no part of relocating to some lesser acreage. Wino is a big, lumbering, lovable dog who not only will lead you up the winding trail from Westside Road to the winery's parking area, but also will escort you to the tasting-room entrance. He has so endeared himself to winery visitors that Armida has named its wine-by-mail club after him--a distinction no other winery pet currently enjoys. Armida Winery, 2201 Westside Road, Healdsburg; 433-2222.

Best Side Order East of Bombay

At the mouth of the Russian River, a hungry soul remembers a lesson from her vegetarian friends who so skillfully surf the side dishes of a restaurant's menu to fill their desires. In Bridgehaven, south of Jenner on Highway 1, Sizzling Tandoor serves marvelous Indian cuisine. Here the hungry coastal traveler can take the edge off a cold day with a few side orders of onion kulcha, a fresh-baked Indian bread prepared by hand and baked in the traditional, upright, barrel-shaped, charcoal-fueled tandoor oven. A little flour, a pinch of salt, a dab of olive oil, a sprinkle of spices, and a handful of chopped onions collectively satisfy our ancient, fundamental love of bread. Sizzling Tandoor, 9960 Hwy. 1, Bridgehaven; 865-0625 (also located at 409 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa; 527-5999).

Best Place to Comfort Your Carbohydrate-Loving Inner Self

They stand in neat little rows, just out of reach inside the bakery case, like unexpected yet deliriously welcome emissaries from another, better world. It somehow seems a breach of etiquette to call any treat so enticing, so delectably and sensuously rippling with moist, seductive, "eat-me-now" intensity by the relatively mundane name of "bread pudding." Yet there they are, each cradled in its own crinkly, bright-white paper cup, each overflowing with lightly crusted, soft-yellow and richly browned custard: the elegant, old-fashioned, sweet-but-not-too-sweet bread puddings modestly offered up each day by the dessert masters at the Downtown Bakery & Creamery on Healdsburg Plaza. Though by no means restricted to the culinary classification of "comfort foods," the offerings there reveal a comfortingly Main Street America influence, with creative modern flourishes. While the friendly counter people are bagging your pudding ($1.50), feast your eyes on the ready-to-bake breads and spicy gingerbread dough. Don't forget to say hi to the self-dubbed "Bench Bunch" out front; these articulate old codgers are almost as much of an institution as the awesome edibles all lined up and waiting inside. Downtown Bakery & Creamery, 308 Center St., Healdsburg; 431-2719.

Best Local Rhone Ranger

Numerous Sonoma County wineries have planted grapes whose roots stretch all the way to the Rhone region of France. A pioneer among the so-called Rhone Rangers is Lou Preston, who bottles sauvignon blanc and zinfandel to help pay the bills, but prefers to focus on "the unusual and surprising, the experimental and tantalizing." So when you visit Preston Vineyards in Healdsburg, don't ask for chardonnay! Instead, be pleasantly surprised by the viognier, marsanne, mourvedre, syrah, and various Rhone blends. The winery also is a great place for a picnic, so pack a basket and make an afternoon of it. And if you use your imagination, you may just be able to picture yourself in France. Preston Vineyards & Winery, 9206 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg; 433-3372.

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From the March 26-April 1, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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