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The Good Neighbor Policy

Shopping Center Cuisine in Cotati

By Sara Bir

There is no such thing as a quaint or charming shopping center. There just isn't. With their vast, cracked-asphalt parking lots and traffic-jam-instigating accessibility, shopping centers may play host to errand running, but they are very rarely pleasure destinations.

Still, as shopping centers go, Rancho Cotati is a model of the genre. All in one center you can find Chinese, Thai, and Mexican food, fish and chips, barbecue, a cafe, a diner, and a bar. Plus there's Oliver's Market, which offers a world of takeout (or eat-in) items. So it's not an exaggeration to say that Rancho Cotati feeds Cotati.

Tubby's has been in the Rancho Cotati Shopping Center for five years. Before that, it was on Highway 116 for 20 years. Debbie Stevenson has been owner for two years, and she worked at Tubby's for years before that. Terminally late, I just got around to eating there two weeks ago.

Of very serious note is the Two-by-Four Special: two pancakes or pieces of French toast, two eggs done as per request, two links of sausage, and two slices of bacon. That's right, double-down on the pork products. And the eggs too, if you consider that eggs feature prominently in both French toast and pancakes.

If you get your eggs over easy and the yolk is nice and runny, you can puncture the whites and let the yolk ooze across the pancakes or French toast as if it were poor person's hollandaise, and--oh, God!--it's disgusting heaven, a marriage of the rich and yolky with the spongy and sweet. Their waffles are crisp and golden, and their pancakes are flying-saucer huge, nearly drooping over the rim of the plate. Plus the waitstaff refills coffee with the alacrity of squirrels on meth.

For $7.25, the Two-by-Four is a stellar breakfast value, especially considering how apparent it is that Tubby's uses ingredients of higher quality than your typical diner does. They don't use any frozen or canned foods--"hands-on food" is how Stevenson put it.

What Tubby's makes up for in vittles it lacks in atmosphere. It's a fairly open, undecorated space with booths and tables, and with little art, in the form of vintage ads, on the walls. And it's too big to be a hole in the wall; it's more like a house in the wall. I still prefer the interior of Cotati's Mom's Boarding House, which has a very American sort of faux down-home charm. But I must say that the grub at Tubby's is far superior, and I shall perhaps have to begin splitting my greasy breakfast time between the two.

Lunches at Tubby's are pretty bustling. I ordered a grilled ham and cheese sandwich ($7.25 with a side of coleslaw, potato salad, or cup of soup), and what arrived had a shocking similarity to a cafe croque monsieur. The bread was sliced white bread, true, but it had some body and structure, unlike the squishy, doughy Wonder-ific loaves at most diners.

The considerable stack of thinly sliced ham had a definite grain to it, meaning it was not some reconfigured cheap loaf of hammy lunchmeat. A pickle spear, sliced tomato, green lettuce leaf, and a slice of red onion came on the side.

The side of tortilla soup wound up trumping the sandwich, though. For a cup of soup, this was a very substantial helping, more like a minibowl. It was also light on the broth--perhaps because they were getting to the end of the pot, who knows--but it was at least 50 percent corn, with some cubed chicken and some nice, freshly fried tortilla strips, all topped with a sprinkling of cilantro.

The broth was oddly on the sweet side, but a few dashes of Tabasco fixed that up fast. Despite the overwhelming corn-to-soup ratio, it was so good that I promptly abandoned my very decent sandwich.

Tubby's also has full "working man"-type lunches on the meat and potatoes tip, and though I wanted to check these out, I must admit that most writers do not work hard enough to justify having such a repast at the noon hour.

A few doors over from Tubby's--and probably more in tune with a writer's questionable dietary needs--is North Light Books and Cafe, and the similarities between the two generally end with them sharing the same shopping center. North Light is a smallish place, half bookstore and half cafe. In actuality, North Light is more of a cafe with a bookstore in it, and the two components integrate nicely enough not to detract from one another. The children's book section is spread throughout the dining area, and racks of arty greeting cards mingle with the placement of the condiments.

North Light is frequented by Sonoma State students and faculty, and it's no wonder. It's one of the few places in all of Rohnert Park and Cotati that has any kind of "college town" feeling. People go there to study or chat or to just hang out. There's an open mic night every Tuesday, and they have regular readings and musical performances, too.

Plus there's the food, which is, happily, a big plus. It's all made in-house, and the produce is, when possible, local.

The sandwiches there are healthful, flavorful, and eclectic. The roasted red pepper and provolone on chewy slices of pugliese with tapénade spread ($6.95 with a side salad) was robust in its filling, though the slightly slimy peppers would have benefited from a pat or two with a paper towel. And a more generous hand with the tapénade, which was swallowed up by the wonderful bubbles in the bread's open crumb, would have given the sandwich more character. But the bread was terrific, and the whole works had been warmed up a bit--a considerate touch.

A side salad of crisp greens was dressed generously in North Light's clean, understated vinaigrette. They make very simple, appealing salads that stand on their own next to an entrée or sandwich, instead of being there as an afterthought.

There's always a special at North Light to catch the eye (usually between $7 and $9). The goat cheese crêpes, topped with a mushroom cream sauce, were stellar and very rich. Less appealing was the eggplant parmesan, a dry, dense square whose eggplant slices were unappealingly firm instead of meaty or rich.

The soups at North Light change daily. We tried the cheddar-cauliflower soup ($4.95 bowl), which was just as cheddary as a good homemade macaroni and cheese, like diluting a good Mornay sauce with puréed cauliflower.

My major complaint with North Light is their dearth of black pepper. A kind little grind of black pepper would really bring those sandwiches, soups, and salads to life. And yet there is none to be found--no detectable pepper in the food, no black pepper shakers on the tables. Sigh.

The tasty treats at North Light are baked in-house, and their freshness is easy to detect. Compared to the stuff at Starbucks or Peet's or most any given cafe, they kick ass. The massive chocolate-oat bar ($2) was not the dry mess of oats I had feared but a tender, sweet crumble that sandwiched a luscious milk-chocolate layer. And the sweet potato crumble ($2.35) boasted a filling with a pure, untampered sweet-potato flavor, with a sugary, buttery streusel topping it that imparted a pleasing crunch.

The berry-beet brownie ($2) was, as Mr. Bir du Jour noted, "good if you like beets." It's also good if you like your brownies on the cakey side. Swirls of a jammy berry filling tempered the beetiness.

North Light's breakfast menu looks very appealing--toast, pastries, oatmeal, omelets, French toast. Tubby's has, for the moment, harnessed all of my eating-out breakfast inclinations, though, particularly with their waffles. So I never was able to check out North Light's quite possibly leaner breakfasts, but I suppose that's the hazard of having these two establishments so close to each other: One is bound to distract you from the other at some point.


Tubby's Restaurant. 560 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati. Monday-Saturday, 6am-3pm; Sunday, 7am-3pm. 707.792.1232.

North Light Books and Cafe. 550 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati. Monday-Friday, 7am-9pm; Saturday, 8am-7pm; Sunday, 9am-6pm. 707.792.4300.


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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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