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Petaluma’s moment to shine is fast approaching, which means your chance to try Petaluma’s best culinary offerings while strolling through downtown is also right around the corner.  Taste of Petaluma is a culinary walking tour of downtown Petaluma’s best restaurants, shops, and galleries, coupled with a great selection of regional wines and beers from the boutiques to the powerhouses. 

If you feel like Taste of Petaluma (TOP) has snuck up on you this year, you might be right.  TOP has advanced from late September to Saturday, August 27 from 11:30am-4pm.  Basically, you buy a strip of 10 tickets, which you then trade in at TOP locations for a sample, or “taste” of their food and drink.  Many people print out their map the night before the event so they can formulate a plan of attack that will bring them the most for their tickets.  (If you run out of tickets, extras can be purchased at the ticket sale locations.)  The list of restaurants is a who’s-who of Petaluma eats…Everest, Sugo, McNear’s, Maguire’s, Bovine Bakery, Riverside Bistro, Petaluma Pie Company, TAPS, Tres Hombres, Wild Goat Bistro, Hiro’s Sushi, Viva Cocolat, Vine & Barrel, Jacqueline’s High Tea, Velasco’s, Mi Pueblo, Petaluma Market…just to name a few.  And for those restaurants that don’t have a downtown location, TOP finds a gallery or shop to host them, so this is truly a Petaluma wide event (DeSmire – at Sienna; Roy’s Dogs – at Starstruck Boutique).  This is where you will find many of our area’s finest artisan cheese producers serving their latest-greatest selections.  So strap on your strolling shoes, cinch up your eatin’ britches, and head downtown for a deep and diverse selection of the best that Petaluma has to offer.  It will be a delight to all your senses, but most importantly, your taste buds.  

Taste of Petaluma is the brainchild of the Queen of Cuisine herself, Laura Sunday (also known as the “Chili Empress” when the Great Petaluma Chili Cookoff rolls around every spring.)  After attending “Taste of (insert city/town name here)” events all over the country, Laura felt that Petaluma not only deserved better, but could offer the best of Sonoma County through a better experience than just throwing a bunch of random food at you from cold and sterile tables inside a county fair pavilion.  As a fundraiser for Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater, Laura wanted to help the theater out, and also give the businesses of Petaluma a chance to show visitors more than a quant downtown.  By allowing businesses to serve food directly to TOP guests from right inside their own restaurant, they are better situated to serve fresh food and showcase their menu, location, service, and ambiance.  Moving into its 6th year, the event has been a huge success for participants serving their food, as well as those of us who want to try a lot of our town’s best restaurants, without having to risk the cost and time of a full meal.

My personal involvement comes on several levels.  When I first moved back to Petaluma after a 20 year absence, there were lots of new restaurants I wanted to try, as well as some old favorites that I want visit again.  TOP gave me an opportunity to try them all out in one afternoon, without killing my pocketbook and without committing months and months of Friday nights out.  Many of those first year “tastes” are still family favorites to this day.

So, when Laura contacted me about doing a pre-event “Mini-Taste,” I was thrilled…and immediately removed the batteries from my bathroom scale.  To promote the event Laura invites local food writers and bloggers to join her at our choice of three or four of the over 35 TOP participating locations.

On a sunny and warm Thursday, I met Laura, along with several other food bloggers for the first of four stops on our own “mini” culinary walking tour of downtown.  We began our tasting journey at Cordoza’s Deli on Petaluma Boulevard near Peets, a two-year old business born out of Bonnie Cordoza’s passion for food, and energized by her bubbly and warm-hearted personality and love for what she does.  Bonnie treated us to what I can only describe as the best pulled pork sandwich I have ever had.  If you know anything about me, you know that my likings lean deep into the realm of meats.  If I am not shying away from veggies, it is because I have broken out in a full blown sprint in the opposite direction.  Meat is my thing, and I don’t take it lightly.  Although I am a true foodie, I enjoy trying ALL foods, not just the fancy expensive stuff.  But don’t be fooled into believing I don’t know great food when I sink my teeth into something special.  Bonnie not only slow cooks her small batches of hot food, but she knows how to season them perfectly.  If you are at all familiar with her specials, you know that her food is so good that showing up at noon on say, Chili Thursdays, does not guarantee there will be any left for you.  She hesitates to make large batches because she doesn’t want to lose control of the quality or the well balanced flavors. 

Well, Bonnie hit another home run with her pulled pork sliders.  The majority of pulled pork I have eaten is shamelessly drowned in BBQ sauce, overriding the pork’s naturally flavorful tendencies.  When I saw these sliders hit the table, the first thing I noticed was the subtle absence of BBQ sauce.  This had me excited because any chef worth their salt tastes their food while preparing it, and if Bonnie decided her pulled pork didn’t need a lot of sauce, that is because the flavor of the meat was good enough to carry the day all on its own.  The natural flavor of the meat is complemented by her dry rub spices, and then perfectly melded together through hours of slow cooking.  And her coleslaw is the perfect cool and crisp counterpart to the pork’s suppleness.  Thankfully, my reputation sometimes precedes me and after Bonnie served the rest of the table, she brought an extra “sandie” and placed it next to me, telling us all … “just in case ‘anyone else’ shows up” … wink wink, nudge nudge.  Yup, I ate that one too…  And yes, I know that ‘slaw is a veggie.  If only I could ask Bonnie to prepare all the veggies the GF is trying to sneak into my meals…  Bonnie will also be holding a raffle for a $25 gift card, so make sure to stop by and get your name into the mix. 

Our next stop was at Wild Goat Bistro.  Nancy served us what has quickly become my favorite thin crust pizza.  Her flavors are simple, because as she points out, nothing more is needed and anything more would run the risk of overriding the exquisite flavor combos she has created.  I have never eaten pizza that is so light yet flavorful.  And I didn’t even need to buckle out another notch on my belt when I was finished.  We tried all three pizzas that will be offered at TOP.  There was the “Perfect Pear”, “That’s a Meatball”, and my nemesis, the “Mediterranean”.  How could my nemesis be a Neapolitan style pizza?  It is VEGETARIAN!  Oh Gad!  Yes, for all my belly-aching about liking meat and disliking veggies, Nancy has pulled off the ultimate coup.  Not only did she create a flavorful veggie pizza that doesn’t turn my stomach…but she created one that ranks as my favorite on the menu.  And yes, she does have meat pizzas; pizzas that I love.  But it is the Mediterranean that I covet, although as a meat lover it does cause me to slightly hang my head in shame.  Although not offered for TOP, Nancy had us sample several of her salads.  As a true foodie, I tried them all and was pleasantly surprised with their flavors.  This ain’t no Sizzler salad bar.  Using locally sourced ingredients, Nancy’s salads change with the seasons but are always crowd pleasers.  The big surprise was her tuna salad, which is made without mayonnaise.  Combined with sundried tomatoes, capers, olives, basil, olive oil, and lemon juice, there is none of the annoying fishy flavor that usually turns me away from anything having to do with fish (which in my book is just a floating vegetable.)

Sugo Trattoria would next fill our need for sweets after two great meals at Cordoza’s and WGB.  You don’t have to read very deep into my blogs to find numerous references to Sugo.  As my favorite restaurant in all of the bay area (and a constant supporter of community events and causes), I cannot say enough about them and their food.  I will consider toning it down once you have all tried them for yourselves, but until then, I feel it is my duty to praise them endlessly.  Unlike years past, when Sugo offered various lunch and dinner items at TOP, this year Sugo will be offering one of their newly created ZERTS.  For those of you who don’t know…the only reason I eat any meal is to get to the ZERT.  Yes, I am an adult, so I should be able to eat ZERT whenever I want…but I still feel a twinge of guilt if I haven’t finished my dinner first.  And when it comes to ZERT, Sugo pushes the envelope of flavor and innovation.  My favorite ZERT of all time is their lemon raspberry panna cotta.  Unlike many, who over-fruit a fruit flavored ZERT, Sugo’s panna cotta is a perfect blend of fruit and cream flavors.  It has the flavor of a warm July night I spent sitting on at a café eating and drinking the evening away while visiting the incredible fishing villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. (Speaking of Italian eateries, although this may sidetrack your taste buds from the previously described ZERT, Sugo’s Pete White is also a noted “charcuterer” in his own right.  Although not on the menu, he shared with us his latest in-house creation, a skillfully crafted coppa, which is a super fancy type of Italian Salume.  If you are Sugo and see coppa used in one of their dishes, you can stop right then and there and place your order.  It will be the best meal you have ever eaten.)

And just in case we hadn’t eaten enough, our next stop was Jacqueline’s High Tea (JHT.) Jacqueline’s is located on Western Ave, across from Petaluma Market.  It is run by Jacqueline and Frank, who have a true passion for what they are doing.  And what are they doing?  They serve the best tea and scones in town.  If you were wonder which whiskey or crappy canned American beer this cowboy goes to for comfort, you may be surprised to hear that tea is my drink of choice (…well, unless there is port available, and even then, I am likely to “port infuse” my tea.)  There are two things that are truly incredible about Jacqueline’s, in addition to Jacqueline and Frank themselves, and that is their scones and their almond cream…oh ya, and some sort of lemon curd stuff.  So there are three things…  I have never been a fan of scones, partially because I prefer Donuts to all other breakfast breads, save one (…which you will read about shortly) and I find most scones to look, feel, and taste like hockey pucks.  Friends had ranted and raved about JHT’s scones, but I was skeptical.  When I finally had one several years ago, I argued that it shouldn’t dirty its reputation by using the same name that all those other scones do.  Not that it needed it but as a fan of butter and whipped cream and anything that looks or tastes remotely like either, I topped the JHT scone with their almond cream.  I don’t know what the perfect food tastes like, but JHT’s almond cream has to be close to the top of the list. 

I was pleasantly surprised at the selection of tea that we were offered.  Although I drink a lot of tea, I don’t drink black, green, or white tea.  I don’t handle caffeine well, even in small doses.  Frank brought us two different teas, and low and behold, they were the two types of tea that I drink on a regular basis.  The first was a Vanilla infused Yerba Mate, one of the oldest tea varietals in the world, and a very popular tea in South American.  (There is strong debate whether the “stimulant” in yerba mate is caffeine or not – all I know is that it doesn’t leave me jittery like caffeine, and I don’t get headaches if I don’t have it.)  The second was a double chocolate infused “red” tea, called Rooibos.  It is brewed from a bush, specific to South Africa, and the name is pronounced any number of ways, depending on who you ask.  Wikipedia claims it is “roy-bos”, while Republic of Tea lists it as “roy-boss.”  Around our house, we call it “roy-bus.”  No matter how you pronounce the name of either tea, they each have a great flavor, unique from any other drink.  And the health benefits of both are too numerous to count…although I am a skeptic, so I just drink it for the taste (and the weight management benefits one finds from drinking vast quantities of liquids…well, liquids other than alcohol and soda.)  Both teas complement JHT’s scones and almond crème perfectly. 

And not to be outdone by the rest, our final stop found us at Bovine BakeryBovine opened its Petaluma location just in time to participate in last year’s TOP, and has quickly filled a baking need that has been sorely missing from Petaluma.  Caroline runs the Petaluma incarnation of the Point Reyes Station bakery her mother started years ago, which is a staple for any foodie visiting Tomales Bay.  If you aren’t greeted by Caroline’s warm and inviting smile (she starts pretty early in the morning), you will be greeted by one of her numerous happy and helpful employees.  The care they put into their food, and their service, will make you swear they have been waiting just for you.  The whole place feels like a big warm hug…and their food will make you wish you could call it “comfort food”… except your mom never made it this good.  Their gluten-free chocolate cherry chews were the star of this year’s Rivertown Revival.   And as hinted about above, their “Morning Bun” leaves all other breakfast breads sugary with jealousy.  I wish I could tell you what we tried, but that would be like trying to describe heaven.  Honestly, I wasn’t listening to any of the descriptions that Caroline was giving us, partially because I was neck deep in incredible food, and partially because it doesn’t matter what I try – it is all good.  There were things like a chocolate filled croissant, almond and poppy seed pastry, and a ham and cheese croissant that almost makes me abandon lunch time sandwiches all together.  They have recently expanded their menu to include more substantial lunch fare too.  Whether you want freshly baked pizza, eggy pies (quiche), or sandwiches and salads, Bovine Bakery has it all.  I even noticed two ladies enjoy a bowl of split pea soup.  I ask them how it was, wondering who the heck partakes in hot soup on a warm day.  They told me it was so good that they didn’t even think twice about ordering it at any time of day, warm or otherwise.  That pretty much says it all about Bovine’s food.

Advanced tickets for Taste of Petaluma are available at www.tasteofpetaluma.org, as well as by phone through Cinnabar Theater (707) 763-8920.  The price increases to $40 on the day of the event, still well worth the adventure you will experience in what is quickly becoming known as Northern California’s hottest culinary destination.

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