(This is Part 2 of my Taste of Petaluma series.)
One of the rare benefits of being a food blogger is that I sometimes get invited to taste and write about food events. For the past several years I have been invited to attend and write about Taste of Petaluma. Taste of Petaluma is in its 6th year and is more popular than ever. It is your best chance to try Petaluma’s best – which may mean visiting some old favorites to see what is new on the menu, or visiting some new places that you have been meaning to try. The organizer of Taste of Petaluma invites food writers to pick three or four participating locations from the list of 35+ locations (and 70+ participants), and then they join her for what she has dubbed “mini-Tastes.” So, you can imagine my excited when I was invited to attend these “mini-Tastes” and write about this great event.
But I am more than just a food blogger. Five years ago I emailed the organizer of Taste of Petaluma to make a few suggestions on how the event might be improved. The ever friendly and always inclusive Laura Sunday emailed back asking if I had any interest in helping out. She had me at “Will you work for free food?” …and I have been involved ever since. This eventually led to my invitation to the board of directors of Cinnabar Theater, where I currently serve as the president. Let this be a cautionary tale to all of you who want to make suggestions on how things could be done better …but I digress.
So, the benefit of being a food blogger is that Laura invites me on her “mini-Tastes.” The benefit of helping her organize the event is that I get to partake in ALL the “Mini Tastes.” As an ambassador of Cinnabar Theater and of Taste of Petaluma, I get to meet a lot of great food writers, tell them about the event and how it benefits Cinnabar, and see and taste many of the new menu items at some of my favorite restaurants. Since different writers pick different restaurants to visit, this means that my waistline has already expanded, and we are still days away from the event. Living downtown, it is a rare restaurant that I haven’t visited, but it is nice to visit as a writer. We get the proprietor’s undivided attention, which gives us a chance to ask questions you normally wouldn’t as a regular patron. It also helps that I know most of the business owners’ downtown because it means I can fill in the gaps and backstories for some of the writers who are not as familiar with our downtown, and don’t have all day to visit with our gracious hosts.
Part two of my 2011 mini-Taste season found me joining Laura and several other food writers for another round of “mini-tastes.” Among these writers is a long-time Petaluma favorite, Frances Rivetti, who runs the very popular online magazines Southern Sonoma Country Life and West Petaluma Living. It is always a pleasure to dine with Frances because she knows her food, and she knows Petaluma. I know all the restaurant owners in town but that doesn’t mean they all know me. But when you sit at a table with Frances Rivetti, everyone stops in to say ‘hi.’
Our “mini-taste” started at TAPS, which is at 205 Kentucky Street, at the base of the Petaluma Hotel. TAPS opened its doors prior to its grand opening in order to give Taste of Petaluma visitors a sneak peak at what they had to offer, and has been participating ever since. Apparently, people liked what they saw, ate, and drank and have kept TAPS busy ever since. Eric and Wendy LaFranchi have done a great job in turning their establishment into one of Petaluma’s “must visit” locations.
Being an old home brewer, I have an appreciation for the care that TAPS puts into their selections. This isn’t just a bar with a bunch of beer. TAPS does a great job of pairing excellent beer with better than pub fare. And some of their beer is one of a kind. It is not uncommon to see specialty beers on tap that you will see nowhere else. And due to TAPS strong relationship with Lagunitas, there are times when you can get a seasonal or cask conditioned Lagunitas that isn’t even available at the brewery. I haven’t confirmed it, but I think that TAPS is the only location in town with a hand pump, which is the method used to serve cask conditioned beer. This style of beer, and beer pulling, is the way they did it before the age of CO2 canisters and overly carbonated beer. The beer is usually cellar temperature, as opposed to fridge temp, and is finished off (part of the brewing process) in a way that gives it a lot more flavor. My suggestion to anyone who enters a bar that has a hand pump is to order whatever they are pulling. You have never tasted beer are smooth, well rounded, and flavorful as something that is cask conditioned and pulled from a hand pump. TAPS cask conditioned is so popular that fans of their Facebook page and followers of their Tweets wait with baited breath to see what TAPS is serving next on the hand pump. They also post food specials through their social media sites.
During our visit we were treated to TAPS ever popular Rueben dog, buffalo wings, garlic fries, and two of their specialty beers. The Rueben Dog is the best in the business and the wings are available in three different heat levels. There is a fourth heat level but that is only when Abe (TAPS chef extraordinaire) can get a rare pepper that is grown in the central valley. I have never been a fan of garlic fries, which is okay with Abe because unlike everyone else who only serves regular, and maybe garlic fries, TAPS has many fries options on the menu. My favorite is the salt and pepper fries, with the celery salt fries coming in a close second. But if you are a fan of garlic fries, TAPS piles it on high. And the beers we had complimented our grub well. Both beers were from Lagunitas and were aged in bourbon barrels, which is quite rare and added some very interesting flavors to the beer. One was a cappuccino infused stout and the other was an imperial stout, which Eric told us has been used for their ice cream floats. Both were delicious!
Our second stop of the day was at Petaluma Pie Company. Angelo and Lina haven’t even had their doors open for a year and have already earned a stellar reputation for serving great pies, both savory and sweet, and they do it for a great price. Their menu has expanded since my first visit, as have the number of photos and stories on their “pie story” wall. The flavor combinations, as well as the pie crusts, have come a long ways since they opened their doors with a big “free pie party” back in December of 2010. Talking with Lina during our visit, we found out that they actually have special pie crust formulas, learned through trial and error that they use, depending on what is going into the pie.
This is a must visit location during this year’s Taste of Petaluma. Pie shops are fairly new to our area and a lot of people aren’t quite sure what to expect. Well, you can expect great pies, with incredibly flavorful and wholesome ingredients. In fact, Petaluma Pie Company even has a list of their local suppliers posted on the wall for all to see. Words like “organic,” and “locally sourced” really mean something to Lina and Angelo, and you can taste the difference in their food.
Personally, I am a huge fan of their hand pies, but you can order most items on their menu as a regular pie and take it home for the family. In fact, Lina told us that they have a fairly steady take-out business. I can see why. Their pies make for a great meal and are much more affordable than making your own at home…and in my case, much more tasty and creative. But if you are a sweet pie connoisseur, as opposed to a fan of savory pies, Petaluma Pie Company has you covered too. They have every type of sweet pie you could think of, along with some you might not have considered. But it is their chocolate cream hand pie that is so popular it is hard for them to keep up with the demand. Thankfully, the size and pricing of these hand pies means that you can try several without breaking the bank. But at Taste of Petaluma it will only cost you one tasting ticket.
This year’s offering will be a choice between their cheeseburger hand pie or the chocolate cream pie. For your ticket, you will also get to try beer from Kona Brewing Company. I can’t think of anything that goes better with a cheeseburger hand pie than a nice cool glass of Kona beer. If you are a true fan of pie, you might even consider making two stops into Petaluma Pie Company – try the cheeseburger pie and beer early on during your tour of Petaluma, and then return later for chocolate cream pie for ZERT. Petaluma Pie is located in the back corner of Putnam Plaza and some great outdoor seating for when the weather is nice.
Our third stop was at Viva Cocolat, located on the downtown block of Petaluma Blvd, across from Vine & Barrel. Lynn offers every kind of chocolate you could ask for, from bars to truffles to pasta. Yes, I saw chocolate pasta on her shelf. Many of the items are handmade in the store, while others are sourced from top chocolate confectionists. And I should mention that few people in town have a commitment to the Petaluma community like Lynn. In these tough economic times, non-profits like Cinnabar Theater could not survive without the help of local business and Lynn does more than her share to help. Even if she didn’t sell chocolate, I would visit her shop just to show my appreciation for her commitment to the community…but luckily, she sells chocolate, so visits are a necessity. (see the Taste of Petaluma Facebook page for a T-shirt and ticket special that is being offered exclusively through Viva Cocolat.)
Viva Cocolat is always a Taste of Petaluma favorite, but this year Lynn has really pulled out all the stops. She is offering fondue. This was my first ever fondue experience, and I have to say that I am now a big fan. But, I am sure that has a lot to do with the quality of chocolate that Lynn is using. This isn’t melted Herseys – this is top quality chocolate. I am usually not a fan of milk or white chocolate, preferring dark chocolate, but Lynn’s fondue may have changed all that. The white chocolate was so good that I may have abandoned the dipping materials (apples, bananas, strawberries, sweet pretzels, pound cake, and spicy chips) and eaten it straight from the spoon…but don’t worry, my co-tasters were already finished.
And if this wasn’t enough, Lynn has again paired her Taste of Petaluma offering with Valley of the Moon Port. There are a lot of great ports in the world, most coming from Portugal and Australia, but I have never tasted an American port as good as Valley of the Moon’s…and my last name isn’t Porter for nothing. In fact, Valley of the Moon Port is so popular that at last check, it is only sold at the vineyard and sells out faster then they can produce it.
BUT…HEAR MY WORDS OF WARNING. Viva Cocolat is a VERY popular Taste of Petaluma location so DO NOT wait until the last minute to visit them. Chocolate fondue is more than just ZERT so you may want to include it towards the early part of your tasting plans. With the dipping materials including several fruits, you could almost call it breakfast. There are several other ZERT locations that should not be missed (Bovine Bakery, Petaluma Pie Company, Sugo, and Vine & Barrel) so don’t pin all your hopes and desires on a late stop by Viva.
Because of its popularity, we made another visit to Bovine Bakery to visit with Carolyn and see what was new on the menu. As always, they prepare whatever fresh “catch of the day” their farmers bring them, so their menu is ever changing…but always delicious. As always, the food was fantastic, as was the atmosphere. It is hard to beat Bovine Bakery for fresh handmade baked goods, as well as pizzas, eggy pies (quiche), salads, sandwiches, and soup. And no, this is not the same picture that the other food bloggers are using; I took my own…Carolyn is ALWAYS smiling and happy, which adds to the charm, and likely the success, of Bovine Bakery.
If you want to hear about more Taste of Petaluma food options list to KSRO’s 1350AM from 4pm-5pm on Thursday, August 25 (that’s today!) Laura Sunday, Elly Lichtenstein (Cinnabar Theater’s artistic director) and yours truly will bring Steve Jaxon all sorts of great food from Petaluma’s best eateries.