Sonoma diners can’t survive on wine country cuisine alone. Well, actually, yes, they can, but why should they, when there are plenty of other spicy options, too? Come along for this global adventure into good eating through the ethnic capital of the county, Santa Rosa.
Sazon, 1129 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-4346.
Mmm, beef heart skewers marinated in aji panca and served with grilled potato, aji huacatay and roasted rocoto sauce. But wait, it’s a lot better than it sounds, all savory and slightly chewy and complex with fiery chiles. And it’s a hallmark of this authentic Peruvian eatery. How real is real? Some ingredients are imported from South America, like yucca, plantains, and Inca Kola soda, and many recipes are fashioned in true Peruvian style, such as ceviche marinated in leche de tigre (spicy fish juice) and tossed with cancha (toasted Peruvian corn). For a more familiar bite, there’s lomo saltado, a Chinese-style platter of wok-fried tenderloin, cilantro, soy and vinegar tossed with French fries over a scoop of rice. But live a little, and experiment with elaborate creations like a mouthwatering aji Amarillo-lime infused potato terrine studded with Dungeness crab, avocado, egg and tangy botija olive slathered in rocoto pepper-cilantro aioli.
Thai Chile, 3448 Santa Rosa Avenue, Santa Rosa, 707-206-0884, thaichilisantarosa.com.
This is a tiny place (perhaps three dozen seats) with an enormous menu, and rock-bottom prices (nothing priced over $10). But most importantly, the Asian cuisine is top-notch, with dishes made to-order, and crafted to your own spice level. Yes, there is sweet-and-sour chicken, eggplant beef and such, but also remarkable delicacies like deep fried quail with hot dipping sauce, and complex salads like a tumble of calamari, mussels, scallops and prawns seasoned with lemongrass, citrus leaves, red onion, mint leaves, cucumber and roasted rice in smoked chili sauce. If you love curry, you’ll be in love with this place, too – the chef sends out a rainbow array in flavors like green, red, yellow and zesty brown.
Noodle Bowl, 821 Russell Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-843-5256.
Don’t be surprised if you drive right past this eatery, hidden as it is next to the 101 Freeway on Russell Avenue south of Piner. Don’t be shocked, either, to see that the menu promises a specialty of Cambodian cuisine. Yet it’s well worth your time to seek the spot out, and study the bill of fare, since recipes actually range all across Asia with plenty of friendly plates that even the most sheltered diner will recognize. A best-seller, and for excellent reason, is the lovely Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich, layering sliced barbecued pork or chicken, silky pate, crisp carrots, tart pickled daikon and a slick of mayonnaise brightened with cilantro and jalapeno in a crusty, grilled Costeaux Bakery baguette. Rub your eyes, since the bill is only three bucks. Soup lovers will adore vermicelli rice noodle bowls brimming with pork, beef, shrimp or chicken, pho bobbing with chunks of short rib, or the Japanese shabu-shabu that you cook by swishing paper-thin-sliced beef in steaming broth.
Tov Tofu, 1169 Yulupa, Santa Rosa, 707-566-9469.
This new gem brings all the goodness of true Korean food, served in a miniature space of just nine tables. Start with kimchi in ten different kinds that is free with all meals. Then dig into hot pots, swimming in good broth and stocked with fresh shellfish, mushrooms, raw egg, and more. Feeling extra adventurous? Try the signature spicy stir-fried squid, sipped alongside oksusu cha (corn tea).
El Rinconcito Yucateco, 3935 Sebastopol Road, Santa Rosa, 707-526-2720.
Central American cooking is as an increasing presence on Sonoma’s dining scene, and no one does it better than El Rinconcito Yucateco. As the name suggests, this is
Yucatán food, served in a bare-bones eatery where all attention to detail is given to delightful homestyle dishes like panuchos or salbutes. Think comfort Mexican food: panuchos are like tostadas, fried tortillas that are layered with black bean purée, seasoned chicken, lettuce, tomato and avocado then topped in a rainbow of lime, pickled red onions, and grilled peppers, while salbutes are simply crisp, handmade tortillas mounded in shredded chicken. You won’t break $10 for most meals here, and you’ll fill up, too, with perhaps the most magical, marvelous cochinita pibil ever made – it’s a spicy, soupy, deeply savory pork stew brightened with achiote and habanero, scooped up in fresh-from-the-griddle corn tortillas.
Pupuseria Salvadorena, 1403 Maple Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-544-3141.
Whether you’ve never had El Salvador’s famous pupusas, or you’re a connoisseur, you’re in for a real treat. These are thick, hand-made corn flatbreads stuffed with savory meats and cheeses, and they’re a full meal for just about $2 each. You can choose fillings like juicy pork, cheese and beans; gooey cheese, fresh squash and spinach; or cheese and El Salvador’s prized, pungent loroco flower. Try to pick one up and get it to your mouth without spilling, or better yet, tear off pieces with your fingers and make bite-size bundles. There’s even a snackable dessert, with the delicious empanada plump with chewy plantain and silky milk custard. For even hungrier types, big platters tempt in choices like grilled shrimp over rice, beans, salad and tortillas, or hearty salpicon of diced beef seasoned with onion and fresh mint, scooped in a warm tortilla with rice and beans and crisp lettuce.
Tip: Ethnic eat-arounds are a fun adventure with friends and family. For a dramatic twist, rent a limo from Pure Luxury Transportation, stock up on some great Sonoma sparkling wine, and plan a trip to your favorite global hole-in-the-wall.