Once you’ve passed the heart of Middletown and are working your way towards the winding roads of St. Helena, you’ll pass by La Parrilla Grill. You might not notice it right away, but it’s there on the right side of the road. If you pass The Geysers Visitor Center, you’ve gone too far. La Parrilla’s part taco stand, part restaurant, and is filled with incredible Mexican food. And Lake County’s full of good Mexican joints. But here, you’ll find unique, homestyle dishes you won’t find anywhere else.
RESTAURANTS AND BARS
The gray clouds clear, leaving Lake County’s iconic blue above the shores of Clear Lake. In the distance, Mt. Konocti reaches up against the crystal-clear sky. A boat takes its time launching at the nearest boat launch. It’s not a busy day on the lake. There’s no rush, and the boat owner knows that. A few people walk by, heading back to work somewhere on Main St, while others take their time over a meal and drink. It’s the lunch hour in Library Park. Outside, a couple of patrons soak in the view from Park Place Restaurant’s outdoor patio while sipping on a glass of wine. Inside, lively music greets us, and happy patrons chatter amongst themselves. The atmosphere is energetic, upbeat, and contagious. The view from the lake isn’t going anywhere, even inside, and the vibes are irresistible.
A welcomed winter rain twists and turns around our feet as we make our way up the steps from the greens to the lodge. No, it’s not a lodge, but that’s what best describes the clubhouse. Its exposed wood and log beams give it a feel like a ski resort. Only a few days before, snow blanketed the golf course, welcoming families from all over the mountain to come and play in a winter wonderland. Inside, people warmed their cold fingers with hot cocoa or lunch in front of the club’s open fire pit. See, a lodge, right?
Today, the snowstorm has turned into a rainstorm outside the clubhouse. Inside, the same warm fire greets us, beckoning us to come closer, and we do. It’s near closing time, and most patrons have already come and gone except for a few locals sitting at tables. A television screen flashes pictures at the end of the bar. We find a spot near the fire and are soon greeted by our waitress. We order a beer and my usual, a Bloody Mary. I know when I find a good one—not too salty and the horseradish is just right. At the bar stands Eddie Mullins, owner and visionary of all that is Adams Springs. Before too long, he makes his way to our table like he always does to greet us.
Edgar Bonilla and Antonio Sanchez sit at one of the picnic tables stretched under a large tent. Edgar’s just lit a propane heater, and the warmth heats the chill from the morning air. Both bring their own energy to the table; Edgar’s bright, friendly, and warm. Antonio’s reserved, thoughtful, and competent. And they’re comfortable in each other’s company; they’ve worked together for over fifteen years in Napa restaurants. And they’ve come together to make some spectacular food at Los Compas.
Chalerm Thai Bistro’s a hidden treasure in Lakeport. Odds are, if you don’t live in town, you haven’t heard of it. It’s not downtown or next to the freeway. Instead, it resides off Lakeshore Boulevard north of the main business district, sitting next to a closed liquor market. For years, it’s also served as our family’s go-to for quality Thai food.
The waning sun’s orange glow casts long shadows against the barn wall at Peace and Plenty Farm. It’s fall in Lake County; autumn leaves are just turning, gardens readying themselves for rest. In the parking area, friends gather together, already savoring Lake County’s last farm to fork dinner of the season before making their way to the tables. Melinda Price, co-owner and farmer for Peace and Plenty Saffron Farm, greets the crowd with her kind voice. “Hello, everyone!” she smiles. “We have a big crowd tonight, the biggest we’ve ever had.” A splash of applause comes from the tables. “Now we have a hungry terrier wandering around. Please, don’t feed her any chicken bones.”
It’s an unusually cool summer afternoon in Big Valley. Outside the Finley Country Market, rose bushes and lavender pop out of planters, framing the red, farmhouse-looking store. Several picnic tables, shaded by umbrellas, stretch across the courtyard. Finley Country Market’s been around twenty-five years and serves as a hub for the small community. They’ve got a good barbecue, offering grilled chicken, burgers, or tri-tip sandwiches depending on the day of the week. And they’re popular; it’s not uncommon for the market to receive twenty-five or thirty pre-orders on Fridays for their tri-tip sandwiches.
And each Friday, another wonderful thing happens at the market. There, on the counter next to the register, sit Karen Shippley’s gluten-free muffins. Depending on Karen’s mood, you may find blueberry muffins, carrot cake or German chocolate cupcakes, all luscious and completely gluten-free.
“Where are you planning to go for dinner?” I was asked several times the day I visited Richmond Park Bar and Grill. “Oh, Richmond Park,” I’d reply. “I’m going to do a write-up on them.” And this is the part that amazed me. I got the same response three times. “Don’t order the Richmond Park Burger. You never be able to finish it.”
The hum of boats on the lake fills the background as growing shadows dance further and further out into the rippling water. Live music swells from the gazebo in Library Park. Children play in the playground, and the sounds of their laughter mix with the rhythm of the band. This moment in time is one of my favorite reasons for living in Lake County. I take my first sip of Chardonnay. The sun finally rests behind the roofline of Juicy’s Pizza and the roar of unmuffled racecar engines drifts our way from Lakeport Speedway. We consider our choices for the rest of the evening. We could leave the concert in the Park, catch the races and still make it to the drive-in. We decide to box up our pizzas and put off our decision for a while.
Perry’s Deli is currently owned by Derrick and Courtney Fiske. Derrick is a 3rd generation owner who took over from his parents in 2019. I had a chance to talk with him on the phone a few days earlier, and knew that I was in for good food. Derrick explains that his father’s motto is “quality, quality, quality.” Derrick’s grandfather, he says, is “an old-school deli guy who emphasized specific measurements.” The family is no stranger to the deli business as they opened up Novato Perry’s years ago and Middletown in 1992.
“It was inevitable that Alex and I would end up running a brewery,” Tim O’Meara, one half of the O’Meara Bros. Brewing Company, says. A pump hums in the background, pushing a batch of Elk Mountain IPA into the fermenter. “When we were kids, we always pretended we were bartenders. We had bottles all over the place filled with concoctions we had created.” He laughs. “Mom told us, ‘Someday you’re going to run your own business together.’ Can you give me a second?” he stops, listening to his brewer’s intuition. “I need to go check on that batch.” While Tim heads off to look things over, Trudy and I sip on a flight of his beers. It turns out his mom was right. Decades after her prophecy, and nearly seven years into business together, brothers Tim and Alex are still at it, creating quality, drinkable beverages.
Wine barrels sit under the extended awning of 350 North in Lakeport, converted into tables. Barstools stretch around them, with diners propped on the edges, enjoying a beer and burger. Inside, sports play on the televisions, and country music fills in the moments between conversations. “Be proud of your hometown. It’s a big part of what makes you the person you are”, a large sign above the bar reads. “Lakeport Proud”. The atmosphere’s relaxed, casual. It’s the kind of place to get a meal, then hang out for a couple of hours chatting with friends.
“Isn’t this amazing?” I ask my husband as the clear, crisp blue sky turns pink, purple, and gold. We’re watching a beautiful sunset at Borax Lake. “We should do this more often.” Since neither one of us wants to cook dinner after our short, steep hike, we drive along Sulfur Bank Road to pick up some take-out from Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant and Bar on Highway 20 in Clearlake Oaks. We’re long-term residents of Lake County, but we’ve never been to Happy Garden. From what I hear, it’s the best Chinese food in Lake County.
Since reopening October 15th, Live Oak Grill has quickly established a loyal customer base. Much of it has to do with owners Jennifer and Jamie’s friendly disposition. They’re relaxed, comfortable, and easy to talk to. And a lot has to do with the quality of the food. Everything’s handmade and done well, with plenty of attention to detail.
It doesn’t matter what you order at Wholly Bowl; you’ll get quality food made with fresh ingredients. Jenn doesn’t over-spice or over-sweeten her food. It’s meant to be balanced. “’Wholly’ means all-inclusive,” Jenn says, excitement in her eyes. “It’s all in one bowl.” She ticks off ingredients on her fingers: “The crisp of the veggies with the fat of the avocado, the hot rice, and the crunch of the cabbage and kale. The protein, the starch, the veggies and the sauce. It’s the layered ingredients with the multiple sauces; the synergy of them all combined creates something wholly new.”
If you live in Lake County and haven’t been to Castle Donuts yet, you’re seriously missing out. This shop creates donuts that fill people’s fantasies. It doesn’t matter which type you choose; you can’t go wrong. From bacon maple bars to custard-filled, chocolate-covered donuts, from old-fashioned to glazed, from apple fritters to bear claws, Castle Donuts makes them all spectacularly.
I’ve been to my share of East Indian restaurants. Back in the day, it was the choice location for many a dull business lunch. And those restaurants varied from delightful to those that seemed to be trying to punch me with spices. I’ve left restaurants smelling like I just worked out. So when my wife and I decided to visit Arti Natural and Organic Indian Cafe, I had no expectations. It is the only Indian place in the county, and I had already decided that I would be polite, regardless of whether I had a strong gym sock odor at the end of the meal. If you’re a fan of Indian food, you’ll understand. But as soon as I entered the restaurant, I knew this place was different.
“We try to make the best pizza that we can,” Pete Ogo, co-owner of Pogos Pizza, says. “Everything’s from scratch. We make our own sauce, and our sausage is locally made for us using a special recipe.” He pauses for a second, but that’s just to catch his breath. “We’re really picky. We only prep our vegetables for that day; they’re never old.” Pete’s getting excited. It’s undeniable that he loves what he does. “You know what? Our biggest goal is to have the best product in the community and be as involved as we can.”
Just in front of Wholly Bowl, and sitting between Grocery Outlet and the Dollar Tree in Lakeport stands Shoreline Coffee Shop. It’s an unassuming spot, sandwiched next to a wireless store and discount shop. Usually, diners sit inside, but since COVID, tables stretch out in the open-air hallway where customers sit, sipping on drip coffee and forking into plates piled with food. If you’re looking for comfort food, Shoreline is a great place to begin.
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The afternoon sunlight filters through the willow tree stretching above the table. Sitting on the edge of Clear Lake, it’s easy to hear the slap of the water against the bulkheads and watch the grebes dance across the lake, necks outstretched. Behind them, the shoulders of Mt. Konocti stretch upwards. And on the table sits a Smokin’ Burger complete with sides of beans, fries, and coleslaw, waiting to be consumed.
The Smokin’ Burger is one of the top-selling burgers. It’s a big burger, topped with smoked pork, pepper jack cheese, and a healthy dose of barbecue sauce. And, of course, there’s magic happening there. The sauce gives a creamy contrast to the grilled flavor of the burger, and the pulled pork slides across the top, layered with intention to draw out the fullness of the meat. The burger veritably drips with flavor, and across your hands and down your arms as well. It’s impossible not to get messy eating it, or not to leave full.
After chatting for a while, Pascal picks out some pastries for us to try. Marcel’s Bakery and Café does it right. They get their flour and butter from France, which means fewer chemicals and gluten. That, along with considerable skill in baking, makes pastries that are light, flaky, and created with attention to detail. Take the apricot croissant, for example. Marcel’s uses whole apricots that give it a tangy tartness, which combined with the creamy custard and flaky, creates a croissant that’s memorable, and impossible to put down.
Speaking of impossible to put down, the éclair causes its own dilemmas. “You’ll want to eat the éclair now,” Pascal told us. Sizably portioned and drizzled in chocolate with a refreshingly cool custard, it disappeared immediately. The same goes for the chocolate twist, a sweet, but not overly sweet, creamy chocolately twist that leaves one with a satisfied, happy feeling.
Of course, Marcel’s Bakery and Café has many other options, from baguette to panini. The Lakeport store has a full deli, and our children love Marcel’s macaroons, delicately flavored cookies that dissolve in the mouth.
Recently, our family ran into a dilemma. We bake our bread at home and were running low on yeast. So I went online to get some more and saw that the price had not only doubled, but it wouldn’t come for a month. So, what were we to do? Not only was our homemade bread at stake, but also the evening’s long-awaited plans. Stir-crazy and stuck at home, our family had planned on making calzones, then having a family-only drive-in movie on the patio. But we were out of yeast for the dough. In my moment of despair, Juicy’s Pizza in Lakeport came through.
Carl White, owner of Danny’s Roadside Kitchen, opens the heavy doors to his smoker. A white cloud envelops him, obscuring his red t-shirt and fogging his glasses. He pours a little water in the bottom, creating a billowing thunderhead. “Hang on just a second,” he says. You gotta wait for the steam to clear.”
This article first appeared in The Bloom on November 15, 2019. However, during the Coronavirus lockdown, Danny’s Roadside Kitchen is still open and Carl is still serving his spectacular barbecue. Give it a try if you haven’t yet.
On most days, it’s possible to see Jimmy Tannous cooking outside, tongs in hand. In front of him, dozens of chicken thighs sit on a rack suspended above a bed of charcoal coals. Every few seconds, he pokes a thigh, then flips it; when cooked, he pulls it off and replaces it with a new piece of meat. Those thighs are full of flavor, unique, and designed to go with his spectacular sandwiches. When asked for the secret to their unique and decidedly wonderful taste, he points at his chest, and says, “It’s the guy who cooks it.”
Jimmy’s Deli and Taqueria has been a Lake County institution for decades. The deli moved to its current location in Lakeport in 2008 and has been creating great food since then. It’s common, during regular times, to see a line stretching out of the door at lunchtimes. Everyone knows that it’s the place to go for high-quality, inexpensive food that not just fills, but satisfies. If you live in Lake County and haven’t visited, you’re in for a treat.
Jason Chavez, owner of Kelsey Creek Brewing Company, stands behind the bar, pulls on a tap, and begins filling a two-liter growler with a Mixed Berry Sour. Behind him, a sign sits on a shelf. “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” it says. “It could have been beer.” Over the speakers, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and The Highwaymen sing, “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”
Jason chats about his beers as he pours, tilting the growler to the side as it fills. His long dark hair, pulled back in a ponytail, hides under a NY Mets hat backward on his head. A long, spiraling dragon tattoo winds down his arm. It’s been four years since Jason and his wife Caroline took over Kelsey Creek Brewing. Since then, Jason has used his creativity to craft unique, tasty beers that cover the spectrum of brewing tastes, from dark, malty stouts to ultra-light, crisp lagers.