You know that one place that sells donuts and pho? Or that sandwich place with Tibetan dumplings on Monday your friend keeps talking about? Like most serious eaters, we love finding the weirdly wonderful, usually-ethnic strip mall joints and hidden culinary gems that offer up interesting and delish food for super cheap(ish).
Our quest for seven offbeat, indescribably interesting hole-in-the-wall-type spots started with a molcajete facial at Taqueria Molcajetes (1195 W. College Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-544-8280). For the uninitiated, molcajete typically refers to a large volcanic stone bowl that is heated to approximately the temperature of the sun. Meats, fresh cheese, cactus paddles, green onions, and seafood are mixed with a spicy chile stew and the whole steaming, sizzling, bubbling, furious thing is brought to your table. It will remain steaming, molten and bubbling for nearly a half hour as you are enveloped by a refreshing meat and vegetable-scented steam. You will be very tempted to touch the bowl with an adorable pig face just to see how hot it is. Do not do this. It is very hot. I have a blister on my pointer finger to prove that very point.
It’s taken months to finally get to Taqueria Molcajetes, but on my radar after several eaters sussed out their sizzling molcajetes. You won’t find advertising or sandwich boards, and no one has emailed me about their farm-to-table cuisine. The door is set into a dark and somewhat unwelcoming corner of the former G&G shopping center (it’s a Safeway now), Frankly, it’s hard to tell if the restaurant is open from the street. Inside the small doorway is a larger interior filled with throngs of people who come for their giant burritos.
I’m a fan of the molcajete, which here is easily enough for two starving linebackers or a family of 6 who are peckish. The popular Molcajete Mixto ($22) includes chicken, beef, pork, shrimp and nopales — pretty much everything but the kitchen sink, and there is a freakishly large amount of meat inside. The meal comes with fresh flour tortillas, beans, rice, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. If you break it down between four people, that’s less than $6 per person. With chips and the extensive salsa bar, you’ll go home full—and with glowingly refreshed skin.
Sandwiches and bowls are the stock and trade of MoMo Cafe, frequented by nearby office park folks. But on Monday (and only Monday), the mom and pop deli serves up authentic momo — Tibetan-style dumplings filled with ground chicken, garlic, ginger and other spices. They’re cousins to potstickers, but these steamed and fried versions are a tasty treat to get over you start-of-the-week blahs. 385 Aviation Blvd., Santa Rosa, 573-0999.
Bulgogi at Bowl and Roll
You’ll be lucky to find a table most afternoons at this combination sushi roll, ramen and Korean barbecue spot. There’s nothing all that ground-breaking, with fried apps like agedashi tofu ($3.95), chicken kaarage ($3.95), dumpling ramen ($.8.95) Korean-style rice bowls and American-style sushi rolls with plenty of fried stuff inside. What we love, though, is the simple Korean BBQ bulgogi ($9.95), strips of steak marinated with soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil served white rice. You’ll easily have some leftovers when paired with a roll ($5 to $11) or app. Simpler than a sit-down restaurant, and phone orders accepted. 1331 Guerneville Rd., Suite Q, Santa Rosa, 595-3772.
Mango Shaved Snow Ice at Yo Panda
Oh. My. Snow. Hawaiian shave ice just got bumped off our list of favorite things. Similar, but entirely different, shaved snow is a Taiwanese-style dessert made with frozen low-fat milk shaved into impossibly thin stacked ribbons of flavor. Mango snow topped with fresh mangos and sugar syrup makes for a crave-worthy summer treat. 925 Corporate Center Pkwy, Santa Rosa, 522-1388.
Banh Mi at Thuan Phat
Still one of the best Vietnamese banh mi, and a $3.75 a steal of a deal. There is exactly one tiny table inside, so take a hint and get it to go. Looking too long at the polka dot walls will give you a headache anyway. 3020 Santa Rosa Ave., Suite H, 889-3966.
Tostilocos and Acai bowls at El Huerto Sonoma
This newish Sonoma storefront with healthy food as its main mission is run by a local farming family, offering fresh-pressed juices and acai bowls, along with seasonal granola and fruit bowls. What we love is the contrast of trendy avocado toast for just $4.75 and “skin glow” pressed juices along next to Mexican classics like Tostiloco (Tostito chips, mango, jicama, cucumber, peanuts, tamarind candy and lime, $7.50) and mangonada. 19213 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma, 934-8791.
Flaming Cheese at Yia Yia, The Grateful Greek
Just-opened at the former Yanni’s Sausage Grill in Penngrove, this tiny cafe is a little bit Yanni’s and a little bit Greek and a whole lot awesome. We’ve been huge fans of flaming saganaki since, well, forever. It’s almost impossible to find locally, so Popi’s Flaming Cheese on a pita or Italian bread ($7.95) is pretty much the best grilled cheese you’ll ever eat. Plus it’s flaming. The restaurant delivers to the nearby Penngrove Bar, so there’s that little perk. 10007 Main St., Penngrove, 664-5442.