poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie

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Chowing Down in Sebastopol

Well hello there! Long time, no blog.

The bf and I recently went away to Sebastopol for the weekend, and I was blown away by all of the awesome food there. So much so that I decided to actually write a blog post about it! Mostly so I don’t forget where we went, but also to serve as a guide for those of you searching for good eats in Sebastopol. Here’s a list of place we ate and drank, in chronological order:

Balletto Vineyards
We had a couple of hours to kill before checking in at our Airbnb, so we packed a picnic and went for a tasting at Balletto. Tastings were $10 per person, and our server (?) was generous with extra pours. Neither of us were blown away by any of the wines, but none of the wines were terrible either. In the end, we bought a bottle of the 2012 Syrah to enjoy with our picnic, which canceled out one of our tasting fees. They have a nice outdoor patio and were very amenable to us eating out there.
Bottom line: A fairly standard Northern California winery; nothing to write home about.

Cutting up a baguette to go with cheese, salami, and olives!

Cutting up a baguette to go with cheese, salami, and olives!

Ramen Gaijin
I was not excited about the name of this place because gaijin, which means “foreigner” in Japanese, has a xenophobic bent to it. Nevertheless, my neverending desire for noodles and the awesome Yelp reviews drew us to try this place out. We both ordered the spicy tan tan ramen, which came loaded with pork belly, a 6-minute hen egg, woodear mushrooms, red cabbage, greens, and a load of other things I’m currently forgetting. Maybe my expectations were super low, but this bowl of ramen blew my mind. Everything about it – the al dente noodles, the piping hot broth, and the top quality ingredients – was, in my mind, perfection. Yes, it was expensive at $15, but I thought it was worth every penny. I also had a delicious cocktail — can’t recall the details, but I think it was a bourbon and ginger beer combo. Very refreshing!
Bottom line: Probably one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had. Highly recommended!

A cold cocktail and hot bowl of ramen at Ramen Gaijin.

A cold cocktail and hot bowl of ramen at Ramen Gaijin.

Screamin’ Mimi’s (Ice Cream)
My friend SM, a Santa Rosa native, recommended this place to me, and it’s also one of the highest rated places in Sebastopol on Yelp. Conveniently, it was just 3 doors down from Ramen Gaijin. The bf and I, being total noobs, didn’t take advantage of one of the most unique aspects of Screamin’ Mimi’s: the ability to mix whatever flavors you want, because they sell ice cream by weight. We were boring and each got a single scoop of ice cream, which was good, but I regretted not being more creative and mixing it up. Next time!
Bottom line: Try all the flavors and mix to your heart’s delight!

Hole in the Wall
We love breakfast and brunch. Hole in the Wall had fantastic reviews on Yelp and was recommended to us by our Airbnb hosts, so we were stoked. Maybe we didn’t order the right things, but neither of us thought the food was better than the average diner. I got 2 eggs over medium (bland) with potatoes (even blander) and bacon (not that exciting), with one of their famous biscuits (really disappointing, but I’ve found it’s very hard to find good biscuits outside of the south). TC got the biscuits and gravy, which he thought was just OK. There was quite a bit of Italian sausage in the gravy, and since he’s not a fan of fennel, it didn’t go over very well with him. We saw some fancy cast-iron thing that other people got (the internet tells me it’s a Dutch cake with caramelized apples), so maybe that’s what we should’ve ordered too.
Bottom line: Pretty standard breakfast place. Don’t get your hopes up about the biscuits.

King Falafel
After a heavy breakfast, we wanted something lighter and more casual for lunch, so we decided to try King Falafel, another Yelp favorite. This is one of those places that, if not for Yelp, I might not have tried because of its location and the set up (there’s a small grocery section with Middle Eastern foods). We both got the regular falafel sandwich, which was SO GOOD. Unlike most of the falafel sandwiches I’ve had, which were bland and dry, King Falafel’s signature sandwich was the perfect blend of textures and flavors.
Bottom line: Highly recommended! I would love to go back and try non-falafel items.

Wild Flour Bread (Freestone, CA)
Another recommendation from SM, this renowned bakery was on our way to Occidental (see below), so we made sure to stop by and take a look. After trying their famous sticky bread, which we thought was good but not great, we decided to get a loaf of their just-as-famous fougasse bread with cheese, garlic, and rosemary (I think). Apparently, they change the “filling” of the fougasse; various Yelp reviews have listed items as varied as potatoes, cheese, garlic, mushroom, peppers, and rosemary. It’s pricey at $7 a loaf (cash only), but well worth the money. Plus, they’re pretty generous with free samples and really friendly too!
Bottom line: Unique bakery in a tranquil setting. Worth the drive!

Barley and Hops Tavern (Occidental, CA)
We went to Barley and Hops in the hopes of killing 3 birds with one stone: (1) a place to watch the Warriors playoff game (2) with good food, and (3) located in a cute, small town (i.e., not Santa Rosa). Unfortunately we were thwarted by some local regulars commandeering the remote control, who kept switching back and forth between the Giants baseball game and the Warriors playoff game. This was particularly frustrating given that TC had called in advance to confirm that they would be showing the Warriors game. We didn’t end up eating there, but from what I could see (and smell), the fare looked quite good. They also had a large selection of beers on tap.
Bottom line: Cute pub, but not ideal for watching sports (lesson learned).

Viva Mexicana
TC loves Mexican food, so we searched Yelp and came upon Viva Mexicana. True to the reviews, the food was great and the owner was super friendly. We also enjoyed the vibrant decor. I got the chicken mole, while TC ordered the cod special. We were both really happy with our food.
Bottom line: Great Mexican food, served with a smile. If we lived in Sebastopol, we’d probably be regulars.

The best chicken mole I've had in the U.S. (The best mole ever was in Mexico - of course.)

The best chicken mole I’ve had in the U.S. (The best mole ever was in Mexico – of course.)

Enjoying a coconut horchata at Viva Mexicana!

Enjoying a coconut horchata at Viva Mexicana!

Don Julio’s Rincon Latin Grill and Pupusa’s (Rohnert Park, CA)
We were intrigued by Don Julio’s super high Yelp ratings, so we decided we’d stop there on our way home (it’s 5 miles south of Sebastopol in Rohnert Park). We both ordered 1 pupusa each, and TC got the sopes while I tried the sweet tamale. TC loved his sopes and thought the pupusa was just OK, whereas I really enjoyed my pupusa, but wasn’t a big fan of the sweet tamale. Pupusas sometimes don’t agree with me (and I’ll leave it at that), but I had no issues with the pupusas at Don Julios. I appreciated that our server (maybe the owner?) warned us that the horchata was made with cow’s milk and not from rice milk or powder. (Lactards beware!)
Bottom line: Don Julio’s is located just off of US-101, so if you’re driving through the area and you’re hungry for some authentic El Salvadoran cuisine, definitely stop by.

Did I mention that we ordered way too much food?

Did I mention that we ordered way too much food? Clockwise, from top left: sopes, pupusa, curtido (“slaw”), chips, plantains, beans, sweet tamale with mango salsa, pupusa (with beans, cheese, and pork), and hot sauce.

Rasta goats near our Airbnb. No, we didn't eat them, but we were pretty fascinated by them!

Rasta goats near our Airbnb. No, we didn’t eat them, but we were pretty fascinated by them!

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Department Store Delights

I’ve written before about how department stores in Taiwan often have hidden food treasures, such as food courts, gourmet food stalls, and nice restaurants. It’s a very similar situation in Japan, as I happily discovered.

Hungry for lunch after a long morning of temple touring, I wandered into the basement of the Takashimaya Department Store (at Shijō Kawaramachi) hoping to find something to eat. Luckily, I found lots of food vendors selling Japanese specialties such as bento boxes, sushi, and mochi. I gawked at the beautiful but pricey bento boxes, some costing up to $20 each. I opted for a more economical sushi sampler at about $9. I also bought a red bean “cake,” hot off the griddle. (It’s more like a thick egg-y waffle than a cake.) Unfortunately, I ate it before I remembered to take a photo. Sorry!

Sushi to go! Super yummy and fresh.

On another day, I made my way to the Ramen Hakubutsukan (“ramen alley”) on the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store in the Kyoto Train Station. It was a great insider tip from my colleague HC, who had lived in Kyoto, because I would’ve never found this place! Once there, I was overwhelmed by the number of ramen places. There were about 10 different ramen restaurants, all specializing in different varieties of ramen. You can only imagine the kind of ramen sensory overload I was experiencing! I had no idea which one to choose, so I opted for one of the places closer to the entrance, where the line was shorter. Their specialty was prize-winning black sesame ramen, which was good but the bitterness of the sesame became a little overwhelming after a while. I wish I had more time to try all of them!

Soon I would join them in the ramen slurping...

Black sesame ramen with egg, pork, scallions, and seaweed.

Noodles: up close and personal. In your face!

p.s. Happy New Year!! Hope 2010 is full of everything sweet and delicious!

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Big Night in Osaka

Seriously folks, I am committed to powering through these last few posts about my trip to Taiwan and Japan. Today, I bring you my 3-part meal in Osaka! I arrived around noon but held off on eating real food until dinner time. Boy, was I hungry! I knew I definitely wanted to get takoyaki, or fried octopus balls, an Osaka specialty. But who knew what else was in store?

I walked around shinsaibashi for quite a while and came upon a sit-down takoyaki restaurant. A lot of street stalls sell the delicacy, but I wanted to relax and enjoy my octopus balls. Wouldn’t you?

Takoyaki hot off the griddle

This particular restaurant sold the regular takoyaki, as well as the “Bikkuri Takoyaki” or “surprising fried octopus.” What was so surprising? Well, according to their menu, “the pieces of octopus are so big that you’ll be surprised!” Since I had no reference point, I’m not sure I was that surprised, but the pieces of octopus were pretty darn big. Basically, it’s a piece of octopus surrounded by an egg-y batter. You’re supposed to eat it with bonito flakes (not pictured) and dark soy sauce (aka okonomiyaki sauce, pictured). After I coated the takoyaki with bonito flakes, I blew on them to cool them down (they were really super hot)… subsequently, I blew bonito flakes all over the place. It was quite embarrassing but that was part of the fun. Oh, and at first the waiter told me they had run out of beer, which made me quite sad. But then they got more, and he was so excited to tell me, since I was so obviously upset at the lack of beer. It was cute.

Octopus ball + beer = a nice welcome to Japan.

Even though I devoured 8 of the surprisingly large takoyaki and one large beer, I was still really hungry. Then I came upon this food stall selling ramen. Yes! My first noodle encounter in Japan! I checked out how the locals were ordering and realized that I had to buy a ticket from a vending machine.

Meat or more meat? The machine was also quadra-lingual, which is better than just about anyone that might work at a ramen stand.

For those who don’t know, Japan is full of vending machines. I swear, there is at least one vending machine per block. They sell everything from drinks to ice cream to ramen. In the case of ramen, you buy a ticket, which you then give to the guy making the ramen. This is genius, because: 1. the guy making the ramen never has to touch money, making things more sanitary; 2. you order exactly what you want, and you don’t even have to talk to anyone (great for tourists); 3. it keeps the employees from accessing/stealing from the register.

Ramen guy moves so fast!

Three bowls (on the right) ready to be filled with deliciousness.

So the procedure went something like this: I went up to the vending machine, put money in, made my selection between regular ramen ($6.50) and one with extra pork slices ($10), retrieved my receipt, gave my ticket to the ramen man, who promptly made me a steaming hot bowl of delicious ramen that I ate standing at the stall. It was AWESOME. I also loved watching people come up, place their orders, and slurp down the noodles in about 5 minutes flat. Like at many ramen places here and abroad, there were lots of condiments including the special ramen pepper, hot sauce, and even spicy chives and pickles.

Tasty and hot ramen!

I was pretty full at this point, and decided to walk off dinner by strolling around the arcades at Shinsaibashi (basically, an outdoor mall). Then, I came upon Crêpe Ojisan, literally, “Crêpe Uncle.”

I wished that I had an uncle who made me crêpes. (you might notice that this place is right next to the giant 4-floor Sega entertainment complex)

Another thing you should know about Japan is that they are really good at making those fake food molds. So, I saw a whole display case full of crêpes with various fillings, and I decided that I must have one.

We all scream for ice cream. In a crêpe.

I went with a crêpe filled with chocolate almond ice cream and whipped cream. The ice cream was good but the crêpe was just so-so. Also, I got a lot of strange looks from people as I was eating it. Then I realized that the Japanese seem to frown upon walking and eating. Apparently, just standing on the side of the Crêpe Ojisan to eat your food is preferable. I guess they think it’s vulgar to be moving and eating at the same time, or perhaps you can’t possibly truly enjoy your food on the go. Such a different mentality than in the States!