From retro French to Irish whiskey to Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches: It’s the East Bay’s best food and drink.
While cofounder Misa Chien brings undeniable star appeal to her mobile operation—the Los Angeles–beauty has dabbled in modeling and was a favorite during her appearance on reality show The Great Food Truck Race—she’s really all about the food. Indeed, after one spicy (jalapeños), sour (pickled daikon radish), sweet (honey-glazed organic pork), and soothing (cucumbers and fresh-baked baguettes) bite, we only had eyes for her delicious Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. And it’s the food that’s allowed Chien and her partner, Jennifer Green, to grow their operation into a fleet of bright green Nom Nom trucks, with two in L.A. and one in the Bay Area (which spends at least two shifts per week in the East Bay, including Walnut Creek and Emeryville). Chien says more could be on the way, but for now, check the website to see when those banh mis will be cruising into a neighborhood near you. Or call for catering, delivery (30-sandwich minimum), or even to arrange school tours of the truck. Because in the end, says Chien, “We’re all about bringing food to the people.” nomnomtruck.com/sf.
Soul Foodie With Soul
More than a few folks wondered if Oakland-based Home of Chicken and Waffles would make it in chic downtown Walnut Creek. But owner Derreck Johnson knew better. “Hey, it doesn’t matter where you’re from: Everybody loves fried chicken.” Another thing Johnson imported was his unique hiring practices. Parolees from disadvantaged backgrounds account for about a quarter of his staff, giving the restaurant a steady stream of help while offering ex-convicts a much-needed hand getting back into society. “It’s actually been the most rewarding part of the business for me,” says Johnson, who earlier this year received Oakland’s Citizen Humanitarian Award. “Almost my entire current management staff comes from high-risk areas, and to watch them develop and change and want to change their lives has been very fulfilling.” 444 Embarcadero W., Oakland, (510) 836-4446; 1653 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 280-1653,
There are many reasons to dig Modern China Café: a see-and-be-seen front patio perfect for warm weather, great lunch and happy hour specials, a cutting-edge cocktail program. But maybe this sleek restaurant’s most enduring trait is that it serves what Peter Chastain, chef-owner of Prima Ristorante across the street, labels “pretty kick-ass dim sum.” It’s true. You can now get authentic versions of such bite-sized specialties as steamed turnip cakes, chicken feet, barbecue pork buns, and Shanghai soup dumplings, all made fresh to order every day, right in the heart of downtown Walnut Creek. So, check ‘em out. After all, trendy downtown spots come and go, but kick-ass dim sum is something special. 1525 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 988-8008, modernchinacafe.com.
Live jazz piano? Table-side service? Baked Alaska? You could almost hear the foodies snickering when word got out that Cypress owner Rick Delamain was bringing back old-school restaurant flourishes that had gone out of style along with leg warmers and shoulder pads. Well, guess what: The ’80s are back. And Cypress is packing ’em in to its downtown Walnut Creek location with a combination of modern French fare and, yes, some retro pizzazz. “It’s just that little bit of a wow factor,” says Delamain, who worked at the popular Le Virage in Walnut Creek until it closed in 2006. “I wanted to bring back dining as an experience filled with fun and excitement, instead of just sitting down, ordering, and leaving. I think people like that it’s interactive. It’s something to remember.” So don’t be alarmed if you see flames as you walk by the restaurant’s sleek glass facade. That’s just Delamain flambéing the baked Alaska. 1388 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 891-4197, cypresswc.com.
When we checked in with Rodney Worth after he opened the Prickly Pear, his fourth eatery in the Danville area, he went on record about wanting to own 10 restaurants in the East Bay. Nearly two years later, Worth is gaining on his goal, debuting his first Italian concept, Ferrari’s, in Blackhawk Plaza this month. So, does this mean the indefatigable Tri-Valley restaurateur will take a little breather? “I’ve got some feelers out there,” he admits. “I want to do a Southern concept, and I’d love to do a steak house . . . 10 restaurants still sounds like a good number.” Restaurants in Alamo and Danville, thepeasantandthepear.com.
Denise Vickers knew she was taking a risk opening Walnut Creek Baking Company. “There’s an 80-percent failure rate for restaurants within the first two years.” Ten years later, the beloved bakery has established itself as the go-to destination for local sweet tooths, due in no small part to Vickers’ dedication to made-from-scratch baking with A-list products. “High-quality ingredients is first and foremost,” she says. “It’s a lot cheaper to use Crisco than butter, but I’ll close my doors before I cheapen my ingredients.” She credits her success to her dedicated staff and customers, and it’s for them that Vickers released an anniversary cookbook full of the recipes (chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal muffins, blueberry coconut tarts) that made the bakery a success. Typically, it was a team effort to make sure it came out on time. “That makes it all worth it, to be around creative people with such passion. That, and I get to eat chocolate cake for breakfast.” The Walnut Creek Baking Company Cookbook ($55) is on sale at the store or online. 1686 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 988-9222, walnutcreekbakingcompany.com.
You can take the Concannon out of Ireland, but you can’t take the Ireland out of Concannon. Founded in 1883 by Irish émigré James Concannon, the Livermore vineyard has become synonymous with well-made, affordable wine. But fourth-generation vintner John Concannon harkened back to his family’s ancestral roots by teaming up with Ireland’s craft Cooley Distillery to create the new Concannon Irish Whiskey. Distilled and aged in bourbon barrels for a minimum of four years, the whiskey is finished in Concannon Petite Sirah wine barrels, resulting in a mature, refined taste, with a distinctive fruity characteristic. James would approve. $24.99, concannonirishwhiskey.com.
Breakfast Joint and Coffeehouse
House-made cinnamon buns oozing out of the wrapper. Fresh-squeezed lemonade. Chiffonade parsley atop perfectly poached eggs on Acme levain toast. Blankets for chilly mornings. Gorgeous lattes and mochas (made with Blue Bottle espresso, of course) served in bowls large enough to double as bathtubs. It’s the little details that make Danville’s Sideboard such a popular morning hang. Chef-owner Erin Andrews brings a gourmet aesthetic to the homey fare while husband Ford makes sure the comfy-cool dining room runs smoothly. So you can relax and enjoy that enormous coffee (and maybe a side of apple wood–smoked bacon) knowing that the details are all taken care of. 411 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 984-2713, sideboarddanville.com.
Forget the bottle of wine. If you really want to impress your foodie friends at the next party, bring one of Semifreddi’s custom-engraved breads. Just call one of the artisanal Alameda Bakery’s two East Bay retail stores, and you can have the message of your choice stenciled onto the top of a beautiful fresh-baked round or bâtard of rustic sour 48 hours later. And for only $10. “It’s cheaper than a bottle of wine, plus it’s so unique,” says Semifreddi’s Tom Frainier. “And you can just tell people that you did it yourself.” 3084 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, (510) 596-9942; 372 Colusa Ave., Kensington, (510) 596-9935, semifreddis.com.
East Bay Bites
A few of our favorite eats from this year’s winners: all for $10 or less.
Category: Cheap Eats
Winner: Los Panchos
Dish: Crispy beef taco
Danville, Pacheco, San Ramon, lospanchosrestaurant.com.
Category: Cupcake Shop
Winner: Kara’s Cupcakes
Dish: Mini chocolate cupcake
Walnut Creek, karascupcakes.com.
Category: Thin-Crust Pizza
Winner: Jules Thin Crust
Dish: Seasonal veggie slice
Category: Brunch, Comfort Food, Dog-Friendly Restaurant
Dish: Chicken noodle soup
Danville, Lafayette, chowfoodbar.com.
Winner: Thai House
Dish: Fried banana and ice cream
Winner: Le Cheval
Dish: Imperial rolls
Berkeley, Oakland, Walnut Creek, lecheval.com.
Winner: Walnut Creek Yacht Club
Dish: Cup of clam chowder
Walnut Creek, wcyc.net.
Category: Dessert, Service
Dish: Banana cream tart
Category: Atmosphere, Japanese
Dish: Yellowtail nigiri
Walnut Creek, sasawc.com.
Category: Middle Eastern
Winner: Oasis Grille
Dish: Pumpkin borani
More Reader Picks
Butcher Shop: Lawrence’s Meat Co., 225 Alamo Plaza, Alamo, (925) 838-0505.
CSA Program: Full Belly Farm, 16090 Country Rd. 43, Guinda, (800) 791-2210, fullbellyfarm.com.
Deli: Genova Delicatessen, 1105 S. California Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 939-3838; 2064 Treat Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 938-2888, genovadeli.net/index.html.
Gluten-Free Menu: Piatti, 100 Sycamore Valley Rd. W., Danville (925) 838-2082, piatti.com.
Hamburger: (Tie) George’s Giant Hamburger, 1491 Newell Ave., Walnut Creek, (925) 939-4888. The Habit, 6770 Bernal Ave., Pleasanton, (925) 485-3260; 1255 S. California Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 279-2286, habitburger.com.
Indian Restaurant: Breads of India, 2448 Sacramento St., Berkeley, (510) 848-7684; 948 Clay St., Oakland, (510) 834-7684; 1358 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 256-7684, breadsofindia.com.
Italian Restaurant: Prima Ristorante, 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, primawine.com.
Late-Night Dining: Stanford’s, 1300 S. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 944-0895, stanfords.com.
Mexican Restaurant: Maria Maria, 710 Camino Ramon Rd., Danville, (925) 820-2366; 1470 N. Broadway, Walnut Creek, (925) 946-1010, mariamariarestaurants.com.
Outdoor Dining: Jack’s, 60 Crescent Dr., Ste. A, Pleasant Hill, (925) 849-6195, jacksrestaurants.com.
Pizza/Thick Crust: Zachary’s, 1853 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 525-5950; 5801 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-6385; 3110 Crow Canyon Pl., San Ramon, (925) 244-1222, zacharys.com.
Romantic Restaurant: Wente Restaurant, 5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2450, wentevineyards.com.
Salad Spot: Lettuce, 1632 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 933-5600, lettuce1.net.
Steak House: Ruth’s Chris, 1553 Olympic Blvd., Bldg. E, Walnut Creek, (925) 977-3477, ruthschris.com.
Teahouse: The English Rose, 163 W. Neal St., Pleasanton, (925) 462-6233, theenglishrose-pleasanton.com.
Vegetarian Menu: Gather, 2200 Oxford St., Berkeley, (510) 809-0400, gatherrestaurant.com.