MENDOCINO CO., 12/31/23 – Here at The Mendocino Voice I primarily cover two things: food and weather. From new restaurant openings to snow storms, I get equally as excited to share with readers the best things to eat and drink and how to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature brings.
This year I recognized a theme while reflecting on the best things I ate in 2023: weather. I ate ramen in a snowstorm, tacos during a heat wave and a crab sandwich during gale force winds on the coast. And while the weather may be constantly changing, one thing is consistent: the Mendocino County food scene is awesome.
Here are the best things I ate in Mendocino County in 2023.
Alley burger at the Alley Grill
The Alley Grill, a graffitied burger joint in a strip mall in Ukiah, churns out consistently good food paired with friendly service, and my recent visit there was no exception. While more glamorous burgers are on the menu (with toppings like guacamole or brown sugar bacon) it’s the classic Alley burger ($12) that keeps me coming back: a 6 oz. patty of John Ford Ranch grass-fed beef topped with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles and mayo served on a warm homemade roll. The burger was juicy and tender, and the roll made a perfect partner for the burger — ciabatta meets a hoagie meets french bread. It soaked up all the burger juices and kept all the toppings in check, resulting in a less messy (yet delicious) dining experience than expected. Add a side of fries ($4.95) and you’ve got a filling all-American dining experience. There wasn’t a drop of food left on my plate.
Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-7 p.m., 1245 Airport Park Blvd., Ukiah, (707) 462-2110 or visit the Alley Grill Food Truck in Fort Bragg and Cleone. Follow the food truck on Instagram for locations.
Shrimp pasta at D’Aurelio’s & Sons
I love hearty Italian-American food, and D’Aurelio’s & Sons has been providing just that to hungry Fort Bragg families for decades. While many stop by the casual restaurant for the homemade Italian bread and cheesy pizzas, I am smitten with the friendly service, reasonable prices and the large portion of shrimp pasta ($23) that I enjoyed on a rainy winter night. It’s a simple and warm plate of comfort: shrimp sautéed in garlic, herbs and white wine tossed with a pasta of your choice (I opted for rotini). The shrimp were tender, the garlic just right, and the sauce had a touch of creaminess thanks to a final toss in Romano cheese before serving. The leftovers tasted even better the next day.
Mon-Sun 5-9 p.m., 438 S. Franklin St., Fort Bragg, (707) 964-4227.
Crispy tacos at El Azteca
The crispy tacos at El Azteca are the stuff of legends in Ukiah. Yes, you could go to a local fast food joint and pick up something similar, but why bother when you can support a local family-owned establishment? It’s simple and delicious: perfectly seasoned ground beef served in a hard shell topped with an excessive amount of shredded cheese and lettuce. It hits the spot as a light lunch (one taco is $4) or for a heartier meal (two tacos with rice and beans for $15). I recently enjoyed tacos and a pitcher of margaritas with a friend on the patio, where we soaked in the sun and enjoyed attentive and friendly service. I’m already looking forward to doing it again soon.
Mon-Thur 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-3 p.m., 1631 S. State St. Ukiah, (707) 463-1330.
Chorizo breakfast tacos at Ellie’s Cafe
Ellie’s Cafe is a brunch staple in Ukiah for a reason: solid food, creative dishes, a clean and tidy environment, dog-friendly patio, cheerful service… I could go on and on. It’s also where I ate chorizo breakfast tacos with home fries ($14.50) that I haven’t stopped talking about since my first bite a few months ago. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing about this dish that comprises two warm flour tortillas overstuffed with scrambled egg and chorizo, chunky tomato-based salsa, crumbled cotija cheese and a copious amount of diced avocado. It’s one of the messier dishes I ate this year and worth every single napkin I requested from the server. The flavors in the chorizo egg mixture were on point, and the creamy avocado was a perfect complement to the acidic salsa. On the side were Ellie’s signature home fries: smashed potatoes pan-fried and seasoned with pepper. The crispy crunchy potato skins, soft potato insides and the fattiness of whatever it’s fried in make for the most delicious home fries I’ve had in my life. A perfect brunch dish.
Tue-Fri 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-3 p.m., 732 S. State St., Ukiah, (707) 468-5376.
Pepper jelly cauliflower biscuit sandwich at Fog Eater Cafe
The quirky and charming Fog Eater Cafe offers a Southern-inspired plant-based brunch every Sunday that will convince even the most dedicated chicken and waffles lover (that would be me!) that you don’t need poultry to satisfy your palate. The pepper jelly cauliflower biscuit sandwich ($7) is a perfect example: a perfectly fried piece of cauliflower smothered in sweet and tangy pepper jelly book-ended by a flaky biscuit. One bite into the crispy and hot fried cauliflower, and you won’t miss chicken. If you’ve had a particularly long Saturday night, add a poached egg ($3) to it for a messy and tasty cure for your woes.
Brunch is offered every Sunday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 45104 Main St., Mendocino, (707) 397-1806, fogeatercafe.com.
Shrimp po’boy at Hopland Tap
I recently tagged along with my friend Serena when she stopped by Hopland Tap to grab a sandwich on her work break. Her choice was the shrimp po’ boy ($16.50), that Sunday’s special. As I bit into the sandwich it was as if a little bit of Louisiana landed in Hopland. Crispy shrimp tumbled out of the fluffy sandwich roll from Max’s Artisan Breads in Fresno. Shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and mayo brought it all together. Served with a side of french fries and a non-alcoholic Best Day Brewing Kölsch, it was a perfect lunch on a sunny day. The sandwich is available only on occasional Sundays. Call ahead to check on availability and reserve in advance as the sandwich is so popular it often runs out by early afternoon.
Tue-Thur 4:20-8 p.m., Fri-Sun 12-8 p.m., 13351 US-101, Hopland, (707) 510-9000, hoplandtap.com.
Rib eye steak frites at Rock Seas
Rock Seas is a hidden gem in Hopland with dedicated local fans who flock to celebrate special occasions by indulging in chef-owner Roxanne “Roxy” Hampl’s truly farm to table offerings: the beef, lamb and chicken she serves are raised on Hampl’s nearby ranch. Her steak frites ($54) are one of those indulgent offerings: a Black Angus rib eye served with hand-cut french fries (from a bar seat, you can see Hampl in the kitchen cutting the fries) and a side of salad greens lightly dressed in oil and vinegar. The steak, which I requested medium rare, was perfectly cooked and juicy. The fries, served with a tangy horseradish aioli, were crisp, and the salad made for a nice “healthful” side dish to my steak. Halfway through my meal, the power went out in downtown Hopland. Candles arrived at my table and a generator kicked in, allowing Hampl to finish her work in the kitchen. Suffice to say, it was not only a memorable meal, but one that made me a dedicated fan of Rock Seas.
Tue-Sun 5-9 p.m., 13456 US-101, Hopland, (707) 670-6054, rockseas.com.
Goma-ae at Izakaya Gama
Everything I’ve eaten at Izakaya Gama has been delicious, from the karaage (fried chicken) to the chawanmushi (savory egg custard with locally foraged mushrooms). However, on a visit to the county’s only Japanese izakaya (an informal establishment serving small plates) earlier this year, I fell completely head over heels with goma-ae ($8), a side dish of poached spinach with toasted sesame dressing and topped with itokiri togarashi, shredded delicately flavored chili pepper. Served cold, the goma-ae is honestly one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. The spinach was perfectly cooked (crisp stems and tender leaves), slightly sweet, nutty and just a touch of heat from the togarashi. I loved it so much that I declared loudly in the restaurant “this is the best freaking spinach I’ve eaten in my life!”
Wed-Sun 4-9 p.m., 150 Main St., Point Arena, (707) 485-9232, izakaya-gama.com.
Rock cod and chips at Noyo Fish Company
Fish and chips are a personal preference, and it’s no surprise Mendocino County folks have a strong opinion on where to find the best. This year the best I ate were at the Noyo Fish Company. Nestled along Noyo Harbor, one can get a platter of fish and chips ($18) or fish and prawns with chips ($18) and chill out on the expansive patio watching the working harbor in action and the wildlife go by (otters, seagulls, seals, oh my!). Noyo Fish Company prepares its fish using local rock cod dipped in beer batter made with Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Company. The hot fried fish is served with crispy fries and a side of house-made tartar sauce. The fish was buttery and flaky, the batter was slightly sweet while being crisp and light at the same time. Perfect! The entire meal was made even better with an ice-cold Anderson Valley Brewing Company beer and sunny weather.
Wed-Sun 11 a.m.-7 p.m., 32440 N. Harbor Dr., Fort Bragg, (707) 962-0204.
Sunset burger at the Peg House
“Never don’t stop” is the motto of the historic Peg House, and I have to admit — this year’s visit was the first time I finally did stop. On a dreary rainy day I made my way north craving a juicy burger and wanting to finally knock the Peg House off my to-do list. I’m glad I did — it was well worth the drive to this Redwood Empire gem. A delightful woman with hippie vibes took my order at the window in the garden. I grabbed a Scrimshaw Pilsner and sat on the concert stage, where tables were set up to help customers stay dry in the rain. She called my name and up I went to grab the signature sunset burger ($13). Between two pieces of fluffy toasted ciabatta slices was a juicy Humboldt Grassfed Beef burger topped with cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, an heirloom tomato slice and mayo. Suffice to say, it was one of the tastiest burgers I’ve had in ages — simple, delicious, hot, juicy and a little messy. Well worth the stop!
Mon-Sun 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m., 69501 US-101, Leggett, thepeghouse.com.
Dungeness crab roll at Princess Seafood Restaurant
The Dungeness crab roll ($18.95) at Princess Seafood’s Noyo Harbor restaurant is one of the best — if not the best — Dungeness crab sandwiches I’ve ever had. The simple sandwich comprises ¼ pound of crab with garlic butter, Old Bay seasoning, tomatoes and just a touch of mayo on a hoagie roll. It’s melt-in-your-mouth delicious and tastes even better overlooking the beautiful harbor while the seals play and a local musician performs your lunchtime soundtrack in the background. For a truly decadent meal, I order half a sandwich with a cup of lobster and crab bisque. Treat yourself.
Mon. & Thur. 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri-Sun 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., 32096 N. Harbor Drive., Fort Bragg, (707) 962-3046, fvprincess.com.
Filet ramen bowl at Ramen Cubed
Nothing beats a warm bowl of soup on a wintry, blustery night, and Ramen Cubed delivered during this year’s snowstorm. While all the dishes I’ve had at Ramen Cubed have been expertly prepared and tasty, it was the filet mignon ramen bowl ($25) that made its mark in my culinary memory. Ramen Cube serves a hot bowl of rich pork broth with seared John Ford Ranch filet mignon finished with a marinated egg, black garlic oil, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and seasonal vegetables (asparagus and zucchini). The flavors mingled perfectly, and the thin slices of beef were silky and delicious. There is something healing about ramen, especially when it is made with care using locally sourced ingredients by a chef who has worked extremely hard to perfect his craft. This bowl hit the spot on that cold night. Willits is lucky to have such a restaurant in its midst, one of the best ramen bars in Northern California.
Mon-Sun 11 a.m.-8 p.m., 35 E. Commercial St., Willits, (707) 234-6264, ramencubed.com.
Loaded potato sausage from Roundman’s Smokehouse & Butcher Shop
I always bring a cooler when I know I’m going to Fort Bragg because I must stop at one of my favorite places: Roundman’s. On a recent visit, I decided to experiment with a sausage I’ve never heard of or tasted before called the loaded potato ($13.99/lb.), and I am so glad I did. I heated the smoked sausages on the stove top and upon first bite, I had no regrets trying something new. Created by Roundman’s co-owner Steve Rasmussen, the loaded potato sausage tastes like a country pork sausage had a baby with a baked potato topped with cheese and bacon. Yes, please! Now I buy a pound every time I stop at Roundman’s.
Carnitas and al pastor tacos at Super Chavez Market
If you’re a taco freak, and you haven’t been to Super Chavez Market then trust me on this — you must go. My foodie pal Serena took me to the market, where we ordered inside at the register off a paper menu. I ordered carnitas and al pastor tacos ($3.69 each). We walked next door to a former pool hall where the taqueria is located. One woman was making fresh tortillas from masa on a comal, and another prepared the tacos, burritos and quesadillas for hungry customers. We gave the women our receipts, and they quickly made our food. On a 70 degree, sunny spring day we sat on picnic tables out front of the taqueria, chowing down on the tacos topped with spicy salsa verde while dabbing on touches of the rich, fresh-made guacamole. Exceptional is the only way I can describe the tacos, truly crafted with love, and the best I’ve had in the county thus far.
Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat-Sun 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m., 1420 S. State St., Ukiah, (707) 468-1625.
Note: Sarah Stierch covers food, beverage, culture, weather and breaking news for The Mendocino Voice. Contact Stierch at [email protected]. The Voice maintains editorial control.