As tourists crane their necks to see the steeple of Saint Teresa of Avila, made famous by Ansel Adams and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds,” they tend to overlook a nondescript old wooden building that leans into the road at the center of Bodega.
Below a faded 7-Up sign, red neon letters label the building “Casino,” leaving most passersby to wonder why a casino sits at the heart of this quiet hamlet just four miles from the coast. Let them wonder.
For more than 100 years, the building — which never has been an actual casino — has stood as a gathering place, a watering hole and a simple roadhouse. Inside, the space is remarkably dark and woody, with creaking floors and an old jukebox in the corner. Glass-eyed deer look down from the walls, silently observing as the decades roll by. It’s not a place begging for attention from hipsters to judge its lineup of craft brews.
The Casino Bar & Grill is a place to discover accidentally and then love unconditionally. And the best time to stop by is for the Holly + Tali Show each Monday through Thursday when local chefs and caterers Holly Carter and Tali Aiona prepare dinner menus reflecting the fields, farms and fish that surround them and exotic flavors that inspire them.
To call it a pop-up isn’t quite fair, because the duo have been creating destination-worthy food for nearly six years in a kitchen barely larger than its two-burner stove. Guests are usually locals who — pre-pandemic — popped in to see what was on the menu and sit family-style at candlelit wooden tables with mismatched dishes and silverware. For now, it’s a pre-order and pickup situation that’s less charming but just as delicious. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of 94-year-old Evelyn Casini standing behind the bar she’s owned for 71 years.
Carter and Aiona are friends who’ve cooked together for more than 12 years after meeting at the nearby Occidental Arts and Ecology Center where they cooked vegetarian meals for permaculture students and teachers.
“We worked in the most idyllic of settings in a wooden, weathered farmhouse kitchen, dancing to ’90s rap and R&B music at full volume,” Carter said. “We were a show indeed. I know it sounds like we are a television act or something, which believe me, we joke about. But we’re not. Just two gals cooking their hearts out.”
Menus change almost daily, depending on what they’ve secured from nearby producers.
Frequent wedding caterers, they’ve expanded their repertoire during the pandemic by hosting an additional pop-up per month at Americana in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square.
“It keeps us busy and fresh,” Carter said.
Recent menus included such varying dishes as Panizzera sausage and brisket lasagna, orange-olive oil upside-down cake (their baked goods are incredible), Dungeness crab mac and cheese that beats every version I’ve ever had, kale and Brussels sprout salad with prawns, tikka masala, cider-brined pork chops with red lentils and wild salmon with asparagus. Don’t go in with any preconceived ideas. Just let them cook for you.
Like at any good pop-up, you have to work a little to get such amazing food. Menus are posted daily on their Instagram site, @thehollyandtalishow, and you’ll have to call or text your order that morning. Entrees are a la carte, ranging from about $16 to $25 each for generous portions for two. Salads and desserts run about $7 to $12 each.
Carter and Aiona’s pop-ups at Americana, which recently featured a Burmese-inspired meal of tea leaf salad and tom kha soup (so creamy and luxurious), kimchi-braised pot roast and Kaffir lime panna cotta ($75 prix fixe), are also announced on their Instagram site.
Now you know the secret behind that curious place nestled in the one-stoplight town where few take the time to explore.
Miracle Plum pickup
This charming neighborhood market near Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square is a treasure trove of exotic ingredients you didn’t know you totally need, immediately. From artisan tahini and umami bullion to organic yuzu furikake dried black trumpet mushrooms, it’s a food fanatic’s playground.
What we love is their new grab-and-go kitchen just down the street. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, it includes top noshes such as a smoked chicken and beet salad with farro, toasted walnuts, Pt. Reyes blue cheese and pickled celery ($13.50) and the delicate squash and black lentil salad with pickled mushrooms, beets, farmers cheese and a miso vinaigrette ($12.50). Both salads are plenty big for sharing or nibbling on all afternoon.
My hands-down favorite is the homemade egg salad sandwich on Red Bird Bakery Pullman Bread (my bread happened to be a focaccia that day, $8.50). It was gone before I got home. Also worth trying is Bonnie’s Mom’s Noodle Salad with buckwheat noodles and sesame oil or the Friday special of lemony smashed chickpeas on fresh focaccia ($10).
Owners Sallie Miller and Gwen Gunheim also curate wine and foods made by women for some extra lady-powered goodness. Lunch orders at miracleplum.com, with pickup at 600 Wilson St., Santa Rosa (the former A La Heart Catering). The store is located at 208 Davis St., Santa Rosa.
There has been a lot of buzz about this Petaluma Farmers Market pop-up featuring ridiculously good (and spicy) fried chicken sandwiches with dill pickles, Cajun cabbage, spicy sesame mayo and Belfare Sonoma’s signature “Belfire” hot sauce. Eastside Petaluma market-goers also can pick up the jalapeño and bacon fried chicken sando with roasted jalapeños, applewood-smoked bacon, barbecue sauce, mayo and American cheese. On the side, add fingerling fries with nori and sesame mayo and Brussels sprouts with ponzu, Asian pear and Cajun spice.
You’ll often find changes and additions on the menu as well as seasonal pantry items (Meyer lemon marmalade!) to keep things interesting. Chef Eric Lowe is also well known for langoustine sandwiches and their beef Wellington, available by pre-order. belfaresonoma.com or @belfaresonoma on Instagram.
Speaking of pop-ups, this Sonoma Valley farm and charming farmstand is a favorite weekend destination for Wine Country visitors and locals looking for fresh eggs, seasonal produce, oils and rustic flower arrangements. Over the next few months, Flatbed Farm also is hosting chef pop-ups including Belfare Sonoma, 25 Lusk in San Francisco and Living Essence, a health-conscious kitchen much loved for their bone broth. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, 13450 Sonoma Hwy 12, Glen Ellen. Keep up to speed @flatbedfarmglenellen or their website.
By: Heather Irwin