Finding the Real America in California

A few years ago celebrity chef Alton Brown had a show on the Food Network called Feasting on Asphalt. He and a camera crew rode around the country–carefully avoiding interstates–in search of real American food. In other words, they did not go to Chilis, Applebees or any other place you’ve ever seen a tv ad for.

He found good and bad. Good biscuits and ham in the South and a bad concoction of cactus and something else in Arizona. Unfortunately, he actually did feast on some asphalt when he face-planted off his motocycle somewhere out west.

Next time Alton gets an urge to travel and eat in some out of the way places, he needs to come to northern California.

We landed in San Jose on July 4 and drove north about 2 hours to tiny Monte Rio on the Russian River, about 10 miles from the Pacific. It’s another world. By about Wednesday, it occured to me that we hadn’t seen a red light since leaving the Bay Area behind. We had traveled from Jenner where we watched the seals from the side of the road down to Point Reyes, the foggiest place in the U.S. In between, we drove though Bodega Bay, the tiny coastal town Alfred Hitchcock chose as the setting of The Birds.

Along the way we saw lots of Italian places. Lots of signs promoting barbecued oysters, a local favorite, and plenty of roadside joints that just promoted themselves as “restaurant and bar.”

This is not a chi-chi area, despite its beauty. And I’m not saying that we had any great meals except for what I cooked–especially my ersatz coq au vin simmered with an excellent local syrrah–until we went to the town of Sonoma. There we ate at The Girl and the Fig and it was outstanding. If you’re ever there, try the heirloom radishes with anchovy butter.

These local places are not guided by a corporate philosophy–they were not selling dishes created in a test kitchen hundreds of miles away, dishes based on focus groups and profit margins. Husband had tongue tacos in a tiny Mexican place in Occidental, something I really can’t imagine on a Taco Bell menu.

I think that for many of us, California is the last place we would think of when it comes to “real” America. But we forget about what a big place this is. It’s not all fake tans and red carpets.

I like my travel with a dash of funky every now and then. It’s why I adore the Keys. If you’re looking for a little adventure, you might want to think about the Russian River in western Sonoma County. It’s not fancy, but it is gorgeous. I’ll put up some pix next time.

6 Comments

Filed under Food/Cooking, Travel

6 responses to “Finding the Real America in California

  1. That’s funny. I was looking at the website for The Girl and the Fig today. We’re planning a November trip to Sonoma/Russian River. I might have to look for those lengua tacos though. Yum!

  2. i’ve been as far as Point Reyes, but it seems i need to venture a little further to find the funky.

  3. Julie

    But, come on. The fake America is SO America, isn’t it? Where else in the world would people sit around dreaming up Applebee’s. Now that’s America. I’m not about to say I like it, but it is as “America” as bubble gum.

  4. I spent a summer in Petaluma when I was in the Coast Guard, believe it or not. We use to have overnight beach parties in Bodega Bay. We’d bury a keg of beer in the sand and tape a flashlight to the tap so we wouldn’t lose it in the dark.

  5. Sounds like my kind of place. I’m not keen on franchises, but some people think they’re great. My brother, who has travelled much more widely in the States (on business) than I have once told me he loved them because you knew what you were going to get no matter where you were. He’s not very adventurous.

  6. Kira–Let me know if you need any info on the area–it’s a funky world out there.
    DF–Just go north about 50 miles on Hwy. 1–you’ll find it!
    Julie–I know–the fake is taking over!
    UB–Taping a flashlight to a keg is just brilliant! We actually drove through Petaluma. You, of all people, will be amused to know that they refer to their downtown as the “theatre (sic) district.”
    PG–Your brother is right–standardization is the key to those places. I hope he’ll get off the beaten path sometime and experiment a little.

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