Food Features

San Francisco bakery pulls all-nighters to bake ‘pan de muerto’ by the thousands

SFGATE food editor Steph Rodriguez searches for a taste of home through pan dulce

Owner Carmen Elias stands in front of La Mejor Bakery in the Mission District of San Francisco. (Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

As a child growing up in the remote, tiny settlement in Kern County known as the Mexican Colony, a man peddling sweets in an unconventional white van would visit daily in the late afternoons. Like clockwork, he’d roll up in front of my grandma Lilly’s house in Shafter, California, with all the neighborhood kids trailing behind to be first in line.

Once parked, he’d hop out and walk to the back of the van before swinging open two large doors to reveal racks on racks of freshly baked pan dulce neatly displayed to the amazement of all of us niños. He was our neighborhood’s ice cream man.

I recall gripping a $5 bill that my grandma had given me with clear instructions on what she wanted: conchas, puerquitos, cuernitos, besos and niño envuelto, a soft sponge cake that’s rolled in coconut flakes with a swirl of strawberry jam in the center.

A variety of pan dulce available at La Mejor Bakery in the Mission District of San Francisco. (Photo by Douglas Zimmerman; Illustration by SFGATE)

As a new Bay Area resident, pan dulce is one of my comfort foods. I can trace some of my fondest memories back to the molasses and ginger-laced puerquitos, or pig-shaped pastries. I recall tearing off a piece of pink-frosted concha before running outside to play with my cousins. Those flavors not only bring me back to the colony, to my roots, but it’s a food I often seek out when I’m feeling homesick.

With this in mind, I spent the day in San Francisco’s Mission tasting pan dulce from longtime panaderias such as La Victoria to La Reyna and ending with La Mejor Bakery near the 24th Street BART station. There, I met bakery owner Carmen Elias, a sweet woman originally from Mexico City who first opened her shop at 3329 24th St. in 1993.

When I walked in, she was anticipating incoming orders for pan de muerto (bread of the dead), fragrant rounds of cinnamon and star anise marked with crossbones made out of dough. It comes in many shapes, some even made to look like little people with crossed arms and sugary smiley faces.

At La Mejor, pan de muerto is Elias’ bread and butter in honor of Dia de los Muertos, a Mexican-born holiday that honors loved ones who’ve died. The celebration of life takes place each year on Nov. 1 and 2, with the first day honoring children and the following day dedicated to adults.

Published with SFGate November 1, 2022. Read the full story here.

Netflix’s ‘Great British Baking Show’ showed the world what it really thinks of Mexico

SFGATE food editor Steph Rodriguez on the TV hit saying the quiet part loud

“The Great British Baking Show” co-presenters Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas wearing serapes and sombreros during the “Mexican Week” episode. (Image via Netflix)

One of the world’s most comforting television series became one of the most offensive on Friday. Netflix’s “The Great British Baking Show” released its newest episode, entitled “Mexican Week,” and it is laced with plenty of problematic stereotypes, causing immediate backlash on social media.

But the cherry on top comes during the opening scene, where comedian-hosts Noel Fielding (“IT Crowd,” “The Mighty Boosh”) and Matt Lucas (“Doctor Who”) wore long, colorful serapes and round sombreros in the middle of a well-manicured green lawn just outside of the show’s famous white tent. As online critiques spread like wildfire, I decided to watch the full episode. As it unfolded, I blinked in bewilderment. How did this get made?

“I’m really excited for ‘Mexican Week,’ absolutely pumped,” Fielding said, while wearing a culturally appropriated outfit. “Although, I don’t feel we should make Mexican jokes, people will get upset.”

“What? No Mexican jokes at all?” Lucas asked his co-host. “What, not even Juan?”

“Not even Juan,” Fielding replied with a smile.

“Welcome to the Great British Baking Show!”

Oh boy.

If you’ve never seen the 12-year-old British baking competition that has captured America’s heart for more than a decade, this season is judged by blue-eyed, renowned master baker Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, a South African restaurateur. It’s also co-presented by comedic actors Fielding and Lucas, the bozos in the cheap costumes I mentioned earlier.

Each episode tasks amateur bakers with three challenges: a signature, a technical and a showstopper bake. In the case of “Mexican Week,” the contestants baked pan dulce (sweet breads) for the signature test.

At local panaderias (bakeries), pan dulce comes in countless varieties, from coconut-flaked sponge cake with raspberry swirls to the more recognizable concha, which my grandmother always enjoyed with coffee.

Many of the bakers opted to try their hands at conchas, round buns with a sugary crackling top that’s been scored. Once conchas come out of the oven, the sweet coating resembles the tops of seashells. It’s what the word “concha” means: shell.

Throughout the challenge, it was clear that a majority of the bakers couldn’t be bothered to put much effort into pronouncing simple words such as “concha” or “besos,” which means kisses.

During the technical, bakers attempted to make steak tacos with “spicy” beans, pico de gallo and guacamole. In this taco challenge, one woman even pronounced “guacamooolee” with so many vowels that it’s turned into its own meme by now.

The show’s producers choosing tacos for the technical on a baking show really shows a lack of research into Mexican food and culture. Instead of choosing a bread-baking challenge where contestants tried recipes for crusty rolls such as bolillos, or even birote salado, which is our version of sourdough bread, the show chose tacos. For bakers.

Published with SFGate October 4, 2022. Read the full story here.

Bay Area Costco stores’ latest ice cream flavor uses the world’s most pungent fruit

Mavens Creamery’s durian-flavored ice cream pints will be available in 18 Bay Area Costco stores, starting in October 2022. (Photo: Federica Armstrong)

By Steph Rodriguez, SFGate

It’s one of the richest, fattiest fruits and treated as a delicacy across Southeast Asia. It’s also known for its pungent reputation, which once led to the evacuation of an Australian university campus. It’s even banned from being carried on subways, aboard airplanes and in certain hotels overseas.

Durian, with its bright yellow meaty interior, is a fruit you either love or hate — and it’s coming to a Bay Area Costco near you in pint-sized ice cream form this October, dreamed up by the two sisters behind San Jose-based Mavens Creamery.

The sister duo, founders of Mavens Creamery, from left: Gwen and Christine Nguyen. Their entrepreneurial story started in 2014 when they began making macaron ice cream sandwiches in their parents’ home in San Jose, Calif. (Photo: Federica Armstrong)

“Some things just can’t be explained,” said Christine Nguyen, co-owner of Mavens Creamery. “I get it. It’s off-putting. It’s a very strong smell. But, everyone in our family enjoys it.”

To certain people, Christine said durian may smell like leaking gas or rotten eggs. But for her family, durian was a fruit they grew up eating after dinner as a dessert, or whenever their mom would see the oblong, spiky fruit at the grocery store.

Growing up in a Vietnamese family, Gwen Nguyen, who is Christine’s sister and the founder of Mavens Creamery, said durian was simply a part of their childhood growing up in the Bay Area, and it evokes positive food memories.

“There are just certain ingredients that are introduced being Vietnamese. Fish sauce, that’s in our DNA. So durian fruit, I just have always known for it to be a part of a dessert or a fruit after we would have a meal,” Gwen said. “It is a delicacy fruit, though, and it’s very rich, so you probably wouldn’t want to have it every day.” …

Published with SFGate September 15, 2022. Read full story here.

How a grandmother’s secret recipe inspired this SF food truck’s sell-out menu

Satay by the Bay’s chicken satay skewers are served with a thick, homemade peanut sauce.
(Photo: Douglas Zimmerman)

By Steph Rodriguez, SFGate

Cooking her grandmother’s peanut sauce recipe for the first time was haunting.

For decades, Elly Greenfield’s cousins back in Singapore kept those handwritten ingredients close — until one day, when Greenfield revealed she was opening her own satay business, she was let in on the family secret.

“When I started making it, I started crying like, ‘Oh my god, this is so her!’” Greenfield said. “I cried. I had to call my cousin, and I said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it! This tastes like grandma’s recipe. This tastes like grandma’s food.’”

Along with her husband, David Greenfield, Elly is the co-owner of Satay by the Bay, San Francisco’s only Singaporean-Malay food truck, serving home-cooked dishes inspired by recipes from her mother, Yahtimah, and paternal grandmother, Fatimah. About five days a week, Elly serves her customers food rooted in Southeast Asian flavors with plenty of blended onions, garlic, ginger and dried chilis at its foundation.

Satay by the Bay owners Elly and David Greenfield hold their signature chicken satay and Singapore chilli crab sandwich in front of their food truck at Off The Grid at Fort Mason in San Francisco, Calif.
(Photo: Douglas Zimmerman)

At the truck, which can be found weekly at the new Presidio Tunnel Tops park, and regularly at Off the Grid’s Fort Mason Center and Menlo Park locations, customers choose from a concentrated menu that often sells out. It features halal chicken satay skewers, spicy chili crab or chicken satay sandwiches, loaded Dutch fries and tahu goreng, a delicious crispy tofu bowl with fresh bean sprouts, carrots and cucumbers topped with Elly’s show-stopping peanut sauce.

“All of it. The color. The smell. It feels kind of haunted. It just brought back all my memories because my grandmother used to cook every weekend for a party of people,” she said. “The grandkids would be at the house playing, and I would see her in the kitchen.” …

Published with SFGate August 25, 2022. Read full story here.

Oakland deli with rich family history serves the tastiest cheap sandwiches

Ratto’s Italian combo on focaccia with a sweet and savory red bell pepper spread.
(Photo: Douglas Zimmerman)

By Steph Rodriguez, SFGate

Elena Durante said stepping into her father’s store as a child overwhelmed her senses. Growing up in the family-run grocery business that sold everything from fine wines and olive oils to salt cod and big wheels of cheese, she described the sweet and peppery aromas of imported spices and remembers running her little fingers through barrels of dry beans.

“There were so many products here in the ’60s. You’d smell every kind of spice,” she said. “I remember my dad coming home at night in his delivery van, and you couldn’t really get the smell of Ratto’s out of it. I can’t really describe it. Think of it as cheesy, fishy, briny, umami-ish.”

(Photo: Douglas Zimmerman)

Durante is the great-granddaughter of Giovanni Battista Ratto, the founder of the premier Oakland grocer, and the man behind its namesake since 1897. As a fourth-generation owner, she took over the business in 2002 from her father, Martin Durante, who had inherited Ratto’s in the ’50s from his own father, who was also named Martin Durante.

Continuing the family legacy, Elena Durante, who mostly works from home these days, said she plans to eventually retire. When that happens, Ratto’s will pass to its fifth-generation owner, Durante’s youngest son Jonas Voiron, 31, who’s worked at the deli since he was 16 years old, skateboarding up and down Washington Street.

“This is like home. I literally grew up around the corner. We lived there for over 10 years during my whole childhood through high school,” Voiron said. “So I was always here every day. This is it. It’s like my little neighborhood. I feel like I’m from a small town, and this is my small town.” …

Published with SFGate August 12, 2022. Read full story here.

San Francisco German store saved by loyal customer, will reopen this fall in Noe Valley

Handwritten signs outside of Lehr’s German Specialties signal the 48-year-old store in Noe Valley is making its comeback under new ownership. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Seyfert)

By Steph Rodriguez, SFGate

After nearly 50 years as San Francisco’s hub for one-of-a-kind sausages, jams, chocolates and other imported treats from Deutschland, the announcement of Lehr’s German Specialties’ abrupt closure in August didn’t sit right with Hannah Seyfert, one of the shop’s loyal customers. 

Seyfert, who moved from Germany to San Francisco in 2016, frequented Lehr’s for a taste of “heimat,” or home, finding comfort in familiar items such as fruit teas, sauerkraut and jagdwurst, a cooked sausage made from finely ground pork that can be sliced for lunch meat. 

(Photo courtesy of Hannah Seyfert)
Hannah Seyfert, left, recently purchased Lehr’s German Specialties from Brigitte Lehr, center. The two are pictured with longtime Lehr’s employee Ingrid, who worked for the store for 18 years. 

So Seyfert called the shop’s proprietor, Brigitte Lehr, and after the two spoke over the phone, and again in person, Seyfert ended up purchasing the Noe Valley store on Sept. 10. It’s scheduled to reopen in mid-November, just in time for the holiday season.

“She got really excited about the idea of someone continuing the business. It was very clear that I wanted to keep the name, keep the location,” Seyfert said. “For me, as a German, it’s really important for me to represent my country in a city that I love so much.” …

Published with SFGate September 22, 2022. Read full story here.

Post-COVID Kitchen Confidential: Sacramento’s tough-willed cooks and pastry chefs soldier on through an upside down world

Christopher Fairman stands outside The Shack in East Sacramento. Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Worker shortages, supply chain chaos, constant rule changes, public fear, bad air and petty criminals – life is never boring for the indie kitchens making the food you love

With dreams of bringing their Pacific Northwest-inspired burger menu to Sacramento, a recent run-in with vandals had the co-owners of Lucky’s Drive-In on the edge of giving up.

As small business owners trying to open a second location in a new city, Willow Eskridge and Michael Feagins recently found their bright-red, English-style, double-decker bus standing guard outside their Franklin Boulevard restaurant covered in black-and-white graffiti.

Add to that the kaleidoscope of everyday restaurant stresses, especially while operating during an ongoing pandemic, and it’s understandable how that moment felt like a gut punch.

“We figured the bus would get some buzz going and get people talking about us — and then, somebody tagged it,” Eskridge said. “It’s something that a lot of people can really relate to. You drive around, and you get so sick of seeing people’s businesses, and even just abandoned places, tagged. It’s just sad.”

While a number of popular Sacramento restaurants closed last year due to various hardships, including the Michelin-recognized Mother and the nearly century-old Espanol Italian, those that remain are steadfastly continuing to weather a number of unique challenges that stem directly from the pandemic.

Instead of planning the day’s menu, many restaurateurs are finding themselves constantly adjusting to a lack of staff, the steep price increases of essential ingredients and the lingering question of whether the day’s product delivery will even show up. These are just a few issues becoming part of the everyday experience of running a modern-day dining house in Sacramento — and that’s even before firing up the burners.

Read the full story here. Published with the Sacramento News & Review September 2, 2021.

The Fruits of Their Labor

Midtown Association abruptly terminated its contract with Unseen Heroes, a local events company that popularized the Midtown Farmers Market for almost six years. Photo courtesy of Unseen Heroes

Midtown Association splits with Unseen Heroes, a Black-owned events company that operated Midtown Farmers Market for more than 5 years

On any given Saturday morning, rain or shine, the Midtown Farmers Market is filled with as many as 90 vendors selling fresh produce, artisan goods and wares that stretch over two city blocks in the heart of the Lavender District.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Unseen Heroes, an award-winning events and marketing agency in Oak Park, was hired by the Midtown Association to run the day-to-day operations. With that contract, Unseen Heroes says it not only introduced its extensive list of diverse vendors to the market, but also grew its social media presence from 253 followers to more than 31,000 on Instagram. As years passed, the market eventually expanded from one to two blocks to accommodate the growing list of vendors, who sell everything from fruits and veggies, to empanadas and handmade jewelry.

So it was a shock to Unseen Heroes’ co-owner, Roshaun Davis, when he received an email from the Midtown Association’s executive director, Emily Baime Michaels, stating the contract between the two organizations was being terminated as of June 1. Unseen Heroes’ last day operating the market is Saturday, June 27.

“These relationships are ours. We built these relationships, we leveraged our relationships and had people come into the market that would not necessarily have even done business with Midtown [Association],” Davis says. “It was just that bewilderment of like, ‘How are we going to make this work?’ For us, it’s always been community first, so we didn’t want to pull all the vendors away from the market.”

SN&R asked Michaels why Midtown Association made the decision to split from Unseen Heroes during the height of farmers market season. She says it was due to “18 months of performance issues.”

“The majority of the performance issues are ones that they themselves actually document on worksheets that they turn into us every month that talk about the performance of the market,” Michaels says. “Our market manager that works for Unseen Heroes, their responsibility is to fill out how many vendors we have, whether we have all their insurance on file, whether we posted correctly on our social media—all of the pieces that come with running the market, and consistently, those were not being completed.”

Unseen Heroes’ farmers market manager, Hope Rodriguez, says that’s not true. …

Read the full story published JUNE 22, 2020 in the Sacramento News & Review

Burns So Good

The Sammich is a textural dream. Order it Medium spicy for a tolerable burn that cools between bites of crunchy slaw, dill pickles and a creamy Fuego Sauce held together by two buttery, toasted buns. Photo by Steph Rodriguez

I have an affinity for spicy food, though it wasn’t always that way. When I was in kindergarten, my dad shouted from the kitchen, “Mija! Do you want a pickle?” I loved pickles. He knew this. And although this particular pickle looked strange, I bit into it—only to suffer through heat waves and watery eyes that come standard with deep-green jalapeños. Oh, the joys of growing up in a Mexican household.

Now when I see spicy food trending, I seek it out. I enjoy testing my spice-boundaries and swimming in the euphoric feeling triggered by capsaicin (the compound that makes hot peppers hot). Enter Nash & Proper, a Nashville-inspired hot chicken food truck that serves a straightforward menu of crispy-fried chicken thighs, wings and tenders dunked in varying levels of liquid fire.

My first visit was at its location in Oak Park, where N&P parks in front of T&R Taste of Texas BBQ on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. The spice levels: Mild “a bit of heat,” Medium “now you feel it,” Hot “it’s burning” and Cluckin’ Hot “get the cluck outta here.”

I ordered The Sammich ($12, Medium), a generously layered beast that requires two hands to manage. A soft, buttery bun is grilled until lightly charred before two crunchy boneless thighs are dipped in hot sauce and stacked with vinegary, green cabbage slaw, a few dill pickles and crowned with a top bun accompanied by Fuego Sauce, a mildly spicy aioli. I ensured my first, large bite included a bit of everything.

The textures alone were deliciously satisfying. The pillowy, toasted buns and the crisp cracklings from the chicken’s batter echoed with crunch inside my head, while the thigh meat was both tender and juicy. This tantalizing mouthful was followed by toothsome moments of fresh cabbage slaw and the occasional dill pickle punch. I dove back in for another gargantuan bite.

Luckily, I was dining solo on the trunk of my car, so I had no shame. Between bites, I enjoyed creamy potato salad ($3), cubes of cold potatoes in a dill-forward dressing acted as an excellent cooling method. Still, Medium didn’t quite scratch the surface of spiciness that I craved.

I continued to chase the capsaicin dragon on a follow-up visit, when the truck was at SacYard Community Tap House, with a basket of Cluckin’ Hot wings (three for $10) served on slices of white bread with pickle slices. The wings and drumettes were such a deep red it appeared an ominous warning. Once I popped the drumette from its wing, I took a conservative bite and waited.

Cluckin’ Hot is deceptive. I stopped myself from taking a second bite as the heat began to billow on my palate like a desert storm cloud taking over the entirety of my mouth. The heat builds slowly and digs in to stay awhile. As time passed, I craved more as it burned so good. A deep inhale seemed to make things worse so I tore off a piece of white bread and chewed until the heat slowly cooled.

With beads of sweat beneath my glasses, Cluckin’ Hot took me there. A very hot, but pleasantly slow burn. Would I order The Sammich Cluckin’ Hot? No. That ’wich is meant to be savored. But would I order a basket of wings that hot again? Most definitely. Would you?

Published MAY 9, 2019 in the Sacramento News & Review

Life and Tacos

Josue Acosta, owner and head chef of Zoe Coffee and Tacos, tops an order with fresh salsa at SacYard Community Tap House during its Taco Tuesdays. Photo by Mary Huynh

Whether during the early mornings as he got ready for school, or in the evenings after dinner, Josue Acosta says his dad always had a fresh pot of coffee brewing. Coffee was a comforting aroma throughout his childhood that fueled conversations and relaxed the family.

For Acosta, growing up Salvadoran meant coffee was an anytime beverage. “Its culturally been passed down that after your meal you start smelling coffee,” he says. “That’s been my family since I grew up.”

Inspired by his cultural connection to coffee and an insatiable taste for flavorful tacos, Acosta launched Zoe Coffee and Tacos in January 2018, popping up at weddings, breweries and fundraisers to pair what he says are a match made in culinary heaven.

“One of the biggest memories I have is cooking with my dad. He would explain to us what he was doing and he would always talk about how he learned from his grandma,” Acosta says. “That idea always stuck with me. Him seeing his grandma and me seeing him. I don’t need to know the exact recipe, I just need to observe, see him and remember the flavors.” …

Read the full story, published October 24, 2019 in the Sacramento News & Review

The Paprika Steeper

Mark Lastuvka came to Sacramento from the Czech Republic, and now rises early to cook goulash at La Trattoria Bohemia

Owner Mark Lastuvka holding beef goulash on the patio of La Trattoria Bohemia in East Sacramento. Photo by Scott Duncan

The scent of tonight’s dinner specialtandoori-spiced halibut—wafts from the kitchen. Lively

conversations fill a warmly lit dining room with not an empty seat inside La Trattoria Bohemia, a Czech and Italian restaurant that opened in East Sacramento 17 years ago.

In the center of the merriment sits restaurant owner Mark Lastuvka, enjoying a glass of red wine with his girlfriend. A friendly chef, he’s passionate about the quality of food he serves his customers, whether it’s the Italian handmade ravioli, pizza and lasagna or the Czech dishes of his childhood, including beef goulash, chicken paprikash, handmade späetzle and schnitzel, which he made all the time as a kid. The Czech dumplings are his top-sellers.

Lastuvka’s place is one of a kind—the only Czech restaurant in Sacramento.

“I come every morning and I cook. Today, I did beef goulash and Bavarian goulash and soup,” Lastuvka says. “Goulash takes three hours, so you have to come in the morning and start it because it takes all day to prep. The goulash, I needed to twist it a little bit and make it for here to get people used to it, because it’s different in Czech. But now it sells very well.”

In Lastuvka’s goulash, he says, he uses precise portions of meat and vegetables, whereas in different regions of Eastern Europe, a homemade recipe would incorporate just about anything.

Lastuvka moved here from the Czech Republic in 1990. While taking English classes, he met two men who offered him a job washing dishes at Roma II Pizzeria on Folsom Boulevard. There, he met owner Maria Guerrera and learned the essentials of authentic Southern Italian cuisine over the next decade.

“She’s like my mother,” Lastuvka says. “My mom is back in Czech, so Maria became my friend and mother, and she helped a lot.”

Lastuvka was working two jobs, seven days a week, split between an early morning construction job and Roma’s on the weekends. Understandably, he started to get tired. So he decided to bring a little taste of Czech to Sacramento …

Read The paprika steeper in its entirety here. This article received a 2018 Excellence in Journalism Award with the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter. Published in the Sacramento News & Review November 30, 2017. 

Best Meat and Gravy Heaven

Bud’s Buffet


On a warm Wednesday afternoon, the savory aroma of roasted meats lures hungry foot traffic off the busy sidewalk on 10th Street and into a line that stretches from one end of the eatery back to the front door. Inside Bud’s Buffet, the ambience is reminiscent of a lunchtime cafeteria, what with its loud chatter, modestly decorated dining area and fast-paced assembly line.

Since 1988, this old-fashioned lunch spot has been revered for its thick portions of peppery pastrami, baked ham, barbecued pork, and corned and roast beef (just to name a few) packed into soft French rolls. Here, the menu is simple: specialty deli sandwiches, cold Italian pasta and macaroni salads, and hot daily lunch specials that rotate during the week, like lasagna and spaghetti served with side salads, or chopped steak served with Bud’s signature mound of mashed potatoes and gravy. Recommended on the specialty hot sandwiches menu: the spicy “Diablo” with roast beef, melted pepper jack cheese, housemade chipotle sauce and jalapeños. Or, try Bud’s classic Reuben with deli-sliced pastrami, Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut, spicy brown mustard and Swiss cheese.

Despite its lunchtime rush, the steady ebb and flow of customers makes this afternoon lunch stop a quick place to enjoy a filling meal, but bear in mind Bud’s is only open during the workweek from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Published in the Sacramento News & Review’s Best Of 2017 Issue.

Culinary Dreams

Community kitchens support local food and drink artisans in
America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital

Sacramento artisans thrive in the Farm-to-Fork Capital. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

On a hot Saturday afternoon, ice-cold drinks and root beer floats are served inside the Burly Beverages Gift Shoppe & Tasting Room, an old-fashioned soda fountain located in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood. Rows of specialty sodas, seltzers, and cocktail essentials line the shelves, and co-owner and founder Gabriel Aiello welcomes guests from behind a sleek corner bar lined with black and chrome bar stools. The doorbell rings, and Aiello opens the door for two women so they can taste the variety of small-batch soda flavors Aiello’s seasonal menu features. For Aiello, this brick-and-motor location was once a simple dream. Still, the challenges that keep many small-batch culinary businesses from realizing their dreams are very much a reality.

With more than 11,000 small family farms in the Sacramento Valley, local culinary artisans are able to draw much inspiration from the abundance that surrounds them year round. That vast foundation allows them to create new ways to savor the region’s lush bounty of fruits and vegetables.

Whether they operate a food booth, run a pop-up supper club, or are a small-batch producer, independent culinary business owners share a passion for sourcing homegrown ingredients and highlighting the authenticity derived from their handmade goods. Still, the expense of launching a culinary dream — especially in its beginning stages — proves difficult for many small producers. So they turn to commercial kitchens and rent space as a more cost-effective approach to sharing their handcrafted goods with the masses. Yet with the growing number of culinary artisans in a booming agricultural economy, kitchen space is extremely limited, which often hampers these budding businesses with a farm-to-fork ethos. Nevertheless, the drive for homemade taste and DIY spirit persists. …

READ THE FULL COVER STORY: CULINARY DREAMS. Published in Edible Sacramento’s Fall 2017 Issue.

Cooking with Precision

Local MasterChef Junior competitor adds chemistry to his kitchen experiments

Adam Wadhwani on MasterChef Junior. Photo courtesy of FOX

While some youths ask their parents for bats and balls, 14-year-old Adam Wadhwani recalls a time when he asked his mom for a blow torch, CO2 cartridges, and a set of sharp knives.

For most parents, that would be a strange and tall order to fill, but for Wadhwani’s mother, Emel Wadhwani, these gadgets were simply kitchen tools that propelled a then-9-year-old boy’s culinary interests to a level where dishes mirrored restaurant-quality fine dining.

“As a parent, you are sometimes jolted into realizing that your kid does have something special going on, and you need to really support him,” Emel says. “When he got interested in food, it wasn’t just an attempt to create delicious stuff, which he does very well. But he was also interested in the technique and the technology and the equipment that goes with it.”

At the edge of 12 years old, Adam and his mother flew to Los Angeles to try out for the FOX television show MasterChef Junior, hosted by world-renowned chef Gordon Ramsay and award-winning pastry chef Christina Tosi. More than 4,000 young chefs between the ages of 8 and 13 auditioned for the series in order to earn a spot in the Top 40 and the chance to win the $100,000 grand prize.

Adam garnered a place by baking chocolate cupcakes filled with strawberry compote and topped with a buttercream frosting that was infused with smoked cinnamon and nutmeg. His cupcakes not only earned him a signature white apron, but this Sutter Middle School student also received a high five from the famously ill-tempered Ramsay.

“A lot of what compelled me about MasterChef was getting to be around other kids who enjoyed the same thing I did … and with professionals who knew what they were doing and could help guide us to make us better,” Adam says. …

READ THE FULL STORY: COOKING WITH PRECISION. Published in Edible Sacramento’s Fall 2017 Issue.

For the Love of Cheese


For Greater Sacramento’s resident cheesemongers, every cheese tells a story. From its funky flavor profiles to the creameries and farmers who spend decades perfecting their cheese recipes, every detail is essential. Amid an abundance of well-stocked cheese collections throughout the region, edible Sacramento stepped behind the counter to turn to three cheese experts for tips, tricks, and tales. These pros not only carry great respect for cheesemakers, but they also aspire to eliminate the intimidation factor that naturally follows such boundless selections … no matter how you slice it.

A homegrown devotion

Growing up on a small, organic pear farm in Mendocino County, Calif., allowed Rebekah Baker to see the personal connection between produce and its cultivator from a young age. With these experiences at her core, Baker believes the best part about having worked in the cheese industry for the past decade is the variety of narratives that follow every decadent wedge she tastes.

“Behind every incredibly delicious cheese, there is a story. There’s a cheesemaker. There’s a company. There’s a family. There’s a town. There’s a dairy animal that made that milk,” Baker says. “When you taste a really excellent cheese, you know there was someone somewhere along the line who has an intense passion about what they’re doing.”

Baker’s worn many hats within the cheese business, from cheese buyer and specialty associate at Whole Foods Market in Santa Rosa, Folsom, and Roseville, Calif., to Nugget Markets, where she was the corporate director of specialty cheese for three years. Now, she works for Tony’s Fine Foods in West Sacramento as the category manager for cheese. Baker’s dedication to the world of cheese is measured in both years and the countless hours she studied to earn the elite certified cheese professional title from the American Cheese Society.

For Baker, the only wrong way to enjoy cheese is to not eat it. From her experience, tasting cheese is the quickest way to find the one that tickles all the senses. A turning point in her career was when she sampled a five-year-aged Gouda that gave Baker her wow moment.

“It was just the craziest dark, caramel color, and it had these lighter flecks of crystals throughout, and the texture was very firm,” Baker says. “The flavor just blew me away with its burnt caramel, whisky, and cherry notes. When I first tried it, I stopped talking and just tasted for like five minutes. The flavor lingered and kept evolving and changing.” …

READ THE FULL COVER STORY: FOR THE LOVE OF CHEESEPublished in Edible Sacramento’s Summer 2017 Issue.

Eat on the Street

Uncovering Greater Sacramento’s Mexican street food

Yolanda Yanez and her son Andres Yanez. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

The most authentic flavors of Mexican cuisine are not always tasted in full-spread dishes accompanied by rice and beans or served in a restaurant setting. Instead, the essence of traditional Mexican fare is found streetside, served near parks, in alleyways, and on the busiest corners of the city.

Street food is simple. It’s savory tacos garnished with cilantro and chopped onions and served from a small cart near Southside Park. It’s crunchy chicharrónes, fried pork rinds spiced with lime and chili sauce. It’s the comfort factor present in each bite of an elote, corn on the cob rolled in mayo, chili powder, and Parmesan cheese and enjoyed on a stick.

These curbside treats, with their savory and spicy flavors, originate from some of the oldest regions in Mexico. Street food may be straightforward, but it’s served with a story and spiced with love by people who savor authenticity.

Everybody loves elote. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Wrapped in tradition

When Yolanda Yanez was a little girl, her mother taught her the traditions of tamale making in Michoacán. Back in those days, tamales were made by the dozen. Now, Yanez and a small team — which includes her husband, Pedro — prep and steam between 400 and 1,000 tamales in one day.

In her family-run business, Yanez also enlists the help of her sons, Andres and Valente; her daughter, Julia; and Andres’ wife, Sandra, who all are regular faces during every farmers’ market location in the Sacramento area. The markets run from May through October, when Yolanda’s Tamales are sold in bulk.

Tamales start with masa, a corn-based dough that traditionally is made of lard, salt, and baking powder. The masa is spread onto a cornhusk before it’s filled with a variety of meats, chiles, cheeses, or vegetables. Once the tamale is assembled, it’s folded tightly and steamed until the masa is firm. …

READ THE FULL STORY: EAT ON THE STREETPublished in Edible Sacramento’s Summer 2017 Issue.

Wicked Good

Devil May Care Ice Cream owner Jess Milbourn scoops up nostalgia and other delicious childhood treats

Devil May Care Ice Cream owner, Jess Milbourn

Across the I Street Bridge in West Sacramento is Devil May Care Ice Cream, a little red parlor that aims to rekindle a time where a scoop of the frozen confection was the ultimate childhood treat. Inside, ingredients from local companies like the Allspicery and Burly Beverages line the shelves. Canisters of cardamom, cinnamon and vanilla bean pods sit near bottles of root beer, ginger beer and orange soda syrups used as twist on the classic float. Much like the name of his business, owner Jess Milbourn says he approaches his recipes with a fun and reckless attitude because at the end of the day—it’s ice cream. But, don’t diss vanilla. For Milbourn, it’s not only his favorite flavor, but also the most misunderstood.

“It’s such an underrated flavor, but why is it any more plain than chocolate? I put more flavor into my vanilla than my chocolate,” he says. “Vanilla uses two different vanilla beans with some extract, and it just accents everything so well.”

With more than 30 years of experience as a chef and graduate from the Culinary Institute of New York, Milbourn opened the small shop last November and introduced ice cream combinations like coffee and donuts made from Camellia Coffee Roasters and old-fashioned glazed donuts from City Donuts just up the street.

Classic flavors like vanilla and chocolate, cookies and cream, and peanut butter and fudge also make regular appearances on the menu, but his latest creation made with chamomile and kumquat is truly unique. Floral aromas are met with slightly tart pieces of kumquat. The combination tastes of honey, but with a light and sweet finish. A native of West Sac, Milbourn recalls picking chamomile with his grandmother along the river as a child. It’s also where he returns to source the wildflower.

It’s not just a nostalgia trip though, Milbourn says. The greatest feeling he says is seeing his customers smile.

“I get to have kids come in and eat their first ice cream cone and look like that,” To demonstrate, Milbourn shares an Instagram photo of a boy holding a cone with a huge smile on his face.

“It’s the coolest thing. Kids are happy and families come in for celebrations. People come here to celebrate and enjoy life,” he says. “That’s the most soul-satisfying thing is to see happy people, especially the kids.”

Published in the Sacramento News & Review’s “Summer Guide” Issue May 25, 2017.

Filipino Flavor

Olla Swanson cooks up family traditions

Home cook Olla Swanson preps her family recipe for kare-kare. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Home cooks bring a certain finesse and authenticity to the dishes they know well. In many homes, you’ll find no recipe books sitting on the kitchen counter, no second-guessing of measurements, and often the simmering and spicing of home-cooked meals solely depend on the cook’s palate, which continuously assesses all the familiar flavors lightly bubbling on the stovetop until they’re just right.

All of these methods ring true for Olla Swanson, a seasoned home cook who was taught how to make rice properly by her mother at age 4. Her advice: Wash it three times.

Growing up in a large Filipino household, Swanson inherited the natural ability to cook traditional-style Filipino dishes from her mother, Olivia, and her Aunt Lupe.

“When I was growing up, my mom and my Aunt Lupe between them had eight children, and we all grew up together in this big house, and there would be so much food,” Swanson says. “I like how Filipino food makes me think of community and all of us eating together, especially if there’s a big party. Also, it’s hard to find. The only way you can get it is if you make it.”

Under the moniker The Olla Factory, Swanson now serves the Filipino dishes of her childhood during a rotating Monday popup dinner series at Sacramento’s Old Ironsides restaurant, to crowds she hopes will discover a love for these foods that meant so much to her and her family. …

READ THE FULL STORY: FILIPINO FLAVOR. Published in Edible Sacramento’s “Cooks!” May/June 2017 Issue.

Gardener’s Almanac


Turning the soil, caring for seedlings and tasting homegrown bounty is what gardening is all about. For Judith Yisrael, growing nutrient-rich food for her family and her surrounding community is an everyday way of life. She is the co-founder of Yisrael Family Urban Farm, a half-acre plot of land in the Oak Park neighborhood where she and her husband, Chanowk, work hard in the soil and in the community. In January, Sacramento County’s board of supervisors unanimously passed the County Urban Agriculture Ordinance, a law that will allow residents to legally grow and sell crops, keep bees and even raise chickens and ducks at home. For the Yisrael family, the news means they will open and operate an urban farm stand selling organic fruits and vegetables to their neighborhood.

“Remember, we’re not just growing food when we’re talking about urban agriculture,” she says. “We’re actually growing community, we’re growing hope and we’re growing health.”

With a passion for growing herbs, vegetables and colorful flowers, Yisrael thinks about how to create biodiversity in her garden by the use of companion planting, which she says is a natural system where the plants and insects take care of themselves. She makes homemade soaps and salves and infuses oils with ingredients from her backyard bounty, and she still found time to help Sacramento Magazine with a month-by-month guide for our readers with a green thumb. …

Read the full story herePublished in Sacramento Magazine April 1, 2017.  

Training Ground

The Oak Café preps the new bevy of top chefs


On the culinary television show Top Chef, a recurring challenge for the competing chefs is to group into teams to open a new restaurant with a cohesive theme and vision in just a matter of days. Sacramento’s American River College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management program does something similar each semester with its four-star restaurant, The Oak Café, except every week the menu is refreshed.

Each week, the new menu of appetizers, entrées, and desserts is made from scratch with locally sourced ingredients from Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento, Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, and ARC’s horticulture department gardens. The variety of cuisines served at the restaurant includes anything from classic French to Cuban or American Southern food, according to program department chair Brian Knirk.

“One of the most important things that our students learn is attitude and respect for the kitchen and the ingredients,” Knirk says. “But what we also try to instill in them is an understanding of the details required to make food great and the process by which you achieve those outcomes.” …

READ THE FULL STORY: TRAINING GROUNDPublished in Edible Sacramento’s “Fresh Start” March/April 2017 Issue.

Sacramento Chefs and Farmers Share Tips on How to Use Every Last Bit of those Summer Vegetables

Executive chef Jon Clemons at The Porch Restaurant.

Farmers markets are popular with just about anyone looking for fresh, locally grown produce. So fresh, in fact, that many times the fruits and vegetables displayed in mounds at merchant tents are often picked from the field the previous day. … Even though many farmers market fiends challenge themselves to cook what they bring home each week, too often stems, leaves and rinds end up in the garbage. Chefs and farmers alike, however, say these overlooked pieces have tasty nutritional value. Executive chef Jon Clemons at The Porch Restaurant and Bar says he likes to think about creative ways to use the entire vegetable. He and his staff use a variety of techniques to transform rinds, cobs and even buckets of green tomato odds and ends into delicious fare. …

READ THE FULL STORY: WASTE NOT, ENJOY MORE. Published in the Sacramento News & Review, July 23, 2015.