Chef Craig Thomas of Red Tavern in Chico, Calif., serves spice-rubbed veal.
Picture a thirty something woman in a wraparound skirt and ripple-sole sandals. Maybe she's sporting a Dorothy Hamill wedge. She's trailing two children and pushing a shopping cart through a sparkling supermarket, and into her cart she tosses a packet of Oscar Mayer wieners, a green cylinder of Kraft Parmesan cheese, frozen peas, and a loaf of Wonder bread. In goes some hamburger, some Hamburger Helper, a can of corned beef hash, and, because she's "with it," a bag of that exciting stuff called trail mix to put into a Charlie's Angels lunch box.
Give or take a detail, this is my own mother in 1976—perhaps yours, too?
I went back to that market recently. It looks just the same. But while it still sells Kraft Parmesan, it also carries Niman Ranch beef and bacon, Dagoba cocoa from Ashland, Ore., and organic raspberry ice cream from Straus Family Creamery in Marin County, Calif. You can get Point Reyes blue cheese, Aidells chicken sausages, and Donna's organic tofu tamales. None of these brands existed 30 years ago. And the ubiquitous spongy bread of my childhood—perfect for peanut butter sandwiches—now competes with crusty loaves from seven local bakeries.
Just look at the bread: In Portland, Grand Central Baking Company's chewy Como loaf has acquired a cult following, while the crisp-crusted baguette at the Pearl Bakery has its own champions. When Debra Edwards and Stephen Perkins moved to Salem a few years ago, they couldn't find a decent loaf in Oregon's capital. So they opened Cascade Baking Co., where they now produce more than 30 kinds of bread. At his Avenues Bakery and Bistro in Salt Lake City, Paul Maurer is making rustic sourdough.
"Good food has become mainstream," says Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch Natural Meats. Niman should know. His free-range beef and pork are on the menu in white-tablecloth places like Café Rouge, on bustling Fourth Street in Berkeley, Calif., and in Chipotle, a chain of some 450 taquerías from Fresno to Tucson to Orlando. "It's gone beyond the fancy places in big cities," says Niman. "In every channel and every type of restaurant, there are now people really concerned about what they're cooking."
It would be an overstatement to say that the American West has morphed into Tuscany, that every town has its own trattoria serving pizzas made with hand-pulled mozzarella. We still live in a world of Wienerschnitzels and Wendy's. But something is definitely changing. Virtually everywhere you travel in our region today you'll find farmers, cheese makers, bakers, chocolatiers, and chefs interested in producing or preparing food that's about high quality and excellent flavor, as opposed to low cost and convenience. People like Charles and Karen Evans making their superb chèvre (goat's milk cheese) in Parma, Idaho; Brandon Siewert baking organic sourdough at Tin Roof Bakery in Chico, Calif.; Pierre Kolisch turning out farmstead feta in Redmond, Ore.; and Matt Toomey slinging short-order lobster taquitos at a gas station near Mono Lake, Calif. "It sure makes travel a lot more fun when you can count on not being stuck out there with only a bad burger," says Greg Higgins, chef at the Portland restaurant Higgins.
How exactly did lobster taquitos pull up even with the bad burgers?
"I think it was inevitable," says Caroline Bates, a Gourmet magazine food critic who has been covering California restaurants since 1974. "The West is a market basket—everything grows right here. But it really started with the privileged young people going to Europe in the 1960s and '70s."
As it seems nearly everyone knows by now, Jersey girl Alice Waters returned from France with a bee in her beret about fresh, seasonal cooking and in 1971 opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Her colleague Jeremiah Tower—who later founded San Francisco's legendary Stars—spent his youth traveling through Europe. Judy Rodgers of the city's Zuni Café traces her love of food to an extraordinary ham sandwich she ate in Burgundy in 1973. Maverick cheese maker Laura Chenel studied her craft in the French countryside in the 1970s. They all landed in agriculturally blessed Northern California during the heyday of the counterculture.
"Everyone was questioning authority," says Niman, a former schoolteacher who in 1969 bought an 11-acre ranch in Marin County. "The whole reason for moving to the country was to get off the grid and raise our own food. I didn't have a clue where it was going, but I do believe my being here in the 1970s with several divas of modern cuisine was like the harmonic convergence."
In fact, very few people actually had the chance to eat at those pricey, world-famous, harmonically converged Bay Area restaurants, where Alice served Laura's chèvre and daubes of Bill's beef. But marvelous food can have a powerful ripple effect. "After you've had something great, you're not going to go back to bologna sandwiches," says Margaret Fox, who owned Mendocino's renowned Café Beaujolais from 1977 to 2000.
Just as Waters and others learned from eating in Europe, so a new generation learned from them. Vernon and Charlene Rollins met in the 1970s while she was a cook at Chez Panisse; they now oversee New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro in Talent, Ore. Jerry Traunfeld made pastries at Stars in the 1980s, then headed for Woodinville, Wash., where he opened the acclaimed Herbfarm. Craig Thomas cooked at San Francisco's celebrated Masa's, then launched the Oakland bistro Citron with his wife, Maria Venturino. "We had babies and freaked out," says Thomas. "We wanted to slow down, so we bagged Citron and moved to Chico."
Chico? "I defy you to find a Northern California town outside the Bay Area with better food," says Thomas, who opened the Red Tavern here in 1997. He cites the town's five artisanal bakers and an increasingly vital farmers' market, where you can buy local olives and sausages, not to mention fine Central Valley produce. "I used to push a stroller through the market," Venturino says. "Now it's too crowded."
More and more people want tomatoes ripened on the vine, apricots that haven't traveled a thousand miles, Asian pears, Mexican chiles. When chef Greg Higgins moved to Portland in 1984, the area had a few farmers' markets; today there are 28.
"I saw the need for something like this the day I moved here in 1993," says Steven Rosenberg of his Liberty Heights Fresh, a specialty food shop that sells organic produce and handcrafted cheeses in Salt Lake City. "There was a lot to eat, but nothing was good." Now that's changing, says Rosenberg, even in conservative Utah. Take Rockhill Creamery in the Cache Valley, where Jennifer Hines and Pete Schropp started selling beautiful cow's milk gouda and feta a year ago. "Most of our neighbors had doubts about our sanity," Schropp says. "They didn't understand why people would pay double or triple for our cheese over what they would for factory cheese. But they've been watching us sell everything we make."
Couldn't making cheese by hand be deemed slightly elitist in a nation where presidential candidates court voters by pulling out the pork rinds? "I've thought a lot about this," Schropp says. "No one ever says Nascar is elitist, and people spend a lot more money on Nascar than they do on cheese."
At first, locals dropping by Crumb Brothers—a 2-year-old bakery in Logan, Utah—thought the bread was "high society," says owner Bill Oblock. They also thought it was "weird and crusty." Then they started eating it. "It's been really well received by everyone, from farmers coming out of the fields to people who have traveled here," Oblock says. "I'd like to think bread crosses class boundaries."
As Oblock has learned, people open their minds when offered something tasty. "You see a lot of chains here because people are under the impression that's what the Cache Valley wants," says Logan chef Nelson Swett, who opened the Painted Table restaurant in July. "But the response we've received has been humbling. People see the linens and say, ‘This is too fancy,' and we say, ‘No, it's not, come on in.' They come in and get comfortable very quickly."
A passionate advocate for Cache Valley agriculture, Swett spotlights local greens, berries, and grass- fed beef on his ever-changing menu, along with Oblock's bread and Rockhill cheeses. Does he ever look west to Chez Panisse? "Alice Waters is beautiful, but her food is French," Swett says. "That's OK. I like French food. But I'm an American chef and I'm proud to be an American. I'm proud to pay homage to the pilgrims who settled New England and the people who came across the prairies."
That's a manifesto you won't hear shouted from the rooftops in Berkeley. But Swett's Medicine Lodge bison, Rockhill gouda mac-and-cheese, and white chocolate shortcake with ruby red Cache Valley raspberries would go over just fine.
Restaurants worth a detour
CHEF'S TABLE Fresno, Calif. After cooking at top Bay Area restaurants, Fresno native Malachi Harland came home this year to open an outstanding bistro. The centerpiece: a communal table by the open kitchen. The menu might include Kadota figs wrapped in prosciutto and crème brûlée studded with wine grapes. 731 W. San Jose Ave. (559) 227-3200.
ERNA'S ELDERBERRY HOUSE Oakhurst, Calif. Austrian Erna Kubin-Clanin opened this gourmet oasis near Yosemite in 1984. These days, chef James Overbaugh showcases opulent ingredients like wild mushrooms, port, and truffles. He doesn't shy away from classically rich sauces, and his smoked duck appetizer shows exactly how marvelous these sauces can be. 48688 Victoria Ln., (559) 683-6860.
NEW SAMMY'S COWBOY BISTRO Talent, Ore. Charlene and Vernon Rollins have run their idiosyncratic six-table eatery for 16 years. Try the lamb osso buco, potatoes from the kitchen garden, and gingerbread with butterscotch sauce. 2210 S. Pacific Hwy., (541) 535-2779.
PAINTED TABLE Logan, Utah. In the Cache Valley, Nelson Swett serves up his seasonal ingredient–driven, largely organic fare. "I love the rich American palette I get to choose from," he says. 32 North Main St., (435) 755-6811.
RED TAVERN Chico, Calif. Chef Craig Thomas treasures the foods of Spain, and in summer he makes both a classic tomato gazpacho and an especially lovely white version with almonds and melon. He often broadens his menu with something like salt cod fritters. "People love 'em," Thomas says, "but they're still tiptoeing around the esoteric items." 1250 the Esplanade, (530) 894-3463.
TIOGA TOOMEY'S WHOA NELLIE DELI Lee Vining, Calif. In 1995, Matt Toomey pulled his Harley up to this Mono Lake Mobil station and started making sandwiches. Today, he turns out pistachio-crusted rack of lamb, zesty steak Caesars, and more. (Closed December through March.) 22 Vista Point Rd., (760) 647-1088.
Taste the best of the West
Some markets are just places to buy groceries. Others are eye-popping, mouthwatering cornucopias with deep histories, loads of soul, and a wide range of delicacies to savor.
BERKELEY BOWL Berkeley, Calif. Glenn Yasuda opened this supermarket 28 years ago and still sells Spam and Cheerios. But first-timers hyperventilate when they see his gargantuan produce section: 15 kinds of eggplant, 40 kinds of heirloom tomatoes. 2020 Oregon St., (510) 843-6929, www.berkeleybowl.com.
CHEESE BOARD COLLECTIVE Berkeley. Founded in 1967, the shop boasts the West's largest cheese selection. The workers here (they're all owners) helped fuel demand for Laura Chenel, Cypress Grove, and other regional specialty cheeses by insisting that customers sample as they shop. 1504 Shattuck Ave., (510) 549-3183, www.cheeseboardcollective.coop.
CORTI BROTHERS Sacramento. Darrell Corti whose famed market opened in 1947, "knows more about food and wine than anyone else in the world," according to Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl. Alongside the Doritos, he sells cracker bread from Sardinia and mostarda from Italy, plus local specialties including Central Valley olive oils, Sierra foothill wines, and local quince marmalade. 5810 Folsom Blvd., (916) 736-3800, www.cortibros.biz.
FERRY BUILDING MARKETPLACE San Francisco. It may well be "a cathedral for the city's food-worshiping population," as one visitor put it, but the foods here are exquisite, from perfect fruit and preserves at Frog Hollow Farm to handmade tortillas at Mijita, where Iron Chef Traci Des Jardins sends out dishes her Mexican grandmother served. One Ferry Building, (415) 693-0996, www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.
PIKE PLACE MARKET Seattle. This seething nine-acre complex remains the "heart and soul of food in Seattle," says superchef Tom Douglas. Established in 1907 to let people buy cheaply from producers, Pike Place is where locals go to forage for live razor clams, Anjou pears, and everything else lovely and seasonal. (206) 682-7453, www.pikeplacemarket.org.
Photography by Melissa Barnes
This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.