Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
A foodie’s guide to Lodi wine country
Many wine lovers are foodies, and foodies are defined by their inveterate, bordering on obsessive, searches wherever they may be for the “best” of what there is to eat: be it the gravity defying bread putting soufflé at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace, the mountainous kosher pastrami sandwich in Manhattan’s Pastrami Queen, the truffle egg salad sandwich at Masterpiece Delicatessen in Denver, the squid ink risotto in Palermo’s Bye Bye Blues, the battery of poke (raw fish/seaweed concoctions) at Tamashiro Market in Honolulu, the succulent rib tips at Interstate B-B-Q in Memphis, the organ meats cassoulet at Bistro Jeanty in Napa Valley, the roasted chicken in San Francisco’s Zuni Café, the roasted chicken and piles of matchstick pommes frites at La Rotisserie du Beaujolais in Paris… the list goes on and on…
Are you a foodie and Lodi wine lover? Then there are definitely some must-tries for you to experience here in the Delta wine region — if you can take the locals’ word for it (and one thing about foodies: their ears always perk up when locals share their “secrets,” as well they should). The following is the result of a decidedly unscientific poll of Lodi locals, providing an inside scoop to all you outsiders planning your next trip to the Lodi AVA:
Burgers at Webster’s Country Burger (18737 E Hwy. 88, Clements) – Oh ye of little faith, let us proclaim with perfect aplomb: Webster’s makes some of the finest burgers in world, period. After 56 years in the business they’ve narrowed it down to 22 “country” burgers, as a matter of fact, and even their entry level cheese deluxe makes In-N-Out taste decidedly ordinaire by comparison. These are grand crus burgers: truly juicy while never messy or mushy; just crunchy, complex, pure to the beef, with a long finish enabled by a secret “country sauce” recipe, more sacred than the proverbial Mystic Pizza’s. Throw in one of their malts, and man… no visit to Lodi is complete without a pilgrimage to Webster’s in Clements (that little town east of the City of Lodi).
Eggs & linguisa at The Avenue Grill (506 W Lodi Ave, Lodi) – Yes, breakfast is something we all know we can usually make better at home, but part of the great American Road Trip is reveling in the fact that you can’t, or won’t; and part of being an American is eating a good sized breakfast — especially if you’re headed for a long day of heavy lifting… of wine glasses, in the case of Lodi Wine Country. The linguisa, or Portuguese style sausage, served up by The Avenue Grill is made by the nearby Lockeford Meat Company, and is one of the brightest blends of mildly prickly spices you’ll find east of Hawai`i and west of the Azores. Plated with fried rose potatoes (many locals consider potatoes, including their multiple “potato platter,” to be AG’s real specialty), and by golly-molly, you’re in bid-ness. Speaking of which…
Sausages at Lockeford Meat Company (19775 N. Cotton St., Lockeford) – No, you can’t eat it here, but it should be made a crime for visitors if they don’t stop to pick up a few pounds of this wine country specialists’ Bavarian style brats, andouille, or Portuguese, Dakota, Hawaiian or any one of dozen or so more freshly made, exquisitely seasoned sausage links, for which the locals come from miles around to buy, all day, everyday.
Tableside guacamole and mole negro at Alebrijes Mexican Bistro (1301 W. Lockeford St., Lodi) – There are Mexico born chefs, and there are Mexican cuisine inspired chefs, but you’ll find precious few in the world with as much culinary cojones as Alebrijes chef/proprietor Ruben Larrazolo. What else can you say about someone who wheels a cart alongside your table, laden with a 20 lb. volcanic Mexican mortar, fresh avocadoes, chopped radish, green chile, garlic, limes and salsa fresca, and then proceeds to prepare your guacamole right there, customizing it to your preference? And that’s just beginning. Chef Larrazolo has attracted a humongous following — especially among Lodi winemakers — for things like (get this…) a filet mignon with melted queso and espagnole, rack of lamb in chipotle glace, and pink centered breasts of duck in thick, black, incredibly rich and sensuous mole negro Oaxaqueño. Yes, it’s crazy that you have to come to a place like Lodi to find Mexican cooking as inspired as this, but what can we say? Aquí está, mis amigos.
Peanut butter shakes at Lakeside Snow White Drive-In (1210 W. Turner Rd.) – Now we’re getting serious. For peanut butter lovers, this is home to probably the finest peanut butter shake in the world. We don’t care what anyone says, it’s hard to make a good peanut butter shake, let alone a great one: it takes both technique and patience at the milkshake machine to get that perfect blend of thickness and silky consistency, not to mention super-peanut buttery flavor; and when you see the owners of Lakeside Snow White standing there at that ear drum thumping machine for four, five minutes, working to get your one shake absolutely perfect, then you know you’re in the presence of greatness… ah, peanut butter heaven…
Deli sandwiches, meats and wine at Fiori’s Butcher Shoppe (400 W. Lodi Ave., Lodi) – If you’re a local sick of looking at all of Lodi, Fiori’s is definitely the place you do not go to. Because everyone’s always here: choices of over 30 fresh, stacked sandwiches, meats sliced-to-order with absolutely no attitude, local olive oils and vinegars, a decently priced “best of Lodi” retail wine selection… what more do you want? Needless to say, if you’re planning a Lodi wine country picnic (numerous wineries — like Peirano, Ripken, Harney Lane, and Michael~David, among others — offer ideal grounds and tables), Fiori’s is your one-stop dealie, and everything they offer is consistently tops.
Artisanal breads at Dancing Fox Winery & Bakery (203 S. School St., Lodi) – Yes, Lodi has a serious artisanal bakery along the town’s main drag (cobbled with quaint storefronts, restaurants and wine bars screaming American wine country living). Colleen Lewis (pictured above) is so fanatical, she grinds much of her own flour and cultures her own sour dough starter and yeasts — from grape flora, as it were (their bakery/restaurant also houses husband/co-proprietor/grape grower Gregg Lewis’ Dancing Fox Winery) — and bakes everything in an epic wood burning oven. The place closes on Mondays, but she’s still there from 4 AM each morning, 60-70 hours a week: the true boulanger. Foodies know how hard it is to find the simplest things done right — you’d have to go a long way to find a better baguette and ciabatta than Dancing Foxes.
Artisanal cheeses at Cheese Central (11 N. School St., Lodi) – Since early 2011 Lodi has had a true source of authentic, handcraft cheeses, thanks to proprietor Cindy Della Monica (pictured above), who chooses everything with the kind of love and attention to detail these kinds of places are defined by. Folks in Lodi have been loving it, and anyone with a good nose for fromages would recognize a first class shop when they see one.
Fried onion rings and shoestring potatoes at School Street Bistro (116 N. School St., Lodi) – Invariably you find fried stuff — whirly, swirly, airy mounds of crisped up onions and potatoes — on most everything at School Street Bistro: deviled eggs, the Cajun barbecued shrimp, the salads, filets of fish and steaks… on everything but the tiramisu and cheesecake. Most disconcerting, until you actually eat the stuff, and you find yourself hopelessly mired in hand-to-mouth gluttony like a Wall Street banker at the public trough. Also keep in mind that this place is owned by David and Trish Akiyoshi — David being the winemaker at LangeTwins, and Trish a longtime winery tasting room manager — and so a good, solid, fairly priced selection of Lodi wines are also always at your fickle fried fingertips at School Street Bistro. Sweet.
Apple or grape pies at Phillips Farm Café & Bakery (4580 W. Hwy. 12, Lodi) – Sure, you can stop by for rib sticking breakfast (Phillips’ huevos rancheros is killer) or lunch (especially wait for Phillips’ “taco Tuesdays”), and finish your repast with a slice of one of their incredible pies à la mode. But serious foodies come by for whole pies to take home and savor, especially for their bulging, sugar rock crusted crusts. These fruit bombs weight about 50 lbs. each, but it is all about the crust for pie addled addicts, and the Phillips pies deliver. That said, the seasonal, Lodi grown apples and table grapes — you have not lived until you’ve tried Phillips’ outrageous grape pie (sold frozen during the off-season, which is pretty darn good, too) — that go into them are also first rate. Oh, besides being a fresh fruit and vegetable stand, Phillips Farm also houses the tasting room of the famous Michael~David Winery — a quadruple whammy, if you will.
Ravioli at Pietro’s Trattoria (317 E. Kettleman Ln., Lodi) – Here’s the thing: anyone who’s had a home cooked meal in Italy knows how amazingly simple the cooking is; recipes that make Paula Dean look molecular. Italians are also big fans of canned or pre-packaged ingredients; but of course, fresh is always the best. The cooking at Pietro’s — originally started by Pietro and Amelia Murdaca in nearby Vacaville, fresh off the boat from Italy in 1956 — falls in the simple-yet-fresh vein; one look at the ambitious garden of tomatoes, eggplant, arugula, herbs, etc. sandwiched between the restaurant and parking lot tells you that. Their Genovese “Nettie’s homemade signature” ravioli is plump with pork, Swiss chard and spinach, served in a Calabrese style marinara that is soft, fruity, just mildly picquant and specked with meat: K.I.S.S., just the way mama liked it, which goes for everything on their menu. Today Jim Murdaca personally mans the front door like an usher in a church (the best job, always having an excuse to stand outside during the sermons), and in summer months he also does a panna cotta with sweet Lodi grown strawberries that the locals absolutely swoon over.
Organ meat tacos and burritos at Lodi’s taco trucks – There’s about one taco truck for every ten people of Mexican descent in Lodi. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but there are a lot of taco trucks in Lodi because there are a lot of folks who appreciate them (and not just Hispanics, who are up to some 36% of the city’s population) — and they all tend to be good, if not exactly the same. La Sabrosita (pictured above), for instance, located east of the tracks at Pine and Washington Streets, really is the place for those soft tacos filled with prickly, spicy mixes of chorizo or lengua (beef tongue).
Whereas many Lodi foodies absolutely swear by La Picosita (pictured just above) at the corner of Turner and Church Streets; especially for their “super chicken” or cabeza (beef head) burritos.
Then there is La Bohemia (just above) at the corner of Kettleman anf Hutchins Streets, where they’re willing combine cabeza, tripa (tripe) and/or lengua in a burrito or torta (a manhole cover sized sandwich) for about $4. Dangerous, yet amazing, this life in Lodi wine country!