by Richard Eber
Coming up with a list of 10 favorite local eating establishments is not an easy task. A large number of quality restaurants combined with the ability of one individual to sample them makes it impossible to be truly subjective in making choices. This top 10 is meant to be fun and based on quality, value, price and overall dining experience at individual places. There are no major national chains used such as the Olive Garden and Red Lobster nor are restaurants located inside hotels mentioned.
Canasta 2118 Mt. Diablo, Concord 925-822-3996
A new entry for the top 10 list of favorite eating places in Concord features newcomer Canasta just down the street from Todos Santos Park. Normally gourmet and Mexican Food don’t belong in the same sentence, as most of the local cuisine is of the traditional blue-collar variety of offerings we have come
to love. Canasta is the exception. Between their food trucks and restaurant, this is a special place.
The menu put together by co-owners Ivan Telez and Carlos Rivas are works of art as their dishes are plated like a photo spread from Bon Appetite. Even better is the way their food tastes. Canasta’s Empanadas are not to be missed. They consist of fresh, handmade corn masa (dough) filled with polio chicken or carnitas and Oaxaca/jack melted cheese and then fried until crispy. The Sopitos are a gourmet treat. Their Mole con Pollo, slow cooked chicken with mole, and their enchiladas made with the same sauce are in a class all by themselves.
From the top to the bottom of their menu, everything at Canasta is special including their guacamole with house-made chips. Experience has shown that this restaurant is a great place to share dishes so that diners can experience different dishes they make.
The only small drawback at Canasta is that it is a bit more expensive than most Mexican food we are accustomed to. However, the quality speaks for itself
Minamoto 4305 Clayton Rd, Concord 925-687-7770
Since Suwa closed several years ago at Todos Santos, there has not been an authentic Japanese operated restaurant that has completely measured up. That was until dedicated staff of Minamoto came to Concord to combine quality ingredients with an artistic presentation that sets this restaurant apart from their competitors.
Minamoto has its roots going back to 1971 when Shoichi Imanaka, an aspiring chef from Osaka, Japan, arrived in San Francisco and soon after he founded Tsuruyoshi #2 with his brother. They later started Isobune® Sushi, which introduced the “Original Sushi Boat Restaurant, the first of its kind in the USA.
The high-quality fresh sushi grade fish they use (Their Maguro was a rare dark crimson red), the artistry in the way their food is cut and served is the type of quality seldom seen outside of Japan. Head Chef Paul Tanaka puts on a clinic with every dish he prepares like a program on the Cooking Channel.
If one venture past the many types of sushi and raw fish bar, there are also the traditional hot Japanese offerings. When I had lunch, we started with an appetizer of Agedashi Tofu which was deep fried with a pleasing sweet and sour sauce. My friend had an order of melt in your mouth tempura which had plenty of large shrimp cooked to perfection. I had salmon teriyaki which was grilled without being overcooked and was served with combination vegetables which were perfectly done in a subtle soy sauce.
Minamoto is slightly more expensive than most local Japanese restaurants and sushi bars but their quality and attention to detail make visiting there a worthwhile culinary adventure.
Naan ‘n’ Curry 2068 Salvio Street, Concord 925) 825-6226
When this Naan ‘n’ Curry opened their doors on Salvio near Todos Santos Square, it was thought that serving spicy food of this variety would not work in this area. Were the experts ever wrong! This inexpensive high-quality restaurant has been packed at all hours with their curry dishes, basmati rice, homemade Naan bread that comes plain and in several types including garlic and onion flavors. They have a large menu with lamb, chicken, and shrimps providing much of the protein. Naan also offers a large vegetarian selection for non-meat eaters. For chicken main courses, they offer various curry combinations including Gobhi (Cauliflower) Cholay (garbanzo beans) Palak (spinach), and Tikka Masala. Their lamb dishes offer similar ingredients. I especially like their Daal Gosht (yellow lentils) and Kuna (lamb shank) they also offer tandoori chicken and lamb combinations. The Biryani’s (fried rice) and Mango Lassi (yogurt drink) are not to be missed. Dinners are encouraged to share dishes at Naan ‘n’ Curry as there is much to be enjoyed in this inexpensive gourmet restaurant.
Sichuan House 2064 Treat Blvd, Walnut Creek, 925-932-3378
Coming from San Francisco I have historically been disappointed over the years by the poor caliber of Chinese food served in local restaurants. While it is understood that they must cater to the Oyster beef, chow mein, and shrimp with walnuts crowd, most of what they serve is of the bland Cantonese variety which I don’t care for very much. Just when I gave up finding a Chinese place that I really liked, a friend directed me to the Sichuan House. Walking in the door I was pleased to see so many Chinese families dining. Historically, this is a good sign we were in for a treat. After an appetizer of peanuts and pickled cabbage, they offer a choice of sweat and sour or corn chowder soups. Then come the main dishes which vary from cumin lamb to spicy chicken clay pot. Fish, shrimp, and duck are in abundance; all at good prices. Another good feature of Sichuan House is that they post next to each item on the menu a hotness level.
DJ’s Bistro 1825 Sutter St., Concord 925-825-3277
If one was to think of any cuisine that should be on the local endangered culinary list, German food would be at the top. There are just not many places in the immediate area which serves quality sausages, Wiener schnitzel, Hungarian Goulash spaetzle red cabbage, homemade potato salad, meatloaf, and other German comfort foods. This authentic European hang-out caters to ex-pat-soccer fans that congregate to eat and drink Bavarian style while watching matches at the bar. Over the years I have sampled the entire menu and it is all good. The portions are huge and the prices reasonable. My only complaint is that the Spaten and Czech beers are so tempting that I inevitably break my rule of not drinking alcoholic beverages at lunch when going there. For those who like tripe soup, it is a specialty of the house. The owner Jerry has specials every day catering to those who desire a bit of Germany and the Czech Rep. without the 11-hour plane ride.
Wence’s 1922 Oak Park Blvd. Pleasant Hill (925) 566-8971.
This restaurant is a couple of doors down from Kobe Japan on Oak Park in Pleasant Hill. It has become one of my go-to places in the area. Everything this place offers diners is unique, freshly made, beautifully served, and provides excellent value. I try to order different things each time I go there to experience all they offer. The style of food at Wence’s could be termed gourmet café-diner food. They offer a large variety of items from cooked to order burgers (medium-rare-rare please) to astounding high-end seafood dishes. One evening they offered fresh shucked $ 1.00 Pacific oysters with sauces that were to die for. A house specialty is homemade adult macaroni and cheese baked in its own cast iron skillet made with three kinds of cheese with panko breadcrumbs on top. They also offer a lobster variety, delicious. Wence’s Cobb salad is a work of art. Their Shrimp Louie’s are of Fisherman’s Wharf quality. Complete with cocktails and a reasonable wine list, it all factors in for making Wence’s one of the best local restaurants regardless of price.
Tortilleria El Molino 1500 Monument Blvd, Concord Phone 925-687-7066
There are many really good Mexican restaurants all over Concord, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill. In general, the enchiladas, burritos, and taco’s they serve tend to be similar. However, my favorite place to go is El Molino just off Monument at Regent in Concord. They have a very small menu but almost everything they serve is better than their capable competitors. The tacos are served with corn tortillas they make in-house. The meat is fresh and never of the steam table variety that has been sitting around for long. I especially like their carnitas taco’s that are served with hot sauce, cilantro, and onions. This fare reminds me of food served in Rosarita Beach in Baja. But this is not all. El Molino serves homemade pupusas stuffed with cheese, meat, and/or beans. This El Salvadorian staple is served hot with a pungent Cole slaw and red pepper sauce and is a meal in itself. El Molino also specializes in Sopes which are a tostada-like dish only a foundation of a thick masa mixture is used to hold in the toppings. Another specialty of El Molino is their fruit drinks which are concocted using fresh ingredients. Their broncos which are a fresh fruit cocktail with coconut flakes, granola, cream, and a combination of apples, papaya, strawberries, banana, raisins, and whatever is in season, can be considered kid and adult friendly.
Rocco’s Ristorante & Pizzeria 2909 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek 925) 947-6105
It might be surprised how this popular pizza joint in the strip mall at Oak Grove and Ignacio in Walnut Creek, would somehow get on my list. Quite simply Rocco’s provides quality in everything thing they serve in a blue-collar atmosphere that reminds me of similar restaurants I grew up with in San Francisco. Rocco’s pizza is among the best in the area made in the Sicilian style with freshly made dough, sauces, and quality ingredients. As a regular to this place I usually stay on the main menu where they serve pasta, meatballs, polenta, calamari, minestrone, veal parmesan and other items that are served in a family Italian establishment style. What separates Rocco’s from other places offered similar fare is their consistent quality and use of fresh ingredients. I especially like their salads which provide good renditions of Caesar, chopped, and spinach varieties which have plenty of goodies other than roughage in them. They are also nice in bringing me extra anchovies that other patrons do not desire. Rocco’s also has a lively bar with fair priced drinks and offers music on the weekends. They are a good place to go after a ball game and are semi-sports bar with Frank Sinatra serenading in the background. A weird combination but it works.
Korean BBQ Plus 1450 Monument Blvd (at Reganti) Concord 925 680- 9090
Tucked away in the Hispanic gourmet ghetto of Concord on Reganti, this restaurant, in my opinion, offers some of the best Korean food in the area. At lunchtime, they serve cold glass noodles to get things started followed by a cup of soup. 4/5 When one’s entrée is served, they bring in approximately 15 small plates of goodies to accompany one’s meal. These Pan Chan’s consist of small portions of Kiamichi, cucumber salad, seaweed, Cole slaw, marinated potatoes, spinach, fish cake, and bean sprouts to name a few. Korean BBQ Plus is well known for their barbecued short ribs marinated in special house-made sauce. This consists of ginger, minced garlic, sugar and soy sauce, and scallions. The Mae Un Doc Gu E (tender chicken marinated in a spicy sauce) is a popular choice for diners. They also serve several types of soups, vegetarian, and seafood dishes. I especially like their Nak Ji Boke-Um (sautéed octopus & mixed vegetables with spicy sauce.) All entrees are served with a large portion of white jasmine rice which soaks up all the spicy flavors of Korean cosine. Another attribute of this diamond in the rough restaurant is that Korean BBQ Plus is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week and does to close until 9:30 p.m.
Tower Grill 1950 Grant St., Concord 925 825-8768
Tower Grill across from the park at Todos Santos is never going to be granted stars from Michelin or be evaluated by some food snob from San Francisco. But what they do have is excellent, well-prepared food that has never displeased me anytime I have gone there. Especially good are their meatballs served with pasta or on a sandwich roll with grilled onions, peppers, and melted cheese. These meatballs are perfectly cooked and have pork, beef, and a secret ingredient of pine nuts in their recipe. All of Tower Grill’s sandwiches have large portions and come with house-made Cole slaw, French or sweet potato fries. Tower Grills burgers are first class as well and can be prepared medium- rare-rare which is appreciated by me when I dine with a friend we often split a sandwich dish and one of Tower Grills main course salads. Their Cobb, Chopped, Spinach and Caesar salads are among the best in the area and fairly priced. In addition to sandwiches and salads, Tower offers steaks, chicken dishes, and a few specials each day. With a full bar serving
These are my suggestions. I welcome you to list any personal favorites in the comments for me to explore the next time.