Out to Lunch
By Richard Eber
Those of us who work locally, who don’t bring food from home for our noon meal, always find ourselves looking for local restaurants who are, fast, friendly, tasty, and economical. Fortunately, there are a lot of choices available in the $10 to $12 range that fulfill these needs. Here are 10 of my favorite local places. These choices are entirely subjective with the goal of introducing a spectrum of affordable international cuisines. There are certainly other establishments that belong on the list; but hey, I haven’t eaten everywhere…yet.
Jack’s Urban Eats – Located in the Orchards Shopping Center in Walnut Creek, this popular cafeteria-style restaurant offers a small menu of salads, steak, whole turkey, and comfort foods that are consistently better than just about any other competitor in the region. All salads are custom made where they select between 15 different ingredients that will go into their bowl. The Urban Eats difference is that their quality from homemade dressing to the croutons are out of the ordinary. Jack’s calling card is the perfectly prepared tri-tip which can be served on a salad, sandwich, or as part of a plate lunch with garlic or loaded mash potatoes and gravy. Hot dishes are delivered to tables. In short, they offer high-quality cuisine at modest pricing. 862 Ygnacio Valley Rd., Walnut Creek.
Rocco’s Ristorante Pizzeria – This popular Walnut Creek restaurant attracts sports enthusiasts, families, and just about everyone else. Unlike most places that offer pizza, Rocco’s has a full menu of other dishes. They offer a full range of low priced pasta combinations that reminds me of second-tier North Beach Italian restaurants I grew up with in San Francisco. Especially good is their linguini with clams, tortellini alfredo, and of course the traditional spaghetti with meatballs. Recently, I had PEI mussels in a spicy tomato sauce that was well priced in the $10 range. There are several sandwich choices including calamari and Italian sausage served with a hearty cup of house-made minestrone soup. The new item on their menu is Polenta filled with mushrooms and spinach covered with melted gorgonzola cheese and marinara sauce. Yum. All of this with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra singing in the background. Life is good. 2909 Ygnacio Valley Rd., Walnut Creek.
Naan ‘n’ Curry – Located next to Peet’s Coffee at Todos Santos Square in Concord, this place is always busy. Naan N Curry has some of the best quality, low-cost food in the area. They basically offer different dish combinations of chicken, lamb, seafood, along with vegetarian options. One of the go-to menu items is a rich red tikka marsala sauce consisting of yogurt, tomatoes, cumin, garlic, ginger, peppers, curry, and a long list of other ingredients. My favorite items there are the prawns and the lamb. However, Tandori clay pot entrees with all meat and seafood choices included; red, green, and yellow curry dishes, all go well with the various sauces and vegetable combinations. I especially like the lamb shanks which come with spinach in a red curry sauce. Rice pilaf and Naan bread are a nice addition to any of the entrees. 2068 Salvio St. Concord
Jo’s Sushi Bar – I discovered this excellent lunch spot recently on a recommendation of a friend. Since Suwa’s closed their doors in Concord several years ago, I’ve searched for a suitable bento box that satisfies my constant craving for good Japanese food. At Jo’s, I received generous portions of yellowtail sashimi, beef teriyaki, and chicken karage (fried), all of these were excellent quality. This was the best rendition of this dish since Joe Jung’s closed down in San Francisco some 25 years ago. Jo’s is best known for their large variety of sushi rolls which compete very well with the more expensive local Japanese restaurants such as Kobe Japan and Nama Sushi. Also, what makes Jo’s unique is the attention to detail that this Japanese ownership puts into their food preparation. 2217 Morello Ave Pleasant Hill.
Tortilleria El Molino – Ahhh, the smell of fresh cooked tortillas fills the air. The fresh tacos remind one of a sunny day in Rosarita Beach being served by local street vendors. Dishes made with carnitas (pork) and carne asada steak are muy sabraso (tasty). Their small menu also offers delightful tortas sandwiches and house-made papusas filled with your choice of Mexican cheese, beans, and meat and served with a large portion of spicy cole slaw. But wait there’s more. El Molina also offers freshly squeezed tropical fruit drinks and smoothie-like concoctions. Kids love the Boches, a large cup of fresh fruit with added granola and cream, but adults are known to appropriate their share. 1500 Monument Blvd Ste. F1 Concord.
Tower Grill – Whenever I suggest eating at Tower Grill for lunch, there is never a disagreement. Sitting outside on their patio adjacent to Todos Santos Park is always fun to do. Like many of the restaurants on this list, Tower Grill offers a modest lunch menu. However, everything they serve is excellent and they gladly substitute delicious sweet potato fries with their sandwiches and burgers. Especially noteworthy is their pork sliders, as is their house-made grilled sausage sandwiches served on French roll with grilled onions and peppers. Both go well with a variety of available microbrews. For a hardier lunch, what I believe is some of the best meatballs (stuffed with pine nuts) around. These can be ordered as a marinara- style sandwich or with pasta. Often, I split a large salad entrée, a sandwich, and fries with a friend to score a filling lunch in the $10 range. 1950 Grant Street Ste. B, Concord.
3 Brothers from China – This restaurant consistently offers one of the best food values under $10.00 in the entire region. Patrons are greeted with hot tea and a dish of dried peanuts. Then after a cup of soup, prepare yourself for a generous serving of traditional Chinese dishes. Outside of at least 23 lunch choices, they also have specials for a buck or two more. Recently, I had a Mongolian lamb stir-fry that would impress diners in Ulaanbaatar! My friend had a delicious spicy duck and vegetable medley. I have also had fresh fish there at a reasonable price. The 3 “Bros” as we call them, offer a wide menu selection and excellent service and voluminous servings. It is difficult to know how they do so much for the money. 2001 Contra Costa Blvd. Pleasant Hill.
Café Oasis – This popular lunch spot hidden away off the Stanwell turn on Concord Avenue is arguably one of the best places to eat lunch in the industrial areas. Chef Mike, who formally plied his trade at the NUMI plant in Fremont, has built a loyal following with his daily specials which includes BBQ cheeseburgers with fries for $5.99 each Wednesday. They are also known for excellent salads, sandwiches, and homemade clam chowder served on Fridays during the winter. Many of Oasis’s clients eat return several times a week. Oasis can be found at Todos Santos during the summer concert series serving their charcoal grilled turkey legs. 2520 Stanwell Dr. Ste 148 Concord
Yanni’s Gyros & Burgers – Yanni’s offers the only all Greek Menu that can be found in Concord. The owner and chef Voula, who named the restaurant for her then-infant son Yanni, serves arguably the best Gyros in town. They come in several varieties, but I prefer the plain ones made Greek-style. They feature flat pita bread, which, like a taco, is stuffed with lettuce, tomato, white onions, tzatziki sauce, and, of course, gyro meat. This consists of a mixture of 80% ground beef and 20 percent lamb, which is seasoned and frozen. It is then cooked on a spit. When done, thin slices of meat are cut off and stacked inside warm flatbread. Yanni’s also served a mean Greek salad with ripe tomatoes, calamata olives, feta cheese and cucumbers with a zesty vinaigrette. Their burgers and Yanni’s feta fries are not to be missed. They also have other dishes on their menu including falafels, soups and a house made baklava for dessert. Everything is homemade and served with love from Voula. 1960 Concord Ave. in Concord
Korean BBQ Plus – Located at the back of a small shopping area on Reganti Drive, this restaurant provides a fair priced lunch menu that combines quality entrees and extras that makes it worth the trek there. Diners are met with a small plate of sesame seasoned noodles (Jab Chae) Then comes 12 small plates Bon Chan that consists of bite-sized portions of spiced cabbage (kimchi) concoctions, pickled cucumber, spiced zucchini, noodles, fish, and bean sprouts to name a few. Korean BBQ Plus has a number of lunch specials from $10.00 up to $13.00 for steak. They also have several soup entrée dishes which all come with a large bowl of rice. I have had several of their beef, chicken, and pork dishes that come with vegetables. They are all good and can be adjusted by the chef depending on how hot you want your food. It’s hard for me not to order the barbecued marinated short ribs (La Galbi).Its sauce is a traditional Korean mixture that always pleases. There are also excellent vegetarian choices made with tofu. 1450 Monument Blvd Ste E Concord