Destination: Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is very near and dear to my heart. Not only did my parents have their honeymoon there, but soon thereafter purchased a cabin in Tahoma (smart move, ‘rents, seriously), where I’ve been coming since I was literally in diapers. It’s truly a second home to me. Some only come to the lake to ski and snowboard in the winter, while others (like me) prefer the stunning summer months. While I can’t offer any housing suggestions since all I know is our cabin, I can suggest some tasty places to eat while you’re at the lake that are open year-round.
Let’s face it: lakeside dining is often disappointing. Like San Francisco, you usually are paying for your view, with food as a tragic and overpriced afterthought. One place that totally broke that paradigm for me is ~SOL Y LAGO~, a Tahoe City restaurant from San Francisco’s Johnny Alamilla, formerly of Alma in the Mission, and Brian Reccow, who hails from Thirsty Bear. They moved up here, partially to get more snowboarding in, and took over the former Hacienda, offering what Alamilla has coined “Sierra Latino Cuisine.” The menu features an array of downright affordable (and tasty) tapas, both hot and cold.
I was definitely fired up on the presentation of the quinoa gratin ($7), a hearty dish with roasted tomatoes and cream, and melted queso cotija on top—it arrives sizzling hot. However, I found the accompanying crostini somewhat superfluous—all you need with that dish is a fork. Toothsome empanadas ($8) had a mash of bright green peas inside, with a flavorful carrot and cayenne pool of sauce on the plate. Speaking of the plate, it arrived hot, which was nice for the empanadas, but didn’t do any service to the (rather undressed) mixed greens on there as well. A favorite, the perfectly-cooked coconut-glazed prawns ($11), came on a bed of Bloomsdale spinach and really had some zing—meanwhile, the wild striped bass ceviche ($9) was flat and under-seasoned—it needed some kick that the mild green chilies weren’t generating (stingy, those chilies). Achiote chicken skewers ($7) were juicy and tender, although one was doused with the honey and coriander mustard sauce, while the other exhibited a lighter hand.
Mains are also affordable (even a rib eye is only $22), but unfortunately weren’t quite as faboo as the commendable parade of tapas. The roasted free-range chicken ($18) generously comes with two legs (two thighs and drumsticks). The crackly crust was delicious and the chicken was juicy, but overall the seasoning just wasn’t really there. It needed to be fully dialed; I’m not asking for ELEVEN, even eight would be great. Chicky chick comes with baby onions and scrumptious cornmeal dumplings with a hint of Parmesan that lounge around in the fennel-scented broth. Pan-seared halibut ($19) arrived a touch overdone, dang, which was a shame because the tricolore of sweet corn, roasted tomato coulis, and pumpkin seed pesto all offered a savory and bright counterpoint. This dish was close to rocking. Very close.
Desserts really nailed it—it was impossible to avoid finishing the house-made tres leches cake ($6), and everyone should at least try the chocolate and jalapeño gelato ($4), a special recipe made in conjunction with Ciao Bella for the restaurant (Sol y Lago is the only place where you could taste it). There’s also a sundae ($6) topped with a cornmeal-cayenne crunch that should be packaged and sold separately, it’s that good.
If you’re craving a lake view, Sol y Lago has it, but once the sun goes down, the alcove area offering the view is a bit nondescript and plain. The main dining area is more stylish, with a long bar that can fill up with cocktail seekers (mojito, anyone?) and those craving a quick bite. Music was spot-on. Service was kind, but the kitchen definitely had some timing issues, with long gaps between various courses, and then suddenly a couple dishes would arrive at once. Just kick back and enjoy a glass of South American wine, like one of the affordable Malbecs, including a 2005 rosé from Terza Volta ($5.50) that held up well to some of the tapas. Overall, Sol y Lago offers some flavorful cuisine that isn’t common, and at a price that can’t be beat. And whaddya know, there’s that gorg view.
Sol y Lago
760 N. Lake Blvd.
Tahoe City, CA 96145
Bar opens 4:20pm (seriously)
Dinner Mon-Thu 5:30pm-10pm
A few notes on lakeside dining: ~SUNNYSIDE RESORT~ (1850 West Lake Blvd., Tahoe City, 800-822-2754) on the west shore is well known for its massive deck and classic American food. The fortunate get to pull up in their boats and dock right there while they have a drink and dinner. (Someday, it’ll be me in my Chris Craft, with “Contessa” written on the back.) I say sure, come by for their famed zucchini sticks and a cocktail—but if you must dine, then go for one of their hefty steaks (they run about $24 for a 14 oz. rib eye, and $29.50 for a 12 oz. NY Strip). If you have the moolah, supposedly the ~WEST SHORE CAFE~ (5160 West Lake Blvd., Homewood, 530-525-5200) is putting out some of the swankiest dining on the lake, but also some of the most expensive. (Break out the AMEX.) Lastly, there’s a reason ~WOLFDALE’S~ (640 North Lake Blvd., Tahoe City, 530-583-5700, www.wolfdales.com) is a long-standing favorite—its cuisine is memorable and well prepared, but be prepared to pay.
Here’s a tip: one of the most scenic places to hang out on the lake during the day is at Sugar Pine Point Park (I literally pedal my bike there every day), and it’s especially a treat with a huge sandwich from the deli inside the nearby ~PDQ MARKET~ (6890 West Lake Blvd., Tahoma, 530-525-7411). Be forewarned, the sandwiches are the size of footballs, so it’s best to share or just order a half (the jalapeño bread is tasty). I also found a hippie/face-painter/nature store just outside of Tahoe City, ~NEW MOON NATURAL FOODS~ (505 West Lake Blvd. at Granlibakken Road, 530-583-7426) that not only has good organic munchies and products (did you forget your Tom’s of Maine toothpaste?) but also has a fab ethnic deli inside, the ~STONY RIDGE UNCOMMON KITCHEN~ (530-583-3663, Mon-Sat 11am-7pm, www.uncommonkitchen.org) serving an eclectic array of daily specials like teriyaki bowls, sushi, fish tacos, and soups, with most items made with organic ingredients and in biodegradable packaging. (Tahoe kids might recognize the name from the Stony Ridge Café that used to be in Tahoma, and was famous for its epic breakfasts—it’s the same folks!)
Interestingly, I found nearby Truckee to really have more of a burgeoning scene than Tahoe City (if you can really call it a scene). For some reason the restaurants felt more energized, and full. The restaurant that was my hands-down favorite of this entire trip was ~MOODY'S BISTRO & LOUNGE~ in the Truckee Hotel, serving up Cali-bistro cuisine that would be a hit in San Francisco. Heck, anywhere. The menu is a behemoth, bigger than many bistros in SF, and everything sounds beyond appetizing, so get ready to feast.
Chef and co-owner Mark Estee really values organic, local, and sustainable ingredients—he name checks Niman Ranch in his crispy pancake of pig’s trotters ($10) served with a dollop of sauce gribiche and a drizzle of aged balsamic, and the salad of Heidi Watanabe’s heirloom tomatoes ($12/$16 with cheese) was spectacular: four kinds of delectable tomatoes (Pineapple, Brandywine, Orange Persimmon, and Cherokee), served with three kinds of salt (Maldon, sel gris, and Hawaiian), and creamy burrata cheese from Gioia Cheese Co. in So Cal (who also supplies A16 and Cowgirl Creamery with that wicked creamy goodness).
Another star on the menu was the crispy and nicely browned sweetbreads ($10) that are pressed, and served with a frisee salad topped with a local egg, sunny side up, with some ciabatta on the side. The warm brown butter, sherry vinegar, and whole grain mustard dressing made the sweetbreads sing (or was it the jazz singer in the other room?). I could have made a meal of this on its own. Damn. Serious luxury.
I also espied our neighbor enjoying a roasted tomato soup ($8) served en croute—yes, pinch pinch, you are in Truckee. The pastas stumbled a bit: the farro spaghetti with a four-meat sugo ($12/$22) was overcooked, and the pan-seared potato gnocchi ($12/$22) were pasty and doughy (my grandmother would have hollered), but the corn, cream, chive, truffle butter, and pecorino sauce was a delight.
Lastly, the can’t-miss dish was Ernie’s salmon ($27). Ernie is a firefighter in Reno who heads over to Bodega Bay to fish, and brings the salmon back with him. The night we dined, it was less than 24 hours old. That’s some fresh fish, baby. And the bed of summer vegetable risotto only made is more delicious, along with a hint of truffle oil and baby fennel relish on top. Stellar. Other dishes I wish I was feasting on in SF include the big ass (yes, that’s its name) Niman Ranch pork porterhouse ($30), braised veal shank cannelloni ($24), and they even serve onglet ($18/$28 with foie gras). There’s also a tasting menu. No, this is not your typical mountain dining. Yes, I am coming back.
Desserts like the fresh berry tart ($8) with lemon curd and crisp shortbread crust was the essence of summer, but so was the monster serving of peach and lavender crisp ($8), with burgundy cherry gelato made from “The Latest Scoop” in Berkeley (there was also a delicious peach champagne sorbet on the menu). Wines are well chosen, and plentiful—be sure to engage the wine director if you can. Service was spot-on—our server was quite knowledgeable about every dish, and very observant, but nicely easygoing at the same time.
The atmosphere is cozy—you enter through a deco-inspired lounge with big booths and live jazz (often big names) playing Wed-Sat (kicking in Wed-Thu at 8pm, and 9pm-midnight Fri-Sat)—the acts are booked by co-owner JJ Morgan, who was the owners/booker/GM at the Up & Down Club in SF for five years. The dining room has marigold sponge-painted walls, vintage bistro and aperitif lithographs, large mirrors, striped carpet, and butcher-paper topped tables. Jazzy. Pass through to the back, and there’s a patio with a seaside-inspired awning of sunny yellow stripes and charming lights in the evening. Excuse the lame pun, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Moody’s seriously hits the right note. Tweet!
Moody’s Bistro & Lounge
10007 Bridge St.
Truckee, CA 96161
Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm
Dinner daily 5pm-10pm
Brunch Sat & Sun 11am-2:30pm
In-between menu daily 2:30pm-5pm
A local’s favorite in Truckee is ~DRAGONFLY~, a “Cal-Asian” and fusion-inspired restaurant perched up on a second floor. While you wrap your head around the globetrotting menu utilizing ingredients from China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, and Southeast Asia, order up some teasers, like curried flatbread with a kicky yogurt dip ($4), rice balls in a sweet and sour and tamari dip, or some intensely caramelized eggplant ($4) in a ginger, garlic, tamari, and sesame sauce that you scoop up with wonton chips.
We tried some lighter dishes to start, like the Indian-style sweet corn soup ($7) with a papadum chip on top and a swirl of scallion crème fraîche, and spring rolls wrapped in rice paper ($14), stuffed with smoked chicken, crab, mango, and vermicelli noodles. (There’s also a crispy version offered.) A nice break from all those steakhouses in the area, no?
Dishes rotate each week, but this evening we had oven-roasted Maple Leaf duck breast ($26), a generous portion, and downright succulent, served with ginger mashed potatoes and grilled radicchio. The fusion part kicked in further with a blackberry marmalade (studded with fresh blackberries), sweet potato chips, and a pool of shao hsing rice wine jus. There were definite layers of flavor and texture in each bite.
There was also a “Duet of the Sea” ($28), Alaskan halibut and Loch Duart salmon that are roasted and served on a pinot-soaked barrel stave (the stave comes from the Truckee River Winery). The fish was juicy, tender, and perfectly prepared, and each came with a glaze (hoisin-garlic and honey-soy), plus a white peach and ginger chutney. Sides included more of the ginger mashed potatoes, and grilled bok choy. Normally, I’d read all that on a menu and go WHOA, but it really came together—chef/owner Billy McCullough likes to play with sweet and salty. (He was formerly a sous under Douglas Dale at Wolfdale’s.) The presentations are also a little kooky—definitely not your standard plating.
Desserts are tropical and refreshing, like chocolate banana-stuffed wontons with coconut ice cream ($8) and the lemon mousse ($8) with layers of farmer’s market berries served in a martini glass. Plenty of interesting wines to choose from (anyone who has J. sparkling wine on their menu always bodes well in my book) and they offer a small but comprehensive reserve list as well.
Service is friendly and efficient. The prime seats are on the spacious balcony (the restaurant is on a second story, offering the only second-floor patio dining in Truckee), so you can watch the alpenglow at sunset, and the numerous heat lamps keep it cozy once the darkness descends. The casual dining room has brick walls, with photos of exotic locales, and other Eastern touches. It’s definitely laid-back, and buzzing with both locals and visitors who are enjoying a nice break from the usual Cali cuisine you find in the Tahoe area.
McCullough just inked a deal to double the size of his restaurant, and has plans to open a sushi bar in addition to expanding the existing restaurant before the holidays. Expect some innovative maki, for sure.
10118 Donner Pass Rd. (upstairs)
Truckee, CA 96161
If you happen to be in Truckee around breakfast or lunchtime, you simply must visit the ~SQUEEZE IN~ (10060 Donner Pass Road, Truckee, 530-587-9814, www.squeezein.com), a favorite that’s been going strong since 1974 for omelets named after Truckee locals (62 kinds) or triple-decker sandwiches (35 kinds). It’s tiny, packed with quirky memorabilia and ephemera, and home of the best-darned sandwich combos. A family fave is the Grilled Jumpin’ Joanna (pastrami, onion, tomato, Swiss) and the Bee Bee (tuna salad, egg salad, olives, celery), both $8.50. Dig in.
So after your lovely Tahoe trip, or on your way up, most folks know to stop at ~IKEDA'S~ (13500 Lincoln Way, Auburn, 530-885-4243) in Auburn for their burgers and shakes. Personally, I stop for their peaches. They are seriously the bomb, every year. There are more than four kinds, so just ask one of the folks working there which ones are rocking their world. Their nuts are also delish—hello smokehouse almonds. Now, you’re got your berry shake and peaches and almonds, but you’re not done in Auburn just yet. At the Forest Hill exit, cross over to the other side of the freeway and take the frontage road north for about a half mile (near the Bowman exit) until you see ~MACHADO ORCHARDS~ (open seven days a week from 8am-6pm. Near the Bowman exit of I-80, 530-823-1393) on your left. It’s a fruit stand, but the total treasure here are their pies. The peach pie I had was just sublime—light cinnamon-y crust and the sweetest peaches. Do it!
And lastly, since I always stay at my family's cabin in Tahoe, I really can't help out much on accommodation suggestions. But this is where my fab writer pal John Vlahides of ~71MILES.COM~ comes in. He's the executive editor and writer for the site, which has great listings for where to stay, play, and eat too, for a variety of destinations. Check out the ones he wrote for Truckee and Tahoe City for some good leads!
Destination: Lake Tahoe
Destination: Lake Tahoe