It’s barely 5:30 p.m., and Chef Thaddeus Palmese has a line of orders almost 3 feet long coming into his kitchen. Five line cooks listen over the din of clanking pans and the chatter of the dining room, answering his every order with, “Yes, chef!”
Sitting at the counter, watching the complicated dance happening just feet away, is both fascinating and slightly stressful. Flames leap into the air, knives are chopping, sizzling pans come within inches of arms. Inevitably someone gets burned, a dish doesn’t pass muster with Palmese and another gets sent back to be re-plated.
Welcome to Tips Roadside, where one of Sonoma County’s favorite chefs is finally getting a chance to come out from behind the food trucks — The Tri TipTrolley — that he’s been inside for the past five years, quietly honing his menus while serving the simple tri-tip-centric bowls of owner Andrew and Susie Pryfogle’s popular red trolley mobile kitchens.
“The ad said they wanted a kick-ass chef,” said Palmese, as to why someone with classic chef training and the former chef of Starlight Diner in Sebastopol would work on a food truck. But its been a fun ride for Palmese, who’s now ready to reintroduce his version of Southern dining, with everything from creamy grits and Hoppin’ John Salad to fried chicken and beignets.
Located in the former Vineyards Inn in Kenwood, the restaurant has been gutted, overhauled and reborn as a clean, bright and modern roadhouse with two large dining rooms, a full bar and eventually, an outdoor patio. It’s been a long revamp for the team, who started reconstruction before the 2017 fires. In the first days of the fires, the Tri Tip Trolley team drove their trucks into fire zones to help feed first responders. Much of the art on the restaurant walls pays homage to the harrowing weeks during and after the fires, which affected many parts of the Sonoma Valley.
Now that they’re up and running, however, the restaurant has been flooded with guests — from early diners from Oakmont and nearby wine tasters to later waves of locals and tourists. There’s every indication that, like nearby Salt and Stone and Palooza, the newcomers are already becoming part of the fabric of Highway 12.
With an extra dose of Southern flavor, we’re confident they’ll be serving up Wine Country comfort food for a long time to come.
Tri-Tip Bites, $14: Harkening back to their food truck start, these straight-up nuggets of flavorful beef were relatively unknown outside California until a few years ago. Inexpensive, but delicious, they’re even better with chipotle, horseradish and garlic aioli dipping sauces.
Grilled Steelhead Salad, $15: Palmese calls this his “Nicoise, Sort Of” Salad. Like the French salad of tuna, eggs, green beans, frisee and olives, it’s a kitchen-sink sort of dish, but becomes more intentional with the use of steelhead salmon, smoked tomatoes and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. The tempura-fried lemon slice is an added component that’s as tasty as it is pretty.
Slab of House Bacon with Hoppin John Salad, $13: It’s hard to get more traditional than this Southern comfort dish of bacon, rice and black-eyed peas. Palmese deconstructs it, placing a thick slab of homestyle bacon and beans dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, pickled squash and red peppers. Puffed rice adds a bit of crunch.
True Grits, $15: This is the do-not-miss dish, whether or not you think you like grits. Because you haven’t had grits until you give yourself over to these fluffy, cheesy, buttery ground corn kernels that would make any Southerner homesick. Unlike polenta, grits are made with white corn, and have a softer, less coarse texture — which in less adept hands is a lot like Cream of Wheat. Infused with flavor, the addition of smoked mushrooms are a revelation, topped by bright spring peas, pea tendrils and Gouda cheese.
Night Market Fried Chicken, $17: A gluten-free crust takes this version out of the realm of Old School cast-iron fried chicken, but with a softer, lighter crust that doesn’t overshadow the actual chicken. The meat stays moist, with plenty of flavor, but the sides of Red Eye Gravy, smashed Yukon potatoes and fresh peas and carrots make this dish seem right out of Maw Maw’s kitchen.
Beignets, $8: Plan ahead, so you’ve got both the time and appetite to appreciate Palmese’s version of the classic beignet. Unlike others, that have more of a donut dough, these start with a pate a choux dough — a bit eggier and lighter, puffing into little balls of air and crust. A mouth-puckering Meyer lemon sauce is perfect spooned into the center. You’ll be tempted to snarf them in a single bite, which you will do exactly once, realizing that the insanely hot steam inside has burnt your tongue into next week.
Crafted cocktails have local monikers like “Sugarloaf Mountain” and Highway 12, using mostly local spirits from the restaurant’s full bar. We loved the Thicker Than Smoke with Sonoma Brothers Bourbon, St. George Raspberry, blackberry syrup and bitters ($12), though all the cocktails we tried leaned toward the sweet. Like sweet-sweet. A full page of local wines, spirits and beers make this a hotspot for tasting your way through Sonoma’s favorite tipples. Plus, free corkage on all Kenwood wines.
Needs Work: The menu, with dishes like smoked short ribs, fisherman’s stew and tomato soup, seems wintery for an opening summer menu, though the use of seasonal produce and local ingredients lighten the flavors somewhat. The restaurant can be very warm on hot days, so dress accordingly.
Overall: Palmese gets a chance to spread his wings, showcasing his passion for the food of his Southern roots to Wine Country in a perfect roadside spot in the Valley.
Tips Roadside, 8445 Highway 12, Kenwood, 707-509-0078, tipsroadside.com. Now open for brunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.