Three Sonoma County restaurants are the latest additions to the California Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand category, which includes restaurants recognized for value and high-quality food. The coveted Michelin stars, awarded to fine dining establishments, will be announced on Sept. 28.
Khom Loi in Sebastopol and Sonoma’s Folktable and Valley Bar + Bottle — all opened during the pandemic — were tapped for the culinary honor this morning, taking even the restaurants’ chefs by surprise. Most had not heard about the win until contacted by reporters.
After taking a year off in 2020, the French tire company known for its international dining guides has returned with this preliminary list of 45 exceptional restaurants offering two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for around $40 or less (tax and gratuity not included).
Inclusion into the Bib Gourmand category in a restaurant’s first or second year is never an easy feat, considering the ever-expanding list of contenders in the dining scene. This year’s winners also faced the daunting challenges of navigating mask mandates and other pandemic regulations, staff and supply chain shortages, as well as skittish diners — in addition to the usual hurdles of opening a new restaurant.
Sebastopol’s Khom Loi, the second restaurant for Ramen Gaijin owners Matthew Williams and Moishe Hahn-Schuman, was inspired by extensive travels in Thailand. The food is their take on the Southeast Asian cuisine, with perfumed curries, lush seafood, sticky rice and spicy chili peppers. Opening in the thick of the pandemic last February, the duo built a temporary tent as health regulations fluctuated, despite having a semi-enclosed outdoor space. Like other restaurateurs, they struggled to hire staff as many servers and cooks changed careers or opted to collect unemployment rather than return to jobs that generally pay low wages. Williams and Hahn-Schuman also separated with founding partner Lowell Sheldon in July.
Despite these challenges, tables continue to be booked well in advance at Khom Loi and the response to the new restaurant has been positive, Williams said, the Bib Gourmand frosting on the cake.
“This is a really nice validation of the hard work and sacrifice everyone on our team made this past year to open Khom Loi under the tough specter of the pandemic. We’re humbled and excited for the challenge of living up to the expectations and making the restaurant better each day,” Williams said.
Two Sonoma restaurants named Bib Gourmands
Top Chef finalist and restaurateur Casey Thompson opened Folktable at Cornerstone Sonoma in early 2021 with a limited takeout menu that only hinted what the restaurant would later become. A sprawling indoor cafe and an expansive patio amid the magnificent gardens and shops of the Sonoma marketplace came to life in late spring with the arrival of chef de cuisine Melanie Wilkerson, who delivered a signature menu that ranges from nibbly starters like tomato and peach salad to Japanese-inspired tater tots, Sonoma hot fried chicken and spicy poke.
“Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand announcement is an incredible accomplishment for Folktable. The whole team has worked so hard to not only open safely during the pandemic, but to create a vibrant community gathering space alongside our beautiful, seasonal dishes. We are gratified, humbled and immensely honored to see our vision recognized by such a prestigious international institution,” said Casey Thompson, Folktable Consulting Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Development for Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group.
Valley Bar + Bottle in downtown Sonoma soft-opened last July with fanfare about the young owners’ cool vibe, carefully crafted food and thoughtful wine selections, but gained traction when it was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire Magazine in June. Co-owner Lauren Feldman did not respond to requests for comment.
Bib Gourmand winners are re-assessed each year, according to organizers, but can be dropped if the restaurant no longer meets the criteria. Wine Country Bib Gourmand winners in 2019 included Backyard (closed), Bravas, Chalkboard, Ciccio, Cook St. Helena, Diavola, El Molino Central, Farmstead, Glen Ellen Star, Grace’s Table, Gran Electrica, La Calenda, Oenotri, Ramen Gaijin, Redd Wood (closed), Risibisi and Stockhome.
This year’s newcomers spanned a breadth of California cuisines and locales rather than focusing exclusively on San Francisco, Wine Country and Los Angeles, with picks in Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara and the Central Coast and the oft-overlooked North Coast, where Marin-based Tony’s Seafood restaurant in Marshall also was recognized.
Here is a complete list of the new additions to the California Bib Gourmands with Inspector notes…
ASA South (San Francisco): The kitchen manages to infuse a bit of fun into its repertoire of serious food. There’s something for everyone on this wide-reaching carte, especially if you love fish which is sustainably harvested.
Bee Taqueria (Los Angeles): This casual taqueria with serious focus and creative style arrives courtesy of the talented chef Alex Carrasco. Tacos, ceviche and tostadas reign supreme on the menu, which draws culinary inspiration from the chef’s childhood in Mexico City.
Bettina (Santa Barbara): After making a match at New York City’s Roberta’s, Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan took their pizza-powered love affair to the West Coast, leaving bohemian Brooklyn for a gleaming perch in the Montecito Country Mart.
Callie (San Diego): The cuisine takes advantage of the best ingredients SoCal has to offer in highly shareable dishes featuring the bold, sunny flavors of the Mediterranean. Vegetables and seafood steal the show, with spice as a key supporting character.
Cesarina (San Diego): Most of the menu is mix-and-match, with a selection of pasta shapes and sauces that can be paired to your liking. Those on a quest for indulgence should look no further than the truffled gnocchi with a cream sauce, served in its own copper pot.
CHAAK Kitchen (Orange County): The team behind these stoves swimmingly brings the vibrant smoke-and-spice-focused cuisine of the Yucatán Peninsula to life.
Chifa (Los Angeles): Chifa is the term used by Peruvians to refer to “Chinese restaurant.” The succinct menu pulls from family recipes and childhood memories to pack in flavor at every twist and turn.
Ciccia Osteria (San Diego): Set in a converted home in the heart of Barrio Logan, this adorable osteria is a true family operation. Francesca Penoncelli, who hails from Turin, leads the kitchen, along with her husband Mario Casineri, a Milan native.
Colapasta (Santa Monica): Nestled into a breezy locale just a few blocks from the Pacific, this modern trattoria packs a big culinary punch, thanks largely to the considerable talents of chef Stefano De Lorenzo.
Corazon Cocina (Santa Barbara): The Santa Barbara Public Market is full of alluring eateries, but after your first taste of this charming taco stand, you’ll want to pledge your heart. Chef and owner Ramon Velazquez mastered the craft of handmade tortillas and zesty salsas.
Dija Mara (San Diego): You’ll find some serious Indonesian cooking here. Excellent nasi goreng combines fried rice with shrimp, pork belly, chicken and the yolk of a sunny egg, while charred eggplant with smoked tomato sambal and crispy fried shallots is a textural and flavor-forward delight.
Dumpling Home (San Francisco): This casual eatery excels in the delicate art of soup dumplings, which arrive with supple skins and spoonfuls of delicious broth far clearer and more distilled than most.
Fable & Spirit (Orange County): The room is packed with an unmistakable hum of happy diners diving into delicious pub grub. You’ll want to order the Guinness brown bread which is an absolute delight, especially paired with plump P.E.I. mussels bathed in a thyme butter.
FOB Kitchen (San Francisco): This popular Filipino restaurant began as a pop-up. The menu is loaded with keepers, but keep your options open for tantalizing specials, such as sweet and sour sinigang with pork, eggplant and daikon or Janice’s ribs.
Heritage Barbecue (Orange County): Punctuality is of the essence as everyone is here, early and eager, for chef and owner, Daniel Castillo’s food. His creations draw inspiration from central Texas, so when that sweet scent of California white oak gets going, find yourself transported on a riotous journey, starting with slices of glistening brisket.
Horn Barbecue (San Francisco): Arrive early to this local sensation from pitmaster Matt Horn as there is bound to be a wait. It’s well worth your time though, as the chef’s “West Coast Barbecue” complete with inspiration is nothing less than rich, delicious and decadent.
iTalico (Palo Alto): The menu here is concise and well-edited, but there are some winning dishes. Start things off right with the salumi and cheese extravaganza before moving on to carpaccio, burrata or tonno crudo.
Jiang Nan Spring (Los Angeles): This spot’s Shanghainese focus makes it a valuable addition to the San Gabriel Valley. Sweet vinegars and fresh seafood figure prominently, most apparent in plates like an irresistible platter of tilapia fried in a tempura-like batter flavored with seaweed.
Kazan (Los Angeles): The name is Japanese for “volcano” and conveniently, this soba-focused spot blows the lid off its competitors. The menu offers many a choice, including a vegetarian option, but the #7 (lamb in lava) is a clear winner.
Khan Saab Desi Craft Kitchen (Orange County): Originally from Pakistan, chef Imran Ali Mookhi displays a certain deftness with spices, flavors, and in his handling of red meat at this South Asian gem.
Konbi (Los Angeles): Konbi is the brainchild of chefs Nick Montgomery and Akira Akuto, who present a unique menu of Japanese sandwiches, product-focused small plates and Proustian pastries.
La Azteca (Los Angeles): This modest counter-service operation has been serving hefty burritos from East LA for many years now. Flour tortillas are made in-house every day in full view of the dining room and boast a kind of richness and chew that others don’t.
Loquita (Santa Barbara): Servers know the menu by heart, so follow their lead and start with tapas like crusty pan con tomate, before digging into hearty chorizo y pollo paella. An homage to the El Bullí olive is a contemporary signature, while carpaccio garnished with pickled mustard seeds and aged sherry vinegar is forever popular.
Los Carnalitos (San Francisco): The two brothers behind this operation, which started as a wildly popular food truck, present delicacies like huaraches and quesadilla de huitlacoche that rarely appear on other menus in town. Here, quesadillas are made from house-made tortillas, so try the one filled with squash blossom, queso fresco and tomatillo salsa.
Luscious Dumplings (Los Angeles): It’s hard to order poorly at this delightful retreat. The menu is concise, with half of the items dedicated to the eponymous specialty.
Mentone (Central Coast): The carte is unusual, unveiling fried sardines with Meyer lemon aioli or white bean soup with chickpeas in a prosciutto broth. Pizzas take the cake, such as the “Pesto” shimmering with fromage blanc, Crescenza, and caciocavallo, or “Sardenaira” with tomato sauce, anchovies and olives.
Morning Glory (San Diego): It’s strictly breakfast and brunch at this spot in San Diego’s Little Italy. It’s all about familiar favorites and of-the-moment meals; hello, avocado toast and shakshuka.
New Dumpling (San Francisco): It is all in the name at this vivacious and cheery spot where dumplings are the star of the show. Watch them being made in the open kitchen, then consult the chalkboard for featured menu items.
Nixtaco (Sacramento): This unassuming taqueria, tucked into a strip mall in Roseville, is a sweet little spot that packs big flavor punch. The salsa bar alone—featuring five outstanding varieties, including a smoky peanut chipotle and tangy salsa verde—is reason enough to warrant a visit.
Oliver’s Osteria Mare e Monti (Orange County): Set just minutes from the Pacific Coast Highway, this Italian gem makes a delightful sight. Chef Erik De Marchi’s menu has something for everyone. He takes a range of familiar dishes and enhances them with an authentic flair.
Pho 79 (Orange County): If you are no stranger to the slurp, then Pho 79 is likely already on your circuit. After all, this place is an institution. Opened in the early 80s, it’s widely considered to ladle some of the best and most praiseworthy pho in Southern California.
Range Life (San Francisco): Tuck into appealing bites like fig toast with a drizzle of olive oil and salt, or delicately fried yellow squash and green tomatoes over toasted pumpkin seeds and basil aioli.
Routier (San Francisco): Belinda Leong and Michel Suas have long been recognized as Bay Area pastry royalty, so naturally, this foray into sit-down dining is a treat. To sweeten the pot even further, they tapped JP Carmona, formerly chef de cuisine at Manresa, to lead the kitchen.
Spinning Bones (San Francisco): On the quaint island of Alameda comes this causal concept from restaurateurs, Mike Yakura and Danny Sterling. Billing itself as a Californian rotisserie, the menu is also strewn with Hawaiian and Japanese accents.
Taquería El Paisa (San Francisco): This Oakland institution is widely hailed as the temple of tacos. Meat is given the starring role here, and offal, including tripe and cabeza, are of special note.
Tacos Oscar (San Francisco): The menu is scrawled in chalk, and while it’s simple—tacos and tostadas—it changes often. Meat, such as the braised pork shoulder topped with an avo-tomatillo salsa and chicharrónes, is a staple; but clever vegan versions, like the charred broccoli with soy-cashew cheese, give animal proteins a run for their money.
Top Hatters Kitchen (San Francisco): Husband-and-wife co-owners Matthew Beavers and DanVy Vu opted to honor this fixture’s former life as a family-owned hat shop by keeping the name. Chef Vu leads the kitchen, and her skillful contemporary combination of Vietnamese and Californian flavors is tantalizing.
Tumbi (Santa Monica: Just a block from the bustle of the Santa Monica Promenade, Tumbi feels worlds away, offering inventive Indian cooking in an industrial-chic setting.
Um.ma (San Francisco): The menu is peppered with Korean classics and served family-style, and it’s as small and inviting as it gets. Transcendent kimchi jjigae arrives bubbling hot with soft tofu, tender pork belly, tangy cabbage and a hearty broth.
WoodSpoon (Los Angeles): It’s clear that hospitality runs through the veins of chef and owner, Natalia Pereira, who originally hails from Brazil. The cozy dining room is lined with framed photographs and wine bottles. The chef’s careful and skilled hand is also evident in her food, which tastes of pure passion.
Yue Huang (Sacramento): This Cantonese restaurant is a hidden treasure. The dim sum selection features the standard array of steamed, baked and fried delights; however, diners are bound to also run across a range of more interesting items.