My dog, Noah, is watching my every bite, channeling all fibers of his canine brain as he wills me to drop my fried chicken sandwich. I feel a bit guilty depriving him, but this specialty at Twin Oaks Roadhouse in Penngrove is too delicious to share more than a morsel.
Since beer maven Dean Biersch bought the iconic restaurant last December, it has become one of my favorite hangouts. Noah’s too, thanks to the dog-friendly patio and casual American menu. Since nothing costs more than $13, his chances of a nibble are greatly increased.
The charm is palpable. If this place could talk, the low-slung, bright red wood-and-brick ranch house certainly would have stories to tell. Built in 1924 in what would have been the middle of nowhere, it originally kept company with a small grocery store and gas station. For decades, it catered to locals, wooing them with cold beer and cowboy food like pan-fried chicken.
Now, it’s still surrounded by plenty of rural land, flanked solely by Jeff’s Twin Oaks Garage (“If it’s broke, we can fix it”) and across the street from postage stamp-size downtown Penngrove. It’s hard to believe industrial Petaluma and freeways loom just two miles south.
Wisely, Biersch didn’t change too much, mostly making much-needed repairs, slapping on new paint inside and out, adding a vintage jukebox and new dance floor. Though the space is spiffier now, it still reflects its honky-tonk joint roots amid the new 18 craft tap display. An impressive lineup of live music plays on new indoor and outdoor stages, and the nighttime crowd gets rowdy.
Importantly, Biersch amped up the kitchen for better food. The menu is nowhere near as ambitious as at his other restaurant-bars, the HopMonk Tavern locations in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Novato, but it’s generally first-rate, in an unfussy, satisfying diner style. Sometimes I eat at the bar, under the watchful gaze of a taxidermied jackalope in the glow of neon beer signs. Other times, I relax on the patio, at a teak table shaded by trellises and umbrellas.
Now, as I sit relishing the brilliant winter sun, I devour my chicken sandwich ($11), delighted with the huge, juicy breast spilling over the edges of a lightly toasted English muffin from Sebastopol’s Village Bakery. The meat has been double battered with buttermilk for a light, crunchy shell, then topped with slightly sweet coleslaw and spicy aioli, alongside homemade pickles and onions, plus corn on the cob glistening with lots of butter.
My companions are more generous than I am and offer Noah a bit of our sausage appetizer ($6). It’s premium, handcrafted meat from Yanni’s in downtown Penngrove, presented in a small skillet sizzling with caramelized onions and peppers, with mustard for dunking.
Stuffed jalapeño poppers don’t go over well, however, since the fiery chiles are raw. They’re stuffed with a bit of sausage, garlic and Gruyere, then warmed in the oven, but taste way too vegetal. A cheddar baguette ($5) is something I could make better at home, too, The soft bread slices are spread in what we’re told is garlic butter but tastes like nothing, plus whisper thin, lukewarm cheese slices and raw scallion.
Things get back on track with the burgers, which are big and beefy and topped with items ranging from cheddar, lettuce and tomato ($10) to cracked black pepper and heaps of crumbled Pt. Reyes bleu ($13). The chili burger is a particular winner, served open faced and smothered with steak three-bean stew and cheddar. It’s got a nice, spicy kick, and we sop the chili with crisp skinned, steamy hot wedge fries.