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Handline

Where: 935 Gravenstein Hwy., Sebastopol

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Contact: (707) 827-6297, handline.com

Cuisine: California, Seafood, Mexican

Price: Inexpensive-Moderate, entrées $9-$21

Corkage: n/a

Stars: ** ½

Tortillas and ice cream.

That’s not a nutritionally sound meal, I know. But the unlikely combo immediately comes to mind when I think of Handline in Sebastopol. The café boasts an authentic stone mill to grind organic corn into masa for its homemade rustic-thick tortillas, plus an actual Foster’s Freeze ice cream machine, using an updated recipe with Straus Family Creamery milk from Petaluma.

Part Cal-Mex eatery, part seafood shack, part fancy burger joint, this chic, airy spot on Highway 116 is the newest project from Lowell Sheldon and Natalie Goble, known for their equally ambitious Peter Lowell’s restaurant 1.5 miles north. The cool factor ranks high here– the site formerly was indeed a seen-better-days Foster’s Freeze, and through the renovation, the original soft serve ice cream machine was saved, now siting proudly next to a walk-up window off the new back patio.

And though this is a fast-casual operation where we order at the counter, the cooking is high-end, showcasing thoughtful recipes and artisanal preparation. The West County flag stands tall, honoring “hyper local” and organic ingredients including produce from Goble’s Two Belly Acres farm in Sebastopol. Think Gott’s Roadside, but even better.

It all makes for an interesting mash up, and since opening in October, Handline has become a North Bay favorite. The name comes from an old school fishing technique where a single line is held in the hands, rather than using a rod or nets, considered sustainable and environmentally responsible since the method targets individual mature fish.

So those lovingly crafted tortillas cradle goodies like locally harvested halibut, rockfish and trout, and scoop up opulent comfort delights like Fisherman’s Stew in a big bowl of daily catch, cove mussels, clams, calamari and crab swimming in rich, tomato-y broth ($21).

The raw bar, meanwhile, serves up seasonal oysters fresh off the coast, plus grilled oysters dressed in savories like stinging nettle butter sprinkled in lemon-parsley gremolata ($12).

Dishes change seasonally - even monthly.

I love “The Weather Report” offerings, for example, which on a recent visit featured local mushrooms tumbled with spring onion, green garlic, Calabrian chile, pea shoots and a glistening dollop of spring pea cream ($15), plus a Roots & Shoots symphony of sprouted lentils, roasted beets and carrots, mushroom conserva, kale pesto, sweet almond ricotta and tangy farmer’s cheese all modeled in colorful mounds ($11).

Here’s the drill: you grab a menu from the acrylic holder pretty much hidden on the entry foyer wall. Study it before approaching the counter – the place gets really busy and you don’t want to hold up the line as you try to decide between the strong, house smoked trout mixed with snap peas, radish, butter lettuce and a creamy coat of Green Goddess ($12), or the Pollo Correcto tostadas mounded in Mary’s shredded chicken, heirloom beans, pepitas, a drizzle of mild mole and cilantro (two for $12) with a side of pickled vegetables.

Consider what you want to drink, too. The list is lengthy, interesting with fresh options like homemade hibiscus agua fresca ($4) or rice horchata ($4), and that trendy quaff, cold brew Four Barrel Coffee ($4).

For a more spirited sip, my chosen glass of dry apple Eye Cider from Sebastopol ($7) sparkles against the Ex Pat tacos stuffed with warm roasted pumpkin chunks, braised greens, sweetly acidic black currant salsa and soupy crema (two for $9), while an on-tap glass of 2016 County Line Rosé of Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($8) is brilliant with the 1/3 pound pastured beef burger, served pinkish medium and draped in Santa Rosa St. Jorge fonduta, iceberg, spicy pickle relish and Thousand Island on a toasted bun ($12).

North Coast Wine Challenge Tasting Event

When: May 15, 2016, 1-4 p.m.
Where: Sonoma Mountain Village, Rohnert Park
Tickets: northcoastwineevent.com

Next, you grab a seat at the sleek wood tables or on the garden patio framed with trees. I often sprawl on the patio with my dogs after a walk on the Joe Rodota trail through the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, and we lick ice cream cones ($4.50) – vanilla for them, chocolate swirl for me.

The best dining plan is to share several dishes, since portions are large. Servers bring plates as they’re ready, and there’s never any rush.

The fish tacos are one of best versions I’ve found anywhere, stuffed with fluffy batter-fried rockfish, shaved cabbage, avocado and radish with a bit of chipotle aioli (two for $12). A spritz of lime, some extra aioli on the side, and it’s a clean, delicious feast. Hand carved al pastor meat elevates the pork tacos, too, the succulent stuff sometimes teamed with pineapple, lime slaw, avocado and salsa verde ($13), and other times more simply with pickled onions and salsa verde ($12).

The La Sirena ceviche is another exceptional dish, tossing tender poached calamari with sugar snap peas, spring onions, mint leaf and avocado; the real punch comes in the lively dressing of citronette, Calabrian chili oil and whole grain mustard creme fraiche ($13).

There’s so much to like at this little place, whether for a meal or a munch, even just my guilty picnic of hand-cut French fries ordered extra crispy, dunked in chipotle aioli ($5), and a glass of 2012 Iron Horse Oceans Reserve Blanc de Blancs Russian River Valley ($15).

That’s followed, of course, by an ice cream cone, and an order of corn tortillas to go ($5 a dozen).

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

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