Not your usual bar food: Mission Kitchen + Bar in Santa Rosa oozes creativity, fun
’Tis the season for ugly sweaters, white elephant gifts and wacky food (roll out the nut-crusted cheese balls). Blame it on the holidays, parties and that end-of-year indulgence many of us find ourselves in before resolving to a healthy New Year.
Whimsical food makes an appearance at some local restaurants now, too. Stop in at the new Wilfred’s Lounge in Napa, for example, and find “Island Inspired Cocktails and Cuisine” served in the former BurgerFi space. You’ll ponder crazy tiki drinks like the Sesame Swizzle stocked with aged Martinique and St. Lucia rums, Fino sherry and sesame and garnished with a maki sushi roll ($15). And you’ll wonder about silly snacks like Spam sliders ($14) and pineapple Spam fried rice ($25).
The new Il Fuoco in Sonoma got my attention when it debuted in October, as well, for its kitchen-sink burger creation of Painted Hills ground beef stacked with barbecue pork, smoked brisket, house-cured maple bacon, white cheddar, grilled onions and a crown of chipotle pork cake ($24).
I also know people who swear by the Mac Daddy pizza at the longtime family-friendly favorite Kin in Windsor. That’s a thick-crust, red-sauce pie piled high in shredded mozzarella, gooey mac and cheese and applewood-smoked bacon ($16 small, $25 large). Unhinge your jaw.
Still, it’s Santa Rosa’s Mission Kitchen + Bar for the win. Chef Jesse McQuarrie has turned a sports bar in a strip mall into a destination, beckoning with a clever menu, a playful mood, good drinks and quality cooking. Indeed, several respected Sonoma County chefs had recommended the place to me, even with its curious items like chicken enchiladas picaduras crusted in Doritos and laced with red and green sauces ($12), sweet corn fashioned into a tube shape and fried in corn dog batter then rolled in street corn spices and cotija ($12) and Sloppy Joe nachos ladled in queso fundido ($15).
Then, three words came around: Pulled Pork Twinkies. Who could resist?
First, it’s essential to know that McQuarrie is a true chef. For more than two decades, he operated Feast Catering, his high-end business known for intricately plated dishes like crispy skin black cod with skordalia Greek garlic potato puree, charred leeks, carrots and pine nuts. He has appeared on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games” and has worked at notable Bay Area restaurants under chefs including John Ash, Terry Lynch and Gary Danko.
When COVID-19 shut down events last year, he closed Feast and joined Mission Kitchen, turning it into a fanciful pop-up. He is now also doing private chef events, but it looks like the pop-up is here to stay.
“We try hard to be a classic neighborhood joint that is unpretentious and fun,” McQuarrie said. “I want to have fun, too — my tastes are all over the place, a bit schizophrenic.”
So about those Twinkies ($12 for two). Think 24-hour slow-roasted juicy heritage pig shoulder rolled in light cornbread batter, heated to pillowy cakey-ness in a dim sum steamer, sprinkled in “powdered sugar” that’s actually bacon fat powder and ceremoniously served on a paper-lined tin tray with barbecue sauce. It’s a savory delight, and chef McQuarrie recommends pairing it with a pale ale, a graceful Imagery pinot noir ($10 glass/$36 bottle) or a robust Coppola Director’s Cut Zinfandel ($11/$38).
“I was originally thinking to do a Caesar salad with Twinkie croutons, but that sounded a bit too much, so it morphed into a pulled pork Twinkie,” he said.
I’m also a fan of his newly introduced TV dinners ($18). Today’s ridiculously over-pampered young diners probably have no idea what a true TV dinner is — how the rubbery, molded Salisbury steak ground beef patty was coated in salty, dehydration-causing brown gravy, which inevitably ran into the wobbly aluminum tray side compartments of watery mashed potatoes, corn gone mushy in watery butter sauce and a stiff brownie that often was still frozen in the middle. Oh, there was genuine joy in every bite for a 10-year-old.
Here, chef McQuarrie promises that “these taste like you want to remember them,” and I do get a nostalgic kick out of eating the from-scratch fried chicken or meatloaf served in sturdy, compartmentalized tin trays he bought on Amazon. The meatloaf, in particular, is soul-satisfying, dense and nicely seasoned and draped in tangy ketchup sauce that does not invade its neighboring territories of chive-decorated garlic mashed potatoes and gravy, seasonal farmers market vegetables, a round of golden corn spoon bread and warm chocolate cake drizzled in sea salt caramel.
Much of the appetizer menu is more straightforward, though in a way that does make me think of catered party hors d’oeuvres. We nibble on beef Wellington bites ($13 for three) that on my visit were kind of soggy, mac and cheese “lollipop” croquettes spliced on a skewer ($10), pork and shrimp pot stickers ($12) and white truffle potato poppers ($10).
For entrees, the menu changes frequently, but you can count on the stellar fish tacos stuffed with Bodega rockfish (McQuarrie grew up in Bodega Bay and used to be a commercial fisherman) plus avocado, crunchy cabbage and a dash of Thai sauce ($13). The Korean fried chicken sandwich is another bestseller, crispy and fiery with gochugaru Korean chile flake blended with a touch of sugar, black pepper and savory-sweet Gochujang red chile paste ($15).
It does get loud in here — the dog-friendly patio is quieter — but what would you expect from a place with pool tables, a jukebox, lots of TVs and occasional karaoke?
Just wait until the surprisingly good food lands on your table, relax and have fun. As chef McQuarrie likes to joke, this is a Three Michelin experience — and then he shows you a comical photo of three tires.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.