Tips Roadside reopens in Kenwood’s former Vineyards Inn
It’s ironic that smoked braised short rib is one of the most popular dishes at Tips Roadside in Kenwood. Because Tips owners Andrew and Susie Pryfogle know more than they’d like to about smoke these days, after the devastating wildfires last October. Their own restaurant on Highway 12 at Adobe Canyon Road escaped damage, but had to be shut as the flames roared all around their property.
The catastrophe hit exactly one week after the Pryfogles received the permits they had waited eight months for, on plans to renovate the 90-year-old building that had previously operated as Vineyards Inn, and before that, a 1930s filling station.
Yet, this was no time to feel sorry for themselves. Instead, the couple mobilized their other business, two fire engine-red Tri Tip Trolley food trucks, to feed more than 5,000 first responders.
It took until this June for Tips Roadside to finally open.
Today, guests can still see the fire-scarred Mount Hood and Sugarloaf Ridge behind the eatery. But inside, they might look a little closer to understand the full impact the disaster had on the restaurant. Choosing to find some beauty in the wreckage, the Pryfogles connected with local artists to add statements to the already artsy building brimming with antique tchotchkes.
The two large, airy dining rooms now boast accents like a vertical flag painting titled “1:34 a.m. I Smelled Smoke” by Tom Rice of Glen Ellen. A 4.5-foot by 3-foot American flag resides next to the fireplace, too, its stars and stripes made of painted fire hose that was used to combat the infernos. It was made by firefighter and former Sonoma County resident Eric Paine after he responded to the North Bay firestorms. (And the story gets even better. Paine donated the flag to Sonoma County’s Dogwood Animal Rescue Project, where he had adopted a pet; the piece was bought at auction by Kevin Lely, the Pryfogles’ contractor, and given to the couple as a gift.)
Look outside, as well, to the courtyard, and you’ll see a dramatic “Tree of Life” wall sculpture by Sonoma’s Helena Nash Donzeli - it’s made of burned and melted kitchen utensils from area homes.
Other local tributes include an antique gas pump from the original filling station, a bar made of reclaimed wood from the original building, and vintage photos of Sonoma Valley legends Fred Kunde, Angelo Sangiacomo and Mondo Bianchini.
For all the Sonoma-centric décor, though, the food is, surprisingly, modern Southern. Executive chef Thaddeus Palmese is clearly enjoying himself with more room to cook than he had in the trolleys - his open kitchen sends out creative fare that wakes up tired taste buds.
Consider whimsical dishes such as a “slab o’ house bacon” that’s less deadly than it sounds, because the gloriously fatty piece of meat is propped atop lighter, tart sides of sliced pickled squash, crunchy Creole puffed rice, and a Hoppin’ John salad of black-eyed peas, pickled squash and roasted peppers over Bibb lettuce drizzled in mustard vinaigrette ($13).
A few other appetizers lean lighter, such as an intriguing chilled salad of grilled steelhead salmon fillet and creamy-yolk soft boiled egg plated next to a tumble of haricot verts, olives, frisee, mizuna, tangy-addictive tempura-fried Meyer lemon slices and smoked-tomato Meyer vinaigrette ($15). It’s like a jazzed up Nicoise.
It’s also easy to make short work of the fluffy, crisp-edged corn fritters that are given a delicious twist with shaved cotija and Fresno chili sauce ($7). Snacking on these, plus a little steel basket of pingpong ball-size mashed potato-style tater tots makes a fine happy hour meal, paired with a Nunn’s Canyon cocktail of HOBBS gin, elderflower liqueur, tonic, cucumber and jalapeño ($12). (I appreciate that the bar pours premium local spirits such as Sonoma Brothers Bourbon, Spirit Works Rye and Griffo gin.)
You can go casual at daily brunch, with a tri-tip sandwich, the marinated, grilled and cubed meat nicely tender and sparked with chipotle sauce and slaw on a sweet French roll ($14). It’s great with a housemade beer from the tanks in the patio room, featuring an IPA, Blonde and Pale Ale (all $6).
Or you can get fancier at dinner, with fisherman’s stew, a sturdy satisfier of clams, mussels, shrimp and cod in a tomato, roasted garlic and saffron-braised onion broth with grilled bread for dunking ($22). The True Grits are even more compelling, the creamy corn soothing with its thick oatmeal texture, and infused with white cheddar and ample butter plus smoked mushrooms, crisp spring peas, leeks and radish ($15). I’d never have thought to add radish, but it works well.
Still, one of my favorite dishes comes at brunch, and it’s not Southern at all. Shakshuka is an Israeli skillet-baked casserole-stew, usually served for breakfast. Chef Palmese presents his dish deconstructed, with two poached eggs alongside a chunky sofrito sauce of mild peppers, tomatoes and a whole clove of garlic, tossed with two chicken-bacon meatballs ($15). A swath of smoky, salty hummus and two slices of rustic toast round out the plate. At first, I’m disappointed it’s not the bubbling hot, spicy casserole I’d expected, but there’s no denying the flavors are delicious.
Fried chicken, meanwhile, seems like it would be a slam-dunk, but not so. The piece I get between a perfect, pastry-light biscuit ($8) is flavorless, needing salt or seasoning; the batter is crispy but lacks the necessary grease since it’s fried healthy style and gluten-free in rice flour and rice bran oil. Better to go with the fried chicken dinner, since the salty gravy boosts the bird, alongside thick mashed potatoes, peas and carrots ($17).
Of course, Tips offers its hallmark tri-tip ($14), and the dish is a winner, as juicy, deeply beefy nuggets served in a mini skillet and paired with chipotle, horseradish and garlic aioli dipping sauces.
For a finale, Tips tempts with classic beignets ($5). Delicate but with a bit of chew, the five puffs are dusted in spiced sugar for dipping in Meyer lemon sauce. You can also get the beignets studded with smoked bacon ($5), because, at least in this instance, smoke is a good thing.
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.