Coming up with a list of 10 favorite local eating establishments is not an easy task. The large number of quality restaurants combined with the ability one individual to sample them, makes it impossible to be truly subjective in making choices.
This top 10 is meant to be fun and based upon quality, value, price and overall dining experience at individual places.
There are no major national chains used such as the Olive Garden and Red Lobster nor are restaurants located inside hotels mentioned. Also to be noted is that this list is constructed in no particular order.
- 54 Mint 785 Oak Grove Concord (925) 969-9828 & 1586 Locust, Walnut Creek 925) 476-5844
In putting together the top 10 favorite places of mine, I was going to place at the top of the list 54 Mint in the shopping center on Treat & Oak Grove a few doors down from Trader Joes. Co-owners Claudio Ricciolini and Daniele Carsano have created arguably one of the best restaurants for fine dining in the region. Their Nimon Ranch Porchetta (pork Belly), Risotto Al Funghi (mushrooms) and Scottadito, ((Roman style lamb chops) are part of seasonal fare that changes as fresh ingredients become available.
As the Restaurant in Concord is a bit expensive for my pocketbook, I often frequent their Bakery-Bistro on Locust Street in Walnut Creek. After taking over a small bakery a couple years ago, Claudio and Danielle have created a culinary wonderland that is constantly busy. In the morning they make pastries, rolls, and focaccia bread on the premises. There is also a large collection of sweets including their famous tiramisu which is also served at their restaurant in Concord.
For lunch 54 Mint offers pastas including Lasagna and a collection of Panini’s. Their Moderno which is a combination of Norwegian smoked salmon, arugula, stracchino cheese, and tomato is a show stopper. They also have excellent salad options. I especially like the Caprese made with Farmer’s Market tomatoes and Burrata cheese from Italy.
If things could not get better, 54 Mint makes the best pizza anywhere I have ever been. They use custom dough made up of wheat, soy, and rice flour’s imported from Italy. The toppings all made with quality ingredients including Genovese, Calabrese, Campana, and Finocchiona, to name a few. Rather than trying to describe them, it is best to come in and taste these delicacies yourself. Recently, they added a small beer and wine list to make 54 Mint in Walnut Creek a true bistro.
- Zalla Afgan Grill 4743 Clayton Rd., Concord 925) 686-9923
Quality Mediterranean food is severely lacking in the area. The closest we come to authentic Greek food is annual Festival held at St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church each fall. As a runner-up, Afghan cuisine is much more in evidence locally. Zalla is arguably the best of this genre. Their Aushak which are dumplings filled with leeks and topped with a ground beef sauce and yogurt is not to be missed.
The Mantu which could be described as Afgan ravioli is a real winner as well. For main course items, chicken, beef, and lamb kabobs are grilled to perfection. The Zabzi Challow is lamb shank with spinach is my personal favorite. Zalla also has a number of other original dishes ranging from stuffed grape leaves (dolmas) to Buranni Kado which is fresh pumpkin cooked in cardamom and topped with house made yogurt.
I have been to Zalla several times and there still are menu items that I would like to try but find it is difficult to do as I am hooked on some of their dishes and don’t often stray.
- Naan ‘n’ Curry 2068 Salvio Street, Concord 925) 825-6226
When this Naan ‘n’ Curry opened their doors on Salvio near Todos Santos Square, it was thought that serving spicy food of this variety would not work in this area. Were the experts ever wrong! This inexpensive high quality restaurant has been packed at all hours with their curry dishes, basmati rice, homemade Naan bread that comes plain and in several types including garlic and onion flavors.
They have a large menu with lamb, chicken, and shrimps providing much of the protein. Naan also offers a large vegetarian selection for non-meat eaters. For chicken main courses they offer various curry combinations including Gobhi (Cauliflower) Cholay (garbanzo beans) Palak (spinach), and Tikka Masala. Their lamb dishes offer similar ingredients. I especially like their Daal Gosht (yellow lentils) and Kuna (lamb shank) they also offer tandori chicken and lamb combinations. The Biryani’s (fried rice) and Mango Lassi (yogurt drink) are not to be missed. Dinners are encouraged to share dishes at Naan ‘n’ Curry as there is much to be enjoyed in this inexpensive gourmet restaurant.
4. Sichuan House 2064 Treat Blvd, Walnut Creek, 925-932-3378
Coming from San Francisco I have historically been disappointed over the years by the poor caliber of Chinese food served in local restaurants. While it is understood they must cater to the Oyster beef, chow mein, and shrimp with walnuts crowd, most of what they serve is of the bland Cantonese variety which I don’t care for very much.
Just when I gave up finding a Chinese place that I really liked, a friend directed me to the Sichuan House. Walking in the door I was pleased to see so many Chinese families present as historically this has meant good food was in store. In this case the old wives tale was true as we were in for a treat.
After an appetizer of peanuts and pickled cabbage they offer a choice of sweat & sour or corn chowder soups.
Then comes the main dishes which vary from cumin lamb to spicy chicken clay pot. Fish, shrimp, and duck are in abundance; all at good prices. Another good feature of Sichuan House is that they place next to each item on the menu a hotness level post it so that the tastes of their guests can be catered to.
5. DJ’s Bistro 1825 Sutter St., Concord 925-825-3277
If one was to think of any cuisine that should be on the local endangered culinary list, German food would be at the top. There are just not any places in the immediate area which serves quality sausages, Wiener schnitzel, Hungarian Goulash spaetzel red cabbage, homemade potato salad, meat loaf, and other German comfort foods.
This authentic European hang-out caters to ex-pat-soccer fans that congregate to eat and drink Bavarian style, while watching matches at the bar. Over the years I have sampled the entire menu and it is all good. The portions are huge and the prices reasonable.
My only complaint is that the Spaten and Czech beers are so tempting that I inevitably break my rule of not drinking alcoholic beverages at lunch when going there. For those who like tripe soup, it is a specialty of the house. The owner Jerry has specials every day catering to those who desire a bit of Germany and the Czech Rep. without the 11 hour plane ride.
6. Wence’s 1922 Oak Park Blvd. Pleasant Hill (925) 566-8971
This restaurant a couple doors down on Oak Park from Kobe Japan in Pleasant Hill, has become one of my go to places in the area. Everything this place offers diners is unique, freshly made, beautifully served, and provides excellent value.
Having been there several times, I try to order different things each time I go there to experience all they have to offer. If one were describe the style of food at Wence’s , it could be termed gourmet café-diner food. They offer a large variety of items from cooked to order burgers (medium-rare-rare please) to astounding high end sea food dishes. One evening they offered fresh shucked $ 1.00 Pacific oysters with sauces that were to die for. A house specialty is homemade adult macaroni and cheese baked in its own caste iron skillet made with 3 cheeses with panko bread crumbs on top. They also offer a lobster variety which is in a class all by itself.
Wence’s Cobb salad is a work of art. Their shrimp Louie’s are of Fisherman’s Wharf quality. They can also grill a perfect steak and have a delectable desert menu. Wence’s also serves cocktails and has a reasonable wine list to offer their guests. All of these factors go into making Wence’s one of the best local restaurants regardless of price.
7 . Tortilleria El Molino 1500 Monument Blvd, Concord Phone 925-687-7066
There are many really good Mexican Restaurants all over the place in Concord, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant hill. In general the enchiladas, burritos, and taco’s they serve tend to be similar However, my favorite place to go is El Molino just off Monument at Regent in Concord. They have a very small menu but almost everything they serve is better than their capable competitors.
The tacos are served on corn tortillas they make in house. The meat is fresh and never of the steam table variety that has been sitting around for long. I especially like their carnitas taco’s that are served with hot sauce, cilantro, and onions. This fare reminds me of food served in Rosarita Beach in Baja and La Tacarita in San Francisco. But this is not all. El Mollino serves homemade papusas stuffed with cheese, meat, and/or beans. This El Salvadorian staple is served hot with a pungent Cole slaw and red pepper sauce is a meal in itself.
El Molino also specializes in Sopes which are a tostada like dish only a foundation of a thick masa mixture is used to hold in the toppings. Another specialty of El Molino is their fruit drinks which are concocted using fresh ingredients. Their bionocos which is a fresh fruit cocktail with coconut flakes, granola, cream, and a combination of apples, papaya, strawberries, banana, raisons, and whatever is in season, can be considered kid and adult friendly.
8. Rocco’s Ristarante & Pizziera 2909 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek 925) 947-6105
It might be surprising how this popular pizza joint in the strip mall at Oak Grove and Ignacio in Walnut Creek, would somehow get on my list. Quite simply Rocco’s provides quality in everything thing they serve in a blue collar atmosphere that reminds me of similar restaurants I grew up with in San Francisco.
Rocco’s pizza is among the best in the area made in the Sicilian stele with freshly made dough, sauces, and quality ingredients. As a regular to this place I usually stay on the main menu where they serve pasta, meat balls, polenta, calamari, minestrone, veal parmesan and other items that are served in a family Italian establishment style.
What separates Rocco’s from other places offered similar fare is their consistent quality and use of fresh ingredients. I especially like their salads which provide good renditions of Caesar, chopped, and spinach varieties which have plenty of goodies other than roughage in them. They are also nice in bringing me extra anchovies that other patrons do not desire.
Rocco’s also has a lively bar with fair priced drinks and offers music on the weekends. They are a good place to go after a ball game and are semi sports bar with Frank Sinatra serenading in the background. A weird combination but it works.
9. Korean BBQ Plus 1450 Monument Blvd (at Reganti) Concord 925 680- 9090
Tucked away in the Hispanic gourmet ghetto of Concord on Reganti, this restaurant in my opinion offers some of the best Korean food in the area. At lunch time they serve cold glass noodles to get things started followed by a cup of soup.
When one’s entrée is served, they bring in approximately 15 small plates of goodies to accompany one’s meal. These Pan Chan’s consist of small portions of Kiamichi, cucumber salad, sea weed, Cole slaw, marinated potatoes, spinach, fish cake, and bean sprouts to name a few.
Korean BBQ Plus is well known for their barbecued short ribs marinated in special house made sauce. This consists of ginger, minced garlic, sugar and soy sauce and scallions. The Mae Un Doc Gu E (tender chicken marinated in a spicy sauce) is a popular choice for diners. They also serve several types of soups, vegetarian, and sea food dishes. I especially like their Nak Ji Boke-Um (sautéed octopus & mixed vegetables with spicy sauce.)
All of the entrees are served with a large portion of white jasmine rice which soaks up all the spicy flavors of Korean cosine. Another attribute of this diamond in the rough restaurant is that Korean BBQ Plus is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week and does to close until 9:30 p.m.
10.Tower Grill 1950 Grant St., Concord 925 825-8768
Tower Grill across from the park at Todos Santos is never going to be granted stars from Michelin or be evaluated by some food snob from San Francisco. But what they do have is excellent- well prepared food that has never displeased me any time I have gone there.
Especially good are their meatballs which are served with pasta or on a sandwich roll with grilled onions , peppers, and melted cheese. These meat balls are not over cooked and have pork, beef, and a secret ingredient of pine nuts in their recipe.
All of Tower Grill’s sandwiches have large portions and come with house made Cole slaw, French or sweet potato fries. Tower Grills burgers are first class as well and can be prepared medium- rare-rare which is appreciated by me when I dine with a friend we often split a sandwich dish and one of Tower Grills main course salads.
My favorites are their Cobb, Chopped, Spinach and Caesar salads. They are all among the best in the area are fairly priced. In addition to sandwiches and salads Tower offers steaks, chicken dishes and a few specials each day. With a full bar serving generous libations, this is a great place to visit often.