Feature: The Grill Guide

Let the North Bay be your oyster as you create a backyard feast

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When Green Star Farm says their operation is pasture-based, they mean it.

By Tom Gogola, Stett Holbrook and Flora Tsapovsky

While there are plenty of North Bay restaurants that do burgers and barbecue very well, summer wouldn’t be summer without your own backyard cookout. You could run to the grocery store for a one-stop shop for all of your barbecue needs, but this being the food and drink paradise of the North Bay, you can turn your cookout into a showcase of all of the great homegrown ingredients the region has to offer.

What follows is our grilling dream team of all the best fixings—meat, cheese, buns, pickles, condiments and even fuel from across the North Bay. We know it’s unlikely that you’ll travel the region to acquire all of these provisions, but isn’t it cool to know that you could? Even if you just pick up a few of these signature ingredients and products, you’re sure to elevate your grilling game.

Of course, there are more than a few wine and beer choices in the North Bay. We’ll leave that part up to you, but do check out James Knight’s rundown of barbecue-friendly Zinfandel in this week’s Swirl (p14).

So here’s to summer, friends and good local food on the grill!

The Meat of the Matter

You have to start with the best, which is why a proper North Bay grill fest must honor the sturdy and multi-platform meat emporium that is Marin Sun Farms. Right out of the gate, the grillable ground beef is consistently leaps and bounds beyond the corporate ground chuck routine, with all of that allowable water content and antibiotic back-bite. Blech. A typical Marin Sun burger, drawn from humane pastures and dales, has hints of sirloin to go with a juicy, bloody disposition that is at once all-natural and viscerally pleasurable.

The Marin Sun Farms corporate philosophy is just right: all of their animals are pasture-raised on a local family farm, the cows are lovingly embraced until their last and final date with destiny, and the fat-to-meat ratio is absolutely exquisite when it comes to grillability. The North Bay staple sells chickens and lamb, too, and operates a restaurant and butcher shop in Point Reyes Station and also in Oakland. It’s worth noting that the Marin Sun Petaluma abattoir is the only one in the Bay Area, and that ain’t no slaughterhouse jive. May the Marin Sun forever shine on your barbecue. marinsunfarms.com.

In scenic Tomales, Stemple Creek Ranch has been in the Poncia family for four generations. The beef here is certified organic, grass-fed and grass-finished. For hamburger lovers, gift boxes are ready for purchase online; premade patties supplemented with smoked maple bacon or, if you prefer to ground it yourself, various cuts can be shipped as well. For a face-to-face meat encounter, head to the website to find a list of retailers and farmers’ markets, many of them in Marin County. stemplecreek.com.

Sebastopol’s Green Star Farm is just what you want it to be: a diversified, pasture-based operation on several rolling acres overseen by conscientious farmers Sarah Silva and Marc Felton. The pigs, goats, chicken and sheep live a good life, while a pair of on-point cattle dogs keep any of the critters from straying too far. Pasture-based means just that—the animals scratch, forage and root about as they were born to do. No cages here. You’ll find Green Star’s stuff at the Sebastopol farmers’ market and Andy’s Market; for extra convenience, there is Green Star meat subscription—a box of protein delivered to your door throughout California or available at five pick-up locations in Sonoma County. Feeding a crowd? Whole animals are available for sale. Go whole hog! greenstarfarm.com.

Hamburger Buns

San Rafael’s Bordenave’s bakery celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, marking its 1918 inception by French immigrant Frank Bordenave. Originally, Bordenave was exclusively into French-style sourdough, but with the years, the bakery’s selection has grown to include hamburger and hot dog buns, croissants and different pastries. While a good portion of its business is wholesale, the storefront supplies the customers with pillowy, soft hamburger buns that make perfect bookends for sophisticated hamburgers. There’s onion, seeded brioche, multi-seed and even whole wheat, plus your old-school plain. bordenavesbakery.com.

Seems like no matter where we go these days, Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern in Petaluma keeps popping up as the place with the soft-inside, kind-of-crunchy-outside rolls, baked on-site and, not coincidentally, known as a Ray’s Roll on the menu. Ray’s has been around since grandpa met Douglas MacArthur on a bomb-cratered Micronesian airstrip—which is to say it’s been in business since 1946.

The joint has hole-in-the-wall appeal in Petaluma, and the menu is chocked with sandos loaded down with local ingredients and juicy meats—Reubens, Rachels, corned beef. You need a sturdy roll to stand up to a proper Reuben, and Ray’s has bragging rights. The funny thing about Ray’s is that the only burger on the menu is a veggie burger slathered with a pesto Aioli. Skip the sawdust patty, can we get a tub of that to go? rays-deli.com.

Cheese Please

It’s hard not to appreciate the melting qualities and childhood memories inspired by a molten slice of Kraft cheese draped over a burger patty. But given that we live in a dairy dreamland of artisanal cheesemakers, it seems downright ungrateful to not reach for one of the North Bay’s great homegrown cheeses.

We like the tang of a cheddar and blue cheese. First choice is St. Jorge cheese from Santa Rosa’s Joe Matos Cheese Factory. It’s full-flavored and melts like a champ. Best is the trip out a dirt road to the no-frills creamery off Llano Road. This is the real deal. facebook.com/Joe-Matos-Cheese-Factory-1530291580548953.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. reigns supreme in the blue category. A generous crumble of the salty, funky goodness takes your burger to another level. Established in 2000, the farm and creamery is the heritage business of the Giacomini family, originally from Northern Italy. The cheese is made on a farm in West Marin, under the supervision of head cheesemaker Kuba Hemmerling, and is made with unpasteurized cow’s milk. For a punch of flavor, go for the Original Blue, the winner of many regional and nationwide awards. For a more delicate touch on your patty, opt for Bay Blue, a rustic, mildly moldy cheese reminiscent of Stilton. pointreyescheese.com.

Pick a Pickle

Hey, we’re pretty much regular folks, just like the next red-blooded American on a fixed North Bay income, and we’re not the type to turn our noses up at adequate supermarket-aisle dill pickles, or humble yellow mustard out of the squeeze-bottle, for that matter. But there’s no getting around it: Sonoma Brinery does bring out our inner topping snob—it is priced to do so, after all—and, in a moment of culinary punk-rock reminiscent of the late Anthony Bourdain, the company has us reaching for a square tub of their probiotic sauerkraut, too. Tell us where it says you can’t put sauerkraut on a hamburger? We’re headed to parts unknown in your honor, Tony. sonomabrinery.com.

Purists might claim that a quality patty needs no company, but we commoners know that condiments, pickles and additions just make a good hamburger better. At Pig in a Pickle, a full-flung barbecue spot in Corte Madera, smoked meats are the speciality. But condiments, barbecue sauces and pickles are made in-house and available to be taken home for your grill party, and chef Damon Stainbrook will even cater your backyard barbecue. Stainbrook is behind all of the creations, from the rubs to the pickles, and you can trust his judgment: among the chef’s career stints are a grill cook at barbecue-centric One Market Restaurant in San Francisco and a sous chef position under Thomas Keller at the iconic French Laundry.

At Pig in a Pickle, though, Stainbrook sticks to the basics and does it remarkably well. Start with the sauces, each inspired by a region from the South: there’s a Memphis-style sauce, a mustard sauce from South Carolina, a tangy North Carolina condiment and a habañero Alabama white sauce. Then, take home a few jars of pickles and maybe even a Marin Kombucha to cool yourself down before the hot sauces hit the burger. piginapickle.com.

Lettuce, Tomato, Onion

As we plunder our burger for its local source code, ingredient hackers on alert for the freshest local toppings, let us turn our attention to greenery as rendered at Big Mesa Farm, which offers 10 acres of organic industriousness where one can at once glamp and spend some time in the fields picking lettuce. A typically crispy cornucopia from Big Mesa includes the classic red leaf, and wee heads of crunchy little gem. Live a little and float a frond of each on your burger. Big Mesa sells around the North Bay, and their produce is in use at Farm Burger in San Anselmo, in case there was any question about burger-friendliness when it comes to Big Mesa lettuce. bigmesafarm.com.

Need more fresh goodness? Little Wing Farm is back in action after a devastating fire and now operates an honor-system farm stand in the shadow of Black Mountain along Pt. Reyes-Petaluma Road. See if proprietor Molly Myerson has some seasonal tomatoes or onions to round out the trifecta of vegetative toppings.

While it’s early in the season yet, be on the lookout for dry-farmed tomatoes from Santa Rosa’s Quetzal Farm. The stingy application of water means the tomatoes must dig deep for hydration. The result is an uncommonly intense, umami-loaded, beefy tasting tomato that is fantastic on a burger or great all by itself. localharvest.org/quetzal-farm-M3969.

Get Saucy

A burger slopped with spicy baked beans sounds good right about now, especially if it’s topped with smoked bacon and a few splashes of the hyper-local barbecue sauce Saucin’. This silky, tangy ‘cue sauce is courtesy of Santa Rosan Matt Werle, who’s also a California highway patrolman, family man and Overseer of the Family Grill. This is a family recipe, produced by a family business, available at Pacific Market and elsewhere. saucinsauces.com.

Now, for a no-nonsense, locally rendered hot sauce, any respectable grill-meister with an ear tuned to the diverse splendor of the North Bay has to go with Tia Lupita. The hot sauce is the labor of love of Tiburon’s Hector Salvidar, who named his sauce after his mother, and whose online business presence comes complete with the cheering hashtag #makehotsaucegreatagain. Salvidar, who hails from Sacramento by way of Mexico, offers his tongue-tickling tincture at Oliver’s Market and elsewhere around the region. tialupitahotsauce.com.

Fuel for the Fire

Charcoal and gas are fine, but given that the North Bay is wine and apple country, why not add the very essence of those signature crops to your cookout? Apple wood is a superior fuel for grilling burgers and just about anything else. Apple-wood grilled salmon is sublime. Grape wood, gathered from vine cuttings or an uprooted vine, excels as a smoking wood but is best for grilling.

As you serve an apple- or grape-wood grilled burger, ask your guests if they can pick up the taste of the North Bay. Finding a farmer who will sell you some wood is part of the fun.

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