Meet Georgia Manesis

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By Jade Shojaee

The lady behind the success of the Pinole Senior Center

This past Valentine’s day, the City of Pinole Senior Center hosted a luncheon like you’ve never seen a senior center host a luncheon; and it won’t be the first time. Some 200 people gathered to fill the center’s exquisitely dressed tables, and enjoy a house-cooked meal served by a team of enthusiastic volunteers.

“The big dining room is where the magic happens,” said Georgia Manesis, the center’s Food Program & Special Events Committee Chairperson. Manesis has been in charge of special events since late ‘92 after retiring from her successful career as a program analyst. “I have a grasp of the big picture,” Manesis said of her ability to throw magazine-worthy events at a humble Pinole facility. “We’re the only center in the area that cooks their own food.”

Manesis has been in charge of special events and fundraising for 20 years, but before that, she worked in the kitchen, and drove the seniors on “van trips.” “Once or twice we’ve been to Santa Cruz,” she said. “We’ve been to Jackson, I mean, we went long ways so I would drive all day. We have our favorite places to eat in Half Moon Bay. I drove us places that I’ve never been before, and I’ve lived in the Bay Area my whole life.”

“It’s a fabulous ride. We would usually plan a tour or something like a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Manesis. “We always did lunch. The trips got longer and longer and then we’d stop for ice cream on the way home.”

Manesis said that she had to stop driving the seniors when her Driver’s License became invalid in California (she now has an Idaho license) but that doesn’t stop her from driving back and forth to Idaho, to visit her daughter and the log cabin she is currently in the process of restoring. She also drives to Arizona to visit her sister, and boasted that she makes the entire trip in just one day. “I drive it in one day, I don’t know why you wouldn’t drive it in one day,” she said.

Aside from her love of road trips, Manesis has been ballroom dancing for about 25 years. “My Dad belonged to a dance club but my Mom did not like to go, so he taught my sisters and I how to dance.” When asked if she ever thinks about competing she said that it’s not something she has considered. “I probably could but that’s not fun to me,” she said. “I’d rather dance for the sheer enjoyment of dancing.” Manesis dances at the senior center where she said she has learned to lead because “there aren’t enough guys.”

For the time being, she is enjoying being the center’s resident party planner. This year’s Valentine’s Day event included a one-hour entertainment session hosted by Shirley Dourgasian, who will sing “karaoke style, and dress up for the occasion.” Over a chuckle, Manesis recalled that every Halloween, Dourgasian wears a cheerleader outfit, and regales the crowd with the story of how her mother “paid 52 bucks for this sweater, and by-god I’m getting her money’s worth.”

Music and comedy aside, the event featured a dinner of roast beef, dessert and salad. “I mean we really make it nice,” said Manesis. “A lot of people work lots of hours there, they work their butts off.”

Our budget for the center is $250,000, Manesis said that center really pulls their weight in fundraising events. According to Manesis, you can expect to find the seniors partying away almost once a month, in celebration of holidays varying from Christmas to Cinco de Mayo to St. Patrick’s Day.

According to Manesis, every third Sunday of the month the center hosts a pancake breakfast, at which local kids volunteer. “People’s grandchildren, the girls on a local middle school’s swim team, De Anza students, lots of kids just show up and say ‘hey do you need some help’.” Furthermore, and this may be a shock you, the center runs a library in which there are no late fees. In fact, you do not even have to check out the book. “Take whatever you want,” said Manesis, “nobody checks you in or out.”

The Pinole Senior Center can be found at 2500 Charles Avenue, and all (old and young) are welcome to join the festivities that are always taking place there.

Artisan Beer Bbq Brisket

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What you’ll need:

1 brisket

1 large onion cut into cubes

1 tablespoon garlic powder or 6 cloves fresh garlic

1 chopped celery

2 tablespoon of Monterey seasoned pepper

1 tablespoon of kosher salt

1 can of stout beet

8 ounces of bbq sauce (masterpiece has a nice smokey flavor)

¼ cup roasted red pepper, cut into thin strips

2 cups of warm water

1 tablespoon of chipotle mayonaise

1 lightly toasted brioche bun or sourdough bread

DIRECTIONS:

In  shallow baking pan place the brisket fat side up.  Place the onions and celery along the sides of the brisket.  Smoother the top of the brisket with the Monterey seasoned pepper mix, garlic powder (fresh garlic) and salt

Pour the beer on top of the brisket and let it marinate for at least an hour.

Heat up your oven at 225 degrees.  Add the water to the pan.  Add a sheet of foil and place in the oven and slow cook it for about 8 hours (check water level so as not to burn the brisket)

Take the brisket out of the oven, remove foil and discard onion (although I love them with my brisket.

Pour the bbq sauce over the brisket and let it stand for about 15 minutes.

Gentle toast the brioch bun,  spoon the chipotle mayonnaise onto the botton portion of the bun. Slice the brisket into thin slices and put onto the bun. Add the roasted red peppers and salad green if you choose.

Serve it with a nice glass of chilled dark brew and enjoy the rich taste of this melt in your mouth beer brisket  It is one of the most popular sandwiches at the Artisan Cafe.

Curbside Kitchen

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By Vickie Lewis

Filipino Inspired Gourmet, Served up the Good Ol’ American Way!

People who work in a profession about which they are passionate are among the luckiest in the world. They are motivated, they are eager, they are driven, and their energy and enthusiasm are contagious! These attributes perfectly describe brothers and co-partners of the Curbside Kitchen Gourmet Mobile Food Truck, Raynard and Russell Lozano, who are living out their desire to create and spread their love for Filipino food.  Based out of San Pablo, these two young men are making their mark throughout Contra Costa County, offering Filipino-inspired foods served American style, as a tribute to their culture and background.

Ray and Russell have always been fascinated by food (translation: they have an avid interest in eating!)  Born and raised in San Pablo into a traditional Filipino family, their mother worked at Nation’s Restaurants for many years. They spent many afternoons at Nations waiting for their mom to get off work, happily enjoying burgers, fries and shakes while doing their homework.  Russell loved to watch his mother cook at home from a very early age. When he was only seven years old, he expressed interest in learning to cook, and began serving as his mother’s “kitchen assistant.” As a teen, he expanded his love of cooking by working at local restaurants, and eventually enrolled in the Contra Costa College Culinary Arts Program, from which he graduated in 2012. Prior to the launch of Curbside Kitchen, Russell continued to hone his skills in the restaurant industry, and worked as a Sous Chef for Tina’s Place (Pinole), a Head Chef for the former Sala Restaurant (Hercules), and as a lead cook for Nordstrom’s in San Francisco, among other venues. For Curbside Kitchen, Russell is the primary cook and food preparation artist, and loves the flexibility and creativity that comes with owning his own business.

Raynard’s love of eating did not lead him to study Culinary Arts; instead his educational pursuits were in the areas of Socio-Economics and Urban Planning. These fields of study have proven to be invaluable to the brothers as they planned, launched, and continue to expand their gourmet food truck business. Ray works alongside Russell when Curbside Kitchen is on site, cooking and serving customers; however, his primary focus is on handling the many responsibilities and complexities of owning and operating the business. He handles most of the marketing and promotion of the Curbside Kitchen, and helps ensure that they are booked frequently at various locations throughout the local community and greater Contra Costa County.    

The Lozano brothers both graduated from college in the spring of 2012.  Driven by their desire to create and spread their love for food, “unbounded by the interests and influences of distanced restaurant owners and corporations”, they formed a partnership and a plan that would lead to their current endeavor .  In 2012, they purchased what used to be a gourmet Hot Dog Truck, and spent the next four years investing in upgrades and repairs that were essential to ensure reliable operation, as well as to promote their brand. The name “Curbside Kitchen” can be partially attributed to the four years that the truck sat “on the curb” while it was being refurbished! But Russell said the name was also selected because it describes the flexibility of their mobile business.

Curbside Kitchen officially celebrates its one year anniversary this month, having first launched in April 2016 outside of Barney McBears Beer Garden in El Cerrito (formerly Sky Lounge.) Their Grand Opening was well-attended by friends, family and supporters who had long looked forward to their launch.  Since that first day, Curbside Kitchen has debuted at many other locations throughout Contra Costa County, and has amassed loyal customers who seek out their location when they want to partake of gourmet Filipino cuisine at a reasonable price. Each week, a calendar of events/locations is posted on their website to make it easy to find the Curbside Kitchen.  Sometimes the truck is in two different locations on the same day, serving lunch until 2:00 and then serving dinner starting in the afternoons.  They have standing bookings at select locations, such as year-round “Off the Grid” food truck events, and at the Certified Farmer’s Market at the Richmond Civic Center every Friday from 11 – 2.  Local employers such as Kaiser (Richmond) and East Brother Brewing Company in Point Richmond often request Curbside Kitchen to park on-site for the convenience (and culinary delight) of their employees and customers. Finally, Curbside Kitchen is often present at local celebrations and festivals, such as the recent Hercules Bayfront Celebration. The Lozano brothers are certainly always on the go, and every day for them is a new experience!

Curbside Kitchen offers a selection of delicious menu items which are all affordably priced at $10 and under.  The standard menu includes favorites inspired by the recipes of their mother, but Russell also enjoys creating new recipes, which are often featured as “Specials”.  The Curbside Burger is one of the most popular items with Curbside Kitchen customers, billed as their signature Filipino inspired burger.  The sandwich is comprised of an Angus beef patty (ground chuck) blanketed with tocino (Filipino bacon), melted Monterey Jack cheese, marinated onions, served on a bed of arugula, achara slaw (carrots and daikon), sliced tomato, and house aioli on a toasted bun. When we visited Curbside Kitchen for dinner at “Off the Grid” in El Cerrito, my guest ordered the Curbside Burger and was thoroughly delighted with the taste! The meat was tender and juicy and had a delicious flavor, and the bun was fresh and soft. The sandwich was piled high with the accompaniments, and my guest loved the freshness of the combined flavors. When asked about the wonderful flavor of the burger meat, Ray informed me that it is marinated in garlic and soy sauce before cooking.  No wonder it is a customer favorite!

I tried the “Curb-bahn mi” sandwich, made with traditional Filipino adobo, which is slow-cooked, pulled pork shoulder meat. This $9 sandwich includes melted Monterey Jack cheese, bean sprouts and cilantro, served on a bed of achara slaw, cucumber, and house aioli on a toasted bun.  Once again, the sandwich was stacked high with ingredients, including a generous portion of adobo, which is the national Filipino meat dish. The flavor of the meat was excellent, and the combination of flavors of the other items really enhanced the sandwich. So often, pulled pork sandwiches are made with just the meat and the bun, which can be rather boring.  But this sandwich, with the sprouts and other condiments, not to mention the savory flavor of the pork, was a real treat.

My guest and I also shared another of the Curbside Kitchen’s best-selling menu items – the Sidewalk Fries. The fries are sold separately for $7 and are well worth every penny!  These are not your standard French Fries; these are crispy, shoestring fries tossed in a spicy tamarind seasoning, topped with generous amounts of tocino (Filipino bacon), Monterey Jack cheese, house aioli, green onions, and cilantro. The fries are reminiscent of McDonald’s fries (but better!) and one order is enough for at least two people to share. Ray and Russell are very liberal with the toppings for the fries, which make this side dish substantial enough to be a meal in itself!  My guest and I eagerly consumed the fries which, like the sandwiches, had a wonderful blended flavor.  Suffice to say that the Sidewalk Fries are a must when you visit Curbside Kitchen.

What would a Filipino food truck be without Lumpia?  I have never met a person who has tried lumpia and didn’t like it. For those who aren’t familiar, lumpia are crisply fried Filipino egg rolls.  But the lumpia sold by the Curbside Kitchen is not just any lumpia—these are “Mom’s Lumpia”!  Yes, Mom still personally makes these hand-filled and hand-rolled eggrolls for her sons’ business. Russell said that he just hasn’t been successful in replicating his mother’s lumpia recipe.  He also said that she is much faster at rolling the eggrolls than he is, and she is happy to be able to contribute to the success of Curbside Kitchen.  Lumpia are made with various combinations of vegetable and meat fillings; but I must say that these lumpia are among the best I have ever eaten!  Made with ground pork and shrimp, the eggrolls also include minced carrots, water chestnuts, and green onions.  An order of lumpia is $5 and consists of four pieces, served with a delicious sweet chili dipping sauce. My guest and I shared an order of lumpia, in addition to the Sidewalk Fries and our sandwiches.  We both agreed that our meals were extremely filling and satisfying!

There are two other sandwiches on the standard Curbside Kitchen menu—the Curbside Chicken sandwich, and the Mushroom Melt, a vegetarian option made with Portobello mushroom and tofu.  The evening we visited, there was also a featured special—Filipino Street Tacos (2 for $5.00).  A variety of bottled waters, sodas and juices are also available, including a Peruvian and a Salvadoran soda selection. They hope to offer traditional Filipino beverages in the future.

Please change this to read “Russell and Raynard prepare most of the food for Curbside Kitchen at a local commercial kitchen. Although most items are cooked to order on the truck, certain items, like the Filipino adobo, require cooking offsite so that it can simmer for hours to achieve the desired flavor and tenderness.  Curbside Kitchen is also available to cater events, and recently catered a local roundtable meeting for Richmond Mayor, Tom Butt.  A separate catering menu available, but the brothers are willing to work with clients to customize menu offerings for their events. Catering can be done directly from the truck which can be brought onsite for an event; alternatively, large batches of food can be prepared and set up buffet style on location.  Those interested in exploring catering options with Curbside Kitchen should contact Raynard at 628-400-3840.

These two young brothers are a dynamic duo who have wonderful business acumen and a keen desire to serve the community where they were raised and which they love.  They are among a group of community leaders and associations that have joined together to introduce “The Food Emporium,” Richmond’s very own version of “Off the Grid,” where food trucks, musicians, and artists come together to create a family-friendly community event.  Spearheaded by community leader, Cesar Zepeda, the first Food Emporium launched in October 2016, and the next event will be held April 30th at Hilltop Lake Park.  This will be a great opportunity to go and check out Curbside Kitchen and enjoy an afternoon of fun, enjoyment, and most importantly, good food!

You’re sure to see more of these young businessmen as Curbside Kitchen continues to gain more exposure and grows in popularity.  And within the next few years, Russell and Raymond may launch a second food truck, offering a different, but equally enticing, type of menu. Their long term (5 year) plan includes opening a brick and mortar restaurant within the local area. Raynard’s and Russell’s drive and enthusiasm, and willingness to work hard to make their dreams a reality, are admirable qualities that are rare in today’s world.  I encourage you to seek out Curbside Kitchen to try some great Filipino-inspired gourmet food, and to support this local small business.  Don’t forget to check out Curbsidekitchen.us to find upcoming locations near you.

3300 Giant Road, San Pablo  |   (628) 400-3840   |   curbsidekitchen.us

Facebook: CSKitchen  |  Instagram: curbside.kitchen  |  Twitter: CSideKitchen

A LITTLE HARBOR HISTORY

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By Matt Larson

A who, what, when regarding the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor.

Many tales have been told about the Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor and we’d like to set the record straight once and for all. We couldn’t do so without the knowledge of Bonny Dunn, Vice Commodore of the San Pablo Bay Sportsmen’s Club. Dunn is 1 of about 35 people living there at the harbor. There’s 10 floating homes and about 30 boats, though many of them never move.

“It’s a pretty abandoned looking place,” said Dunn. But it’s still very active! The sportsmen’s club has around 30 members. Halibut, sturgeon, leopard shark and striped bass are among the prized catches in these parts. The club just celebrated their 50th anniversary on March 11th.

There’s always been a connection with ferry boats and the Point San Pablo Harbor, but it’s never served as a ferry terminal. So what’s with the rumors? Well it all began in 1939 with a man who went by Captain Clark. He was the brainchild behind a ferry service out of Castro Point in Richmond that went to San Rafael and back. He noticed many fishermen gravitating to where the harbor is today, and it was he who decided to create the breakwater for the marina.

Creating a breakwater/levee is no easy task. However, and it was also pretty expensive, so the resourceful Captain Clark attained several condemned wooden schooners, towed them into position where he wanted the borders of the breakwater, and sunk them. Over the years these ships have been built over and are no longer functioning as the breakwater, but that’s how it all began!

Under new ownership as of December last year, ferry rumors may be coming back now, so let’s clear them up before they start. Rob Fyfe, Founder and CEO of Point San Pablo, Inc., has plans to create all sorts of camping, glamping, and retreat-like opportunities at the harbor. He’s also the founder and partner of PropSF (www.propsf.net) which is a private/charter—and soon to be  public—ferry service, which may or may not be eventually storing their ferries at the harbor. So that’s the newest ferry connection.

It seems there’s plenty underway at the harbor here. We’ll try and keep you posted with any updates that come our way.  For more information go to spbsc.org or call (510) 730-1790.

A Cultivated Community – West County is more agriculturally inclined than meets the eye.

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By Matt Larson

With so much going on in West County and so little space to cover even half of the tremendous efforts put forth my members of our community to make this an even greater place to live, we wanted to look back to last year’s inaugural Urban Garden Contest and Showcase spearheaded by Richmond’s own Mayor Tom Butt.

As an avid gardener himself, the mayor understands firsthand the wide range of benefits that come from gardening. With local horticultural nonprofits like West County DIGS and popular events like the Bring Back the Natives Garden Tour, as well as many Richmond residents proudly cultivating their own home gardens, Mayor Butt was confident they could find enough local interest to support the Urban Garden Contest and Showcase in Richmond. And he was right!

12 amazing gardens ended up participating in the inaugural event during July 4th weekend, 2016. Many visitors who attended were excited to start their own garden, or improve what they’ve started, and were able to ask questions about new crops they were considering. Growing edible crops is not only a replenishing source of healthy food, but a form of recreation as well with some very tasty rewards. The mayor’s office stated that as they grow this event, they’d like to see more novice gardeners, and future first-time gardeners, to get down and dirty and start planting some crops.

First prize went to Lauren and Attila Horvath whose garden featured apples, pears, peaches, figs, blueberries, grapes, carrots, peppers, kaffir limes, tree collards … basically they’re cultivating their own personal farmers’ market. “The gardens were as unique as the various neighborhoods they were in,” said Mayor Butt. “Having several areas represented proved that you can have a great edible garden anywhere in Richmond.”

On the surface level, this event was designed to encourage more local residents to grow home gardens, and to help avid gardeners connect with their neighbors and learn about local resources. The general drive of the event was to promote healthy eating, self-sufficiency, neighborhood beautification, and community building. On a slightly deeper level though, the mayor also wanted to pay homage to Richmond’s edible gardening tradition of growing what were called Victory Gardens during World War II, when gardening was a common part of everyday life.

Winners and runners-up of the event were gifted prizes from event sponsors such as Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, Acapulco Rock & Soil, The Watershed Nursery, and The Urban Farmer Store, in case you needed some direction on where to get some tips and tricks, and supplies, for your own home garden. Urban Tilth, another sponsor of the event, has been cultivating agriculture via school and community gardens in West County since 2005 in pursuance of creating a local food system. They recently celebrated the opening of their North Richmond Farm—a project 4 years in the making that’s now located at the corner of Fred Jackson Way and Brookside Drive—which, according to the mayor’s office, will greatly expand the community’s access to local food crops.

By now some of you may be wondering when registration for the 2nd Annual Urban Garden Contest and Showcase begins … we hate to disappoint you but there’s been no such announcement at this writing. What we can tell you is that they’re excited to do it again, and look forward to collaborating with more nonprofits, schools, and community organizations as the event begins to grow.

Until then, there’s plenty of opportunities to get involved with the local horticultural community, and to become part of it yourself! Refer to the sponsors mentioned above to find all the supplies you need for your new garden. Maybe check out what’s going on with Urban Tilth and their new North Richmond Farm; find them on Facebook or visit www.UrbanTilth.org. The next Bring Back the Natives Garden Tour, which is currently seeking volunteers, will be featuring 30 gardens throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties on May 7th; for more information visit www.bringingbackthenatives.net. And, of course, if you’d like to inquire about Richmond’s next Urban Garden Contest and Showcase, send Mayor Butt an email at mayor@ci.richmond.ca.us

Artisan Crab Salad Sandwich

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by Liane Ingham

Serves one.

1 teaspoon of spicy brown mustard

1 teaspoon of mayonnaise

1 tablespoon of sweet chili sauce

1 tablespoon of finely chopped celery

1 tablespoon of finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons of cilantro

6 ounces of crab meat

1 beef steak tomato cut into slices

¼ cup roasted red pepper, cut into thin strips

1 lightly toasted brioche bun or sourdough bread

In a mixing bowl, combine the spicy mustard, mayonnaise and sweet chili sauce. Next, add the celery and onions.  Gently fold in the crab meat, separating it slightly with the mixing spoon.  For the perfect finish, add the chopped cilantro, salt and pepper to taste.  Spoon the mixture onto a lightly toasted brioche bun, top with two slices of beef steak tomato and a few strips of roasted red pepper.

Since we are still in crab season here in the Bay Area and there is nothing better than a crab salad sandwich. This is one of my favorite recipes, one that I developed over many years.  I wanted to create an explosive flavor, – one that complimented the delicate taste of fresh dungerness crab not something that would over power it.  After experimenting with many different ingredients, I’ve come up with something that is a bit sweet and a bit spicy and completely complimentary to the fresh crab.  This sandwich will delight! Serve it with a nice glass of chilled Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc.  It is one of the most popular sandwiches at the Artisan Cafe.

ZAIQA INDIAN-PAKISTANI CUISINE

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By Vickie Lewis

Visiting new restaurants and trying different types of cuisine is almost always an enjoyable experience for me. But I consider it a bonus when I also get the opportunity to learn a little about the history and culture of the country from which the food originates. Such was my experience when my guest and I visited Zaiqa Indian and Pakistani Restaurant, one of the newest dining establishments in Hercules. Zaiqa’s owners, Chris Nazir and Ron Vincent, graciously spent time sharing information with us about India and Pakistan, the language, cuisine and culture. When our visit ended, I felt infinitely more educated than when we arrived.

Zaiqa opened on June 15, 2016 in the location formerly occupied by Biryani House restaurant. Owners Ron and Chris also own Mehran Indian and Pakistani Restaurant in Pittsburg where they have successfully operated for the past eleven years. Their newest venture is modeled similarly to Mehran, boasting the same menu items and recipes, catering services, excellent customer service and overall commitment to quality.

Ron and Chris were both born and raised In Pakistan and came to the United States in 1990 and 1998 respectively. They became acquainted through familial ties (their wives are cousins!) and have known each other for just under twenty years. Both men previously worked in very important and interesting jobs in diverse professions within “corporate America”. When they decided to pursue opening their own business, they were fortunate to have the support and direction of a close family friend who has owned and operated Mehran Indian and Pakistani Restaurant and Catering in Fremont for the past forty years.  Although neither had previous restaurant or culinary experience, their business acumen combined with the training, guidance, and backing from their mentor led to the opening of their Mehran franchise in Pittsburg. And the success of that business over the last decade has now led to the opening of Zaiqa.

The word “Zaiqa” means “taste” in Urdu, the Pakistani language. And I can assure you that every item that my guest and I were fortunate to sample during our visit was extremely tasty and flavorful! One of the first questions I asked was about the pairing of Indian and Pakistani food. Being geographically challenged about areas outside the Americas, I wondered if the India and Pakistan were neighboring countries. Ron and Chris explained that the two countries were previously one country known as Hindustan, until India gained independence from the English in 1947. Thereafter, the two countries split into India and Pakistan. The cuisines of the two countries are extremely similar, with one major difference being that Indian dishes do not include beef primarily due to religious reasons.

Zaiqa’s menu boasts a varied assortment of appetizers and entrees in the following groupings: Tandoori, Exquisite Curries, Lamb/Goat Curries, Vegetarian, Paneer, Seafood Delicacies, Rice Dishes, and Clay Oven Bread/Roti. One of the most popular attractions at Zaiqa is their All You Can Eat Daily Lunch Buffet, which features rotating selections from the menu. Each day, the buffet features ten items—four meat or seafood dishes, four vegetarian dishes, and two rice selections. In addition, there are always two appetizer selections (1 meat and 1 veggie selection), two desserts, unlimited tea, and unlimited fresh plain Naan delivered to the diners’ tables once they’ve chosen their items from the buffet table. The lunch buffet is available beginning at 11:00 AM daily, and continues until 3:00 PM on weekdays and until 4:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. All of this is available at the nominal cost of only $10.99. We’re told that the restaurant is very busy during daily lunch hours as diners avail themselves to this excellent offer! Zaiqa also offers take-out and delivery options, and online orderings is also available.

Fortunately, when it was time to eat, our hosts ordered a delightful array of items from the menu for us to try, saving us the quandary of having to decide what to choose from the long list of options available   As we continued our discussion with the owners, Zaiqa manager, Richard, and assistant manager, Siana, graciously brought a seemingly steady stream of food to our table. We started with a hot, flavorful cup of Chai tea, which is made with cardamom seeds and steamed milk, and had a sweetish, creamy flavor. Next, we were served an appetizer sampler which included small portions of Fish Pakora, Vegetable Pakora, and a Vegetable Samosa. “Pakora” refers to something being fried, and we learned that the “coating” on the Pakora is made of chickpea powder. The appetizers were served with house-made mint and tamarind sauces. The mint sauce is made with mint, cilantro and green chiles, and so had a bit of spiciness to it. The tamarind was also very good, and was even better when mixed with the mint sauce for dipping. The Fish Pakora was a moist, white fish fried crisply in vegetable oil. The Vegetable Pakora was a medley of small pieces of fried spinach, onions, cauliflower and potatoes.   The Samosa was a triangular fried pastry, generously stuffed with peas and potato filing. All three of these appetizers were enjoyable, both with and without the dipping sauces.

Our next samples were lamb and chicken kababs, served off the skewers on a sizzling platter garnished with onion, cilantro and lime wedges. Four generous pieces of chicken breast meat cooked to perfection awaited us, as well as three tubular shaped lamb kabobs. While neither my guest nor I typically eat lamb, I had never had the opportunity to try it prepared this way. Not surprisingly, both meats were quite delectable! The chicken was spiced to perfection, giving it an orange outer color, and was very moist and tender. The lamb kebabs reminded me a bit of meat loaf, as the meat was mixed with onions, cilantro, mint, and green chiles. Again, they were moist and tender and I liked it so much, I even had seconds! The meat did not taste like lamb I had eaten before; I wouldn’t have even known it was lamb if I hadn’t been told that it was.

Although we were already getting full, our host and hostess brought out the three main entrees for our tasting. These included Zaiqa’s best-selling dish, Chicken Tikka Masala; Vegetable Biryani, and Karahi Chicken. Zaiqa’s goat entrees are rank among their best sellers, so we were even served a small sample of Goat Korma, which is goat cooked in chef’s special sauce. The highlight of the evening was the basket of warm, freshly baked Naan—a mixture of plain and garlic flavored. Together, these items were a veritable feast and everything was presented beautifully and tasted marvelous—even the goat! In spite of being somewhat reluctant, my guest and I both tried the goat and found it to be quite delicious. It was tender, and seemed to have a light, “young” flavor. We learned that the Masala sauce served with the chicken is a special tomato based sauce that can be universally served with any type of meat, fish, or vegetables. We also learned that Biryani refers to anything cooked and mixed with rice, and Ron and Chris explained the Biryani preparation process to us. It is quite humbling to hear about the great efforts that go into the preparation of the Indian and Pakistani food, and to learn of all of the spices and natural ingredients that are combined to create the wonderful flavors we enjoyed. An excellent house-made yogurt sauce/dip made with cucumbers, called Raita, was served to accompany the Biyrani. My favorite of the entrees was the Karahi Chicken, cooked with tomatoes, green chili and spices, while my guest’s favorite was the Chicken Tikka Masala. Everything had such a good flavor, and the spiciness of the food, while not “hot” to the taste, certainly opened up my sinuses!

Chris and Ron are fortunate to have wonderful chefs working for them at both of their restaurants and for their catering jobs. Our chef for the evening, Baldev Singh, is a pure vegetarian for religious reasons, and so cannot eat or even taste any of the meat or chicken dishes he prepares. In spite of this, his ability to prepare the dishes with just the right amount of spices and flavorings is seemingly flawless!

Zaiqa appears to be a small restaurant from the outside; but what isn’t apparent is that the owners also have an entire banquet room next door that is for their use. This banquet room holds up to 150 guests and is available for most any kind of events. If desired, Zaiqa will provide the catering for events held in their banquet room; alternatively, the room can be rented, and patrons can bring in their own food and beverages. Zaiqa has a number of different catering menus available in addition to offering Indian-Pakistani food choices. For example, they have an Afghani menu (food is prepared by an Afghani chef); and an international menu, which also includes American options such as Roasted Chicken and Tri-Tip; and they even have full breakfast and continental breakfast catering options.   All banquet costs are charged on a per-person basis and are calculated based on the cuisine and services rendered. Zaiqa is a “one-stop” catering shop, and can provide, coordinate, or assist with almost any arrangements or services required for a successful event. They can provide table linens, assist with decorating, and will provide all serving staff, including a bartender if required.   The banquet room also comes equipped with a projector and screen available for use for any event.   They can provide event lighting, and even have an in-house DJ available who plays a versatile repertoire of music. For those who are looking for specialized services such as make-up artists, photographers, videographers, or limousine service, Chris and Ron can also provide referrals to resources they’ve used previously who are dependable and reliable. Informationally, a larger banquet room is available in Pittsburg, which is affiliated with their Mehran restaurant, and has a capacity of 300 guests. The same food and service options are available at both locations.

But wait—there’s more! Zaiqa not only provides catering in their own banquet room, but their staff is also available to provide catering services at other locations and venues. For example, if you’d like to hold your event in a park, at a local community hall, or even in your own backyard, Zaiqa will bring their portable clay ovens and do all the cooking on-site for your event, and can still assist with all the same coordination and arrangements mentioned above. For outdoor activities, they can even provide tents, if desired. So, the next time you’re planning an event, add Zaiqa to your list of caters to check out. They have years of experience with all types of events—weddings, Quincineras, graduation parties, memorial services, and even business meetings or conferences. Their experienced staff will ensure that all details are expertly handled. If you’re interested, contact Chris Nazir or Ron Vincent for further details and banquet menus.

To end our visit, my guest and I were treated to a Mango Lassi, a traditional drink which is essentially a yogurt-based milkshake/smoothie; and a bowl of Kheer, a traditional rice pudding dessert, topped with crushed pistachio nuts. Both were the perfect end to our meal. In summary, if you’re looking for a good new local venue, be sure to stop by Zaiqa for lunch or dinner any day of the week to try out their excellent cuisine. The restaurant is intimate, but clean, pleasant, and nicely decorated with good lighting. Plenty of parking is available in the strip mall where they are located. And if you happen to go during the busy lunch hours, don’t worry—the banquet room can accommodate overflow seating! Zaiqa was recently nominated for the KQED show “Check, Please!”, where Bay Area guests explore local café culture. Be sure to watch for them in an upcoming episode. In the meantime, take time to visit and check Zaiqa out for yourself!

848 Willow Avenue, Hercules | (510) 313-0697 | zaiqahercules.com

Labor of Love

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By Matt Larson

Jim Hammack, board member for a local Boys & Girls Club, has just earned a seat on their national council.

You may be plenty familiar with the Boys & Girls Club of El Sobrante by now, but we’d like to take it a step further to introduce you to Jim Hammack, a past president of the club and one of their current board members who was just recently appointed to be one of 15 representatives to sit on the National Area Council Committee (NACC) for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA).

He’s been in a similar position before as chair of the Northern California Area Council for BGCA, representing the voice of 45 clubs from Fresno to Tahoe to Chico and back, but the NACC serves as a conduit between 54 area councils representing more than 4,100 clubs that impact nearly 4 million children and teens. Hammack first got involved with the BGC of El Sobrante in April 2008 when he was working for Charles Schwab. “They have a nationwide partnership with BGCA to teach a financial literacy program called Money Matters, so I taught that class to some of the kids,” he said. The class included talking about things like how to read your paycheck, checking accounts, credit cards, stocks, and he even took them to an actual bank vault.

“Part of the BGCA goal is to give kids an experience that they’re not normally going to see, to show them the possibilities of what’s out there,” he said. Something about that experience stuck, as he is still heavily involved with the club 8 years later.

Now the Founder and CEO of Nerd Crossing, an IT and web company with offices in El Sobrante and Walnut Creek, he still manages to give his all to the Boys & GirlsClubs. “We’re getting much more out of it than we put into it,” said Hammack, whose wife, Lisa, is also a fellow board member. “Whenever we walk through the doors of the Club and see those smiling faces, it gives us great joy and happiness, and makes us realize we’re part ofsomething bigger.” Hammack tells us that there’s currently about 11 million kids across the country who are left unsupervised during after school hours. “They need a place to go,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re at risk for getting into trouble. So that’s what we hope to do, provide that safe positive place for kids.” He refers to the Great Futures 2025 plan, a nationwide strategy that plans to double the amount of kids served by Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, by the year 2025. Part of his input on the NACC will be pushing to bring Boys & Girls Club services to the students, instead of making them have to find transport tothe clubs. In addition, Hammock is also a part of a task force to explore the possibility of unitying the El Sobrante and Martinez clubs into one county-wide organtization. It is likely the merger will occur sometime this month.

“A lot of our growth has been from bringing services to kids,” Hammack explains. “The most likely partnership is with the school districts. We also have programs that are at military bases, at housing projects, on Native American reservations … we’re serving 4 million but there’s still 11 million that are unsupervised, so we need to make a bigger dent in that number and bring these programs to kids.”

The three tenants of BGCA, that are applied to every one of their kids, are: Academic Success, Character and Leadership, and Healthy Lifestyles. “These are issues that are effecting kids everywhere,” says Hammack. “There are kids across all spectrums that are suffering from these same challenges. BGCA is the premier youth organization that is really focused on addressing these issues.”

If you’d like to get involved, with or without a child of your own, Hammack highly recommends it. “I’ve lived in this area for about 16 years,” he said. “It wasn’t until 2008 that I really got to know my neighbors and my community.” If you have the time, volunteers are always welcome at the BGC of El Sobrante. From tutoring to leading cooking classes to helping in the computer lab to refereeing basketball games, even serving on a committee and helping with fundraising events, there is plenty of fulfilling work to be done. So follow in Hammack’s footsteps and support your local Boys & Girls Club. For El Sobrante visit http://www.bgcelsobrante.org, for everywhere else head to http://www.bgca.org.

La Strada Ristorante Italiano – Authentic Italian Cuisine Close to Home!

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By Vickie Lewis

When you’re in the mood for a fine dining experience without traveling far from home, La Strada Italian Restaurant in San Pablo is a superb choice for West County residents.  Conveniently located at the corner of Church Lane and San Pablo Avenue, near San Pablo City Hall, La Strada offers an extensive variety of Italian dishes presented in the traditional multi-course Italian style, served in a casual, yet elegant, atmosphere. Owner, Martino Gonzalez, and his staff are consummate hosts, and will welcome you warmly and provide excellent service that will make you want to return again and again.

My guest and I visited La Strada on a Friday evening around 7:00 PM.  Although both of us had eaten there before, neither of us could remember the last time we’d visited nor what we’d previously ordered.  After snagging a coveted parking place in the front parking lot, we entered the restaurant which was humming with the voices of the many diners within, and servers bustling around to tend their needs.  We were greeted by a very gracious hostess who invited us to have a seat near the entry until a table became available.  As we waited, we noticed several esthetic changes had been made to the restaurant interior since the last time either of us had visited; such as the gazebo-like entry-way adorned with foliage leading into the dining area. We also noticed the pleasant, comfortable ambience of the dining room where guests were obviously enjoying themselves. Although every table was full and there were several rather large parties, the atmosphere was not at all chaotic. Within less than ten minutes, we were greeted warmly by owner, Martino, who welcomed us, showed us to our table and made us feel right at home.

The dining tables are adorned with red and white linen tablecloths and napkins, and the servers are uniformly dressed in black slacks and white shirts.  The dining room is bi-level, and each room has a generous amount of table seating, and both are spacious enough to accommodate large groups of guests.  A large sign that says “Cucina” identifies the kitchen area, and there are beautiful chandeliers and ambient lighting throughout.  A full cozy bar is nestled near the back of the upper dining room. The interior décor features lovely archways and pillars, reminiscent of Italian architecture, and stylish arched windows adorned with wooden shutters.  Beautiful paintings and several large hand-painted murals of the Tuscan countryside decorate the restaurant walls.  The traditional look and feel of this Italian ristorante is surpassed only by its authentic Italian culinary offerings.

La Strada’s menu is divided into multiple course selections—Antipasti & Pizza, Insalate & Zuppa, Prima Piatti, and Secondi Piatti (Translation: Appetizers and Pizza; Salad & Soup, First Course, and Second Course.)  While soup and salad is not included with first or second course selections, either may be added for only a $2.00 upcharge. As we looked over the many choices on the menu, our waiter, Albano, introduced himself and took our drink orders.  Although La Strada has a robust wine menu, my guest and I were more intrigued by the featured cocktails. I ordered an Italian Margarita, which was made with Amaretto; and my guest ordered an Island Margarita, was made with tropical juices.  Both drinks were nice variations of traditional margaritas; however, I preferred the milder taste of the Italian drink (with the sugared rim), over the tropical drink, which had a stronger alcohol flavor.

From over a dozen traditional Italian appetizers, including such favorites as Bruschetta, Carpaccio, Calamari Fritti, and Mozzarella Caprese, we decided to order the Crostini–toasted breads topped with pesto, prosciutto, and mozzarella cheese. We both enjoyed the crunchiness of the toasted breads, and the delicious cheesy pesto flavor. We each ate two Crostini, and also indulged in the fresh bread and olive oil dipping sauce served with all meals. We were tempted to try another appetizer, but refrained to ensure we saved room for our dinner entrees.

We skipped the “first course” menu items, although there were many wonderful choices available—ravioli, fettuccine, lasagna, risotto, cannelloni, linguini, and gnocchi—each described as being prepared with homemade sauces, fresh vegetables, and/or various types of meat or seafood.  The menu includes nearly two dozen “Prima Piatti” selections to please even the most discerning palates!  But we opted for entrees from the “Secondi Piatti” menu, which also boasts such a wide array of wonderful selections, it was difficult to choose just one entree!  Some of the selections we considered included the Salmone, served with Lemon Dill or Picatta sauce; Bistecca alla Fiorentina, grilled angus rib-eye steak with peppercorn or herb butter; and Gamberi alla Bordolese, prawns with fresh tomatoes, white wine and garlic. Veal and lamb entrees are also available, as well as eggplant, and even a good ole’ La Strada Cheeseburger for the staunch traditionalists! I selected the Braciola di Maiale, a French-cut pork chop, stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese, cooked in a cherry wine reduction sauce. I requested to substitute the mashed potatoes for creamy polenta (since you can’t often order polenta in this area!), and was pleased to learn that the entree also included sautéed spinach. I also ordered a cup of La Strada’s home made minestrone soup. My guest ordered a side salad and opted for one of the evening’s special entrees, Red Snapper, topped with fresh tomatoes and capers, and served with mashed potatoes and vegetables.

The salad was a typical mixed green salad with shredded carrots and tomato. The minestrone soup was excellent, filled with large chunks of vegetables, including cabbage, celery, and potato, and it had a somewhat spicy flavor—very enjoyable! When our meals arrived, we were pleased with the overall presentation and portions.  Albano garnished our entrees with fresh black pepper and fresh mozzarella cheese, and then left us to enjoy our meals.  My guest’s meal included four or five generous pieces of tender and delicious red snapper, cooked and seasoned to perfection.  My stuffed pork chop was thick, and the stuffing in the center was delicious, (though perhaps a bit sparse!) The cherry wine reduction sauce gave the pork chop a slightly sweet flavor and added to the moistness of the meat. The creamy polenta was divine, and I also enjoyed the very tender mound of sautéed spinach. My guest took home a small portion of her meal, but I confess that I happily cleaned my plate!

As business slowed toward the end of the evening, Martino joined us to share a bit of history about La Strada, which celebrated its twenty-year anniversary in July 2016. As I indulged in the best Tiramisu I’ve eaten since visiting Italy, and my guest enjoyed a decadent piece of Chocolate Fondant Cake, Martino told us the story of how he and his partner started the restaurant and built this wonderful local business over the past two decades.

As a young man, Martino worked for many years as a busboy and waiter at La Felce, formerly a famous North Beach restaurant that served five course Italian meals.  While there, he took the initiative to learn as much as he could about the business, and was embraced as family by his employers who encouraged him and gave him the opportunities to learn.  He later pursued accounting and tax preparation, and landed a good job working for UC Berkeley in 1993. At that time, Martino lived in Richmond, and for over a year, drove past the empty storefront that now houses La Strada. The location had previously been a coffee shop, and later VP’s Lounge, both of which were out of business. One day, he and his brother-in-law, Adrien Munoz, inquired about leasing the location, and all the pieces fell into place!  They leased the building in April 1996, and after a lot of hard work, opened La Strada (which means “The Road”) just three months later on July 24th.  The rest, as they say, is history! Leveraging his learnings from working at La Felce, and with support and encouragement from his former employers, Martino and Adrien launched a very successful Italian restaurant that has become a pillar in West County. Six years later, the owners opened a second La Strada location in Napa, which recently celebrated its fourteenth anniversary.  Adrien primarily runs the business in Napa, and Martino is primarily responsible for the San Pablo location.

La Strada in San Pablo is fortunate to have a number of long-term employees who know their customers, and make dining here very “homey.” In addition to Martino, who can converse with customers in fluent Italian, other long term employees include general manager, Peter Lampert; our server, Albano; Terry and Mark, who serve and bartend.  Most importantly, two of the cooks have worked at La Strada for seventeen years, helping to provide a consistent culinary experience to their customers.  Not only is La Strada a wonderful place to dine, but the owners are extremely active in charitable community events.  Martino shared that he enjoys helping and supporting local organizations, and frequently donates gift certificates to organizations such as the Soroptimists, Rotarians, Boys and Girls Club, local schools, and too many others to list here!  Martino currently lives in Hercules with his wife, Christina, and his two daughters, Isabella (14) and Elizabeth (12).

For me, La Strada conjures fond memories of a number of special celebrations I’ve enjoyed there over the years—Christmas parties, my daughter’s graduation party, and my grandmother’s 94th birthday celebration. Each and every time, we enjoyed great food and service, and a welcoming, unrushed atmosphere which made each event that much more enjoyable. In addition to the spacious dining areas, La Strada also has a downstairs banquet room that holds 85 to 100 guests, and is booked frequently for parties, weddings, business meetings, and more.  You’ll also want to check out La Strada’s special events for holidays and other occasions, such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day and Mother’s Day.

So, the next time you’re looking for a nice restaurant to enjoy an excellent Italian lunch or dinner with friends or family, or if you are celebrating a special occasion, check out La Strada in San Pablo.  I’m confident you’ll enjoy not only your meals, but also the atmosphere, and the welcoming and friendly staff who are eager to serve you.  And if you see Martino, congratulate and thank him for bringing to West County a wonderful and authentic Italian restaurant that we can enjoy close to home. Buon Appetito!

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The Sky is Not the Limit – BANDALOOP dance company reimagines dance and changes perspectives

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By Matt Larson  

Photo Credit: Roel Seeber

The art of dance has been redefined. As has the art of climbing. In a beautiful collaboration of the two, you have the awe-inspiring spectacle that is BANDALOOP. And they’re based right here in Oakland! Imagine looking up at a skyscraper, or a high-rise parking garage, or a cliff in Yosemite, to see it adorned with graceful dancers, harnessed in mid-air, that elegantly choreograph breathtaking performances sometimes hundreds of feet above ground.

A pioneer in vertical dance performances, BANDALOOP has been inspiring audiences ‘round the world since 1991. “I’m a dancer who became a rock climber and that’s kind of how this all happened,” said Amelia Rudolph, Founder and Artistic Director of BANDALOOP. It was while climbing the Sierras when the moment of inspiration struck: what would dance look like in a mountain environment like that? What began as an artistic experiment is now an internationally touring dance company going 25 years strong.

“BANDALOOP brings dance out of it’s traditional trappings of the theater and into a much more public space—like the Oakland City Hall—where anyone and everyone can get turned on to the art of dance,” Rudolph explains. “We make it expectable without dumbing it down. Intrigue with the height and the danger draw people to it, but ultimately they stay for the art.”

Rudolph has taken BANDALOOP to the farthest reaches of the earth and back, from Verona, Italy to Seoul, South Korea to Reykjavik, Ic eland and much, much more, including such historic landmarks as the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad, India and the Puebla Cathedral in Puebla, Mexico. Not to mention all the places across the United States they’ve gone. But they do keep it local as well. You may have just caught their Dec. 1st performance at the Great Wall of Oakland.

One of the greatest things about BANDALOOP transforming an aspect of your city into a performance venue is that it makes you look at that space a little differently. Rudolph describes BANDALOOP rehearsing and dancing on something as common as a parking garage. “No one’s ever noticed the back of this parking garage before,” she said. “Suddenly, it’s activated with this very dynamic and beautiful art form. It transforms the perception of that space.”

Such a response wasn’t necessarily one of Rudolph’s explicit intentions when starting the company, but it has evolved to be a central aspect contributing to the entire purpose of BANDALOOP. “Performing in an everyday space and causing an experience to be shared by a group of people is one of the most magical and powerful things that we do,” she says. “When you go back to that space, you kind of never see it the same way again. And, perhaps, you remember the sense of community that you had while taking in this performance.”

Rudolph has been performing with BANDALOOP for all of its 25 years. We asked her to try and explain what the experience of dancing, while suspended hundreds of feet above the ground, could possibly feel like. “It’s kind of like exquisite pain,” she says. “It takes a lot of strength in your core, your neck, and your back, to be able to dance or jump sideways. But at the same time, it’s the dream of flying that all of us have—soaring through the air, not having the constraints of gravity pulling on you—you actually experience that. It’s phenomenal.”

While the core company consists of about 8 dancers (and 4-5 technical/production staff), Rudolph offers workshops both locally and abroad, wherever they may be traveling, to give others a chance to share in the experience. Locally they work with Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, and also offer regular classes, camps and intensives in their Oakland studio. Plus, they offer corporate training events where co-workers can come together and experience something they most likely haven’t done before.

“Almost always, no one’s ever done this,” said Rudolph. “So everyone is put on the same level.” If your company is in need of some team building exercises, a BANDALOOP workshop is surely a great way to bring your co-workers out of their comfort zones. BANDALOOP instructs students as young as 7 years old in their summer camp, and the oldest person who’s done the workshop with them was 83. So it really is for everyone! Believe it or not.

70% of the time a BANDALOOP performance is free to the public; they still do regular theatrical performances on occasion. If you’re still curious what to expect when attending a BANDALOOP performance, Rudolph puts it like this: “When you see gravity and movement occurring in front of your eyes, in a way that doesn’t make sense to you, and it’s very graceful and beautiful and powerful, I think it can inspire your imagination and your sense of potential. That’s what we’re offering our audiences.”

To keep in touch with all that is BANDALOOP, search for them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram @bandalooping. For information on workshops and upcoming performances, call their studio at (415) 421-5667 or visit http://www.bandaloop.org.