By the time you read this, the menu may have changed a bit (see that tweaking thing, above). Sometimes the corn comes as esquite salad, in a toss of HoneyGem (a hybrid of romaine and butter lettuces), arugula, roasted corn, torpedo onion, cotija and creamy, searing spicy pequin chile dressing, for example. It makes it fun to stop in to see what’s new, and I appreciate that Schnell makes the menu a community project — he regularly posts social media updates on dishes-in-his-dreams, and asks for feedback (“Should we add something like this to our menu? Yay or nay?”).
Schnell also operates as pit master, manning the mesquite and oak-fired Argentine grill, and hickory fueled smokers. Pork shoulder is a consistent menu star, smoked for 14 to 16 hours, and it’s one of my favorites. It might arrive as toothsome, slightly sweet smoked and braised ropa vieja, marvelously spiced cochinita pibil capped with pickled red onions, habanero salsa and cilantro, or stuffed in Yucatan style tacos.
The current incarnation is delicious, too — garlicky, citrusy mojo pork is set atop warm corn tortillas and dolloped in Caribbean coleslaw ($9.95 for three), or as a Big Papi sandwich topped in Caribbean coleslaw, pickles, and just a hint of chipotle barbecue sauce so the good meat flavor shines through ($12.50).
The piri piri chicken is back on the menu now, happily. The thighs glisten with caramelized skin, cut in thick strips and served in various ways, as tacos with salty goat cheese and sweet pickled red onions ($9.95), as a sandwich on a toasted Portuguese bun with fries ($12.50), and as a Bodega bowl (($12.95) brimming with rice, Caribbean coleslaw, salsa, and sumptuous habichuela guisadas (slow simmered, chile-spiked Puerto Rican-style beans).
Piri piri is a southeastern African chile pepper that’s very, very hot. But Schnell tempers his way down so we can enjoy without suffering (as he says, “It’s got a lil’ kick”). He makes a tangy-sweet mix of charred red bell peppers, a smidgen of habanero, garlic, red wine vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, lime zest, parsley, and smoked paprika, for a flavor that’s sort of like a vibrant, citrusy buffalo sauce.
Interestingly, this chef has never cooked professionally before. He worked in San Francisco pizzerias, through high school, then bars and nightclubs including Café du Nord, Bottom of the Hill, and the former Drunk Tank dive bar. In between, he managed bands, ran indie music labels, and promoted live music shows.
Yet after trying piri piri chicken in the beach town of Cascais outside of Lisbon, Portugal, he was determined to conquer the recipe (“I was blown away by it,” he explains, “the best chicken I have ever had, by far”). He experimented “for years” to recreate it, and after scoring ground peppers from the baker who makes his Portuguese buns, says he is finally “pretty happy with my take” (as he absolutely should be).
Schnell also personally designed his roadhouse, with its eclectic mishmash on antique chicken and produce signs, heirloom 1920s photos of his family, and Dia de los Muertos portraits. Thoughtful accents include Mexican pottery dishes, and tin can napkin holders painted in Mexican Madonna art. Artsy wood tables inside and out were handcrafted by Sons of Salvage in Petaluma.
It’s all good, obviously. But what about that must-have roadhouse burger? Grungy grease lovers will be disappointed, yet as Schnell notes, “Boring as a burger may be, I think it’s our best item.”
Best? I don’t think the chef is giving himself enough credit for his overall excellent menu. But it is definitely tops in the burger world. The hand-ground, half-pound, all-natural Angus brisket and chuck patty towers with shredded iceberg, pickles, smoked-grilled onions, a house cheese blend (American, jack, and cheddar), and Crime Sauce (a divinely spicy, complex mayo, ketchup, mustard, garlic, chopped pickle and horseradish delight) on a Portuguese bun ($12.95, with fries).
“It’s legit,” Schnell says.
The real deal, indeed. Just like the chef and his great little Roadhouse.
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.