Black Bear Diner in Vallejo

In the northern part of Vallejo close to Discovery Kingdom is shopping area where a lot Vallejoans get their wears and grub on. A few years ago a long time eating establishment by the name of Lyons closed their doors. Lyons died a slow death and unfortunately (or fortunately) saw its demise in early 2011 but out of its remains rose the Black Bear Diner which opened its doors in the summer that same year.

The first time I ever ate at a Black Bear Diner was in Suisun and to me it seemed like a super suburban type of place – almost country – that served good food and had good service. There’s a lot of wood used in the decor. Of course a Black Bear statue or several of them stand guard inside and out of the restaurant. The one in Vallejo even has a log toy train with little bears on them and my kids didn’t hesitate climbing atop and pretending to ride it and acted like they were friends with these cub statues. Adding to the ambiance, the menu looks like a old time newspaper from small town. You get the idea. It’s like you’re out in the country where black bears may join you for dinner.

Newspaper Menu

Newspaper Menu

The decor does make the restaurant feel livelier compared to Lyon’s during its last months. Where Lyons felt a little drab and depressing, Black Bear Diner is bright and cozy. I’ve been to Black Bear Diner four times in the last year and each time it was busy enough that I’ve had to wait. It’s a good sign. A busy restaurant (no matter the Yelp ratings) is a good thing to me. It means that people like the food enough to pay for it. The food is somewhat fresh because of turnover. As more people eat, the more food has to be brought in. And the service is decent enough that it doesn’t turn away customers.

newspaper menu

Black Bear Diner newspaper menu

Prices at Black Bear are right where a restaurant in a bedroom town like Vallejo should be – affordable. For a family like mine with 5 kids – 4 with restaurantable appetites – affordable is important. A burger, fries, and a shake with extra tin cup for the extra for under $15 bucks is welcome. Steak dinners for under $20 – pretty good.

Burger, Fries, and a Shake - John Gamboa - Vallejo

Burger, Fries, and a Shake

If you know me, my biggest criteria in deciding whether I’m going to enjoy my visit to a restaurant is the dessert menu. Good thing Black Bear Diner has banana cream pies in the dessert display fridge. Winner! Oh, they have other pies, too, but banana cream is my very favorite.

Another cool thing they have is 24 hour breakfast. So if you’re craving some good ol’ breakfast foods, you’re covered. Eggs, hash browns, sausage – you’re covered.

breakfast Black Bear Diner Vallejo John Gamboa

Eggs, Hash Browns, Sausage

If you’re in the area of Vallejo, American Canyon, and Discovery Kingdom and you want some good affordable food, stop by Vallejo’s Black Bear Diner and bring the family!

American Canyon’s CRAVE for Asian Fusion food

My eldest son told my wife and I about this little place he goes to get boba drinks. They’re those drinks that come with dark chewy tapioca balls. It turns out they serve food, too. A good thing for us because we like to eat out a few times a months as much as our budget allows our family of seven to go. That’s a lot of mouths to feed!

The little place he was referring to is Crave. We decided to try out Crave in American Canyon, a little town sandwiched in between Vallejo and Napa California. Crave serves a variety of things but I don’t think you can go wrong with most of the stuff they serve and they tout themselves as an Asian Fusion restaurant.

They have a wide selection of boba drinks (with and without boba). We got some taro root drinks, a lychee one, and a couple thai milk teas. There may have been an avocado one, too, but can’t be too sure. I like thai milk tea and Crave’s is pretty good. You can’t really do it wrong unless you put way too much milk that it tastes like, well, milk. Then you’ve messed it up.

This was our first time at Crave and the first food we ordered the Sisig Fries. Sisig, for those that don’t know is a Pampanga term that means “to snack on something sour”. Pampanga is a section of the Philippines in the Central Luzon region.

Enough geography…Crave’s sisig fries are excellent. A wonderful snack or meal if you’d prefer to enjoy them by yourself. It’s loaded with sisig pork, cheese, sour cream, and some other stuff, and it tastes good!

Crave-Sisig-Fries

Sisig Fries – Crave – Napa

Next we ordered the surf and turf noodles. It’s got pork, it’s got shrimp (hence the surf and turf in the name), and it’s got noodles. And it’s good, too! One of those dishes you have to try. It’s so simple yet so yummy.

Crave - Surf And Turf Noodles

Crave – Surf And Turf Noodles

They’ve got rice plates, too. Our family shared the barbeque pork skewers and egg over rice. They stick to what works in most Filipino restaurants and it’s done well.

BBQ - Pork-Egg-Garlic Rice

Crave – Napa – BBQ-Pork-Egg-GarlicRice

Oh! Did I tell you they serve crepes? If you have room after your meal, they’re an excellent dessert!

Little Dessert Shop In Napa, CA – Sweetie Pies

Located in the old mill in Downtown Napa California is a little dessert shop and cafe called Sweetie Pies.

Sweetie Pies | Napa, CA | John Gamboa

Sweetie Pies | Napa, CA

The family and I were walking in old downtown Napa looking for a place to eat and happened upon this quaint bakery and dessert shop aptly named Sweetie Pies. What makes this place unique is its locale in the old mill as well as the mismatched furniture and outdoor seating.

The desserts are too numerous to try in one visit even for our big family – cakes, pastries, etc. All of it prepared excellently with great presentation. Check out their website gallery and other reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The main reason I’d come back is the experience bringing the kids. Just like and ice cream or candy store, the kids’ eyes light up at the colors and sights. Sure the sweets are always a treat but the historic feel and odd (in a good way) decor brings with it an experience all its own. Right in the middle of the shop is an old mill thing – I have no idea what it is but it must be important and historic.

The word is their pies are excellent but we didn’t have it this go round, but surely we are coming back to try some of their homemade desserts.

Sweetie Pies | Napa, CA

Sweetie Pies | Napa, CA

Sweetie Pies Desserts

Sweetie Pies Desserts

Our sweets from Sweetie Pies

Our sweets from Sweetie Pies

We were here on a busy holiday weekend and it didn’t seem to crowded which was a little surprising but a welcome surprise it was because we got seated right away. If it were just my wife and me, I would have loved to chill with our tasty baked goods in one of the table outside especially because the day was bright sunny and perfect.

A word of caution. Sometimes the desserts are reported as being stale or old and I’m not sure why that is. Maybe they expect to be busy and prepare more than is needed. Who knows. For the most part they are prepared fresh so expect cakes to be moist and bread to be fresh.

Sweetie Pies isn’t only about sweet treats though. They also offer sandwiches and paninis as well as gourmet coffee and tea. If you’re in early and crave a breakfast meal you’re in luck. They have a selection of breakfast dishes from breakfast sandwiches, oatmeal, and bagels.

With it’s ability to satisfy the sweet teeth on our household, Sweetie Pies if definitely deserving of a return trip by me and my family.

Dollar Car Wash?! Wow! American Canyon Car Wash – John Gamboa

On the way down highway 29 in Napa, CA my family and I passed American Canyon Car Wash and there was a special. One Dollar quick car washes! (Update: No more dollar deal. Boo!)

YES!

Our cars rarely get washed. I mean rarely like once or twice a year. With nary a cloud of rain anytime in the near future and a couple bucks to spare our truck full of kids turned into the driveway and paid our $1.

American Canyon Car Wash Entrance from Hwy 29

American Canyon Car Wash Off Hwy 29

Car washes aren’t all that exciting really but for us it was fun. Remember, we have 5 kids and for 4 of them, it was quite an experience. The baby sat quietly wondering what was going on. Number two, screamed in fear at the sights and noises attacking every panel and window. Number 3 and 4 were all smiles and keenly observing each phase of the wash from the initial spray of mist by the two guys at the beginning of the wash, they sprayed front, top, sides, wheels, and rear with their misting hoses, to shifting into neutral as the conveyor took the wheels and started pulling the truck forward.

For a buck it was a nice family event that the kids won’t soon forget. Not to mention that the vehicle now looks spotless – at least on the outside. The inside is a different story and it will cost way more than a dollar to clean that up. Nasty!

American Canyon Waiting Lounge

The waiting room

The quick wash even came with free use of their vacuums. That’s quite a deal if you ask me. But just like all good deals this dollar wash ended the same day. That being the case as soon as we got home, I took my car there. Numbers 3 and 4 came along for that one, too! I don’t know what it is about car washes but I remember trips to the car wash when I was a kid and that one was the kind where you had to get out and go into a room where you could follow your car through the wash through the windows. Even though you had to get out of the car it was still a fun experience.

American Canyon Car Wash Final Touch Area

With my car I decided to splurge and pay $3 for the extra foam wash and some other thing that I forgot but it sounded clean. Then after that my kids and vacuumed the interior. That was a fun thing to do with them and to be able to watch them work together at something was a pleasure to see.

I guess seeing something dirty and gross transform into something clean and shiny is a nice thing to witness. I know when I watch shows like Overhaulin’ where Chip Foose transforms ugly cars into works of art or Flipping Vegas when Scott and Amie Yancey take a junky house and morph it into beautiful homes that sell for top dollar, I really enjoy watching the process of the transformation.

In a small way, getting your car washed is kind of the same thing.

View of the main lot

Green Valley’s Sticky Rice Chinese Bistro

Nestled in a little town called Green Valley between American Canyon, Vallejo, and Fairfield is a Chinese bistro called Sticky Rice. It’s not typical Chinese restaurant, at least the typical ones I’ve been to. This establishment is quite nice and has a high end feel. The good news for me and my big family is that prices aren’t high end.

Its owners opted not to place their eatery in a strip mall but in an office building. But its location does not suffer from lack of traffic and once you’ve had the opportunity to eat there, you’ll most likely add it to your list of restaurants to come back to.

Sticky Rice Chinese Bistro

Glass waterfall in Green Valley (near American Canyon, Vallejo, and Fairfield)

As you enter the restaurant you’ll notice right off the bat that this is going to be a different dining experience. The decor is modern and classy. Nice contrasting colors and textures throughout. The dining area is open and surprisingly there are no dividing walls between tables. The only walls that are there exist between the dining area and the entry and bar.

And the dividing walls are very nicely made with wood, metal, and frosted glass. Their bar exudes quality and class. Something you might see at a nice hotel.

Sticky Rice Bar

Very classy looking bar

There’s also an outdoor patio if you decide to have the outdoor dining experience. It feels secluded and comfortable and they probably make it available for reservations I imagine.

Patio | John Gamboa

Patio

On to the food. For our appetizers we had hot and sour soup, wor wonton soup, and ahi tuna bites. The soups were good and expected. But the tuna bites were out of this world good! The presentation was top notch but the way they combined cucumber, tuna, seaweed, and how the Sriracha and aioli (I’m guessing) was to die for. Highly recommended if you ever decide to eat there.

Ahi Tuna Bites Appetizer

Ahi Tuna Bites Appetizer

The a la carte dishes we had were the pan-fried noodle chow mein, orange beef, fried rice, and honey walnut prawns. Everything was good. It was the first time I tried the orange beef and that was just OK. The honey walnut prawns, however, were perfect. Crunchy shrimp, great tasting honey mayonnaise sauce, and nicely candied walnuts. Honey walnut prawns are a family favorite and I’d say the way Sticky Rice prepares it is among the top 2 or 3 I’ve had. Not too much batter and just the right amount of sweetness to the sauce.

Honey Walnut Prawns | Sticky Rice | John Gamboa

Honey Walnut Prawns | Sticky Rice

Now my favorite part of all my meals: dessert. The two we decided to try were the cheesecake which had a raspberry drizzle. The other was the fried banana with ice cream. First, the cheesecake. It was really good. Can’t really mess up a cheesecake but then again, I don’t have very high standards when it comes to sweets.

Raspberry Cheesecake | Sticky Rice

Raspberry Cheesecake

The fried banana and ice cream was very, very good. Usually if it’s on the menu, I get the fried banana with ice cream. I’ll ask for ice cream if it’s not part of the dish normally. The surprising thing about Sticky Rice’s version is not the presentation or the taste, both of which were excellent, but it was the amount of dessert you get for the order. I don’t remember the price but I’m pretty sure it was less than 10 bucks! It was enough for 4 of us to share it and be satisfied with the quantity we were able to consume. That is value for your money!

Sticky Rice Fried Banana and Ice Cream

Sticky Rice Fried Banana and Ice Cream | Six Pieces and a large scoop of vanilla ice cream!

I would say that Sticky Rice should be on your list of places to east if you’re every passing by Solano County. It’s about 15 minutes away from Benicia and Vallejo, and the same drive from the other direction in Fairfield. I highly recommended you do it!

Oxbow Public Market in Napa

My family and I went to Gott’s (wrote about it here) one day and decided to check out the Oxbow Public Market and that place is cool. It’s like a little mall with specialty stores and food places. I wanted to get some cupcakes at Kara’s Cupcakes and they were excellent as gourmet cupcakes tend to be. Who would’ve thought cupcakes would ever be a big business? Having just watched my first episode of Cupcake Wars, I guess I can see why.

Located just north of Vallejo and American Canyon and east of Sonoma in the city of Napa, Oxbow Public Market contains a variety of shops and eateries inside a large warehouse. Upon entering the warehouse in which the Oxbow Public Market exists my family and I were pleasantly surprised by what was inside. Although I only had cupcakes from Kara Cupcakes’s which were really good if I haven’t mentioned, I really was drawn to the feel of the place. Bustling with activity and the cacophony of merchants and visitors that you only get from a marketplace with concrete floors and a metal roof, the combination of colors and sounds gives Oxbow a unique appeal. Merchants of different kinds fill the place with tasty goods and confections for those of us with a sweet tooth.

John Gamboa, Napa, Oxbow Public Market

John Gamboa and his wife at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa

There are two butcher shops located in the Oxbow Public Market. One called called The Fatted Calf and the other Five Dot Ranch. At one of them is where we learned what 42-day aged beef was and why it tastes so good and why it’s expensive. The beef is actually left to sit in a room controlled room for 42 days and the reason why it’s expensive is because the water gets drawn out and what’s left is the meat without the water content (or much of it anyway). The carcass actually build a layer of inedible “skin” with mold that gets cut and thrown out hence adding to the per pound cost of the aged beef. Once that is removed you are left with a rich, flavorful, and hearty cut of beef. Maybe one day will pick up a cut and taste test that process and see if it’s worth the premium in price. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a choice, select, or kobe ribeye steak. Honestly. So for me at least it may not be worth the extra cost.

There’s also a fish market and an oyster bar in Oxbow! We’re definitely going back to try Hog Island Oyster Bar out because I’m a big oyster fan. Raw, fried, grilled, bar-b-queued – it’s all good. Another great find is a Triple D (Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives) reviewed joint called Pica Pica Maize Kitchen. I think it has something to do with corn since that’s what maize means. We’ll be eating there some time in the near future hopefully to find out what signature dish drew the Triple D crew to Pica Pica.

Oxbow Public Market has ample parking around the area and with all the different stores you may have to make several trips into Napa to try everything. To learn more visit their website at http://oxbowpublicmarket.com.

Ali’i Sushi and Japanese in Benicia – John Gamboa

Craving Japanese cuisine? How about Hawaiian? How about both? In the Benicia/Vallejo area? Yes you can have both at Ali’i Sushi and BBQ. Just off the 780 freeway and in the city of Benicia, Ali’i offers residents and visitors to Solano County, Benicia, and Vallejo areas a taste of the Hawaiian islands and Japan in one place.

When you walk in you know it’s going to be home cooked good food. We had a chance to try this place out and we were not disappointed. Our big family was hungry and some of us wanted Japanese while some wanted Hawaiian (namely a Loco Moco). It’s a good thing my wife quickly got on her Windows Phone (yes, we have Windows Phones!) and Yelp’ed for some Hawaiian/Japanese food and found Ali’i.

If you want in and out fast food, forget it. Not here. You have to remember you’re visiting the islands when you come to Ali’i. That means leisurely pace. That means take your time. Everything is chill. Just like the islands. Some people take that as a negative, but if you’ve ever taken a trip to Hawaii, you will appreciate the non-hectic mood of Ali’i.

The first thing that hit me was the price of the Loco Moco. It as posted on a whiteboard. $9.95! Now if you’ve had a loco moco at another franchised Hawaiian joint, you know that $9.95 is pretty pricey for that meal. For Ali’i though, that price is worth it. You get one huge hand prepared beef patty. I mean huge enough that 3 of our kids were able to share it and not finish! The meat was nicely seasoned and the rice serving was large. My wife and I could’ve shared it and not been able to finish. That’s how big it was. Granted we aren’t big eaters but still.

We also had the Ahi Poke and boy it was good. Just the right amount of flavor and a little kick of spice. Large chunks of ahi too. That went super fast and was gone within a couple minutes. No complaints although the lighting made the fish look a little grayish. Not to worry though, the fish tasted fresh. Not sure if it’s the fluorescent lighting or the ambient color of the restaurant. We also shared a dragon roll. The dragon roll is one of our family’s favorites. We order whenever we go out for sushi and their dragon roll is top notch. The flavor and texture was well-mated and delicious.

I had the chicken kara age with shrimp tempura. It’s one of my go to dishes at Japanese restaurants and it was among the best. The chicken was seasoned just right, crispy, and well made. The shrimp tempura was great, I’d say the best I’ve had in a while. The batter wasn’t too thick and the shrimp was a pretty good size.

My wife had the kara age’s cousin, the tonkatsu and shrimp tempura. My son had the chicken teriyaki and the chicken was chargrilled with the charred corners and edges which my son likes. It didn’t look precooked either. I have to say that I believe all the meals were pretty much made to order. It took a little longer, sure, but the food was well worth it.

I really enjoyed the food and the homey feel of the place and I know we will be going there again. Please support this family run restaurant if your ever in the Benicia-Vallejo area if you’re in the mood for good Hawaiian and Japanese cooking.