When Jill Keiken found herself “marooned” in Livermore, courtesy of her husband’s government job, she thought, “We’ll just have to go to San Francisco when we want some decent food!”
Then she realized an opportunity had fallen into her lap: She could explore her new town just the way she had when she lived in Colorado Springs and designed a local food tour to share her favorite eats about town. Now, with Tastes of the Neighborhood in Livermore, she introduces the best food experiences of this quirky little downtown, which won a coveted “Great American Main Street” award in 2009.
Jill starts the tour at First Street Wine Company. Owner Linda Allen pours tastes of four favorite Livermore Valley wines as cheeses and chocolates get passed around. But the best nibble at this stop has to be the fried avocados with chipotle dip from the nearby Riata Diner & Tavern. We learn that a riata is a braided rope cowboys use for tethering animals, and it’s an apt symbol for this active ranching community. Just down First Street, fronted by a life-size fiberglass horse, is Baughman’s Western Wear, where cowboys and dudes have been gearing up since 1881.
Nearby is another of the older but still-open businesses in town: Rumored to date back to the 1930s, Donut Wheel, with its arches and sky-blue dome, looks like something the Jetsons left behind before returning to their original home planet.
Next, the changing tastes of Livermore culinary traditions are enjoyed at Roya, where a traditional Afghan dinner, served family style, might include boranee kadu: roasted pumpkin with yogurt and lamb sauce and dumplings with vegetables.
Jill makes a brief stop at the Odd Fellows building. Gold bricks spell out IOOF, and we learn that the International Order of Odd Fellows stems from an 18th century English fraternal order, whose dedication to rendering aid to the poor and the sick was considered “odd.”
Far from odd are the enormously flavorful sandwiches at Mario’s French Dips, where Romanian entrepreneur Mario Schiopu has mastered the art of a sandwich that allegedly originated in Los Angeles when a hurried cook accidentally dropped a harried policeman’s to-go roast beef sandwich into the pan drippings. Mario sears the prime rib, slowly roasts it in a water bath, then serves it on a custom-baked roll with a secret sauce.
Our tastebuds get an education at Victorine Valley Farms’ olive oil bar and at Luna Tea, where Jenni Curtice shows how tea professionals evaluate and custom-blend teas. The tour wraps up with delicate French-made confections at La PanotiQ.
Tours are held Tuesday through Sunday, beginning at 1pm on weekdays, 1:30 on weekends, with a minimum of four people and a maximum of 12. Jill is flexible on the details, but the main thing, as she says, is to “Come hungry!”
Jill Keiken (top left on the right) leads a group through Livermore, starting at First Street Wine Company(above) and ending with pastries at La PanotiQ (lower left).
Laura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” treasures her time in vineyards, fields, cellars, and kitchens, appreciating the magical processes that turn earth’s bounty into heavenly delights. Follow her epicurean adventures on WineOhTv.com and winefoodexplorer.com.