Modesto food & drink: California foodie haven hidden in plain view
Foodies on a California road trip don’t have to hunger for great eats along Highway 99. Stop into Modesto to discover a growing, creative, global scene for delicious food and drink in the Central Valley.
Growing up in the California Central Valley, I’ve traveled up and down Highway 99 more times than I can count. Modesto was always where I stopped for gas, a bathroom, and a snack, that’s it. Then back onto the highway as fast as possible to hit the speed limit once again. Never did I dream behind the Costco, Home Depot, Best Buy, or Texas Roadhouse that Modesto harbored a food-and-drink scene that could tickle the tastebuds of even the most discerning traveling foodie.
Food connoisseurs on a California road trip don’t have to fret about leaving Los Angeles and then waiting until Sacramento or San Francisco to start finding good eats again. Smack in the central part of the Central Valley, a growing and creative Modesto food and drink scene is hidden in plain view. You just have to venture behind the strip malls lining the freeway to discover it, as I did.
Partly spawned by the area’s agricultural roots and availability of fresh ingredients, and in part nurtured by natives who went off around the world only to come back to Modesto to open restaurants, the food scene goes from gourmet eats to food truck fare. And don’t diss the food trucks! There is a rocking pavilion filled with amazing food trucks that turns into a community gathering on many days for great grub at low prices.
“THIS is in MODESTO??!” is what Damon Robbins, owner and chef at Camp 4 in downtown, says he still hears from patrons at his downtown restaurant.
Modesto hosts evolving food scene for foodies
Forget the Burger Kings and Panda Expresses. Come to Modesto to get panini, crudo, globally sourced cheeses, fine wines, great barbecue, craft cocktails in a lounge with a big city vibe, and wood-fired pizza that will put oh-so many to shame. Don’t forget, too, some of the best Mexican fare handed out of a food truck window.
Damon Robbins, son of Royal Robbins, a pioneering rock climber who founded the outdoor clothing company of the same name in Modesto, landed back in his hometown after global rambles and deciding he didn’t want to be in a big city. Damon Robbins opened Camp 4 in 2009 in the building where his father had his first store and manufacturing facilities. Robbins named it Camp 4 after the renowned climbers’ camp in Yosemite that was all about a place to gather to share good food and meet good friends.
He is in fact one of the originals behind what has become a burgeoning and colorful food and drink scene in a rather plain-clothes Highway 99 town. When he opened, the concept of steak tartare or Manchego served with membrillo was pushing the envelope. A lot. But people came. They tried, and with a little coaxing from Robbins (“No, really, just try this,…” he says he sometimes encouraged), its popularity grew. Today, he says he can do menu items that “just wouldn’t have worked” 10 years ago, like a vegan poke bowl, ceviche or crudo. His global wine menu of course sources from California but also features some of the best varietals from Spain, France, Italy and beyond.
Modesto food and drink along Highway 99
When my husband and business partner, Michael, and I arrived on a late winter day at Camp 4 in Modesto a little early for our appointment, Robbins was in the middle of a wine-tasting session with his staff – it’s important to him that his staff is treated like family and truly understands the food and beverages available there.
Soon, Robbins was done, and he swept us away to his back dining room. Robbins’ thoughts come rapid-fire and insightful, spilling as fast as the water of Yosemite Falls rockets to the ground. He describes the wood furniture, wall décor, and cartoons on the ceiling – all done with intention to give homage to the Royal Robbins store formerly in the space, as well as to his father and to Modesto.
“Modesto is discovering its foodie inner self,” he now says, and offers kudos to any number of other area eateries that California foodies on a road trip would love.
Three food creators he mentions are Bauhaus (global tapas and house-cured meats), Fast Eddies MOAB (stands for “Meal on a Bun”), and Brighter Side (“funky, fresh fierce” says the website). We also discover Divine Swine, the Village Butcher, Paul’s Rustic Oven pizza truck, LoFi cocktail lounge, Concetta, Tresetti’s World Caffé (yes, they spell it with two ff’s), Food Fix, and providers of high-end ingredients like Rodin Farms and Sciabica Olive Oil (founded by Sicilians in 1936 – and if the Italians don’t know olive oil, who does?).
“We are all part of that evolution of food here,” Robbins is quick to add.
Get to Bauhaus to dig deeper into the Modesto food scene
Onward we went on our quest to find out more about Modesto’s food and drink scene as a part of its history and culture. Everywhere we turned, it seemed, people in the Modesto culinary world would also mention this place called Bauhaus so we had to get there. Once we mapped the small building on the edge of downtown, getting there was another matter – seems you really have to want this one. There are about five streets merging near Bauhaus on this funny triangular intersection. And if you miss a turn, well, with all the one-way streets, you may find yourself doing laps. Try to ignore the funeral chapel next door.
But it’s all worth it. The five-year-old tapas bar hops at night, filling its 23 indoor seats quickly and another 17 outdoors when the weather is good. “It’s a party every night,” owner and chef Tye Bauer tells us when we popped by in the afternoon to have a chat before the rush.
The centerpiece of the small dining room is his small prep and cooking space. Once the evening rush begins, Bauer bounced from oven to stove to fridge to chopping block back to oven like a ping-pong ball in an Olympic table tennis finals. He gracefully fingered plating a dish, chopping a tomato, and then sans timer dropped it all to fetch something out of an oven perfectly done. Assisted by his niece Meara, the evening is non-stop food-preparation entertainment, and you’ll probably go away not only with a full belly and a contented smile but a few new friends, too.
“I built food around what I want to eat,” Bauer says. He didn’t grow up in Modesto but spent time there before disappearing to Spain and then returning. “Things are happening in this town, exactly as I thought it would.”
The real theme at Bauhaus’ intimate dining Bauer points out: “We are into teaching people to dine again, not just go out to eat.”
Who can just eat when you have Gambas al ajillo, sausage plates, pork belly with kimchi and pickled daikon – or whatever else he finds fresh that week. We sat at the bar where we watched Bauer work his magic, noting how many people he and Meara knew by name. It says something when a place is full of regulars.
From global food to just plain good food in Modesto
Not everybody is seeking to push the foodie envelope, of course, when they stop to find a meal along Highway 99 in California. So we looked for options that are just as palate-tingling.
Divine Swine looks like a neighbor bar a.k.a Cheers and even calls itself “a neighborhood grill & bar.” Admittedly, we were skeptical when we drove into the strip mall with a grocery store, Fro-Yo and Take-and-Bake Pizza. But in we went, still skeptical when we saw a bar with folks hunkered over beers and eyeballing the TVs overhead. Owner Robert Wilson joined us to explain his concept of an upscale barbecue and whiskey bar where you could still come with the family and wouldn’t get your ears blasted out. AND would still have delish eats in Modesto.
“We’re a cool little neighborhood place,” Wilson says about the restaurant he opened in 2016, pointing over shoulder and noting his mother lives four blocks away. “There are so many great places to eat in Modesto. People are tired of corporate chain restaurants and playing a lot of money for something they pulled out of a freezer and warmed up.”
Once the food started coming, our heads were turned. I am not truly a big BBQ eater, and I wanted to lean toward a salad with some meat on it, but chef Wilson would have none of that. We had Jambalaya with house-smoked andouille, an empanada busting with smoked meat, ribs that melted in your mouth, and something he calls a “Dumb Dumb Sandwich.” Why dumb-dumb? When he told his wife about this chicken sandwich he wanted to do, he says she said, “Any dumb-dumb can do that.”
Yup, the Modesto food scene in California’s Central Valley isn’t without its sense of humor.
Now, about the whiskey part of the name: For Wilson, the whiskey is a homage to his dad. When they’d visit, the two would stay up talking … over whiskey. To him, that just says friends and good times. When I said I’m a whiskey gal, his eyes lit up. So from his collection of at least 134 types, he pulled down a bottle of Kavalan Solist Fino that goes for nearly $500 a bottle. I objected, but he was already racing to the bar to fetch glasses, returning with the comment about how much he loves sharing a sip with somebody who appreciates the aqua vitae. And now I can chalk up my first taste of a delightfully fine albeit expensive whiskey to Modesto, where it’s pretty nice to be a foodie these days. Thanks, Robert.
But wait the Modesto restaurant scene has so much more
What about just rockin’ sandwiches packed with fresh cooked meat and sauce dripping down your forearms? That’s where Matt Soderstrom’s Village Butcher comes in, also located in a mall, but this one being the sprawling McHenry Village that has just about anything your inner shopping demon desires. Remember, this is a flat Central Valley town that was founded on sprawl so you can’t be deceived by looks.
Soderstrom greeted us, stepping around from behind the shiny glass meat counter. You see, this is not just a sparkly clean sandwich shop but a real butcher. He is fourth-generation Modestan and was always involved with Future Farmers of America, raising big animals and also butchering them. Then, somehow, life took a turn and he ended up in a sales job in San Francisco. You can see where this is going. To satisfy his farm heritage, he started making sausage and hanging it from the fan in his kitchen, grilling deeply flavored briskets, and trying to have fun with food whenever he could.
Then came the palm-to-the-head whack: He needed to dump this sales stuff and go follow his dream back in Modesto. He opened Village Butcher in February 2020 just weeks before the pandemic – yea, good timing, right? But this eatery was built for take-out and could continue in business (think meal kits) with all locally and regionally sourced ingredients, even without sit-down dining. Modesto food scene has farms and fields outside its doors, making sourcing great meat, fruits, vegetables, oils and the like really easy not to mention tasty, and Soderstrom is adamant about regionally sourced ingredients.
“Modesto is geographically challenging,” he says, noting there is no “cute downtown” to attract travelers. Still, if there is one thing Modesto is, its “truly authentic farm-to-table.” And that should be a culinary draw to foodies road-tripping Highway 99. Today he also does classes, small chef’s dinners, events and catering.
Soderstrom insisted on getting sandwiches in our hands before we dashed off to our next appointment, so off we went with his popular Tri Tip. We took them gladly and although running a little late, we opened the boxes in the car to grab a few bites. As the sauce dripped, our eyes lit up. OMG, is this good! We wanted to drink the BBQ sauce as we stood beside our car in the shopping center, stuffing sandwiches in our mouths. No, it wasn’t a pretty sight, but it sure spoke worlds about Modesto’s Village Butcher.
Paul’s Rustic Oven isn’t your everyday pizza pie
If you seek wood-fired, Italian-style, thin-crust pizza, you will usually go wanting unless you are in a big city. But our sources couldn’t stop raving about Paul’s Rustic Oven food truck that was to be parked at a brewery that night. Yes, we were on our way to Divine Swine, but we needed to get a look. Great pizza in Modesto? You’re pulling my leg. So happens Michael is a pizza connoisseur (a.k.a. snob) and, yes, Paul’s fully satisfied his pizza dreams.
Owner and pizza perfectionist behind it all is Paul Olison. Although Olison started doing pizza a dozen years ago, he only upgraded to this truck recently with a high-end mobile wood-fired oven imported from Italy. And oh boy does he turn out the pies!
“I’m humbled to be mixed up with those excellent chefs,” Paul says, when we told him we were there because of the comments from others, but then he adds, “We’re not just making food. This allows us to create memories.”
Highway 99 restaurants have a rich local food basket
No restaurant in a deeply rooted agricultural community like Modesto could be what it is without top ingredients. So we visited Sciabica Family California Olive Oil, housed in an industrial district with a truck driving school, an auto center, and a machine products shop. Craig Hilliker, a certified Master Sensory Analyst (yes, that is a thing), took us through a tasting. Under his tutelage, we learned to swirl and warm the oil in a small cup, smell it, slurp, and then swallow down the back of the tongue. Much like wine.
Suddenly, this was not about a green bottle from your chain supermarket shelf with some kind of oil in it. Oh no, this was rich and flavorful. Tasting the infused oils also opened my eyes to the flavors available – garlic, lemon, basil, Habanero (beware, spicy!), rosemary and so many more. These don’t just have flavors added, but the fruit and herbs are pressed with the olives. Joseph Sciabica, son of founder Nicola, headed up the operation himself for 74 years, with third and fourth generation Sciabicas still at the helm.
As any good foodie who wants to experience the source of food, a tasting at Sciabica’s is a mind-altering experience. In fact, many of the above-named restaurants use it. May I suggest the basil- or perhaps the lemon-infused oils?
Food trucks in Modesto that are so much more
Scampering through downtown Modesto to get to the eastern foothills for viewing more almond blossoms, a sign that said “Grub Hub” caught my eye above a cluster of food trucks. Turns out this is not just your run-of-the-mill food truck or two parked along a curb. This is a well-organized, clean truck pavilion offering parking, bathrooms, and covered tables for eating in the shade (shade being mandatory in a hot Central Valley town).
You want family friendly fare that will still satisfy a flavor-seeking foodie? Grub Hub may be your place with trucks offering kebabs, pupusas, Italian, pizza, hot dogs, tacos, and a dazzling array of homemade aqua frescas. Send family members off to find their favorite meal then meet at a table in the shade. Lights are strung up to create a festive atmosphere at night, too. Opened just before the pandemic in 2019, it managed to ride out most of the storm since food trucks are all about outdoor and distance! May I recommend Braulio’s Italian Bistro or Romson’s Kebab?
Campy cocktails part of downtown fun
Lo-Fidelity Laboratories (a.k.a. Lo-Fi Cocktails) may be a place to close out your evening. This is just plain campy fun with mixologists swirling dazzling drinks called the likes of “My heart beets 4-U” and “Mexican Firing Squad.”
Yes, this sometimes loud-ish venue attracts a predominantly millennial crowd, and founder Lauren Jamieson says she has plans for an adjoining restaurant at some point, too. She says she recognized when she opened in May 2019 (she closed for a a while during the pandemic and reopened in October 2021) that a bar was just a bit more stable than a restaurant. “I wanted a place,” she says, “where people would feel welcome and at home.”
In my past, I hurried through Modesto when driving Highway 99 in California. This was a place with foggy winter days and sizzling hot summers. Get your gas and a snack and move it along, I’d say. Things are different today. I find myself dreaming of a cool glass of wine on Camp 4’s terrace, the sauce from Village Butcher’s sandwich shaking up a flavor revolution in my mouth, a savory pastry at Bauhaus while yapping with others at the bar, or hanging with a sip of whiskey at Divine Swine.
Don’t be misled by the strip malls, fast food and big box stories when passing through Modesto in the Central Valley. The food and drink scene will make foodies and families alike want to make Modesto a destination.
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