Petaluma’s Butcher Crown Roadhouse offers boutique beers, excellent Mex-fusion

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Back in their 1800s heyday, Northern California roadhouses were Denny’s married with Motel 6 — just basic food and rest resources for weary stagecoach travelers and strike-it-rich gold seekers. In later years, the ramshackle roadside establishments generally catered to bikers and curious characters in search of a stiff drink and maybe a greasy burger.

Fast forward to modern-day Sonoma County, where roadhouses have been reborn as hot, hip destinations often showcasing superb cuisine and fancy craft cocktails. Today, it’s trendy to be casual and a bit rough, amid rustic decors while dining on elevated Americana, or global-California.

Then, there’s the new Butcher Crown Roadhouse in Petaluma, where chef-owner Pete Schnell treats us to Latin American cuisine. It’s a wonderful, unexpected recipe for our beloved saloon concept, neatly packaging a funky, country-charm decor with boutique beers and wines and excellent Mex-fusion food that could be proudly served in a much fancier restaurant.

It’s clearly a ton of work for Schnell, who constantly tweaks his menu with new dishes, complicated recipes, and things we’d never expect to see at a place where a ceiling fan spins lazily from the ceiling above weathered wood floors and a corrugated metal trimmed open kitchen that looks a bit like a campsite. There he is, working away behind the counter that’s flanked by beer taps and a cooler case of premium sips such as HenHouse Brewing Oyster Stout ($6, 16-ounce can), Fort Point Beer Company KSA German Kölsch ($5.25, 12-ounce can) and Ace Premium Cider Perry Hard Cider ($5.25, 12-ounce bottle).

Even Schnell finds it hard to define his concept. It’s barbecue, but jazzed with Latin American and African accents, as piri piri chicken sizzles on the grill, and juicy tri tip basks on the flames waiting for its finishing sprinkle of sea salt. It’s a burger joint, since all self-respecting roadhouses need a killer burger, and Schnell’s model is mouthwatering. And it’s a salute to the chef’s love of travel, including time spent in Spain and Portugal, with nods to Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Yucatan, the Mediterranean, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique.

There are dishes that defy a single heritage, too: Papas fritas begins with Kennebec French fries, then builds into a savory, so satisfying snack mounded with housemade chorizo, spicy salsa, gooey cheddar and jack cheeses, pickled red onions, green onions, goat cheese, green onions, and cilantro ($10.25).

For appetizers, it can be hard to choose, since so many are good. I like to come here with groups of friends, to sit at the patio’s communal picnic tables near the various grills and smokers. We get shishitos, the peppers blistered and tossed with slivered Marcona almonds, crumbled goat cheese, olive oil and smoked sea salt ($7.50); they’re great nibbles with the homemade red or white sangria served ice cold in Ball jars ($8).

Our server recommends we double up on order of Mexican street corn for our party of four — it’s $5.95 for a single cob, but only $4 for a second, and we devour the sweet stuff that’s sparked with Vaquero sauce, house-blend spices and grated cotija. A charred, spiced red bell pepper hummus plate offers sweet notes, too, prettily arranged with hatchmark-grilled pita bread, toasted pepitas, cucumbers, olives and tangy pepperoncini ($5.95).

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 carey@careysweet.com.

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