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The Bodega serves gourmet food on wheels

Food trucks often attempt to walk that fine line between casual dining and culinary masterpiece, but by their very nature often fall short. Often appearing in vacant parking lots, and sporting tiny kitchens and limited staff, these modern chuck wagons can sometimes seem like a lesser restaurant, detracting from the culinary reputation that may surround them.

However, through the hard work of Chef Matthew Elias, and his front of house partner Laine Ayre, the Bodega bucks any such notion, offering food and service on par with the area’s best restaurants, only coming to you in unpretentious and often beautiful settings throughout the North Bay.

Elias started his culinary career in high school, working at a local café in his hometown of Benicia. He later moved to Phoenix to attend Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts, where he ended up working at Quiessence Restaurant. Although certainly more commonplace in the Bay Area, Quiessence was rather unique for the Southwest in that they had their own farm.

“It was a funny place to learn about farm to table,” says Elias. “But it really laid the foundation for my return to the Bay Area and my appreciation for where our food comes from.”

Upon his return to the Bay Area, Elias was able to work with a who’s-who of culinary masters, such as Chef Samin Nosrat, whose cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat” is a must for any cook’s kitchen. At Eccolo in Berkeley, Elias worked under Chef Christopher Lee, who trained at Chez Panisse. He also did a stint at Hayes Valley’s Bar Jules, before meeting Guido Frosini of Valley Ford’s True Grass Farms.

Elias’s love of Petaluma was first sparked in 2008 when he attended an “Outstanding in the Field” dinner at Green String Farms, but was not solidified until he met Guido. When Guido decided to move to Valley Ford to help his family with their fifth generation family farm, he left a vacant room in Berkeley. Elias just so happen to rent that room, and would hear stories from his roommates about visiting True Grass Farms.

He would eventually move to Sonoma County in order to join True Grass Farms because he wanted to learn more about butchery.

“Up until that point, I had worked in some great kitchens so knew about good sourcing,” says Elias. “But, I wanted to live it myself and True Grass Farms gave me that opportunity.”

Coincidentally, it was on a trip to Italy with Guido where he and Elias would talk Evan Wiig into moving to Sonoma County, where he started the Farmers Guild. Now expanded throughout California, the Farmers Guild supports local farmers and puts on events such as Petaluma’s Farmer Olympics to help raise awareness about local farming.

After several years with True Grass Farms, Elias was itching to get back into the kitchen. He started off helping out with the “local’s night” prix fixe dinner on Mondays at Salt Water Oyster Depot in Inverness, and would eventually join the kitchen full time, which is where he met his future business partner, Laine Ayre.

Ayre grew up in Detroit and after high school went on to earning her teaching degree from Oakland University in Michigan. While living in Michigan, Ayre also worked for the J. Alexander’s restaurant group. She would later move to Arizona to help them open their Southwest restaurants, while also teaching 7th grade English. She would eventually find work with the Hillstone Group, which is best known for their Houston’s restaurants, as well as being one of the first restaurant groups to reintroduce team-style service.

Ayre later move into event management before relocating to the Bay Area because where she rightly foresaw better opportunities. After some time in Walnut Creek, she landed in Petaluma and was hired by Salt Water Oyster Depot, first as a server and then as a manager, before moving into the catering and event side of the business.

This is where she discovered Elias’s food. “Matt has the best food I’ve ever tasted,” says Ayre. “I always trusted what he was creating. I never went into work worried that there might be menu items I couldn’t sell. This is a rarity in the restaurant world.” Ayre also admired the way Elias worked with local farmers and how great he was at educating servers about the food he was asking them to present to guests.

Ayre told Elias that if he ever went out on his own, she was going with him, because she was so confident of his philosophy on food that she wanted to be part of whatever he created. Unbeknownst to each other, Ayre and Elias put in their notices at Salt Water Oyster Depot within days of each other, both looking for something new, and would go their separate ways. But shortly thereafter Ayre received a text photo from Elias. “He was standing with a big silver food truck,” says Ayre. “Without missing a beat, I texted back, ‘I’m in!’” A week later, Ayre had joined Elias’s project and they have been creating magic for diners ever since.

The truck is called “The Bodega – CA,” because Elias and his girlfriend were living on Bodega Avenue at the time of its creation, and wanted to pay homage to the area where Elias sources so much of his inspiration. It is also a reference to the little community stores that you find both in big city neighborhoods, as well as out in the country. “Each one has its own intricacies,” says Elias. “Like with us, you know we’ll always have certain staples, like our fried chicken sandwich, but you’ll also find specials which will change depending on sourcing and seasons.”

Elias is not sure exactly where they came up with the turquoise color for the truck, but thinks it might be a color he remembered fondly from one of the rooms in his grandmother’s house. Unlike a lot of food trucks, which sport flashy artwork or photos of their food, The Bodega keeps it simple and classy, because it is more to Elias and Ayre than just a food truck.

“We didn’t set out to make a food truck, but were instead looking to create a mobile kitchen for catering events,” says Elias. “So we designed it in order to fit in anywhere from a fancy winery wedding, to a food truck round-up, like The Block in Petaluma.”

My food crew and I stumbled across Chef Elias’s food at this spring’s Crab Feast at Heidrun Meadery in Point Reyes Station. Although we knew nothing of him at the time, we would quickly become big fans. Out of character, I was actually enticed by the fresh veggies he laid out as appetizers, which goes right to the core of his philosophy on food. “I want to get people excited about vegetables again,” says Elias. However, he is not pushy about it, offering veggies in a way that is approachable even to this carnivore.

We were sharing a table with Elias’s parents, so we were lucky enough to meet him and learn about what he was doing. I have rarely met a more humble and down-to-earth chef, or regular person, for that matter. An extremely unassuming chap, I have eaten enough food, from fancy restaurants to backyard BBQs, to know when I am in the presence of greatness, and that is exactly what Elias is.

One does not need formal culinary trained in order to figure out that Elias knows his food from beginning to end. However, he is very easy to talk to and learn from, as he never boasts about his food, instead letting it speak for itself.

A month or so after Heidrun’s Crab Feast, we were invited to Stemple Creek Ranch’s first ranch dinner of the season, and were thrilled to see Chef Elias listed as the caterer. Not only was the setting perfect, but Elias did a masterful job coaxing out the great flavors of Stemple Creek’s meats. “I am thrilled to help Matt bring his food to a larger audience and in beautiful settings,” continues Ayre. “Stemple Creek Ranch’s dinners certainly fit the bill.”

“We remain close to our local suppliers,” adds Elias, “which is where we also get a lot of our catering gigs. We love their meats and produce, and they love what we do with all the ingredients they put so much care into producing.”

Current sources include local names such as Stemple Creek Ranch for meats, Hands Full Farms of Valley Ford and Little Wing of Tomales for eggs, and Green String Farms, Piano Farms, County Line Harvest, and Coastal Hills for produce.

“If they are from the Petaluma area, I’ll buy from them,” continues Elias. “For some fruits and other specialties I have to reach a bit farther, like Peach Farms out of Winters or Tomatero Farms out of Aptos, but because I buy at farmers markets, I have a personal connection with these folks. If a menu item requires sourcing from any farther than that, I simply don’t create it.”

When we saw that Elias and Ayre were launching their Bodega truck with a soft opening at Heidrun’s Mother’s Day Brunch, we immediately booked reservations. The idea that the Bodega was going to give us access at restaurant quality food, made from healthy local ingredients, on days when we might not feel like having a formal sit-down meal was more than appealing. And that is exactly what we have found every time we have eaten with them since.

The Bodega’s menu is hard to nail down but is self-described as California Street Food. With some many great local sources of meat and produce, Elias just goes with the flow of the seasons.

“It is really incredible to watch Elias work with farmers,” says Ayre. “He is a natural and is totally at home whether shopping our local farmers markets, or actually visiting the farms themselves.”

“The Bodega” fried chicken sandwich will always be their cornerstone, and for good reason. Although diners may suffer from the initial sticker shock of a $14 price tag, we have had the opportunity to directly compare “The Bodega” against chicken sandwiches half that price, and simply put, there is no comparison. We would gladly pay more because its freshness, quality and flavor are on par with what we find at our favorite restaurants.

Other than “The Bodega,” the menu changes regularly. “I’m bad about getting menus to people early because I don’t get true inspiration until I’m at the market talking with farmers and seeing what looks good,” says Elias. “I try to treat everything with real simple touch, letting the natural flavors do the heavy lifting.”

We regularly see some sort of smoked fished on the menu, which recently included a Sorrel Cured Stealhead on a bagel with homemade chevre and a shaved veggie salad and a Wild Stealhead sandwich, topped with the same Green Goddess Slaw that comes on “The Bodega.”

Elias tries to keep at least two veggie options on the menu, which at our last visit were Peach Farms Tomatoes topped with Espelette aioli, cotija, and basil and Piano Farms Broccoli served with chili, orange and Parmesan. At the Mother’s Day brunch, our vegetarians were able to dine on Griddled Delta Asparagus, with Coastal Hill eggs and Calabrian hollandaise, and a Parmesan Crusted Bodino, made with Piano Farms’ greens and herbs.

With a name like the Bodega, and with Elias and Ayre’s close connection to Tomales and Bodega Bays, it comes as no surprise that Hog Island Oysters are almost always on the menu.

For your sweet tooth, the Bodega always offers something simple, yet naturally flavorful, like Piano Farms strawberries with crème fraiche, or if you are lucky, pavlova and sumac. On special occasions we were able to order a Bacon and Almond Butter Cinnamon Roll, with molasses frosting and True Grass Farms Blueberry Donuts, which are like the best little blueberry muffins, deep-fried.

For an added touch of class, and consciousness, the Bodega uses plant-based plates and cutlery. Their plates and bowls are made from pressed palm leaves by an Indian “ecopreneurist,” so the dishes are just as at home in the compost bin as the trash bin.

The Bodega regularly appears at the Block — Petaluma, as well as various events around the North Bay. Fans can follow The Bodega on Facebook at The Bodega CA and on Instagram at TheBodega_CA. Currently, they are schedule at the Block for June 14, 21, 22, 24, 28, and July 1, 5, 6, 8, 12, 16, 19, 20, 26, but check their pages for times because The Block rolls in a different set of trucks for lunch and dinner on the weekends. Starting in August, the Bodega’s regular schedule at the Block will be on Thursdays and Fridays from 4-10 p.m.

Although always in a casual atmosphere, The Bodega is the first food truck that we actually crave and follow on social media because Elias and Ayre have elevated the experience to a point where The Bodega is on our short list of favorite “restaurants.” Whether visiting them at a food truck roundup, or dining at a formal event they are catering, if we see the Bodega is going to be in attendance, we are likely to change our plans, even if only to taste “The Bodega” sandwich one more time.