Several years ago, with the news that a newborn baby had come home to live in the oh-so-tiny town of Volcano, a local resident ducked into the St. George Hotel and asked to borrow some Wite-Out. That day, thanks to a couple of deft brushstrokes and a Sharpie scribble, the population on the nearby sign was adjusted, unofficially, from 100 to 101.
Fast forward to the present and – get this – the head count in Volcano is up to 103, according to that same sign. During the height of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, 10,000 people lived in the Amador County village. They searched for gold, ravaged the land, lived hard, drank plenty and, every so often when things got testy, someone was bludgeoned or stabbed or gunned down. Some people got rich, others didn’t. Most moved on. It’s all part of the legacy of the foothills that in many ways shaped the California we now know.
The Volcano of 2014 is, in the best of ways, in the middle of nowhere and, at the moment, is more into showcasing history than making it. But that shouldn’t discourage you from making the hour-plus drive from Sacramento to a modest little restaurant there that just might be the apotheosis of 21st century California casual cuisine. It exudes a sense of place and brims with purpose. Its appeal is timeless.
The Union Inn Pub fits in perfectly with its surroundings, and the cuisine is rooted in a farm-to-fork ethos that now seems so de rigueur, though the pub has simply always done it that way without tooting any horns.
Outside the inn, I encountered a stoic Bernese mountain dog named Bode towing a trailer in preparation for an upcoming Fourth of July parade. Inside the pub, Johnny, a man of a certain age with chiseled features and a big white cowboy hat, sat alone at the end of the bar, flirting with the servers and nursing his usual glass of red wine with ice cubes. He lives next door with yard-roaming chickens and, with a nod to what commerce looked like 160 years ago, Johnny will sometimes trade fresh eggs for wine.
He’s getting quite the deal, as are we all, for when you size up this place – the setting, the vibe the wonderful staff and the beautiful food – it’s working the casual fare concept close to perfectly. The half-pound burger is one of the best anywhere, a big, juicy slab of ground beef with all kinds of add-ons that enhance the meat’s flavor rather than overwhelm it. The fried chicken looks amazing and tastes even better. The fettuccine has an elegance that takes pub food and elevates it without coming off as prissy or precious.
Union Inn pub is owned by Mark and Tracey Berkner, who also own the superb fine-dining restaurant Taste in Plymouth, about 20 miles away. If Taste brings big-city sophistication to small-town life, this pub is all about connecting with the Volcano community and welcoming visitors to embrace what’s special there. The feel of the place is relaxed and easy and fun. The large patio is ideal for outdoor dining.
Experiencing this pub requires a drive and an act of faith. From Sacramento, you’ll pass Sloughhouse, and you’ll just be getting started. You’ll see cows and more cows and some horses and, if it’s close to dusk, a whole bunch of deer roaming and foraging near the highway. You’ll see plenty of wine grapes. You’ll pass a house with, inexplicably, a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel and all kinds of life-sized copper animal sculptures in the front yard.
The road will narrow and then get hilly, and just when you start to wonder how long it’s been since you saw another car or if this little town still exists, you’re there. There’s no stoplight, and no bus stops or traffic jams or frantic parents racing kids to soccer practice.
The best way to enjoy Union Inn Pub is to make it part of a daylong adventure. It can be the focal point of the trip. It can be the place where you take a break from visiting wineries, hunting antiques or sightseeing. Even better, stay at one of the four rooms upstairs and make it a mini-getaway. Rooms start at around $100 and include a cook’s breakfast.
Dining at the pub is easy, and the menu is accessible. While the wine list is significantly more compact than Taste’s, there are 30 or so bottles available, with an emphasis on local selections at less than $40. Wines by the glass in several popular styles are a very reasonable $6-$9. There’s also a nice selection of craft beer, including offerings from local/regional breweries. One example is Fire Break, an excellent Irish red ale by American River Brewing in Rancho Cordova. The brewery donates money to a firefighters’ burn fund with each order, and the Union Inn gives 50 cents for each pint sold to support the local volunteer fire department.
Tracey Berkner, who lives with her family on the outskirts of Volcano, said the restaurant is designed around what they and their neighbors want to eat. Everything stems from that.
The couple has a wealth of experience in the hospitality industry, and it shows. They had successful careers with Marriott Hotels before staking their own claim. The Berkners bought the St. George Hotel in 1997, spent years renovating the property and sold it at a profit in 2003. They opened Taste in 2006 and quickly established it as a serious player in the culinary world. Last year, Taste was invited to cook dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.
In 2009, the couple bought the Union Inn, which is just around a bend from the St. George. It has had numerous owners through the years, some who operated a restaurant on occasion. The Berkners have made it a thriving part of the community.
The most popular dish by far is the burger. It’s a head-turner that tastes as good as it looks. Unlike some gourmet trophy burgers that try too hard to be different and wind up overwhelming the meat with showy extras, the Union Inn burger is a classic take that makes the beef the star. It arrives with a large steak knife pierced through the top and is close to 6 inches tall. We got ours with mushrooms, roasted red peppers, bacon, lettuce, tomato and red onion. The heavyweight patty was cooked with precision. It was delicious and hearty and refined.
It comes with thick fries, and if you can finish everything on the plate, you deserve a medal.
For a starter during one recent visit, we had the crispy duck wings, which turned out to be a revelation. These large, meaty wings were rich and loaded with flavor. This is the pub’s take on hot wings by way of the classic preparation duck a l’orange.
Preparing the wings is a multiday process, and it’s one of many signs that this pub is not taking shortcuts. First, the wings are cured overnight. Then they are cooked confit-style in their own fat for six to eight hours. When a customer places an order, the wings are then finished in the fryer, giving them a deep-brown color. The glaze is a blend of harissa and orange juice, which gives it a spicy-sweet complexity. It’s a great eating experience and one of my favorite appetizers in memory. This could easily be a meal, along with, say, a dinner salad.
The kitchen has a star in the making, the 25-year-old sous chef named Micah Malcolm. While Mark Berkner is the executive chef at both restaurants, Malcolm runs the day-to-day operation and has plenty of say with the menu, which changes seasonally. Berkner oversees the culinary program at Delta College. Malcolm is one of its graduates and impressed the Berkners so much that he has been running the kitchen since he was 23.
Many of Malcolm’s dishes are superb. He has a command of technique, and his cooking marries textural and flavor elements with great success.
The fried chicken, cooked to a crisp, golden brown, came in two large pieces, which, to our surprise, turned out to be exceptionally tender and moist boneless breast meat. Since white meat can easily get too dry and bland, the poultry is brined in a salt solution, then dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour mixed with a proprietary blend of seasonings. Why boneless? It’s easier to eat.
It comes with a serving of macaroni and cheese, also long on flavor, and a simple arugula salad. This is a dish that works well with beer, as does the burger. Tracey Berkner tells me that while Taste is very wine-centric, the pub’s fare inspires folks to order beer.
The Pacific cod was a solid dish, though it included the only cooking misstep I experienced. I’m referring to the risotto with English peas and feta. While the texture was rich, creamy and toothsome, the overall flavor came off as a tad bland, mostly because it needed more assertive salting. I ordered it on another visit and, while marginally better, it still came up short.
Other dinner entrees are excellent, including the lamb meatballs with grilled Delta asparagus, deftly plated with roasted potatoes and a sun-dried-tomato pesto.
Perhaps the finest cooking and plating was with the Union Carbonara, a $16 fettuccine dish that had all of the elements working in harmony – the texture of the fresh ribbons of pasta, the flavors of the applewood-smoked bacon, the English peas and the subtle sauce. It was beautiful, elegant and delicious. Even though it came from a pub kitchen, this dish could pass muster at any fine-dining establishment.
The desserts are fun and play on our sense of nostalgia. The delicious crème brulée comes in a mason jar. The fresh fruit cobbler is served warm and with ice cream, with a thick, flaky crust.
The Berkners seem to embrace the idea that many of our favorite foods are actually favorite food memories from our childhoods. Thus, I could not resist the 50/50 float. I loved floats as a kid. Only this time, there was Tracey Berkner at our table, pouring the orange cream soda over scoops of vanilla ice cream. It bubbled up just the way I knew it would.
After my recent visits, with a detour for dinner one night at Taste, I can say with certainty that no casual restaurant serving pub-style food does it any better than Union Inn. It’s worth the drive – and the leap of faith.