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Enjoy Wine Country
Living in Wine Country
Dining on a Dime

 When you read about dining in Napa Valley, it's almost always about fine food, an intimate or dramatic ambiance, a tome-like wine list, and service that meets your every need. These enviable qualities usually come with a hefty price tag, however, and even less-than-great meals can run into the hundreds of dollars.
Fortunately, the valley is also home to fun places to get a delicious bite to eat at a reasonable price. You just have to know where they are. The city of Napa is the most populous town in the county, so it's not surprising that it also has the most places to dine on a few dollars. Below are a few personal favorites -- along with caveats.

Soscol Cafe:
Chef/owner Javier Cejas took over Jack's Galley a number of years back and renamed the small diner "the Soscol Cafe." It's open only for breakfast and early lunch, closing around 1:30 in the afternoon.
Javier's skills on the grill are top-notch, and the food is tasty, substantial, and reasonably priced. A huge plate of huevos rancheros -- two eggs laden with black beans, cheese, salsa, sour cream, and guacamole atop a crisp tortilla -- and a large glass of whole milk (no 2% here) costs under $10. Along with biscuit and gravy favorites, Cejas springs surprise specials such as crab cakes made in a light, spicy, non-greasy style.

The caveat for eating here is that the building is old and small. Expect to leave with the smell of grill grease clinging to your clothes.

China Light:
If you like Chinese food, China Light is a great place to drop in. Shirley (her American name) usually has some interesting specials in addition to dishes prepared with whatever vegetable is fresh and in season -- think green beans, asparagus, and bok choy. Check out the Salty Pepper Pork Chop ($7) and the Whole Crispy Fish with Black Bean Sauce ($13).

I don't believe China Light has raised its prices since 2002. That's when they stopped offering an egg roll with the daily lunch specials ($5.50), although you still get soup, tea and rice along with your selection. There are 35 lunch specials on the daily menu.

The food here is served speedily, so it's perfect for a quick meal before enjoying a performance at the Opera House across the street. If you stay out late, there's also a great hangover cure: a huge, steaming bowl of War Won Ton soup. The caveat: China Light has stopped serving sake, which I found to be a great accompaniment to the food. Don't forget to ask Shirley to read your fortune-cookie fortune to you in Chinese.

Small World Restaurant:
Small World offers traditional lamb gyros, Shwarm (tri-tip) in pita, falafels, hummus, and baba ghanoush with real Middle-Eastern flair. Various grilled vegetables served in pita bread are also available, and there is a nice selection of Greek and Arabic salads. Lunch for two with smoothies is usually around $20.

3 Hermanos:
A favorite downtown taqueria is 3 Hermanos, where the cuisine is flavorful and authentic. The salsa is fresh and the variety of meats served is impressive: grilled beef, barbecued goat, fried pork, beef head, sausage, beef tongue, barbecued pork, and chicken. Caveat: the beans and rice are just average.

A fresh taco is $1.80, and two of those with a Pepsi make a great lunch for less than $5. Chips and two salsas are served with every meal, including take-out. You can get an amazing prawn plate for $9.90, served a la diabla (hot and spicy), rancheros (cooked with veggies), al mojo de ajo (scampy-style), or empanizados (battered and deep-fried). Your choice, same price.

Soscal Cafe
603 Soscol Ave.
Napa, Calif. (707) 258.8707

China Light
1012 First Street
Napa, Calif. (707) 226.2809

Small World Restaurant
928 Coombs St.
Napa, CA (707) 224.7743

3 Hermanos
1122-A First St.
Napa, CA (707) 224-1214

MAY/JUN 2005

Dining on a Dime if Napa Valley
This Grape Juice Loves Wine

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