Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen Review
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen
St Helena, CA
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen Food
Our first visit to Cindy's was pretty awful, and to make matters worse, we were really looking forward to it with all of its good press. We'd heard good things about the homey, unpretentiousness of the menu, especially how great their take on such things as meatloaf and macaroni and cheese are. So during our first visit, I ordered the steak, and my wife decided to see just how charming this meatloaf of theirs could be. Well, my steak was fine, but my wife's meatloaf was cold. Not lukewarm, but cold, like fresh out of the refrigerator cold. That was actually the worst dish we've ever been served in all the restaurants we've been to. The staff wasn't particularly embarrassed or apologetic about this, either. They crisply took the offending meatloaf away, and returned it (did I hear a microwave go "ding?") piping hot a few minutes later. No "sorry for the inconvenience" or "this has never happened before." We've heard stories of people getting restaurants to cough up a free dessert or even to not charge for the offending entree in situations like this, but we barely got even a sniff out of them. We have since theorized that maybe it was because we were there later in the evening after the dinner rush, and maybe the staff was tired. But if the management has to decide between closing early for the night or staying open only to provide unheated food and shitty service, it should be a no-brainer. I was pretty unhappy with this whole experience, but uttering the words "Cindy's," or "Backstreet," combined with "Kitchen" could send my wife into an uncontrollable fit of rage for several months afterwards.
Back to the charming meatloaf...Well, it (once heated) tasted fine, but it was not the religious experience that some reviewers had said it would be. Then again, shame on us for thinking that meatloaf could be raised to the level of "religious experience." Although we'll give any restaurant an extra shot since anybody can have a bad day (but we'll cross you off for sure if you have two consecutive botches), there are a lot of restaurants to choose from in the area, and that's a particularly bad mistake to make.
Flash forward maybe 8 months later, and while trying to figure out where to eat, I remembered reading SweetNapa's reviews of Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen (see below in the links section) and decided we should give Cindy's another shot. Surprisingly, my wife, who was almost ready to turn pro at bad-mouthing Cindy's, agreed to give them a second chance. Our second experience was thankfully a lot better.
Cindy's will start you off with bread and butter. A lot of places do this, but Cindy's does it right in the sense that the bread is hot, and the butter is soft which I've always wondered why more places don't do. In many places, the bread is cold or the butter is cold and hard to get into and spread.
I think the first time we went we had the fried calamari. I don't remember much about it good or bad (it was almost a year ago although I don't think it matched up against Kelley's for us.) The second time we went, we had the Stuffed Piquillo Peppers which had some beef inside and was resting in some charred tomato sauce. It is a great idea, but I thought it could've been stronger flavored. The beef wasn't well seasoned, and although, I thought the tomato sauce was tasty overall, I thought it was a little under-seasoned too.
To be honest, the only thing I remember from our first visit there was my wife's cold meatloaf since I had a hard time figuring out such a dumb mistake. It sits in a horseradish BBQ sauce so presumably somebody had to actually assemble the dish. The return visit was much better. I had the Incredible Mushroom Tamales with creamy grits & chard with Yucatecan salsa which was very good if you like mushrooms (me loves 'shrooms). The mushroom and grits with the salsa was creamy and tangy, and it's all piping hot. I thought maybe the salsa could've used just a bit more pop, but overall, it's a very yummy dish. My wife had the burger which was good too although not quite cooked to order (medium). A number of burgers in upper Napa Valley restaurants are too snooty to give you fries with your burger (although oddly some of these same places will serve steak and fries), but Cindy's does serve fries which were nicely fried and well-seasoned. That being said, I'd pick the burger at ABC over Cindy's. Not only is ABC's bread a lot better (this has more to say with ABC being a bakery than Cindy's having bad bread), but ABC cooked ours to order (medium) correctly whereas Cindy's was closer to medium well and a little drier than we would've liked. I suspect my wife's burger was sitting a little too long before it got served.
If you new to Cindy's, you will want to try the Campfire Pie; SweetNapa does a much better job of describing it than I could. The first thing that will hit you is the thick, toasted marshmallow covering that's golden brown and crunchy on the top and fluffy inside. Once you get past the mashmallows, you'll be greeted with chocolate, almonds, cookie crust, and caramel. Watch out for the heat index though. The pie and plate were quite hot. My wife made the mistake of grabbing a piece and sticking it in her mouth and then came the simultaneous emergency air suck and water grab.
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen Setting and Service
Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen has a large following of regulars in the area. Cindy Pawlcyn is an institution of sorts here with her cookbooks and success at Mustard's and others. Lots of folks know each other even if they're tourists. There are a series of regular events at Cindy's as well like their celebrity bartenders night on Thursdays where local winemakers show off their wines (and try their hand at bartending). They have a "supper club" on Wednesdays where Cindy's has a 3 course menu with a particular theme. When we went, the winemaker from Sawyer Cellars was on hand, came to our table, and offered us some tastings from his collection. (a) it was free (b) his wines were pretty good and (c) the pours were as large as the wine we ordered with our meal. My wife wasn't that keen on his meritage, but the cabernet sauvignon was excellent and the best of the 4 wines on the table. I ended up going through that one in a hurry. Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen is a bit on the loud side (ie, folks know each other and aren't just a bunch of tourists), but there's a community vibe to it that not a lot of restaurants can claim.
Price for our meal
For the quality of the food and fun atmosphere, Cindy's actually isn't too expensive. 1 appetizer, 2 glasses of wine, 2 entrees, 1 dessert ran about $90 with tax and tip. It is one of the more popular restaurants in the area; you should get reservations.
Other Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen Reviews and Links
- SweetNapa review 1 and review 2
- Yelp User reviews
- Fork and Bottle review
- CitySearch User reviews
- San Francisco Chronicle review
- Bay Area Foodie blog review