Some people might scoff at the idea of driving half an hour to try a new take on an old lunchtime favorite, the sandwich.
I chose instead to think of my afternoon outing to Crockett the way that Janet Jackson does, as an escapade and temporary detour away from these monotonous, insular, pandemically restricted afternoons.
It would be premature to report that my destination, the small town nestled beside the Carquinez Bridge, is in the midst of a renaissance. But as I arrived and parked—easily!—downtown, there were signs of life emanating from inside the storefronts, if not on the mostly empty streets.
On my way to find the as-yet-signless Lucia’s Craft Sandwich, I passed an art gallery and a bar. My companions on Second Avenue were two relaxed day drinkers enjoying libations on tiny alfresco tables. And, just past the boîte I was looking for, construction workers assembled the guts of a cafe-in-progress called Wanda’s. In a snapshot, Crockett reminds me of Gold Country, not because of its architecture or anything else to do with its outward appearance, but because it, too, managed to willfully dodge an extinction-level event.
For the past 20 years, I’ve watched many East Bay neighborhoods start to wake up when a bakery or restaurant moves in. While it’s too early to tell if Lucia’s will have the same effect in Crockett, chef and owner Randy Valdez, with his wife and business partner Faith Harrison, have started a gourmet deli on a solid foundation. One that’s made up of creamy ricotta spreads and springy focaccia squares.
Earlier this year in March, Valdez was laid off from his job at the Hotel Shattuck. “Everybody started canceling their large parties,” he says. “All the catering was just gone, wiped out. So there was no reason for us to be there.” Valdez’ experience in the restaurant industry is extensive and wide-ranging. He’s worked in Brooklyn (for Saul Bolton), in Napa and in San Francisco. But when he suddenly had free time, he was happy to be safe at home with his wife and their two kids.
As the Covid-19 weeks turned into months, Valdez stumbled across online videos featuring an Italian sandwich maker named Andrea Borderi. Don’t watch them if you’re hungry. Borderi piles countless ingredients on each sandwich until they’re fat and tall. There are lines of people waiting to get their hands on one. Valdez, a Crockett resident, felt inspired. He met with a local landlord and set up the shop with their savings. Lucia is their daughter’s name.
His sandwich and toast-making approach comes, in part, from what he learned at Zuni Café, where he worked for the late Judy Rodgers. “Her philosophy was, it’s all about the product, and, keep it simple,” he explains. She also said to him, “Beware of fancy food. If it looks too pretty, it’s probably not that good.” Valdez watched Borderi and thought, all you need is quality meats, good bread and great ingredients. “And, don’t do too much to them,” he says, adding, “Let them sing on their own.”
Valdez has been developing sandwich recipes in a journal that he’s been keeping for the past 20 years. “You can see this progression of my ideas throughout,” he says. The chef and I spoke a few days after I returned home from my cross-county jaunt. He was curious to know what I’d tried. After I listed the smoked salmon toast, a slice of mushroom focaccia pizza and a turkey sandwich, Valdez noted enthusiastically that the NOLA is his favorite sandwich, with mortadella, ham, salami, olives and provolone.
He also went on to praise his wife’s ability to make artfully composed toast. “She’s good with her hands and I think it’s the perfect thing for her because she likes to make things look beautiful,” Valdez says. “They have a lot of little touches like smørrebrød from Norway and Denmark,” he explains. Then, as if he suddenly remembered the taste of something delicious, recommends the smoked trout toast with potatoes and leeks. “The flavors are complex and it’s a really good little dish.”
Lucia’s Craft Sandwich, open daily 8am to 4pm, 611 2nd Ave., Crockett. 510.722.3018. luciascraftsandwich.com.