2012: Year of the silver horse

SN&R’s food critic raises a toast to the year’s best dining trends

After a few years of feeling like the dining scene was, understandably, in a bit of a holding pattern because of the wrenching recession, I now feel like it’s going almost too fast to keep up.

Some of the big changes have occurred in no, not the newly branded stretch of K Street called “The Kay,” but in an area near the Safeway located on 19th Street. Let’s call it the “Silver Horse District.”

Ramen House Ryujin (1831 S Street) recently took over for a spot that previously housed a generic Greek place and then a generic Mexican eatery—don’t you love it when a local restaurant replaces a chain, (which also happened when Firestone Public House trumped California Pizza Kitchen downtown)? While I steadfastly refuse to participate in the Shoki Ramen House vs. Ryujin debate, the latter is already a packed addition to the neighborhood.

Right across the street, big changes are also happening at Bows & Arrows (1815 19th Street), with the departure of its much-loved Fat Face cafe helmed by Jaymes Luu and the advent of Bows Bistro, with chef Gabriel Nokes. Nokes has expanded his successful Sunday brunch menu to include creative sandwiches, more salads and soups, and late-night snacks such as chicken tacos and a veggie and pickle plate with vegan dressing.

Perhaps most exciting of all is the opening of the nearby Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. (1630 S Street), a serious cocktail bar with ambitious food. I’m not sure if there’s much call in our still-depressed local economy for a casual place with $20-plus entrees, but the salads here are generously sized and skillfully composed, and the pizza is decent—more than decent, actually, in the case of one topped with rock shrimp and a sardine bagna cauda that tastes like haute anchovies.

Meanwhile, across the grid, the most exciting development in my neighborhood is the opening of The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar (2718 J Street). Its menu features many strong dishes, including “street” tacos with a complicated preparation, an ever-changing house salad, and a wonderfully messy burger that’s served with an egg on top. My only problem with Red Rabbit is that it’s so popular that there’s often a 45-minute wait on the weekends.

Some well-established places also had banner years. Masullo Pizza (2711 Riverside Boulevard) collected many deserved laurels, including famous pizzaiolo Chris Bianco ranking it as one of his top 11 pizzerias—right up there with Mario Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza. This just confirms what some of us have known for years: Masullo is turning out some of the best pizza anywhere, not just in Sac.

And, of course, chefs Adam Pechal of Restaurant Thir13en (1300 H Street) and Tuli Bistro (2013 S Street) and Michael Thiemann of Ella Dining Room & Bar (1131 K Street) have racked up too big of a word count nationally to recount here, but the two highlights include being quoted in a New York Times foie gras article and in the magazine Lucky Peach, respectively.

While most of the hype is garnered by the fine-dining scene, the food of south Sacramento is just as important and exciting, sometimes more so. A simple dish of miniature baby clams sautéed with chili oil and served with chopped Vietnamese coriander at Bánh Xèo 46A (7837 Stockton Boulevard) is beautiful and surprising enough to take its place on any white-tablecloth menu. A platter of meltingly braised short ribs in tomato sauce with pillow-soft rice at Tacos & Beer (5701 Franklin Boulevard) could easily go for 26 bucks at a place like Mulvaney’s Building & Loan.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the rip-roaringly successful collaborations and competitions between local chefs or the upcoming Sacramento Bacon Fest, which is sure to be major, or the continued retooling of the places located across from the Crest Theatre on “The Kay,” or—well, you get the idea. Let’s raise a craft beer or artisanal cocktail toast to all the dedicated, hardworking restaurateurs in thanks, and with the wish that 2013 is even better, for them and for us.