A bite down memory lane
June’s Cafe has “temporarily” closed since the passing of Dennis O’Sullivan, June’s husband. Will it reopen?
With each passing day, on a quiet stretch of 9th and V streets, a sinking feeling grows that June’s Cafe may have shut down for good.
A “closed” sign hangs ominously in the window. An unplugged rice cooker rests on a counter, which normally would be packed with locals scarfing lunch plates of loco moco and chicken katsu. The lights are off, a few scattered bowls are covered with towels.
Sacramento may have lost not just a beloved eatery, but part of its soul.
June’s Cafe has been deserted since July, following the death of co-owner Dennis O’Sullivan. As of Tuesday, it remained shuttered. A post on its rarely updated Facebook page says any news will be posted there.
The possible loss of the diner buzzes around the downtown neighborhood, one that continues to shed its roots as an enclave of Sacramento’s Asian-American community. The topic brings up a certain amount of sadness at Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, the Michelin-honored Japanese restaurant around the corner from June’s.
“June’s Cafe is history in this community,” Tokiko Sawada, Binchoyaki’s co-owner, said during a recent lunch rush. “It’s a small diner that everyone kind of grew up in. Her presence there is more like the mother of the community. And there’s nothing like your mother’s cooking. You take a bite and go down this memory lane.”
The memories run deep. This area near Southside Park was once a thriving Japantown, a hub of business and community life. It’s an extension of Sacramento’s original Japantown, near where Golden 1 Center and DoCo currently stand. After the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, many of them were displaced from Japantown when they returned and found their homes and businesses taken over by government action.
Many of the residents moved south and concentrated in the neighborhood near 9th and V streets. That Japantown character can still be seen in Osaka-Ya, the mochi shop and snow cone stand on 10th Street, or the fading Wakano Ura sign that hangs up the block for an eatery that closed a decade ago.
Dennis O’Sullivan ran the 20-seat June’s Cafe for nearly three decades with his wife, Junko (aka “June”). Together, they continued a tradition of old-school Japanese-American lunch counters, where neighborhood locals gossiped over bites of macaroni salad and slurps of miso soup. Debit card readers be damned, money was collected at a push-button cash register.
The building that houses June’s was built in the 1960s and is the former home of both Mary’s Fountain and Kay’s Fountain, similar lunch counters that catered to the neighborhood’s Asian-American tastes.
Some of these lunch counter foods have roots in the internment camps, such as the Tule Lake War Relocation Center near the California-Oregon border, where food was a rare gateway to pleasure. With just a bit of pan-fried meat, soy sauce, some egg and onion—always, lots of onion—magic could emerge from limited rations. Add a bed of sticky rice and a heaping of love, and survival meals like these remain treasured tastes decades later.
June’s Cafe specialized in these foods. June did the cooking, including mounds of bacon fried rice, weenie royale and the occasional burger. Dennis cleared tables and manned the cash register.
The American-ized menu was once foreign to June. She was raised in suburban Tokyo and met Dennis in Japan while he was stationed there with the U.S. Navy. But when she and Dennis decided to open their own cafe, they stuck with the foods most beloved by locals.
Between orders, they bantered with customers while onions sweated on the stove. Diners in Sacramento couldn’t get more mom-and-pop than this; June was known to give the stink-eye to new customers who tried to sit at the counter, reserved for regulars.
The regulars remained fiercely loyal over the years, including a Binchoyaki customer named Sandy.
“You’d go in and there’d be a lot of old-timers, which was fun,” she says. “Slowly that kind of dissipated. But it was just like going to grandma’s house—and what’s she going to make for you? Weenies and rice.”
The future of June’s Cafe is unclear. A voice mail message says it’s closed “temporarily.” But that closure’s going on its third month with no sign of any change. SN&R left a message that hasn’t been returned.
Taking a seat at June’s was like traveling to a simpler time in Sacramento that’s all but vanished. June’s Cafe may be gone forever as well.