A full deck
Sacramento, CA 95814
The space at the corner of R and 15th streets that formerly housed the ill-fated Sammy Chu’s and Icon has risen again, thanks to the indefatigable Paragary’s Restaurant Group. This time, the restaurateurs appear to have taken several precautionary measures to ensure that the third time is the charm: There’s a bold new can’t-miss-it coat of red and yellow paint, as well as a tried and true restaurant concept: Cafe Bernardo, which is already popular not too far away on Capitol Avenue.
In addition to the cozy and familiar Cafe Bernardo space, much of the large restaurant’s area has been remade into an upscale sports bar, R15. (Note the handy mnemonic device for the intersection at which it’s located that constitutes the bar’s name—another way to make the new venues fail-safe?) There you’ll find pool tables, buzz, a snack-y menu, and a funky ceiling that looks like a giant version of those Lite-Brite toys that I coveted in the ’70s.
All this is distinct from the Cafe Bernardo area, though the two parts of the venue flow into each other. Bernardo has a very different ceiling, one that looks like a giant hanging picture frame, with mismatched chandeliers dangling within. It also has plenty of tables and a nice outdoor patio, though R15 can handle overflow seating when things get busy, as they were on the Sunday morning we visited. The strategies for increasing business seem to be working; it looks like this restaurant will be a hit, or at least it is so far.
If neighborhood crowds are flocking, I can’t blame them. The food is tasty, the prices are right, and the service is casual but efficient and helpful. (When I stopped in for a lunch takeout order, no fewer than three servers solicitously offered to check on its progress during the five or so minutes I waited.) The service drill is the same as at the other Bernardo. You order at the counter and get an oversized playing card to take to your table, and the food appears shortly. The one confusing part is that you pick up your drinks yourself, at the counter. Since that’s not always made clear when you order, your latte can languish and cool.
My preferred meal here is breakfast. They open at 7 a.m. every day, which means it’s always possible to beat the crowds, and there’s a nice range of food, but portions are restrained. I don’t feel like lying on the couch all day nursing a food hangover after breakfast or brunch at Cafe Bernardo, and that’s definitely a good thing. We went for a big family breakfast, and everyone left happy, from the 16-month-old on up to her grandfather. My daughter joyously tore the buttermilk pancakes to pieces, and I can confirm that the hotcakes are superlatively fluffy and delicious, but I also really like the savory options. Chorizo and eggs is a simple dish, just what it says: Mexican sausage in scrambled eggs. No cheese or sour cream or other stuff gucks up the plate; it’s just a simple mixture of spicy meat and tender eggs, with a warm flour tortilla and Bernardo’s excellent herbed potatoes on the side. I’m a fan of those potatoes, as I’ve not yet encountered one that’s undercooked or soggy (a rarity at most brunch places), and they lack the stale flavor and cardboardy texture of so many cooked-ahead home fries.
A similar level of care is taken with the other breakfast dishes. The house-made hollandaise on the eggs Bernardo was tangy, creamy and perfect. My only quibble with the Black Forest ham omelet my husband ordered was that the menu’s “griddled tomatoes” just tasted like regular sliced tomatoes; if they were precooked to add savory heft, it wasn’t detectable. My dad, uncharacteristically, ordered a tofu scramble, and pronounced it the best one he’d ever had. It turns out it was also the only one he’d had, but I agreed: It had a soft texture studded with veggies and a nice spark from a spoonful of fresh pesto.
The happy delights of breakfast set a high bar for the lunch and dinner service, which includes light options, like a salad sampler and sandwiches, as well as larger plates (flat iron steak, spaghettini with shrimp and cherry tomatoes) and pizzettas. We tried the grilled salmon BLT, which was slightly flawed in execution: The toasted sourdough wheat was overdone to the point of acrid charring, and one of the pieces of bacon was so hard that for a second I thought I’d bitten down on the wooden pick that held the sandwich together. I liked the addition of a thin slice of buttery, savory salmon, though; it made the classic BLT more filling and added a nice new flavor.
The pizzetta we tried, with grilled chicken, corn, a sprinkling of bacon, goat cheese, and thyme, was better. The salty bacon, tangy goat cheese and sweet-roasted corn kernels balanced each other out, and the light yet crackly crust had a nice yeasty flavor. I had a honey lemonade as well, which I thought could have used a little more lemon and less honey.
Desserts include luscious-looking cakes (I was eyeing the carrot cake) and a cute-sounding ice-cream sandwich. I skipped them on this visit, but I think I’ll have to go back. I can be pretty sure that this iteration of the restaurant at 15th and R won’t be folding any time soon.