A plate of nostalgia

SN&R food critics, past and present, toast the restaurants and food memories they miss from the last quarter-century

Sure, you can still buy a Merlino’s Orange Freeze at various locations, but it’s just not the same thing as buying the sweet treat straight from the stand.

Sure, you can still buy a Merlino’s Orange Freeze at various locations, but it’s just not the same thing as buying the sweet treat straight from the stand.

illustration by Hayley Doshay

It’s no secret: Sacramento is a happening place for new restaurants and a growing foodie community. But many of these new restaurants opening now won’t make it in the long run. It’s a tough business, and this town’s been home to many an eatery that boasted amazing food and a loyal customer following. Well, here’s to them: A roll call of great food favorites that came and went since 1989. May their memory live on.

Dollar hand rolls and medieval torture devices

Ricksha: This was the spot to go for dollar hand rolls on Tuesdays before going to dance at Lipstick at Old Ironsides. It’s the first place I tried natto, fermented soy beans, and was the only local spot that served chawan mushi, a seafood custard dish.

Market Club: I didn’t eat there many times, but I did eat there on the most important day of my life: my wedding day. It was close to my wedding spot, so I met my bridesmaid there to get some food in me and calm my nerves. We sat on stools at the counter and ate starchy breakfasts— it was practically the only food I ate that day, unless champagne counts as food.

New Helvetia: The cafe in Curtis Park was one of two New Helvetias; the other was where Mulvaney’s Building & Loan is now. I worked there making coffee about 15 years ago, starting way too early in the morning. I miss its scones with Devonshire cream; the huge, crusty biscuits with jam; and the Mexican hot chocolate.

Cheung Hing Company: Years ago, I lived on the corner practically on top of this place. On weekend mornings there would be lines out the door for its dim sum and roast duck. I’d see workers slinging whole hogs over their shoulders and roasting them in a contraption in the back that looked like a medieval torture device. I miss being able to run there for its pork bao and shu mai in a fancy pink box.

La Bonne Soup Café: I love jury duty, and one of my favorite things about it was going to La Bonne Soup Café for lunch. The French onion soup! The salmon! The pork loin! The only things I didn’t like: seat savers and dumb Yelpers calling supernice owner Daniel Pont the “soup Nazi.” I need to get out to his Folsom restaurant, Chez Daniel, stat! —B.G.

Hot and local and not gourmet

Joe Marty’s: This bar and grill located adjacent to the Tower Theatre closed in 2005 following a fire. There was briefly hope it would reopen, but nothing came of it, and the space is still vacant. Happily, the iconic sign with the baseball still hangs in place.

Ford’s Real Hamburgers: This Sutterville Road joint closed in 2012 due to an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit, although the end was nigh when it stopped sourcing meat from Taylor’s Market. The burgers weren’t gourmet, but they were hot and local and around for 25 years.

Luis’s Mexican Food: This Mexican restaurant on Alhambra Boulevard was where my husband and I signed our mortgage papers for our first house. The walls were covered in photos of owner Luis Leyva and locals until it closed after his death in 2003. His son opened Luis Jr.’s Mexican Food a few blocks away in 2011 with a lot of the same menu items, but much less history.

Market Club: Opened in 1933 and closed in 2013, it was one of the few places to serve Wiener Royale, a cross-cultural favorite from internment-camp days. Sort of a secret spot, it was the epitome of the locals-only greasy spoon.

Texas Mexican Restaurant: Once located downtown on Eighth Street, it served dishes unique to Tex-Mex cooking in addition to Mexican favorites. It closed due to legal issues, reopened, then closed again soon after. The owner tried reopening as Tex Mex Bar & Grill in Midtown, but that didn’t last long. —AMR

Brought to tears

Istanbul Bistro: If you blinked, you missed it. Authentic, well-prepared and affordable Turkish food at its finest. It filled a culinary niche in Sacramento. Sadly, it was only open for less than a year before it suddenly shuttered without even a whisper. I pray these great shoes are someday filled.

Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar: Closed under the dubious assurance that the owner simply wanted to “retire,” the lauded chef Pajo Bruich and the entire staff was given a day’s notice that the place would close immediately. Sure, it recently reopened with a new focus, but Sacramento, you’re going to lose your great waiters and chefs with this bullshit. Stop it.

Restaurant 55 Degrees: This was a glass-walled, white-linen restaurant that was truly poised to revolutionize fine dining in Sacramento. The food focused on mussels and fine steaks and served some of the thinnest, crispiest frites you could find. Sadly, timing was against it. Shortly after it opened, the planned Saca and Aura towers both failed, and soon thereafter, the economy fell out.

Lounge on 20: Yep, owner Ali Mackani of Restaurant 55 Degrees and chef Bruich struck again with this venture. Big! Bold! Excellent food! Bruich’s epic cuisine—rooted in molecular gastronomy—is still a thing to behold. Do not ever pass up a chance to eat that man’s food, wherever you may find it.

Thai Cottage: I almost cried last week when I learned my favorite Thai restaurant closed. Cried. The curry had layers and layers of flavor. The service was spot-on. And it was dangerously close to my house. Sob. —G.M.

Too bad, so sad

Tuli Bistro: This place made some of the best pizzas in Sacramento. Their memory is still fresh in my mind: There was one that had Mexican-flavored pulled pork and jalapeños. Then there was a brunch pizza with egg and bacon. The crust and flavor profile were perfect on both.

Royal Hong King Lum: This restaurant was almost 100 years old when it closed down in 2004. Located in Sac’s old Chinatown area on J Street, I used to visit quite a bit because my immigrant Chinese grandparents lived nearby in the ’80s. In 2005, it turned into a nightclub called Zokku, which subsequently also closed. Nowadays, there’s no Chinese food around the area anymore—sad.

Merlino’s Orange Freeze: This was a Sacramento institution. It was a great treat in the summer, and there was one located right near my house in Carmichael. Yes, Merlino’s is now sold inside Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich Shops, Sacramento River Cats baseball games, etc.—but I still miss the convenience of dozens of locations around the Sacramento area. The one I used to frequent is now called Hagen’s Orange Freeze, but still tastes a lot like the old Merlino’s.

Penguin’s Yogurt: A great place to walk to when I was a kid. It had flavorful frozen yogurt, a simple topping bar, and classic black-and-white tile pattern throughout (penguin colors—get it?). The Carmichael location I used to go to closed in 1993, and was replaced by a Bella Bru Cafe—OK, fair enough trade. Still, I yearn for my old favorite: a vanilla yogurt with gummy bears.

Corti Brothers: Thank the food gods that there’s still one Corti Brothers left. But back when I was a kid, there was one in a shopping center in Carmichael. Now it’s a 24 Hour Fitness. Oh, how I would love to have that one back. —J.M.

Hangovers didn’t stand a chance

Joe Marty’s: The night Joe Marty’s burned, I was nine-months pregnant and had a severe craving for its supercrunchy broasted chicken. Too tired to go out, I planned to go the next night. Alas. That baby is a third-grader now, but I still get wistful passing the neon sign on Broadway—and I’m still craving that chicken.

Real Pie Company: This small bakery beloved for its flaky all-butter crusts and amazing Jumbleberry pie, sold the best chicken pot pie I’ve ever had. Recently, owner Kira O’Donnell reopened as a special-order-only business in East Sacramento, but it’s back on hiatus. I’ll be watching in case it rises again, phoenixlike.

Red Lotus: Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine chef-owner Billy Ngo’s modern Chinese restaurant was refreshingly bold and like no other place in town. The five-spice bone marrow alone was worth the price of admission, but sadly, the restaurant’s adventurous spirit (tongue, tendon, jellyfish) may have done it in.

Masque: I don’t so much miss the restaurant (let’s be real, I don’t drive to El Dorado Hills that much) as much as look back in wonder at the mid-aughts, pre-bust, money-is-no-object ’tude that made an opulent, four-star Italian restaurant, complete with star chef, in the exurbs seem like a fine plan. Was it excessive? You bet. But the pasta was legit.

Market Club: The deliberately down-at-heel place down by the docks was chock-full of rough-edged Depression-era atmosphere, but regrettably short on health-code compliance at the end. But who cared? Hangovers didn’t stand a chance against breakfasts like a giant linguica plate with rice, or (my fave) a plate-sized, pounded-thin, fried pork steak. Sigh. —K.W.