Affordable oasis

The Getaway Cafe

Good for: Californian Mexican breakfasts on the cheap
Notable dishes: Breakfast burritos, quesadillas, spicy chicken sandwich

The Getaway Cafe

1416 9th St 8th Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
Ste. #842

Whenever I think of cafeteria food, a scene from Billy Madison comes to mind: A lunch lady shovels a bun carrying a horrendous mound of meat and plops it onto kids’ plates with a horror-show cackle. She slurs, “Have some more shloppy joes! I made ’em extra shloppy for ya.” In pop culture, cafeterias are terrifying, boring or both. But not at The Getaway Cafe.

As customers approach the cashier, he listens closely, recognizes them by their voices and asks about their families. He’s Jesse Lopez, the owner of the restaurant who landed his current gig through a state program that connects blind workers with food jobs.

On my third visit, Lopez asks, “You’ve been here before, right?” Once I agree, he says, “Cool deal.”

He works inside a dowdy building that looks like it would contain a sad cafeteria. In fact, it was once deemed the worst state building, according to a 2015 governmental study. For a decade, the windows of California’s Resources Building went unwashed—and to begin with, the exterior was the color of algae.

But on the sidewalk, a bright chalkboard of food specials greets the more than 2,000 state workers before they enter those gray halls. Since the end of 2015, Lopez’s eighth floor cafeteria—aptly named The Getaway Cafe—has served greasy spoon breakfasts and diner-style lunches with a Mexican flair. The restaurant does so without much of a kitchen to speak of, and at prices that dare you to find a better deal downtown.

To enter the building, you fill out a nametag and show your driver’s license near a display of poorly worded governmental pamphlets, such as “Terrorism: What Can I Do to Help?” Walk down the long eighth floor hallway toward the open doors on the left, and the menu appears on a series of ever-changing whiteboards.

For breakfast, take your pick of eggy burritos with potatoes, chorizo or a few kinds of sausage, including turkey and veggie. There are also breakfast combo plates with wide-ranging options like biscuits and gravy, pancakes and quesadillas with eggs. Lunchtime fare includes chicken sandwiches and rotating daily specials, like tri-tip on a hoagie, tacos or a bacon mushroom burger. If you still want a snack, there are three kinds of pretzels.

Meanwhile, Lopez’s mother, chef Jerlen Lopez, whips it all up without any ovens or stoves. Instead, she uses crockpots and electric grills.

Still, the chorizo breakfast burrito ($4.75) came out with perky eggs infused with the smoky spice of chorizo. The bits of the pork sausage released a rush of chili and garlic. Courtesy of the George Foreman-like grill, the tortilla comes uncharacteristically stiff with jailhouse stripes that taste of sweetly crisped flour. Be sure to slather on the housemade red salsa made of boiled and blended serrano peppers, tomatoes and onions.

These dishes are Mexican, yes, but they’re also Sacramentan. Jerlen Lopez inherited her recipes from her mother, whose parents were from Placer County.

This singular heritage makes for unfamiliar dishes that seem so natural, it’s as if you’ve eaten them since childhood. The spicy chicken sandwich ($6.75), for example, puts a twist on a deli classic. Simply by sprinkling the creamy chicken mix with serrano peppers, a comfort food turns on you and nips your tongue. It’s the best kind of betrayal.

My biggest disappointment came from the special of biscuits and gravy ($5.85). The decadent gravy was livened up with chunks of fried pork, and the biscuit crumbled with freshness. But the accompanying turkey sausage lacked the full oomph of umami.

At this oasis from bureaucracy, it’s the Cali-Mex dishes that make for the real getaway from boredom.