Alpine assembly line

Good lord, the Sacramento area is huge. Ever drive from Laguna to Folsom? It’s a long way, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that one day soon, the region’s housing density will rival L.A.’s.

You can lose something in a place this big, which is why I’m grateful to the SN&R readers who voted for their favorite restaurants in the recent Best Of issue. The world of food criticdom can get hectic sometimes, and throughout the years, I’ve always be able to depend on SN&R readers to point me in the right the direction.

Most of the time.

So it was that I ended up in Folsom on a recent weeknight, where Tahoe Joe’s Famous Steakhouse sits at the bustling corner of Folsom Boulevard and Blue Ravine Road. Five years ago, there wasn’t anything here but a Shell station, but the corner has filled out with restaurants and retail shops as Folsom has expanded to the edges of town, and SN&R readers this year picked Tahoe Joe’s as “Best New Restaurant.”

Thus I was surprised when Tahoe Joe’s turned out to be not only not new, but a chain restaurant.

Oh, the Folsom location is new, but as it turns out, there’s already a T. Joe’s in Roseville … and in Vacaville, and San Luis Obispo, Fresno and Bakersfield. No problem there. Small, high-end chains like T. Joe’s had become fairly common by the end of the 1990s, and a few even manufacture some pretty decent cuisine—P.F. Chang’s, which finished third this year in the Best New Restaurant category, comes immediately to mind.

But like Chang’s, there’s something sterile about the dining experience at Tahoe Joe’s, and it begins with the fact that neither place takes reservations, a disturbing trend I’ve noticed in new restaurants opening in the Roseville-Folsom area for the past year or so. The reason for the practice is that restaurant managers are tired of diners canceling their reservations. Its main effect has been to create excruciatingly long waits on Friday and Saturday nights. In short, they’re packing them in, baby.

Which was the reason I’d decided to drop in early on a Thursday, shortly after my dining companion checked out of her nine-to-fiver. People were already lining up for dinner when I arrived. There’s nothing that distinctive about the outside of the place, but the inside is finished entirely in pine, like a spacious Alpine ski lodge. It’s cozy for about 20 minutes, but as the dining space began to fill up, it felt crowded and antiseptic, a facsimile of a ski lodge instead of the real thing. Perhaps it was the fresh pine scent.

T. Joe’s specialty is wood-broiled steaks served “just the way you like ’em,”—as long as you don’t like ’em rare or medium rare, that is. Something about the smoking process pre-cooking the steak, the waiter said. I ordered mine medium, with three jumbo “railroad camp” shrimp. The 10-ounce corn-fed beefsteak, rolled in cracked black pepper, was nearly no-knife-needed tender, with an interesting, toothsome texture somewhere in between filet mignon and prime rib. Very good indeed. As were the shrimp, tempura battered and fried Japanese-style and served with garlic-soy dipping sauce and sliced green onions. My side of blue lake green beans came slightly overcooked.

My dining companion played things light with the lemon-caper chicken. These boneless, skinless fillets of chicken breast were pounded tender and served over angel-hair pasta primavera. The lemon-caper sauce was hot and tangy, but quickly congealed upon cooling, leaving a thin film of butter on the meat. Mashed red potatoes with the skins on rocked, however.

I might have been left with a better impression if our waiter hadn’t rushed us so much. I know it wasn’t his fault. Serving the entrées before customers have even half-finished the soup and salad has become the norm in high-scale chains like this. Get ’em in, get ’em out. It’s pretty good, for assembly-line cooking. Unfortunately, Tahoe Joe’s reminds me a little too much that I’m a part of the assembly line as well.