Different people know Larry Rodriguez as different things: musician (Art Lessing and the Flower Vato), longtime KDVS deejay, Gallery Horse Cow denizen, art-car owner, all-around mensch. But I know him as the E.F. Hutton of food recommendations. He recently clued me in to Las Islitas, a little slice of sunny Mexico right on Northgate Boulevard, and I can’t wait to see where his appetite takes me next.
How do you discover new places to eat?Out of curiosity. If I see a spot enough times, eventually I’ll check it out. Especially if it’s close to my favorite haunts or where I’m living.
I think of you as a night owl. Where are your favorite late-night spots?You’re absolutely right, I am. Unfortunately there’s not many good places to eat after midnight. Lai Wah or Yummy Guide are decent choices if you can make it there before 2 a.m. Otherwise, Carolina’s on Franklin is a cheap and easy to get to. I’ve been to Ink, but I don’t care for their prices or the people that go there. Did you know that the Pho Bac on Madison is open till 3 a.m.?
Describe a typical home-cooked meal.I make a killer salad with arugula, dino kale and spinach, with a few other things plus lots of garlic and citrus. I like to marinate a Rocky chicken in rice vinegar, soy sauce and pineapple juice, then roast it up in the smoker. It lasts me the week.
How’d you learn to cook?From my mom and dad and being around my grandmother. Both parents worked a lot, so being the oldest kid, I had to learn to cook for the family. Sometimes my brother Mike would help. He could cook a kick-ass beef stew by the time he was 11, I shit you not.
Favorite kind of taco and taqueria?I like chicken or chorizo tacos the best. The best tacos are made by the guys who cook everything outside with banda blaring and a huge steel cauldron boiling over with assorted chunks of meat. Heads, tongues, shanks, chops—it’s all in there. Then they take it out and throw it on the grill and chop it up while it cooks with your tortillas.
This one place I used to go to operated outside of the Reno Club on West Capitol Boulevard on the weekends ’til 2 to 3 a.m. There was a cardboard sign that said “Tacos by Don Roberto.” They were a $1.25 a piece. Don Roberto was in his mid 60s and looked like a well-weathered cowboy. He was fast; he could knock out a whole line of orders—15 deep at times—in about 10 minutes. Lots of tweaker action was always happening while you were there, so it was pretty amusing. Sure, the place looked unsanitary, but Don Roberto made the best goddamn tacos I’ve ever tasted. Since the city shut him down, the new weekend spot is at Hacienda Los Portales here in West Sacramento.
How did you find Las Islitas? Can you describe the first time you went there?It used to be a Salvadoran joint, so I was curious if it was still there. I was surprised to find that it’s mostly an outdoor patio. The staff was real friendly and were eager to talk about some of the more unique things on their menu. … They gave me a free ceviche tostada while I was waiting; it was really good.
What topped the whole visit was this old dude sitting in the corner singing corridos in Spanish. I don’t know Spanish very well, but the food and the music combined put me in a very pleasant mood. After all, those are my two main addictions in life.
What kind of food does downtown lack?Low-priced, non-yuppified vittles. Cheap Middle Eastern joints that don’t charge you an arm and a leg for falafel and baba ghanoush. … We need at least a couple of good Korean restaurants, owned by Koreans. They’re always down for staying open late.
What’s the most Sac restaurant?For me, it’s Little Joe’s. I don’t go there much, but it’s been around for a long time and it still reminds me of how Sacramento used to be. When it was [open] 24-hours, everyone within a 10-mile radius went there after the bars closed. I used to work the graveyard shift there when I was 18, and you could always expect a wide variety of humanity. Sometimes fights would break out or there’d be a bunch of drunken bikers carousing, old Okies trying to eat steak with only a few teeth—it was a really wild atmosphere. They sold Night Train and Thunderbird in the bottle! Randy Paragary could never give you that.
New favorite discovery?There’s a new Vietnamese joint on Stockton Boulevard called Pho Xe Lua. It’s just north of Fruitridge Boulevard, and I’ll go on record as saying that it’s better than Pho Bac. Also, look for the Mexican fruit carts with the rainbow umbrellas. You’ll find them in west, north and south Sacramento. They’re never in East Sac or Midtown. For $5 a pop, it’s the best vegan raw-foods meal in town.