Around the world in 80 bites
Let your stomach do the exploring at Sacramento’s ethnic eateries
Other than music and language, food might be the best measure of a nation’s personality and culture. But since you can no longer bring hair gel or mouthwash on an airplane, globe-trotting has lost its appeal. In this most diverse of cities, however, we can still explore the world—through our stomachs, at least. Sacramento packs a lot of ethnic cuisine per square mile. Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Korean and Italian might be the most obvious and abundant, but you can find more exotic flavors and continental destinations if you know where to look.
The Lomo Argentine Grill (1107 Front Street, (916) 442-5666) is not typical of tourist-friendly Old Sacramento. With its dark wood wainscoting, fur wall hangings and stark décor, it’s got an almost over-the-top masculinity to it. Not surprising when you consider the ramped-up eroticism of the nation that brought us the tango. Lomo is part steakhouse, part urban bar—a model that is popular in lively and nocturnal Buenos Aries.
Since Argentina has the world’s highest consumption of red meat, Lomo’s menu features lots of South American grass-fed beef. You can also sample Argentina’s equivalent of ketchup—chimichurri, a blend of olive oil and vinegar loaded with herbs— with the meat dishes or as a dipping sauce for the fresh-baked bread. The wine list features plenty of Argentine reds, including the popular Malbec. Soak up the exuberance of South America at the bar with a cocktail like the caipirinha (cachaça, lime, sugar and ice) or a pisco sour (Muscat grapes, lime, egg whites and liquid cane sugar) or the more familiar Argentine-brewed Quilmes pilsner.
Italian, French and Spanish cuisine is readily available around Sacramento, but where can you get a good goulash? “Czech” out the hearty food of Eastern Europe at Little Prague Bohemian Restaurant (330 G Street, Davis, (530) 756-1107). Czech cuisine borrows from the likes of Germany, Austria and Hungary—basically, it’s light on spice and heavy on substance. No type of sausage goes uncooked. You’ll find bratwurst, knockwurst, rindswurst and even weißwurst, a type so unusual it needs its own letter. Varieties of schnitzel (thin slices of light meat, coated in breadcrumbs and fried) and goulash (stew flavored with paprika) populate the menu, along with other regional specialties like potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, and parek v rohlíku (long, thin hot dogs with crusty rolls). On the meat-heavy menu, the vegetarian casserole is a standout: thick layers of potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms topped with cheese. The atmosphere at Little Prague is as European as the food—the dining room feels like a Swiss chalet, and the outdoor terrace evokes a European sidewalk café. On the other side of the causeway, La Trattoria Bohemia (3649 J Street, (916) 455-7803) offers many of the same Czech specialties, along with more familiar dishes from Italy, in an intimate dining room.
With Lebanon in the news so much lately, it seems an appropriate time to explore this country, at least from a gastronomical standpoint. If Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon (1433 Fulton Avenue, (916) 972-8768) is any indication, the Lebanese are friendly, fun-loving, hard-working people who eat well. If you loved American chop suey as a kid, you’ll love Lebanese food. Several dishes feature seasoned ground meat combned with onions and spices and served with hummus and rice pilaf. The hummus is not your local grocery store dip. It’s gooey, garlicky, flavorful and served with fresh, warm pita bread. The Lebanese appear to borrow from the Greek; you’ll find lots of feta cheese, olive oil, olives and tomatoes. Maalouf’s appetizer of zaatar pie—thick dough topped with oregano, olive oil, tomatoes and feta—is delicious and filling, and the simple Greek salad that accompanies each dinner entrée is tasty and overflowing with fresh ingredients and a tangy dressing. Sumac, a common Middle Eastern spice, is used liberally, and lends a distinctive fruity character to some of the more familiar dishes. Kabobs in several varieties are popular, too. The menu is short on vegetarian items, but those it does offer are done well. The musakaah is nothing like its casserole-like Greek counterpart; it is a generous plate of fresh sautéed eggplant, onions, peppers, tomatoes and garbanzo beans served with rice pilaf. At Maalouf’s the food is fresh and cooked right before your eyes in the open kitchen. The dining room is strictly no-frills, but it is convivial nonetheless. It is the kind of place where regulars come and linger for hours, and where weekend patrons set aside their forks, and the chef his spatula, to shimmy with the belly dancer.
If you want to venture outside your culinary comfort zone, visit one of Sacramento’s two Ethiopian restaurants. From the menu to the utensils (there are none), nothing about an Ethiopian restaurant is familiar to the average American diner, but that’s what makes it so fascinating. Both Addis Ababa (2598 Alta Arden Expressway, (916) 488-2100) and Queen Sheba (1537 Howe Avenue, (916) 920-1020) are unembellished family-run operations. The real attraction is what comes to your table. The centerpiece of any Ethiopian meal is moist, spongy bread called injera, used in lieu of utensils to scoop up food. Meals are served family style, so whatever your party orders will arrive on one giant tin plate. The injera is rolled and piled on a separate plate; break off a piece about the size of a business card to scoop the food (and make sure to use the spongy side of the injera or risk not getting your fair share of the meal). There is also a large injera under the food as well, which soaks up the flavorful juices and can be eaten when you’re done, assuming you have room for it. Much of the food is stew-like (wot)—meats, vegetables and beans that are simmered in sauces and resemble chili or hearty dipping sauces. The food can be spicy, especially dishes served with berbere—a traditional blend of paprika, hot chili pepper, turmeric, ginger, cardamom and other powerful spices. Most Ethiopians are Muslim or Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, so they don’t eat pork and often participate in fasting periods. Thus, the bulk of most Ethiopian menus feature beef (typically minced, chopped or diced) and vegetarian dishes of lentils, vegetables, peas or beans. Round out your Ethiopian experience with a bottle of Harrar beer or tej, a rich and sweet “honey wine” that perfectly compliments the tangy food. Another bonus to eating Ethiopian is the price: Few menu items at either restaurant are more than $10. Queen Sheba even serves an all-you-can-eat vegetarian and vegan buffet for just $6 from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on weekdays.
It seems you can find a Japanese restaurant on practically any street corner in Sacramento these days; Thai, Chinese, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese eateries are also fairly widespread. But we Sacramentans can explore other Asian nations from a culinary vantage point, too.
Indonesia comprises more than 13,000 islands and 300 ethnic groups. It’s no surprise then that its cuisine reflects a broad range of influences. In Indonesian cooking you’ll find the coconut milk, lemongrass and peanut sauce of Thailand; the noodles of China; and the cumin, ginger, coriander and curry of India. At the unassuming Indo Café (1100 Front Street, (916) 446-4008), you can savor basic Indonesian food like bakmi goreng (stir-fried egg noodles and vegetables) or gado-gado (vegetable, tofu and egg salad with peanut sauce). Ice cincau is a refreshing elixir of coconut, brown sugar and grass jelly.
Try the foods of Bali, an Indonesian island popular with tourists, at the more upscale Bali Wine Bar & Grill (2416 18th Street, (916)-444-1247). While Indo Café is casual and straightforward, Bali is all about the complete experience. Small touches like rattan placemats and bottles of ice-cold water filled with mint leaves make you feel like you’re at a tropical resort. After you order you’ll receive a dish of crispy vegetables and papaya pickles—not-yet-ripe papaya—served with a light dipping sauce. Tofu is a popular Indonesian food staple and Bali offers several dishes with perfectly deep-fried tofu that is crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Some menu items are plenty spicy, but the chef will prepare them mild upon request.
You’d expect that food from the Philippines, another island nation that lies just northeast of Indonesia, might share many of its culinary qualities. Venture to Max’s of Manila (6051 Mack Road, Elk Grove, (916) 427-5332), however, and you’ll truly feel like you’re in a different land. Max’s is a Philippines-based restaurant chain and this is one of only six locations in the United States. Filipino cuisine is not spicy like its Southeast Asian neighbors. Rather, it relies on sour and salty flavors. It is comprised largely of one-dish meals: meats, vegetables and rice or noodles all thrown into the same pot and steamed or boiled. Influences from Southeast Asia are obvious, such as lumpia, the Philippine version of the spring roll, but most Filipino food retains the ingredients of its traditional cuisine, such as vinegar, fish and rice. The Filipinos don’t have the aversion to meat found in other of its neighboring countries; in fact, popular dishes like oxtail stew and pork knuckles are served at Max’s and vegetarian meals are available only on special request. Whatever you order, enjoy your meal with a bottle of San Miguel, the Budweiser of the Philippines. And don’t guffaw at the menu entry for spaghetti—served with sweet tomato sauce, ground beef and slices of hot dog. It’s the way the Filipinos love to eat it—and a sure sign that, even though you haven’t traveled far, you’re a world away from Sacramento.