Best of Food & Drink
Lisandro ‘Chando’ Madrigal
Best importer of Mexican flavor to Sacramento streets
The mulita—Spanish for “little mule”—is like a quesadilla but smaller, maybe only 6 inches in diameter. Two stone-ground corn tortillas are given a dusting of cheese and grilled over high heat to make a crispy cheese crust. The inside is filled with more cheese, cilantro and carne asada rich in spice and citrus. It tastes like the last vacation you had in Mexico. That roadside stand that was little more than an outdoor grill under a corrugated tin-roof shading you from tyrannical heat. The little family that ran the place that produced the most effing amazing tacos you ever have or ever will eat.
At least, until you stand in line at Chando’s Tacos.
Lisandro “Chando” Madrigal first came to the United States with his father, a farm-labor contractor from Michoacán, Mexico, who harvested fruit from California to Montana. Later, Chando helped his dad open and run a tortilla factory in Tijuana, where he learned about the recipes and flavors of the local street food. Years later, he came back to the U.S. with his wife, Karla, and began working at Apple in business-to-business sales.
However, the couple’s love of really good Mexican food often drew them back across the border. Weekend road trips to Tijuana for tacos became a common occurrence. “The thing I noticed in other taquerias in Sac,” says Chando, “was that a lot of them were half-assed. We had to go to Mexico.”
During this time, Chando became known in the community for his taco catering, where he served up tacos with intoxicating flavor. When his father died, Chando decided it was time to take a step forward and become an entrepreneur like his dad. “Losing him was a wake-up call about what life is about,” says Chando, flashing an arm tattoo that proudly displays a portrait of his father.
Chando took over a small, dilapidated burger stand on a cruddy lot at 863 Arden Way and turned it into a taco joint reminiscent of all the roadside taquerias he remembered in Mexico. Chando’s Tacos quickly became known among the more vigorous food lovers in Sacramento. It’s not uncommon for the line to snake out 20 people long—men in business suits, soccer moms, local goth kids and day laborers all chatting together about the piquant citrus-achiote taste that makes the chicken tacos so irresistible.
“It’s been challenging in that I’ve never been an owner of a brick-and-mortar business, but it’s been really good,” Chando says. “We focus on good customer service, high-quality food and freshness.” Indeed, the meat is grilled right then and there (a smell that undoubtedly brings in customers), the tortillas are made locally and a dedicated staff uses traditional Michoacán recipes from Chando’s father to craft everything together.
This small yellow and red roadside taqueria is quickly proving itself to not only create some of the best tacos—and mulitas, tortas and burritos—in Sacramento, but also in the whole of Northern California, due to a taste much like a little roadside stand in Mexico.
Best underground artisanal butcher
A guy walks into a bar, goes up to the bartender and says, “I’m here to see a guy about some meat.” The bartender nods and replies, “It’s in the back. Just knock on the door.”
It’s not the beginning of a joke. These are the backroom bacon dealings of chef Jason Azevedo and his CSA “meat ups.” I follow the guy over to the kitchen door, and a smiling, apron-bedecked Azevedo leads us into the kitchen, and heads over to the walk-in to collect our orders. I’m sent home hauling three kinds of sausage and a jar of bacon marmalade. That’s right: Bacon. Marmalade.
“What do you recommend I do with this?” I ask Azevedo curiously.
“‘What don’t you do with it?’ is the real question,” he chuckles.
In the last few years, Azevedo has taken his love for the butcher block from the alleyway of Old Soul Co., where his smoked bacon first captured the hearts of Sacramentans, to his clandestine, community supported agriculture business, Testa Duro Salumi. His focus is on “back to basics” butchering. He seeks out heritage breeds of animals, raised humanely, for his customers to purchase and split among each other. He uses natural sausage casings and conjures creative blends for his sausage varieties. (Last month’s “King Kong” featured bourbon and cheddar.)
Testa Duro means “stubborn” in Italian, a moniker attributed to Azevedo by his grandfather, who first taught him to cook. Azevedo later honed his skills under several great chefs in Napa and Sonoma, and these days plays host to occasional underground dining events around the Sacramento region, on top of his regular monthly “meat ups.” Founded in 2008, Testa Duro has quickly progressed from hobby to a hope for a full-time enterprise. “The ideal would be to someday have a storefront, maybe a sandwich shop—that would be a dream of mine,” he confesses.
After the closure at Brew It Up! in July left him without a day job, the desire to go whole hog with Testa Duro has only intensified. Next week, Azevedo will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to realize the dream of going into business for himself.
Azevedo’s drive and hard-headed nature can lead him down a sausage-stuffed road to success. But does Azevedo fear for his pastime ambitions if changing attitudes cause people to consume less meat?
“Not at all,” he says. “It’s always been about quality over quantity for my customers anyway.”
What of bacon burnout? The cured meat has been making appearances in everything from doughnuts to five-star restaurants for the last several years, as the ubiquitous pig part that appeals to all meat eaters. Is it too much?
It may be a bit of overkill, but it won’t truly ever damage the meat’s reputation. “People will always, always want bacon,” Azevedo says.
Best creator of casual Central Valley cuisine
Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye opened Magpie Caterers Market and Cafe in the spring of 2009 after several years of catering. The small, bustling eatery at 1409 R Street quickly became the best go-to spot for casual but extraordinary meals.
A Sacramento native, Roehr returned here after years of living in Venice, Italy; Honolulu; and the Central Coast. “I think at the core we really value Sacramento,” he says. “We focused on putting our best foot forward here and showcasing what the Central Valley really has to offer. We want to make a cuisine and a place that people could use every day, not just for special occasions.”
Magpie uses quality local products as much as possible, but with an eye toward simple presentation and reasonable prices to attract a diverse clientele. “We didn’t want a place that was exclusive,” he says. “The cafe has been a place that brings people together. We’ve always loved to walk in and see we’ve got a little bit of everybody in here.”
Magpie still caters events large and small, with a goal to make visitors in particular stop and think about where they are because of what they’re eating. Roehr hopes, “Maybe they have a culinary moment, and that’s a really big deal for us and the Valley.”
Roehr feels very strongly that it takes more than just good ingredients to make a place like Magpie click. “It takes teamwork and a lot of really strong people who have stuck by me and worked really hard to make great food,” he says. “It’s always the people that are going to differentiate a place, but what really is important is that Sacramento is where we thought we could do this.”
Ann Martin Rolke
Best mistress of mixology
These are two of the questions Dominique Gonzales is regularly asked at work: “Do you come on the menu?” and “Can I get you as a side?”
It’s business as usual for Gonzales, an award-winning bartender at Shady Lady Saloon at 1409 R Street. “It’s a man’s world,” Gonzales says of a being a female bartender in a male-dominated trade.
Gonzales was lone the female bartender at last month’s Midtown Cocktail Competition. She was also the winner, with her flower-adorned Backyard Bluegrass punch—an original concoction of Buffalo Trace bourbon, black tea and fresh fruit juices topped with candied cinnamon oranges.
Despite the pick-up lines, Gonzales likes her work. Bartending engages her creative side, while the late hours allow her to study graphic design at Sacramento City College during the day. Originally from San Luis Obispo, Gonzales has been behind the bar at the New Orleans-themed Shady Lady since December, having switched over from Zocalo.
Learning the recipes for cocktails is an ongoing process, she says, and it’s impossible to know all of them. Bartenders at Shady Lady keep a “black book” in the kitchen where they add new recipes for drinks they have just learned about.
Gonzales also likes stopping by the kitchen to learn more about cooking, especially Shady Lady’s Creole dishes. Long term, she aspires to return to San Luis Obispo and make good use of its abundant farmers markets to open a restaurant. In the meantime, she’ll stay behind the bar, where she can learn more about running a business and kitchen.
“It’s a fun environment to work in,” she says. “There is always something going on, and it’s a good way to get know people around town.”