Brave the mall

River City Brewing Company

545 Downtown Plaza
Sacramento, CA 95814
Ste. 1115

(916) 447-2739

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley as I did—the valley Moon Zappa made famous—I have strong feelings about malls. Back in the day, malls were the only game in town for 13- to 16-year-old girls living in a cultureless enclave. They provided entertainment, safety and independence. At the same time, they indoctrinated us in the ways of female consumerism: image over imagination, style over substance, consumption as fulfillment. In some ways, I lost my virginity to a mall—that first purchase; that first satisfaction of desire; buying what I wanted when I wanted.

Now, I try to stay away from malls. But every once in a while, a restaurant appears that throws my whole “malls are evil incarnate” theory out of whack. I find that I must go because I cannot resist the food that lies within. In Sacramento, River City Brewing Co. is that restaurant.

Housed in Downtown Plaza for a decade, River City is a typical product of its early-1990s birth. It has industrial-chic décor, a wood-burning stove for pizzas, and an upscale menu with classic American favorites. In early 2000, a trio of entrepreneurs who were in the brew business already bought River City from its financially distressed owners. They kept much of the restaurant the same, including the menu and key staff members—like general manager Erica Jacobs and chef Ignacio Sanchez, who was promoted to head chef two years ago. Though much has stayed the same throughout the decade, some things have changed, as in the city beyond.

When River City opened, downtown Sacramento wasn’t quite the dining scene it is today. Back then, the clientele, like the menu, reflected a more upscale sensibility, attuned to the virtues of demi-glace as well as microbrew. With the glut of dress-up dining in the area and the transition of the mall to Westfield Shoppingtown’s Downtown Plaza, a more casual mix has overtaken the restaurant. Well-heeled diners mingle with shoppers in jeans and T-shirts who are looking to give their barking dogs a break.

On a bustling Saturday evening, we were welcomed by a plate of warm, moist, fluffy focaccia—the house bread. Then we opened with crispy, fried-portobello-mushroom fritters, which arrived cut up in various shapes and sizes and in generous quantity, with a side salad. Though the portobello pieces were juicy, the flavor of the mushrooms and the smoked-gouda dipping sauce lacked punch. However, the fry was flawless—leading us to consume most of the appetizer, despite its large portion.

Following the fritters was a cup of split-pea soup so rich and hearty that we almost stopped right there. That’s one great thing about River City. You can have a beer, some focaccia, half an appetizer and soup and depart a happy man. But if you do, you’ll miss a key point about River City Brewing Co., which is that the food—the knife-and-fork variety—is exceptionally good.

Take the German-sausage platter: a vertical presentation of two sausages—one bratwurst and one bockwurst—each sliced lengthwise, placed on a mound of potato salad and adorned with wide strands of apple-bacon sauerkraut. The sausages, from Del Monte, were excellent specimens—the brat perfectly salty and flavorful and the bock so tender and mild it was just a shade off liverwurst. The sweetness and soft crunch of the kraut contrasted with the salty, chewy sausage. Though the warm Bavarian potato salad didn’t impress by itself, when mixed with a bite of bock or brat, it took on a mustardy quality that complemented the sausage nicely.

Not to be outdone by a mere sausage platter, the pork tenderloin was equally impressive in presentation and execution. Three cross sections of tenderloin lay atop an island of mashed potatoes. At one end of the island was a mound of spinach, which bordered a demi-glace moat.

The tenderloin was divinely tender in the middle, and a grilled texture and flavor dominated the outer edges. A dimple of a rare spot occupied the face-up center of each piece for visual effect. The roasted-garlic mashed potatoes were ultra-smooth and rich, alongside a perfectly cooked mound of mildly garlicky spinach.

Unfortunately, food like this isn’t cheap ($14 for the sausages and $18 for the pork tenderloin), but the quality and execution were indisputable.

This brings me back to location. For those whose mall-frequenting days are long past, the locale is less than ideal. But being at the heart of business and tourism downtown, River City is accessible to a host of folks. And every Friday night from now until the end of summer, Sanchez will host a barbecue on the patio, serving up oysters on the half shell, prawns and chicken skewers. It’s hard to quibble with that.

Ten years is a long time in restaurant years. River City is marking the milestone with a 10th-anniversary ale. High in alcohol content, on the heavy side and a touch sweet, the anniversary ale tells me a lot. Half a pint down the hatch tells me that sometimes, a mall is just a mall. And when you have a beer in your hand, it might not be so bad after all.