At the end it’s hard to begin. First and foremost, next week there will be a new guide on this ever-changing, always-captivating tour of the capital’s culinary creativity. This new guide may even like broccoli, shun fiery flavors and never bask in the warm afterglow of dim sum sluttiness.
Vive la différence! Celebrate variety.
It’s difficult to describe how enriching, educational and eye-opening this experience has been—one wonderful discovery after another. It began shortly before Thanksgiving 2008, with the oddest job interview in a 25-year-plus writing career. Was SN&R aware that this candidate’s clip file contained absolutely no previous restaurant reviews?
“We had people apply with lots of food experience,” the then-managing editor said. “We thought you’d be more fun.”
So where best to learn the rudiments of restaurant reviewing? Logic suggested reading Jonathan Gold, formerly of the LA Weekly and now with the Los Angeles Times, since he’s the only person to win a Pulitzer in this more-difficult-than-a-reader-might-think realm. Gold offers information leavened with a bit of humor and a vividness that invariably causes a reader to feel as if they’re at the table with him. That’s the strategy attempted here—no Pulitzer nomination appears forthcoming, however. A proud accomplishment, though, is that in 178 reviews, the word “yummy” never described a dish—only “yum”—and that was only in conjunction with Thai soup and salad.
Besides the varied folk with whom bread has been broken over the past three-and-a-half years, there have also been a host of hostesses, servers, chefs and owners—matriarch and patriarch alike—whose contributions to the delight of this job can’t be understated. There isn’t enough space in this issue to thank everyone by name, but ultimately, people, out front and in back, define a restaurant. Sometimes attentiveness or a cheerful disposition elevates the assessment of an otherwise underwhelming eatery or it further amplifies the authoritativeness of another.
And there is a continuing prejudice, freely admitted in previous reviews, that meals eaten at family-owned restaurants are inherently superior.
Speaking of family-owned restaurants, a huge debt is owed to Jane and Jim Ison of Steamers in Old Sacramento and Café Vinoteca—to which every visit is epic. They provided this reviewer an illuminating view of the myriad daily challenges faced by restaurateurs—in procuring, preparing and presenting food of all sorts—herding cats through a minefield while juggling hand grenades does not overstate the complexity of the process. Yet, they persevere and succeed, as do other owners.
Ultimately, this broader appreciation of what happens on both sides of the counter—and a recognition of the many pitfalls to success—led to more measured evaluations, longer on constructive criticism and short on stinging rebuke. Gaining this perspective was largely a gift from Jane and Jim—couldn’t have done it with without them. Or, for that matter, Mrs. Lucas, ever the good sport, and daughter Katie, who, as a consequence, has overcome an initial aversion to Korean food, although she still refuses to eat anything red under the belief—usually true—that it will offend her spice-averse sensibilities.
California represents the most diverse group of people brought together as equals in the history of civilization; Sacramento and its outlying environs mirror that diversity. That marvelous multiplicity is displayed on hundreds of plates spread invitingly across this region’s many tables. Exploring Vietnamese cuisine, for example, has deepened an understanding of Vietnamese culture. But there’s also: Korean, Persian, Indian, Fijian, Italian, Hawaiian, Peruvian, Thai, Greek, French, Italian, Chinese, Laotian and Mexican, the latter in its many-splendored iterations from the Distrito Federal to the Yucatan.
So what’s the delay? Dig in! Salud! Kampi! Yamas! Ao Chon! Salute! Prost! Sante! Konbe! Gan bei! Moat hi bah yo! May all your meals be joyous and brimming with warm camaraderie. Above all, “Vive meglio!”