Dive on in
Sacramento, CA 95816
Incongruous. No mincing, no equivocation. There’s simply no other word that describes The Golden Bear. There’s black plastic ashtrays on the often off-balance tables on the sagging front porch of this wood frame, leaf-green edifice on K Street just shy of 24th with the bighorn skull over the door. This after a major renovation. Four clear plastic globes surround the over-the-bar lights. They appear to have been purchased at a Jetsons garage sale. Bearded Jon Modrow says his Golden Bear co-owner thinks the lights are reminiscent of jellyfish. Perhaps—if the viewer were three hours deep into a very righteous shroom-induced voyage to the frontal lobes.
But the characteristics of the bar lights and just about everything else at Golden Bear—except perhaps the magnificently minimalist logo—pales to China doll white compared to the fare, which Golden Bear is more than happy to provide late into the evening along with $2 High Lifes.
This is thanks to artistry of the youthful and inventive Billy Zoellin, chef since March.
The first time Golden Bear appears on the radar screen is through Midtown drinkers, who, with remarkable uniformity, rave about the tacos, one of G.B.’s small plates. It is not the booze talking. No cheddar on these shredded-chicken puppies; all Cotija, all the time. A dollop of the chipotle paste the bartender uses in the Bloody Marys boosts the heat significantly.
On one visit, the popular kettle fries aren’t available, because the range is in open rebellion, Modrow says. It’s a struggle to find a misstep on the menu. There’s a reason Guy Fieri filmed a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives spot about the G.B. A wimpy attempt at criticism: The soup, as creatively creamy as it is, tends to be tepid rather than hot.
The banh mi, with pickled carrot and jalapeño aioli, is gone from the seasonally changing menu, as is the duck-confit club. But the Juicy Lucy hamburger remains with its heart of fontina buried in the beef patty. She’s got a lot of moving parts—glazed onions, avocado, bacon—and doesn’t hold together as well as the ones at Burgers and Brew over on R Street. But BFD. Still killer—even if a fork and knife are needed after a few bites.
Also remaining is the oval pizzetta of sausage and slaw. The bartender, who takes the order, warns there’s no cheese. None needed. The soprano of the sausage entwines with the alto of the slaw and climbs an octave with the bit of red onion marmalade blended with it. Wildly addicting.
Again, back on the incongruous jag: There’s guys in lumberjack shirts, baseball caps and jeans presenting a white bowl of creamy potato leek soup with thumbnail squares of potato enveloped by a wavy circle of crème fraîche. The potato leek morphs into a similarly creamy, buttery chili chowder that, unlike the potato leek, contains some bits of bacon. Again, crème fraîche and plaid shirts.
Imagine being Zoellin and getting to do the mad-scientist-in-the-kitchen thing every day. Taking the same base, adding a little of this, a pinch of that—keep the potatoes, add some bacon—and, voilà, a new soup is born. I’d be envious except, as Charlie Munger says, envy is the only deadly sin you don’t have any fun committing.
The élan of Modrow is something close to a force of nature: “You, sir, are No. 1,” he says, putting the sign with the number one on the table to show where the order is supposed to end up. Because I’m scribbling in a notebook, Modrow asks if I’m Blair Anthony Robertson of the, all rise, Sacramento Insect, who apparently enjoyed his visits to G.B. almost as much as I did.
It seems critical for SN&R to embark on a separate extensive study of the intriguing array of weekend brunch items, such as the peaches-and-cream French toast, frittatas, open-faced breakfast Lucy Burger with a fried egg and the “Toad in a Hole.” And I know just the person for the job.