Extreme makeover

El Patrón Bar & Grill

6601 Folsom Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95819

(916) 455-8945

Every time we passed the old Mexico 70 restaurant on Folsom Boulevard, I would note its dilapidated appearance and my husband would comment on how odd it was to have a restaurant named after Mexico’s hosting of the World Cup—and not even the most recent time it hosted. I guess other people thought so, too, because the restaurant went the way of Mexico’s World Cup hopes several months ago. Its building has been made over—seriously made over—and transformed into El Patrón Bar & Grill, which arrived on the Sacramento dining scene with little fanfare.

If this restaurant’s name, with its hints of a rich landowner at the helm, makes this place sound distinctly swankier than the building’s last incarnation, that’s because it is. The exterior is done in rich chocolate and cappuccino shades, and the inside is all angled planes of gold and red ochres. The long bar is appealing, plants add splashes of green and the dramatic tied drapes make a diamond pattern on the big windows. In short, you wouldn’t recognize the place.

I never went to Mexico 70, but I’m guessing the menu, too, bears little resemblance to what was once served in this space, besides the fact that it, too, is Mexican. El Patrón also places an emphasis on drinks, and takes as a sort of motto “Lunch time. Dinner time. Tequila time.” There’s a long list of tequila-oriented cocktails, but we felt the margarita, which boasted of house sour mix and fresh lime, was the place to start. It was very good, indeed, strong and fresh-tasting (I hate margaritas that taste like chemical sour mix).

I ordered sangria, which is available in either white or red. I like white sangria, but I had a hard time eliciting any information about how sweet it was from our nice but at first slightly tongue-tied server, so I ordered the red. It came in one of those giant globular glasses—about the size of a fishbowl at the state fair—and was adorned with big pieces of fruit, like a potable version of Carmen Miranda. Somehow, though, I think she would skip the tequila for rum. The sangria was a bit sweet, but it had a nice strong flavor, making it potentially dangerous to finish.

We were started off, of course, with a basket of warm chips and some good salsa. The chips, however, were a little oily and slightly off-flavor—it tasted like perhaps the oil had fried a few too many things. On the plus side, the chips seemed to have been made in-house, but that didn’t change the oil problem. The appetizer menu offers nachos, guacamole and, more unusually, queso fundido with mushrooms, but what really jumped out was chorizo empapelado. It turned out to be something like fajitas made with chorizo instead. There were an array of vegetables like bell peppers, spicy chorizo quartered lengthwise, cheese and tortillas to wrap it all up. The “empapelado” is much like the more familiar French term en papillote: in other words, it’s cooked in a packet, in this case foil. The portion was restrained—just enough to whet the appetite, even though the chorizo itself is quite rich—and the execution good.

The rest of the menu is long and diverse, within the Mexican framework, though it has a few outlier dishes like pasta with tequila cream sauce. I don’t know why you’d get that when you could have carnitas, especially when the menu description of the carnitas reads, “Some folks judge restaurants by the quality of this very dish. We dare you to do this with us!”

Gauntlet thrown, dare taken. My husband ordered them, but I got my fair share. The carnitas were pretty darn good, I have to say, if a little unusual. Instead of small crispy or moist bits of pork, these were big, big hunks that fell somewhere between the dry and moist style. They had the crunchy shards of porky goodness, but inside the big pieces they were moist. The guacamole alongside was fresh and tart, the beans were a little runny and the rice was the processed kind with weirdly firm oval grains—but, really, the point of the dish is the toasty, unhealthy, yummy pork.

I, meanwhile, was working on a cocktel de camarones. It amused me somewhat that the glass this came in was smaller than the one for my sangria, but it was still plenty big—like the sangria, too big to finish. I liked the tomato-rich, spicy, tangy and refreshing broth, as well as the fact that there was plenty of crunch in the vegetables and was offset by creamy avocado. The shrimp themselves, though, seemed a little anemic—not as plump and sweet as one might hope. There are several other mariscos dishes on the menu that I’d like to try.

Our daughter attacked the kids’ plate, or at least the beans and rice, with gusto, though I finished off her quesadilla. It, too, was tasty, stuffed with lots of mildly spiced chicken. I would have happily eaten it for a grown-up lunch.

It’s a good place for families, but adults will be happy, as will those going for a fun night out with drinks. In a lot of ways, El Patrón reminds me of the best features of the kind of Mexican restaurants I grew up going to—minus the thick orange cheese—which is why I was a little surprised the place was so empty. Maybe it’s the location.