Fired up

Flaming Grill Cafe

2319 El Camino Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95821

(916) 359-0840

The question of how to find a good casual lunch spot can be a vexed one. There are a million sandwich joints in the naked city; how do you pick out a worthy one without having to chow your way through pounds of substandard burgers? One way is to follow what one might think of as the cop principle: If a place is filled with local city workers of one kind or another, and if their bellies hang over their belts, you will probably get some kind of honest fare. (There’s a whole book about Chicago eats based on this principle, as applied to sanitation workers—that is, garbagemen.)

I don’t know if the men (my companion and I were the only women in the place, which may have been a statistical anomaly) eating lunch at the Flaming Grill Cafe were municipal workers, but they nearly all looked like guys who liked a good sandwich or three. And the Flaming Grill knows how to deliver a big, oozing, cheesy, overstuffed lunch between slices of bread or a bun. It’s not a fancy place—far from it—but the food is fresh and honest, and they make a lunch they can be proud of.

The menu skews toward burgers and burgers and some more burgers, including buffalo, ostrich and a series of more or less hefty combinations: 1/3-pound burgers with housemade barbecue sauce and onion strings, a 1/2-pound sirloin burger with grilled onions and mushrooms, even a meat-meets-meat 1/2-pound sirloin burger with pastrami and cheese. The melt sandwiches are not exactly an option for the less calorically inclined; for instance, the Jumbo Melt is a triple-decker grilled doorstopper on sourdough with turkey, ham, cheese, tomato and fried onion strings. For daintier appetites, a lineup of salads includes a salmon salad with cilantro-lime vinaigrette, grilled chicken salad or a yummy-sounding ahi salad (they were out of ahi as well as the tuna melt on my visit—alas, because I also hear good things about the seared-ahi sandwich). There’s also a small lineup of breakfast offerings.

Beverages include espresso drinks and milkshakes, and some genius thought to put those two categories together in an espresso milkshake. It’s huge, thick, rich and not too strong with the coffee, but does offer a little postprandial pick-me-up. They also have a very nice root-beer float and some strong-brewed iced tea—refreshingly plain, with no froufrou mango or whatever kind of flavoring. Service was accommodating and warm, though food was a tiny bit slow to emerge from the kitchen—but that was highly forgivable, given that it was being made to order.

The sirloin burger we tried, with a large dose of jalapeños and jack cheese, was thick and shaped in an oval and cooked just to medium-rare, as ordered. So thick with toppings it was hard to pick up (and even harder to get a bite of until partially disassembled), this was a messy but savory treat. The sandwiches come with a choice of fries, fruit or potato salad—but for 50 cents extra, you can sub grilled corn on the cob or onion strings. Both of the latter are winners, the onion strings very light and crispy, with a habit-forming saltiness. The corn was a little chewy and starchy—not surprisingly, since it’s not really in season—but was grilled to a T, with nutty, blistered, blackened kernels dotted around the ear, and a good dose of salt as well.

I got the corn alongside a turkey-melt sandwich, with crunchy, golden grilled sourdough, lots of melty Swiss cheese, some bacon and—my only complaint about the sandwich—turkey that was fairly standard-issue thin-cut lunch meat. That aside, it was a satisfyingly meaty sandwich—though I still want to go back for a tuna melt. The salmon salad, the salmon nicely spiced and grilled to order, was fresh and tasty, with a shower of jack cheese, slices of yummy avocado and a salsalike tomato-onion topping.

I visit and write about all kinds of restaurants, which sometimes makes reviewing a challenge: There’s no real comparison between a white-tablecloth place with a sommelier and, say, a burger joint, but I have to judge them on the same scale. All I can do, I feel, is judge whether a place is filling its own mission by making the best versions of food in its chosen genre. By those standards, Flaming Grill is doing a very creditable job, offering up honest, made-to-order food that will keep you full until dinnertime—and preparing them with care. It’s no wonder they were full of an appreciative lunch crowd.