Flavors of the month
June’s Cafe921 V St.
Sacramento, CA 95818
June’s Cafe, a tiny lunch counter on a quiet street in what’s left of Sacramento’s old postwar Japantown neighborhood, gives new meaning to the expression “no frills.” As you approach its block of V Street, the area looks entirely residential, but persistence will lead you to a cinderblock building, with June’s on one side and an old-school pharmacy on the other, and the tempting smell of fried onions wafting from the former.
I’d been meaning to try out June’s for ages, having heard about it from various people, and I’d been wanting to get together with a friend for lunch, which provided the perfect excuse. June’s is only open on weekdays and only for breakfast and lunch, so the busy may find it all too easy to miss. This month, however, could provide the perfect eponymous reminder to visit.
When you enter, you’re greeted, rather brusquely, by June herself; her husband is also often behind the counter. The big paper menu is printed on butcher paper and stapled up on the wall. It features a range of basic, hearty dishes, including various sandwiches and plates with rice: ginger pork or beef, chicken with greens, other stir-fries, katsu (cutlets) and all manner of teriyaki—not excepting the slightly worrisome choice of wienie teriyaki. It’s all cheap, and it all seems to be made fresh to order.
Both of these qualities are probably what attract June’s high proportion of regulars, who sit at the counter (there are also a few tables). We noticed that a couple of regulars not only appeared not to consult the menu, but also didn’t even say what they wanted, as far as I could hear. June just started cooking for them and slid their plates over the counter when they were ready. Because we were sitting at a table, June came out to the table from behind the counter to take our order; to deliver our pot of green tea in one of the battered, light metal teapots from the large group of them hanging on hooks behind the counter; and to bring out our food.
Lunch started off with a tiny dish of macaroni salad, at which I looked somewhat askance. I’m generally anti-mayonnaise, so I tend to steer clear of macaroni salad, potato salad and their ilk. But I was heartened in this case by the sparing coating and the flecks of pepper throughout, and so I took a gingerly bite. It was certainly the best old-style macaroni salad I’ve ever had, brisk-flavored with the pepper, not mushy, and with a little crunch from the tiny bits of celery and carrot scattered throughout.
This unexpectedly pleasant starter was followed by a generous bowl of pale, savory miso soup, richly flavored, dotted with green onions and filled with cubes of custardy tofu. The tofu’s fresh and delicate taste had me wishing briefly that I’d ordered something with tofu for my lunch.
Instead, I had the oyako donburi, a dish of chicken, ultra-fresh plump and meaty shiitake mushrooms, and scrambled eggs—all doused with a light and sweetish soy sauce and served over rice. There was no explanation on the menu; I had to ask what it was. When June explained, and I ordered it, one of the regulars turned around from the counter and gave me the thumbs-up. He was right. The bowl looked small at first, but it was so filling and packed with flavor that I could barely finish half of it. The dark-meat chicken was tender and savory, complementing the dusky flavor of the mushrooms.
My friend had the ginger pork, and perhaps my depredations on his plate were part of the reason I couldn’t finish my own lunch. It was a brown-sauced stir-fry with slices of pork, slivered onions and plenty of ginger, which gave off an appetizing aroma as soon as the dish was set down. The generous helping of the stir-fry and rice filled the plate, and while the sauce was perhaps a bit on the sweet side, it complemented the pork and ginger flavors nicely.
We left quite sated, happy with our lunch and with its truly minimal impact on our wallets. (There is nothing on the menu that costs more than $10, and most items are more in the $5 range—though a sign at the back notes that T-shirts are available for $15.) Certainly, June’s doesn’t look like anything much. The décor is minimal, featuring those perplexing plastic cat figurines that populate so many Japanese restaurants (and that look to me like the distant ancestors of Hello Kitty) as well as some plants up front. The space is small and somewhat cramped, with two domestic-looking refrigerators wedged at the back and all the cooking, food prep and cleanup taking place in plain view. But if you’re after authentic atmosphere, plain but honest cooking and a little slice of a fast-disappearing part of Sacramento’s history, try making this June the month you finally check out the cafe of the same name.