Food and drink

Writers’ choice

Best new coffeehouse

Naked Lounge
If the name isn’t cool enough for you, or the fact you can order an absolutely magical tea drink called a Bowl of Soul, then maybe it’s the laid-back, artistic ambience that will hook you. Or maybe it’s the fact that it’s on a great corner across from Fremont Park and Mandella Community Gardens. Or possibly it’s the independent-minded owners, employees and patrons. Whatever it is, this place really has got soul by the bowlful. In a town of six million Starbucks, where even groovy coffeehouses like Weatherstone are actually owned by Java City, Naked Lounge is like a double shot of espresso after a long sleepless night. 1500 Q St., (916) 442-0174.

Best burger in three counties

Sorry, burger devotees, it’s not Ford’s or Nationwide or even Redrum in Davis. Just head up I-80, get off at the Foresthill exit just outside Auburn, and fight off the hordes of Bay Area types at Ikeda’s. This place started out as just a little roadside stand selling fruit from the family orchards. But now it’s renowned throughout Northern California for its amazingly good burgers, shakes and pies. The burgers are flavored with a complex blend of spices that the owners refuse to reveal. These are well worth the drive, and you can pick up a peach pie to go. 13500 Lincoln Way, Auburn, (530) 885-4243. And now in Sac too! 6200 Folsom Blvd., (916) 457-6940

Best comfort food

Marika Cafe
Old-fashioned comfort food is good for whatever ails you, whether it’s a broken heart or just the onset of the rainy season. Head over to the cozy and comfortable Marika Cafe for a plate of goulash and spaetzle, small rolled pieces of dough just the perfect consistency for soaking up that rich sauce. Spaetzle just feels good in your mouth and it is filling. Just don’t think about the fat grams or you’ll just get depressed again. If it is all too much, take comfort in a glass of their wine. 2011 J. St., (916) 442-0405.

Best place to eat fake meat

The Shanghai Garden
Here is the place to go when you’re out with friends who want the usual Chinese food with pork and chicken, but you’ve decided not to eat animal flesh. But say you’re craving some sweet and sour pork, and while the thought of eating a pig’s thigh or a chicken’s breast disgusts you, there’s still that craving to deal with. At the Shanghai Garden you can order sweet and sour “pork” or Kung Pao “chicken” and stay within your culinary choices. Their vegetarian meat-like dishes, “made by imitation,” allow those of you who miss the meat to have a very close substitute. You won’t know the difference, and neither will your meat-eating friends, except there won’t be bones or fat to deal with. If your friends really can tell the difference (those of us who haven’t had flesh in years are more easily fooled), there is the usual Chinese food available, all of it very tasty. 800 Alhambra, (916) 446-6358.

Best butcher - Taylor’s Market

Best food emporium

David Berkley Fine Wine and Foods
It’s no surprise to us that David Berkley Fine Wine & Foods has received national acclaim, even making it into Saveur magazine several years ago. If you’re an adventurous cook and serious about your ingredients, eventually you will find your way there. Meat, wine, European chocolate, sandwiches. Plenty of delightful things to savor. 515 Pavilions, (916) 429-4422.

Best home away from home food

Thai House
Thai House is literally that: a house balanced precariously between office buildings on Broadway and the old Curtis Park neighborhood on 24th Street. It doesn’t look like much, the teal green paint has seen better days and the hand painted sign above the door doesn’t exactly scream sophistication. But as we all know, it is what is inside that counts. You just need to try the sumptuous Thai food served up steaming for take-out. You can expect decent prices and a range of traditional and American Thai food that is guaranteed to make you break a sweat (watch out for that extra spicy). Thai House, 2675 24th St., (916) 736-3034.

Best Nepalese food this side of the Himalayas

Kathmandu Kitchen
Warning: Once you’ve tasted the masterful medley of Kathmandu’s Nepalese and Indian cuisine, you’ll find yourself making excuses to cross the causeway. (“I hear Cheetos are fresher at the Longs in Davis.”) The photographs of Nepal’s vertical snowscapes will have you planning your next outdoor adventure even as you sit comfortably nibbling fried pakora. Order ala carte or spring for a Thali dinner—a shiny tray piled with rice, naan, momos (irresistible dumplings), curries, chutneys and other surprises. Best of all, the diverse menu offers omnivores, vegetarians and vegans a chance to break naan together. 234 G St., Davis, (530) 756-3507.

Best place to wash down your artistic edification with a delicious slice of pecan pie

Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre and Art Gallery
The story goes that proprietor Eleanor Lediard took one look at the basement space that now houses her 40-seat auditorium with the picture-frame proscenium and said, “This’ll do.” Just like that, the place had its name. The Thistle Dew offers an intimately eclectic program, everything from Gardner McKay’s Sea Marks to Give ’Em Hell, Harry! and An Evening with John Wilkes Booth. But save some applause for the intermission offering of complimentary desserts and coffee. This is literally the icing on the cake. 1901 P St., (916) 444-8209.

Best place for sucking (oysters) and sighting (Joe Montana)

Best muffins - Café Bernardo

Esquire Grill
OK, you can come here for the great and juicy pork chops, the roasted prime rib, grilled steak and lamb, pan-fried fresh halibut, swordfish, clam chowder, superb wines, martinis, and other “imbibements”—but the real treasure here is in the oysters. Fresh and flavorful, they are Pacific Northwest oysters served on the half-shell, presented at your table on a tray of ice as a gift from the gods. Each one melts in your mouth as if it was a precious pearl. It’s convenient to visit this oasis after an IMAX movie, before the theatre, or after a day’s work. You may even run into Joe Montana, as we did. Joe and his wife and family were enjoying the oysters, too! Yes, there is life after football. And it’s scrumptious! 1213 K St., (916) 448-8900.

Best place to relive your childhood

Rick’s Dessert Diner
The quaint and colorful diner remains a huge favorite in town, and what’s not to like? Order yourself up a slab of tasty chocolate cake and a glass of milk, then sink into one of the absurdly low booths. It probably wasn’t planned that way, but you’re instantly 10 again. Now go outside and play. 2322 K St., (916) 444-0969.

Best place to taste the wines of the Sacramento River Delta

Cellar’s Market
Increasingly, Delta grape-growers are musing over the delicious idea of making their own wines. And so a connoisseur needs experts, like the owners of Cellar’s Market in Walnut Grove, to help them keep abreast of the area’s best offerings. The inviting shop, which has taken up residence under the neon “Ben’s Drugs” sign in the old narrow streets of town, features boutique wines, foods and bath items, and a tiny tasting room behind salvaged crackle-painted doors. There, the owners introduce the novice and the knowledgeable to the various flavors of the Delta. You can taste at the wineries themselves—Bogle in Clarksburg is a favorite—but Cellar’s Market relieves you of the need to careen around drunkenly on those hazardous Delta roads between wineries. 14114 Market Street, Walnut Grove, (916) 776-4255.

Best place to find your perfect flavor

Coldstone Creamery
Have you ever envied those people who work at Ben and Jerry’s who spend all day making up ice-cream flavors? Well, Coldstone Creamery offers that experience to anyone who walks through its door. The creamery offers a range of fruit, nut, syrup, and candy mix-ins custom blended on a cold stone, a virtual nightmare for you indecisive consumers out there. If you’re the type of person who can’t ever make up your mind on what to order, I offer you this advice: cheesecake ice cream with raspberries and white chocolate chips. Various locations.

Best place to end a 3 a.m. fried-zucchini run

I was hungry, starving in fact. After hours of full-bore bump and grind at the local night scene I needed sustenance. A little food wouldn’t hurt after a few Long Island Iced Teas either. When fast food just won’t do there is but one place to turn. The all-night haven for night owls and partygoers in the downtown area: Lyons. At any hour of the night (or early morning) you can slide into a booth across from a table full of high-schoolers, bar hoppers, punk rockers or other assorted downtowners and order anything from a T-Bone steak to a smoothie where the most healthy ingredient is the ice-cream (Jamba Juicer’s beware). My choice? A hot platter of battered and deep-fried zucchini … ah, does it get much more filling than this? Lyons 3000 J St., (916) 444-5158.

Best bartender - Mason Machado at the Press Club

Best butcher

Taylor’s Market
It starts in the parking lot when you pass by the outdoor grill where the butchers broil marinated versions of their chicken, fish and beef—take a whiff of pros in action. There are eight informative butchers at this little gourmet grocery and each of them is ready to give you advice on cuts, cooking technique, time and temperature. They also work with the best grades of meat; choice or better. The pricey Niman Ranch beef comes from contented cattle grazed at Point Reyes and “treated humanely.” The fresh dry scallops are flown in from New York City’s Fulton Fish Market. We even met the guy who brings in the wild Pacific salmon from Monterey Bay in that fragrant parking lot. But it is the friendly butchers you get to know by name that make this the place for meat. 2900 Freeport Blvd., (916) 443-6881.

Best unexpected french fries

The Ore-Ida Vending Machine at the Amtrak Station
It’s not the taste of the warm, salty fries that pour out of the Amtrak station’s Ore-Ida vending machine that makes them the best. It’s the surprise of finding automatic French fries at all. Has a vending machine offering “Hot fries in 45 seconds!” been spotted anywhere else? And why not? Why not fries on every corner? And how do the fries keep inside that machine? Why is it always out of ketchup? The machine, which raises far more questions than it answers, is a guaranteed conversation-starter. Walk into the station, pony up the requisite $1.50 and watch all heads turn to you. Everyone wonders how a fry machine came to be. Everyone wonders how the fries are cooked in 45 seconds (hint: hot air) and everyone wonders if they can taste one of yours. Instant fries. Instant friends. Who knew? 401 I St., (916) 444-7094.

Best waffle in town after midnight

True Love Coffeehouse
Sure, waffles can be had at other places around town after the witching hour, but none of those other joints have a guy who calls himself “The Waffle King” serving them up. And in most of those other places, if there’s any music to be heard, it’s the kind you’ve heard before, the kind that gets piped into the background over tinny speakers. At True Love, on the other hand, you’re likely to hear one of the better local exponents of original music, or perhaps a choice touring band. The waffles are as imaginative as the music, with toppings and combinations of toppings you won’t find at the all-night chain diners. But be careful: A waffle is a serious piece of food, the indiscriminate consumption of which can put a whammy on your entire next day. 2408 J St., (916) 492-9002,

Best weird food combo

Fanny Ann’s Saloon
Most burger joints are content with cheese and chili as complements to their beef patties. Some get daring and add blue cheese or caramelized onions. But only Fanny Ann’s Saloon in Old Town has the guts to offer the Jiffy Burger, with peanut butter and bacon. They say people order ’em all the time and once past the initial skepticism you’ll see why. Think about chicken satay or gado-gado sauce and you’ll understand why the nutty sweetness of the peanut butter works so well with the saltiness of the bacon and the meatiness of the burger. 1023 2nd St., (916) 441-0505.

Best place to get cheese on a burger

Squeeze Inn
The folks at the Squeeze Inn heap so much grated cheese onto the Squeezeburger that it melts all over the grill. Then they scoop up every bit of it with the burger and throw it on a bun. The grilled cheese, with edges now toasted and stiff, hangs out of the bun, giving the burger a tasty ring and Saturn-like appearance. Don’t bother trying to fit the thing in your mouth, just tear them off the cheese and eat it for an appetizer. No place does a cheeseburger like the Squeeze. 7918 Fruitridge Rd., (916) 386-8599.

Best sub

Times Square Deli
Call it a hoagie, a grinder, a sub or whatever, but a long sandwich piled high with cold cuts and fixings, or a cheesesteak, or meatballs on a french loaf, is a heavenly thing. And, although the chains (Blimpie, Quizno’s, Subway, Togo’s) have moved in on sub fabrication, nothing beats the real deal, the way it’s served at this unassuming deli, tucked away in the middle of Fulton Avenue’s car-dealer row. 1976 Fulton Ave., (916) 481-5857.

Best cheap power lunch

Jade Orchid Cafe
You may know of Simon’s, and the old Frank Fat’s, but the real power-lunching spot is even closer to the seat of power. Rather, it’s on top of it. With its linoleum floors and plastic plants, the Jade Orchid Cafe on the sixth floor of the Capitol may not be much to look at, but that’s not what this place is about. More important than atmosphere, this purposeful eatery also offers hungry staffers and lobbyists a modest salad bar and the chance to bump trays with Assemblywoman So-and-so or Senator What’s-his-face. And, for the solo diner who forgot to bring something to read, the recycle bin just across the hall in front of Rod Wright’s office offers a full selection of mostly unread, day-old papers from around the state. Capitol Building, 10th and L streets.

Best muffins

Café Bernardo
Since the Great American Branstand is but a dim memory, Cafe Bernardo offers the best selection of fresh-baked muffins for Midtowners. These muffins do not fit into any fad diet we know of. In particular, its cinnamon butter puff is the perfect morning indulgence, a light cake-like muffin rolled in butter and cinnamon sugar. Aren’t sugar and butter two essential food groups? 2726 Capitol Ave., (916) 443-1180.

Best restaurant

Best microbrewed beer - Rubicon’s

The Kitchen
The Kitchen is unique in this town, and not only because of its stratospheric $115 price of admission. What really sets The Kitchen apart is its casual, dinner-party atmosphere. Unlike other fine restaurants, where each table is pretty much expected to keep to itself and boisterousness is frowned upon, The Kitchen has guests milling about, with conversation flowing freely and new friendships being made. The peripatetic chef Randall Selland is a chatty host who transforms seasonal ingredients at the peak of freshness into one creative course after another. The Kitchen offers a four-hour evening of extraordinary food and lively company, and its a night that will linger in the memory for years. 2225 Hurley Way, (916) 568-7171.

Best appetizers

Aioli Bodega Espanola
The rememberance of Europe seems misty on a hot Sacramento day. But, as it turns evening and as we drift into Aioli, the mist begins to clear. Perhaps it’s the waiters who speak French and Spanish, or maybe it’s the flavorful red wine served to the accompaniment of a strumming Spanish guitar. The recommendation of the shark and carmelized onions is as adventurous as a cab ride through Madrid, but it is perfectly flavorful. The tender lamb brochette blends well with the Mediterranean salad. The effusive owner won’t let his friends go until they’ve all shared a small, convivial glass of Muscatel. As we pay the check, the bartender smiles and pours just a little more wine in our glass and finishes it all off with a wink. We linger. 1800 L St., (916) 447-9440.

Best upscale ribs

Sure, this upscale eatery may not be the first thing most people think of when they think of ribs. But these are unique. They aren’t a big hunk of pig or cow’s back slathered with barbecue sauce applied by paintbrush and served thrown on a platter in a way that makes you feel like you’re gnawing on a bone. Rather, Enotria’s short ribs are braised Italian-style in red wine with peaches, apricots or nectarines and served with a California flair over garlic mashed potatoes with vegetables. Enotria sears the ribs in a braising pot until they’re golden brown on the outside, and then covers them with the wine and a veal stock before they go in the oven. The resulting ribs—which, by the way, are served with a knife and fork—are soft and juicy and melt in your mouth. Enotria Cafe & Wine Bar, 1431 Del Paso Blvd., (916) 922-6792,

Best Thai food

Thai Basil
When Thai Basil first opened in a strip mall off Douglas Boulevard eight years ago, Roseville residents were ecstatic. Finally, a first-class Thai restaurant where the food and the ambience were equally good. Since then, the secret has spread throughout the county and Thai Basil has several outposts offering delightful curry and noodle dishes. As you might imagine, basil is used appropriately. We remain devoted to the pioneer, however. Just don’t try getting in to the one in Roseville without a reservation on the weekend. Various locations.

Best Japanese breakfast on a loading dock

Market Club
Those who have never been to the Market Club might have a little trouble finding it, given that the place is located within a produce yard. The Club attracts a crowd that includes morning golfers, police officers and downtown workers who fill up on the Market Club’s inexpensive diner fare. One of the menu’s highlights is the Oki Special, served Sundays only. You get a plateful of fried rice spiked with bits of ginger, garlic, vegetables and pork, with the whole thing topped off with a fried egg. It is an unusual breakfast in a unique place, and well worth the hunt. 2630 5th St., (916) 498-9953.

Best Mexican restaurant for siblings

Three Sisters
Some things are almost impossible to decide, such as the best Mexican food place in Sacramento, but Three Sisters is a clear choice once you eat there. With regular dinner entrees like chicken mole poblano, tacos de pescado and casas grandes chiles rellenos, you are sure to get a very traditional northern Mexican meal. The restaurant, named for the three Saenz sisters who opened it, has a warm desert décor inside and out and is perfect for large families or for dinner for two. The chips and tangy salsa are great accompaniments to the many styles of margaritas available. (The restaurant features 55 different kinds of tequila.) 5100 Folsom Blvd., (916) 452-7442.

Best bartender

Mason Machado at the Press Club
He’s a third-generation Rio Vista native and says the best thing about his gig serving beers and Long Islands to the Midtown hipsters at the Press Club happens—or, rather, doesn’t happen—before he even gets to work. “I never wake up to an alarm clock,” he says. Machado, 28, spent six years driving a tractor down rows of corn, tomatoes and asparagus in Walnut Grove while working on and off as a welder before a friend talked him into bartending school. After two years pouring at a Rancho Cordova dive where prostitutes sometimes brawled, Machado easily moved to the Press Club last year. “He has a combination of skill and personality,” gushes one regular. He has a tolerance for drunken babble, plus he’s friendly and quick. It gets really packed in there on weekends, people lined up two or three deep, and he just tears through it. The Press Club, 2030 P St., (916) 444-7914.

Best three-olive martini

The traditional martini garnish is a single pimento-stuffed Spanish olive speared by a toothpick, a jaunty little exclamation point for the classic cocktail. Bandera takes that bit of barroom punctuation and raises it to gourmet heights. Bandera’s martini, a house specialty, provides not just one but three jumbo olives from the Santa Barbara Olive Company. The olives usually come in multiple varieties: pimento, jalapeno and garlic. The drink itself is wonderful, a double portion of either Bombay Sapphire or Absolut, served straight up in an ice-chilled glass. But it is the olives that set this martini apart from the norm—hors d’oeuvre and aperitif together in one striking package. 2232 Fair Oaks Blvd., (916) 922-3524.

Best microbrewed beer

Sacramento’s best microbrewed beer changes throughout the year, depending on which batch of seasonal brew is on tap at Rubicon. In the summer, it’s usually the steam beer, brewed in a style that goes back to the Gold Rush days. In fall, the blond bombshell double India pale ale might be on tap, or a barleywine. There’s usually a porter pouring in winter, followed by a strong German-style lager for spring. Longtime Rubicon brewmaster Scott Cramlet usually makes five to seven seasonals a year, whipping up each 300 gallons at a time. (That’s the finished product, by the way, on display in those giant stainless-steel tanks behind the glass inside the brewery, and running to the taps through refrigerated lines.) Seasonal brewing goes back centuries to Germany, and the tradition was revived with the resurgence of microbrewing in recent years. Seasonals let brewers like Cramlet get creative, experimenting until they’ve got something unique. That’s what’s on tap at Rubicon, where the seasonals flow all year. Rubicon Brewing Co., 2004 Capitol Ave., (916) 448-7032,

Best drink to get plastered on

Tokyo tea at the Delta King’s Delta Lounge
There are as many ways to get plastered as there are folks trying to get plastered, but the best and classiest way to get there is moored on the river in Old Sac. Specifically, it’s the Tokyo tea served in the lounge upstairs on the bow of Sacramento’s iconic Delta King. The lounge serves up its Tokyo tea ($6.50) with Midori, Long Island mix, gin, vodka, rum, triple sec, tequila and a splash of sweet and sour. Sitting at the tables out on the deck, watching the sun set on a breezy summer evening as pleasure boats buzz by and freight trains clatter across the I Street bridge, isn’t such a bad place to enjoy one … or two or three. Sure, the boat’s not moving, but the river is, and after a couple of these drinks, it’ll seem like the stately, beautifully restored 75-year-old riverboat is taking you upstream on a nice cruise. Delta Lounge, 1000 Front St., (916) 441-4440.

Best tree-fruit festival in the Delta

Pear Fair in Courtland
The Pear Fair has been a tradition on the last Sunday in July in Courtland for the past 30 years. Thankfully the fair has not gotten so popular as to detract from the rural character of this small Delta town. Many of the food booths raise funds for a variety of local causes, and there are lots of opportunities to fill up on pear pies, caramel pears, pear fritters, pear smoothies and even pear fruit freezes produced by Gunther’s Ice Cream. The fair also features rides and activities for the kiddies, an exhibition of photos and artifacts from the Delta’s pear-packing history and a parade honoring Pear Fair queens past and present. It’s a down-home event that reflects well upon the good people of Courtland and all the folks that make the Delta one of the nation’s leading pear-producing areas.