Food and Drink

Writers’ Choice

Illustration By Chris Sickels

Best Chinese Meal Under $5
First Choice
Tired of that Chinese fast-food experience at the mall where the egg roll tastes like weeds wrapped in unborn linoleum? So are we. But, you say in response, the place at the food court is quick and cheap. Well, we say try our First Choice in Midtown. You can get a real meal, served quickly, and you get to eat sitting at a table with a white tablecloth. The fresh ingredients are cooked to order, not dished up from a large pan prepared last week. And here’s the kicker: It’s a full, tasty meal for $4.89 at lunch. 1313 21st St., (916) 448-8833.

Best Coffee Shop To Find A Cop
Taylor’s Coffee Emporium
Stop by Taylor’s Coffee Emporium any day around 6:30 p.m. and you’ll probably see its proprietor, former Sacramento police officer Bob Taylor, holding court on the front patio, stogie firmly planted in mouth, discussing issues of the day, crime and non-crime related. Taylor doesn’t shrink from controversy, and if you hang out long enough, you’ll see a who’s who of rank-and-file cops, both those currently on the force and the recently retired. (Hint: Harley riders especially welcome.) In addition to pastries, sandwiches and a large variety of coffee drinks, Taylor’s also carries Gunther’s hand-packed ice cream. The cops stop in for their daily dose of Joe and, more than likely, a spirited conversation with the owner. 3198 Riverside Blvd., (916) 443-1709.

Best Comfort Food
Pancake Circus
When you’ve had it up to here with arugula, and the thought of sundried tomato pasta with capers leaves you flat, and the idea of trying just one more piece of broiled salmon drizzled with anything leaves you feeling like a plate full of wilted baby greens, do not fret. This is your tastebuds’ way of telling your brain that you’re overdue for some good old-fashioned comfort food. We’re talking grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. We’re talking breakfast at 10 p.m. or a milkshake as a meal. We’re talking a stack of four fluffy pancakes dripping with butter and maple syrup. Whatever it was that your mom would make that made you feel loved as a kid, Pancake Circus will probably have it—and serve it up with all the kitschy flair of an old-time diner. 21st and Broadway, (916) 452-3322.

Best Dive
Old Tavern Casino
Old Tavern Casino defines a dive bar. It’s got the grunge, cheap beer on tap and belligerent folk aplenty. But what better place is there than Old Tavern to play poker for hours on end, smoke your Marlboros and manage to get smashed for less than $10? Old Tavern attracts the best of ’em—from the tattooed townies to Abercrombie & Fitch-clad frat boys to senior citizens. Sing-along songs from the ‘60s blare from the jukebox. It’s a place to kick back, leave your pretenses at the door and have fun, whether you prefer bellying up to the bar for dollar pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon, huddling in a smoking circle with your buddies on the patio, or partaking in typical bar sports—pool, shuffleboard, darts, poker or videogames. Dive in. 1510 20th St., (916) 444-5595.

Best Free Lunch
Costco Wholesale
You gotta love this store, if only for the uniquely American experience of being able to purchase tires, tea and tomatoes in the same shopping trip. But did you also know that Costco provides a guilt-free atmosphere in which to “sample” foodstuffs—enough of them to make a no-cost lunch for the average eater? And don’t worry, the store and the food manufacturers will get their money back from real customers. You can get such delicacies as quiche, fresh shrimp, artichoke dip, chips and salsa, and lasagna and walk away feeling like you got away with something at no cost. 1600 Exposition Pkwy., (916) 648-1178.

Best Midnight Snack
Pieces Pizza by the Slice
To call Pieces a restaurant doesn’t do it justice. Pieces is a late night institution for Midtown residents, as much a part of the weekend’s nocturnal drinking ritual as cocktails, flirting and the next day’s hangover. Sure, it’s the smell of pizza and tummy rumble that draws you, that craving of a slice of pesto pizza with sundried tomatoes, goat cheese and fresh garlic. Or is it the combo you seek? Whatever, that’s not important. What is important is that you go there. 1309 21st St., (916) 441-1949.

Best Place To Go When You’re Starving
White Swan Mongolian Barbeque
There’s something about Far-Eastern food that fills you up and never let’s you down, particularly when it’s all-you-can-eat. White Swan Mongolian Barbecue manages to combine the best of the sit-down restaurants and buffets all into one. A food-lover’s dream. At a buffet-style line, you can fill a bowl to the brim with noodles and your choice of veggies, meats and sauces. A chef prepares your mouthwatering dish on a giant grill right in front of you. As you are led to the table, your server already has food waiting for your feasting pleasure: rice, sushi, fried won-tons in a sweet and sour sauce, and soup. And the beauty of it is, you can eat all you want for around $10. 1328 Howe Ave., (916) 929-8230.

Best Use Of An Urban Creek To Create A Romantic Setting
Thai Cottage
You may not notice them, but urban creeks run throughout our fair city. Many of them become concrete-lined ditches strewn with discarded tires and junk, but Chicken Ranch Slough is lucky. Before it winds through Howe Park, it crosses Fulton Avenue midway between Marconi and El Camino avenues; on the east side of Fulton, it wraps around an inconspicuous lavender-gray building: Thai Cottage, a restaurant. Enter from the parking lot in front, and you’ll find a rather generic open bar area. But the dining area behind it is a real treat—the creek side is planted with bamboo and other lush foliage, which, when viewed through the large plate-glass windows, makes for a cool jungle vibe. The experience is further enhanced by Thai Cottage’s generous deployment of booths, always a favorite when you want to slide around the corner of a table and get snuggly. Oh, and the food’s terrific, too. 2632 Fulton Ave., (916) 481-4030.

Best Doughnuts

Photo by Larry Dalton

Best Salsa Bar
Los Jarritos
This casual Mexican restaurant is often full of relaxed people in various family and friend combinations, and at least a few of them are probably there specifically because of the salsa. The salsa bar isn’t particularly pretentious, but it usually includes three or four red sauces that are all tangy and full of heat and very delicious. After pouring them liberally over everything you order, ask for some to go. A pint costs a whopping $2.10 with tax. 2509 Broadway, (916) 455-7911.

Best Doughnuts
Marie’s Donuts
Drive down Freeport Boulevard around 3 a.m. and you’ll notice the heavenly smells of cinnamon, sugar and maple hovering in the pre-dawn air. That’s the scent of fresh crullers and doughnut holes being fashioned by the nocturnal bakers at Marie’s. Marie’s, a teal-colored hut with walk-up service, opens far earlier than any corporate coffee outlet and compliments its java with the freshest, sweetest doughnuts around. Magic! 2950 Freeport Blvd., (916) 444-5245.

Best Place To Buy Fresh Fish … And Have It Fried For You While You Wait
SF Supermarket
The first thing you smell when you enter SF Supermarket is the fish, which is amazing when you consider the size of the place. It’s a normal-size Asian grocery store with rows and rows of oyster sauce, rice, produce and the like, but you still smell the fish first. Upon reaching the back of the store, you understand why. There, on ice, in tanks, chopped in half, live, dead, frozen—however you want it—you’ll find fish. And whether it’s the fresh barracuda or idiot fish, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. they’ll fry it for you for free. If that weren’t enough, SF Supermarket also has an amazing butcher and a varied produce section. For all you aficionados of stinky tropical fruit, you’ll be happy to know they stock the elusive durian fruit, at 79 cents a pound. 6930 65th St. #123, (916) 392-3888.

Best Place To Get Scallops And White Sauce Folded Into An Omelette
The Lucky Café
Perhaps in a bid to live up to its own front-of-menu exhortation—"Over 50 types of omelettes on one menu"—the Lucky Café takes a traditional omelette menu and stands it on its head. Yes, you can still get the classics, like the Denver, but at Lucky you can also get a dinner … folded into an omelette, for breakfast. Don’t believe us? Then try the breaded chicken breast with marinara sauce omelette, or the pork loin with applesauce omelette. Our favorite is the more traditional corned-beef hash and Swiss omelette. If none of these eggy delights sound like your speed, there’s also traditional breakfast fare to suit you, including a wide variety of sausage breakfasts (smoked duck?!). The 61-year-old Lucky Café also serves lunch. 1111 21st St., (916) 442-9620.

Best Old-School Italian Delicatessen
Italian Importing Co.
Any lasagna lover from New York, Chicago or the city knows that despite all the froufrou Italian foods served up in posh restaurants and stocked in upscale supermarkets, there is no substitute for an authentic Italian delicatessen. That’s the kind well-stocked with imported Italian delicacies, filled with prosciutto, salami, mortadella, sausages, wheels of Reggiano parmigiano and peccorino Romano cheeses, sliced to order or served up in generous sandwich rolls by fast-quipping counter clerks. You’ll find imported coffees, olive oils, delightful regional Italian wines, polenta, odd-cut imported pastas (everything from spinach linguine to squid-ink tagliatelle). Three locations: 1827 J St., (916) 442-6678; 1100 Front St., (916) 443-6046; 5030 Folsom Blvd., (916) 452-6974.

Best Sausage
Morant’s Old Fashioned Sausage Kitchen
Sausage is one of those foods that get people slightly emotional. Ask a Wisconsinite where to get good sausage in Northern California and you’re likely to get an expletive-laced diatribe on the weakness of California butchery on the whole. Luckily, for us in Sacramento there’s Morant’s. The no-nonsense folk over at Morant’s obviously know what they’re doing—they list 15 different types of fresh sausage and 14 types of smoked sausage among their offerings. Try the Italian and you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile. A little salty and filled with spices, this little bugger would go well on a bun with some peppers and onions. As a bonus, on Monday through Friday, they cook ’em out front on a barbecue for lunch. Morant’s Old Fashioned Sausage Kitchen, 5001 Franklin Blvd., (916) 731-4377.

Best Fusion Sushi
Zen Toro
Of course, the very idea of fusion sushi may raise the ire of traditional sushi heads, but Zen Toro ventures into and confidently conquers this tricky territory with its adventurous rolls. Scallop ceviche rolls filled with fresh green chilies, lime juice and cilantro, combine quite naturally with the surrounding rice and seaweed. The rare filet mignon roll works deliciously well with its portobello mushrooms, fried onions and aioli. For traditionalists, though, Zen Toro also serves some of the areas most elegantly presented and fresh nigiri, sashimi and makki. 900 15th St. (916) 442-4933.

Best Mush
Nopalitos Southwestern Café
Admittedly, there’s not a whole lot of latitude in mush preparation. After all, it is just mush. But where else in town can you sit down, look a waiter in the eye and, with a straight face, say, “I’ll have the mush, please.” Voilà. For just $2.50 you get a steaming bowl of corn-meal porridge with brown sugar and milk. Nopalitos also offers some of the best and most individual breakfast items around, such as a cactus and poblano chili omelet smothered in salsa with Southwestern potatoes, or whole wheat sourdough French toast. 5530 H St., (916) 452-8226.

Best Scottish Ale And Haggis Hangout

Photo by Larry Dalton

Best Scottish Ale And Haggis Hangout
The Highlander
Occupying the old environs of the famous Neptune’s Table, the Highlander is a large, fun and somewhat odd place. Play pool and swig Scottish ale in one room, or walk around a room divider to a somewhat makeshift, but elegant, dining room for some quality meat and potatoes. For the adventurous, or simply those craving the ultimate, authentic Scottish dish, you can call a day ahead and they will make you haggis, the indescribable, pungent Highlands sausage concocted from vegetables, oats, sheep’s heart, liver and kidneys. For lunch or breakfast, venture into a third room for bangers and eggs, or bangers and mash. And don’t miss chatting with the outgoing proprietor who will likely accost you from across the room with his thick Scottish brogue, and give you a heavy taste of that famous Scotch hospitality. 5990 South Land Park Drive, (916) 392-5692.

Best Bread
The Bread Store
Like, duh. The Bread Store? Best bread? OK, OK, it may seem like we’re taking the easy, obvious path on this one, but it’s true, this place makes some awesome bread, fresh, every day, like God’s own bakers dropped right out of heaven into Midtown Sacramento. And this place does more than just bake bread, they use said bread to make some of the best sandwiches in town, or fill them with the most scrumptious soups, all served in a comfy and great-smelling setting. 1716 J St., (916) 557-1600.

Best Pizza
Mary’s Pizza Shack
Since 1959 Mary’s Pizza has been satisfying Italian pizza lovers, not across America, but across Sonoma County. Lucky for us, Mary’s has reached beyond that county to include the town of Dixon, just down the road from Sacto. Everyone has their own criteria for good pizza, but try Mary’s and you will be in pizza heaven. The crust is the perfect balance of chewy, crunchy, soft, warm, bubbly and flavorful. The sauce is tasty and full-bodied, without being too sweet or strong, complementing superbly whatever toppings you may choose. You can’t go wrong here. After all, Mary Fazio and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Ischia, Italy, a small island off the coast of Naples—and Naples is considered by many to be the birthplace of the first pizza. 1460 Ary Lane (Pitt School Road exit off I-80 west), Dixon, (707) 693-0300.

Best Gourmet Grocery
Nugget Market
The new expanded Nugget Market in Davis is, in a word, overwhelming. Well, let’s add one more word to that—wonderfully overwhelming. When you walk in the first time your mouth is guaranteed to drop open. With so many fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, ready-for-cooking dinner entrees, specialty products, top-rated wines, cheeses, breads, desserts and, in addition, quality service it’s sort of a letdown to go anywhere else. Oh, and did we mention the fabulous deli selection of made-to-order burritos, and grilled panini with portobella? Or the enchiladas, sushi or pot stickers? Or the bagels and espresso? 1414 E. Covell Blvd., Davis, (530) 750-3800.

Best Smoked Fish
Laszlo’s Gourmet Smoked Fish
The secret behind Joe Laszlo’s smoked fish shop is in the demand. Laszlo can’t keep his selection of smoked prawns, sturgeon, tuna and salmon on the shelves for more than a couple of days, making for the freshest smoked fish in town. Laszlo, who still has the thick accent of a Hungarian although he has lived here for 45 years, started the shop three years ago after retiring from his job as a contractor. A word to the wise: smoked prawn lovers should frequent the shop on Fridays, when the shrimp has just come out of the smoker, as they don’t last through the weekend. 1100 Front St., #140, Old Sacramento, (916) 492-9089.

Best Coffee
Boulevard Coffee Roasting Company
If you are a Starbucks patron and think that it doesn’t get much better than that, think again, my poor, deluded friends. The best coffee in the Sacramento area is a well-kept secret that is starting to gain notice day by day. Boulevard Coffee Roasting Company, conveniently located on Fair Oaks Boulevard, has the richest and most distinct coffee in town. And the price is right too. Forget about $3.00 for a single mocha or $2.00 for a cup of dark roast. The owner, Cliff Miller, roasts his own coffee beans at a location less than 20 minutes from both of his shops. Therefore, the coffee is never late, it’s always fresh and if they don’t have what you want on hand, it can be ordered and ready within a day. The ambience is cozy, comforting with an up-scale edge. With classical and jazz music playing in the backround, a leather couch, tiled floors, and outdoor seating, everyone is sure to feel at home in Boulevard’s hushed atmosphere. 5901 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael, (916) 972-8967; 7901 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael, (916) 944-0266.

Best Draft Beer (Bad)
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst seems to be making a comeback. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s due to the beer’s relative cheapness, its great taste, or a reaction to the beer snobs among us—a Pabst comeback is a good thing for Pabst fans. Ten years ago, it was hard to find Pabst on tap. But now, at least in Sacramento, you can find it anywhere. You can drink it with the indie crowd at Old Ironsides, with the old-school Sacramento crowd at Socal’s Tavern or at the Pine Cove, which just might be your best bet at $1 a glass and $5.50 a pitcher. Wherever you enjoy it, the best way to drink Pabst is with a group of unrepentant beer snobs. That just means more Pabst for you.

Best Draft Beer (Good)
Harp Lager
Sadly, beer has become the new wine. In much the same way that a yuppie in the ‘80s took a sniff of Napa red and exclaimed, “Such a naughty bouquet!” the young establishment now take a pull off some maple syrup-thick ale and say, “Yum, fresh hops!” Leave it to the well heeled to try to ruin beer like they’ve ruined everything else. Well, the funny thing about beer is you can’t really ruin it. It is, after all, beer. Take Harp Lager. Harp is a prototypical lager—it’s got a beautiful golden color and a taste that isn’t too bitter. Plus, unlike most American microbrews, it doesn’t leave you feeling bloated. Produced by the Guinness Group, Harp is further proof that when it comes to beer, the Irish know what they’re doing. Find it at the Fox and Goose and Streets of London Pub, among other locales.

Best Burrito
Dos Coyotes Border Café
Don’t let the fact that it is located in Market Square at Arden Fair throw off your taste buds or make you lose your appetite. This salmon-colored café serves a burrito that could make even the biggest agoraphobic strap on the ass-kickers and face the masses. The prices are the best part of the dining experience at Dos Coyotes, ranging from $2.00 for chips and salsa to $7.50 for a massive, fresh tasting burrito filled with your choice of meats or fish, sour cream, guacamole, cheese and whatever else you prefer wrapped in a tortilla, not to mention the load of special sauce they pour over the mounded creation. 1735 Arden Way, (916) 927-0377. Also, two locations in Davis.

Best Health Food Store
Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op
If the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op has any real competition, it comes from the charming Davis Farmer’s Market, which boasts great produce, open-air and street performers but, let’s face it, lacks the variety. For everything from bulk herbs to froofy bath salts, bunches of flowers, alternative magazines on yoga and only the most pure, albeit expensive, examples of every one of the four major food groups, the Co-op is Sacramento’s own home-grown treasure. 1900 Alhambra Blvd., (916) 455-2667.

Best Place To Buy Free-Range Holiday Turkeys
Branigan Terry Turkey Farm
Food aficionados and first-timer holiday cooks should join the veritable convoy out to Branigan’s on the days leading up to Thanksgiving. Once you get to the farm, after calling ahead for a bird of preferred weight, meet other turkey lovers at folding tables manned by young people accepting money and handing over hefty boxes packed with extra meaty free-range turkeys. The birds are more expensive than supermarket turkeys, but heck, the holidays only come once a year. 39621 County Road 24A, Woodland, (530) 662-4205.

Best Cult Masquerading As An Überdelicatessen
Trader Joe’s
What is it about Trader Joe’s? My wife, given her druthers, would buy all our food there; she even found a house for us within walking distance, before I caught wise to her culinary obsession. But what’s weird is that when I try describing this to other people, especially women, a knowing look crosses their faces: Ah, yes, Trader Joe’s. Now, to me, it’s an overgrown deli with a cheesy Gilligan’s Island theme and big discounts on weird food my kid won’t eat, frequented by the kind of folks who look like they think of themselves as terribly interesting people. However, after chuffing down a bunch of TJ’s house-label frozen entrées (so easy for the lazy Web surfer to microwave), I’m beginning to come around. Could it be some chemical Trader Joe’s puts in its “natural” food? Uh, where’s my tinfoil hat … Town & Country Village, 2625 Marconi Ave., (916) 481-8797; 5311 Sunrise Blvd., Fair Oaks, (916) 863-1744; 1117 Roseville Square, Roseville, (916) 784-9084.