Food & Drink
Best use of potatoes in a burrito
Isabela’s Mexican and Italian Fonda
Oh my gosh! The papas y rajas burrito at Isabela’s! The humongous tortilla-wrapped bundle is filled with the most tender spicy potatoes and steamed vegetables and then doused in three separate salsas. It’s a refreshing alternative for vegetarians tired of meatless burritos made almost entirely of lettuce. The serving size is hefty, the taste is delectable, and the price is an affordable $5.95. Be sure to satisfy your burrito cravings early in the day because the papas y rajas burrito appears only on the lunch menu.
1119 21st Street, (916) 492-9565.
Best seasonal ice cream
Gunther’s Quality Ice Cream, rum raisin
This is a smooth, creamy confection packed with plump, juicy raisins that are soaked in so much rum you’ll be limping around with a parrot on your shoulder and shouting, “Har!” Gunther’s, of course, has been around since your grandparents were dating, and its rum raisin is worth the year-long wait. Look for rum raisin at the end of November, when Gunther’s kicks out pumpkin as the flavor of the month. Supplies usually run out sometime in January. It tastes like Christmas.
2801 Franklin Boulevard, (916) 457-6646.
Best french (or freedom) fries
Nationwide Freezer Meats
French fries, freedom fries or pommes frites: Whatever you wanna call ’em, they make the perfect complement to a burger and a shake, or a steak sandwich and a soda, or whatever way you prefer your meat with potatoes. And at this Midtown burger outlet, they don’t mess around. These aren’t finger-sized fries or shoestrings; Nationwide slices its ’taters into quarters, fries them up and serves them with ketchup, usually accompanying a top-notch French steak cheeseburger. Cardiologists and dietitians may scream, but the rest of us can only revel in such decadence.
1930 H Street, (916) 444-3286.
Best pizza from a most unlikely place
El Chico on Freeport
What does a place called El Chico know about pizza? If it were “Il Chico,” that might be one thing, but most diners cruising this lonely stretch of Freeport Boulevard near the Sacramento Executive Airport are likely to assume this to be a Mexican restaurant, not the home of “broasted” chicken and Americanized spaghetti dinners. More incongruous is the pizza pie, which, unlike the rest of El Chico’s menu, ranks among the best in town. Why? Probably the garlicky dough that makes the crust delicious, rather than the usual tasteless handle that is thrown away when the good, gooey stuff is gone.
6004 Freeport Boulevard, (916) 428-0857.
Best way to use Sacramento’s sunny days
Solar Cookers International
According to USA Today, Sacramento has sunny days 78 percent of the time, making it the ninth-sunniest city in the country. Why not take advantage of all those rays and use them to cook without heating up the house? Solar Cookers International, a nonprofit group that advocates solar cooking as an environmentally friendly means of meal preparation, provides instruction for building your very own solar box cooker from easily acquired—and often recycled—materials. A couple of cardboard boxes, some aluminum foil, old newspapers, a cookie sheet, a black cooking pot with a lid, and a piece of glass or clear plastic, and you’re cooking. As long as the cooker is directly in the sun all day, you should have dinner ready by the time you get home, and you won’t spend extra money cooling down the house. Solar box cookers also can be used to purify water, and the group’s Web site has plans for even fancier, sleeker solar cookers than the solar box cooker.
1919 21st Street, Suite 101; (916) 455-4499; www.solarcooking.org; email@example.com.
Best eggs Benedict
Eggs Benedict, one of the more delicate dishes on breakfast menus, makes an appearance at restaurants all over town. You won’t find it at the average diner, but Sacramento’s more picturesque brunch spots all seem to offer a version. It might come topped with spinach, tomatoes or smoked salmon. One restaurant features rosemary bread rather than an English muffin. Another offers toppings including tempeh, tofu and cheese sauce. But Tower Cafe’s classic rendition, eggs Tower, beats them all. For $7.95, you get fluffy, inch-thick muffin halves topped with perfectly poached eggs, Canadian bacon, tomato slices and hollandaise sauce. It’s served with crisp red potatoes, peppers and onions that almost beg to be dipped in the leftover sauce. Even better, eggs Tower is served until 2 p.m. on weekends, so you can roll out of bed around 11 a.m. on Sunday, head to Tower Cafe for breakfast and coffee and probably still catch a matinee at the movie theater next door.
1518 Broadway, (916) 441-0222.
Best comfort food for lunch
Rainy days call for comfort food, and my great-grandmother’s version was a dish made with small, buttery, noodle-like things that actually were closer to dumplings than to pasta. What I’ve always known as spätzle, the folks at Café Marika call spetzels. That doesn’t much matter, though, as these tiny noodles melt delicately on the tongue. Served with a decadently creamy and decidedly mild version of chicken paprikash, the spetzels are reason enough to stop for lunch at this cozy Midtown restaurant on a rainy day. But the Hungarian goulash, made with pork, is also worth a visit. Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It costs about $7.25 and includes a drink. Café Marika also is open for dinner Thursday through Saturday.
2011 J Street, (916) 442-0405.
Best place to eat with your hands
Addis Ababa Ethiopian restaurant
As children, we share a natural tendency to feed ourselves using our bare hands. Years of conditioning are required to instill in us the programming to choose utensils rather than our fingers. Fortunately, there exists a place where we can indulge our erstwhile childhood conceit, and the food there happens to be out-of-this-world delicious. At Addis Ababa, in a strip mall across from Target, just off Fulton Avenue, you can order a sampler platter for $15, which comes with plenty of injera, a spongy flat bread you use to pick up the various vegetable, legume and meat dishes included, each of them cooked to sublime, perfectly spiced perfection. Dive in.
2598 Alta Arden Expressway, (916) 488-2100.
Best place to eat with your shoes off
The Thai room at Sophia’s Thai Kitchen
If you plan on eating in the Thai room at Sophia’s Thai Kitchen, leave your 12-eye boots at home. Shoes are not allowed on the gleaming hardwood floor of the Thai room, where diners sit on large, fuzzy pillows surrounded by murals of the Thai countryside. The food is served in steaming helpings on low tables set among the pillows. It’s a relaxing place to dine, but untying your shoes in the doorway of the always-bustling Sophia’s can be hectic. Slip-off footwear is recommended, as is the jungle curry.
129 E Street in Davis, (530) 758-4333.
Grateful Bread Co.
Sitting on the left bank of the Sacramento River, you’re so far away from the Seine in Paris—in so many ways. But if you bite into a crunchy baguette or batard, perhaps while enjoying a café latte or maybe a hunk of creamy cheese alongside it, it can bring back a hint of the Parisian experience. Remember the morning after that romantic interlude, when you stopped at the street-side cafe? The bread found in Fair Oaks, and in selected stores, that can spur on that reverie is produced by the craftspeople at Grateful Bread Co., and they got their technique from French baker and teacher Didier Rosada. Their secret in producing what the French call pain ordinaire is a steam-injection process that keeps the bread moist and produces a pretty-colored crust that remains perfectly crunchy on the outside. The trend is called artisan bread making, and we Francophiles say oui oui.
2543 Fair Oaks Boulevard, (916) 487-9179.
Best-kept dining secret
In past years, readers have put the Limelight Café in the running for best neighborhood bar, best meat market and best public bathroom. The Limelight also has made it into two food-related categories—best restaurant to break up in and best breakfast—but they hardly indicate the quality and range of dishes on the Limelight’s menu. What’s the story? Why is the Limelight so overlooked as a restaurant? Has no one tried the pasta with grilled chicken breast, vine-ripened tomatoes, Reggiano cheese and pine nuts, with a simple sauce of garlic, basil, extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar? The hand-cut french fries? Is it possible no one’s had the Limelight cater a luncheon? If so, that’s a big mistake. Head chef Rick Handy is really into food preparation, and his emphasis is on freshness (the Limelight even has a butcher grind chuck for burgers daily). Ask Handy to prepare sandwiches for your next big event: Try the fresh Dungeness crab salad with tarragon, house-made mayonnaise and arugula on sourdough, or the grilled portabella on herbed focaccia with vine-ripened tomatoes, sprouts and a pesto aioli. You won’t be disappointed.
1014 Alhambra Boulevard, (916) 446-2236.
Best place for sushi fixings
Asian Food Center
Most of us don’t make sushi at home. It’s made so well at so many restaurants that it probably doesn’t seem worth the hassle and mess to attempt it yourself. Sure, after an hour of work putting all the ingredients together, you might be a little disappointed by the aesthetics of your meal. But it’s a satisfying feeling to prepare a meal you’re used to eating only on special occasions, and overstuffing and imperfect rolling won’t hurt the taste one bit. If you’re going to go to all the trouble, though, do it right. Don’t go to Safeway for this project. Everything you need to make sushi at home (except patience and skill, of course) is at the Asian Food Center: sushi-, wasabi- and soy-sauce-sized serving plates; a cutting board; sushi rollers; chopsticks; 16 options of seaweed; rice; shrimp; crabmeat; seasoned capelin roe; arctic surf clams; salmon; sea bass; sashimi; snapper; tofu; cucumber; powdered and prepared wasabi; soy sauce; roasted sesame seeds; and sweet pickled ginger. And don’t forget the miso-soup mix.
13th Street and Broadway.
Best cheap bottle of wine
If you don’t know what the “Two Buck Chuck” phenomenon is, man have you been missing out on some discount grape juice. Charles Shaw, or Two Buck Chuck as it is affectionately called by its cult-like following, is by far the best cheap wine on the market, and it’s sold exclusively at Trader Joe’s. So, why the big fuss over this simple, easy-to-drink table wine? Well, thanks to a surplus of wine grapes from over-planting in 1990, this stuff is selling for (got a guess?) just two bucks. Bust open that piggy bank, grab your two bucks and head straight to Trader Joe’s because with a deal this good, the barrel is sure to run dry.
2625 Marconi Avenue, (916) 481-8797.
Best health-conscious Mexican food
With more than 40 years experience in Sacramento, Caballo Blanco has enticed customers from all over the area with its traditional recipes and dozen or so extra-healthy dishes, like chicken simmered in lemon or marinated in tequila (the alcohol cooks off). The restaurant itself is quiet, with cozy booths, no-nonsense service and huge plates covered in beans and rice seasoned with a variety of delectable spices. There are a lot of winning Mexican restaurants in Sacramento, but few feature such a delicious offering for the health-conscious Mexican-food fanatic.
5604 Franklin Boulevard, (916) 428-6706.
Best meal on wheels
The Dinky Diner isn’t a place with bottomless cups of coffee and a waitress who tucks her pencil behind her ear. There’s no waitress. Or restroom. Or telephone. This Clarksburg eatery operates out of a wood-shingled trailer. The menu includes the Clarksburger, a beef patty served on a roll with lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles; a “burned weeny” sandwich, made of grilled hotdogs; and root-beer floats. Order at the window and then grab your beverage from a nearby ice chest: Sodas are in the red cooler; water’s in the blue one. The outdoor seating consists of picnic tables and a few camping chairs overlooking the town’s marina. Mingle with tourists exploring the Delta and the locals grabbing lunch. Or, simply watch boats cruise up the river and John Deere tractors ramble down the road. The Dinky Diner’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday until November, when it will close for the winter. Weather permitting, it will reopen in February. It’s that kind of place.
36339 Riverview Drive in Clarksburg.
Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op
Next time you’re in that border area between Midtown and East Sacramento around lunchtime, stroll into the nourishingly alternative zeitgeist of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Behold the deli. Awaiting you there is a bountiful display of healthful foods to consider: a buffet-style seasonal menu with loads of vegetarian and standard deli options, an organic espresso and juice bar, a plentiful salad bar, to-die-for homemade soups, made-to-order sandwiches and tasty pasta salads. (Tip: Nobody does tofu like the co-op does tofu.) Of course, the added benefit of shopping co-op is that you’re also supporting a consumer-owned market that promotes organic food plus workplace democracy. Lines can be long during the peak lunch hour, so consider heading over there a bit earlier or later if you want to miss the rush.
1900 Alhambra Boulevard, (916) 455-2667.
Best banana-cream pie
For several decades, Frank Fat’s has been a legendary power-lunch spot. The food and service are always top-notch. On top of this, Fat’s boasts the best banana-cream pie in town, made fresh daily. The cream is fabulous, walking the thinnest of lines between light and substantial. The bananas are plentiful, with just the right chilled sweetness in the filling. The distinctive crust eats like a cross between a waffle cone and a fortune cookie. Lina Fat, executive chef and daughter-in-law to Frank Fat, says the banana-cream pie has been served since the 1940s, although the current crust wasn’t added until 1984, after the restaurant’s remodeling. Chinese people like bananas, says Fat, and custards are a common Chinese treat. An expression of both Chinese and American style, the pie is not just the best in Sacramento. It might be the best in the land.
806 L Street, (916) 442-7092.
River City Brewing Co.
Can you not like the location of a restaurant but love its burger? If so, River City Brewing Co. supplies the best burger in Sacramento, hands down. The “brewer’s burger” is substantial—half a pound of 80-percent-lean ground beef from Del Monte Meat Co. that’s grilled to order and placed on a Columbo bun with fresh lettuce, tomato and onion. What makes this burger so good is that there’s no weak link in the chain. The bun, the meat and the vegetables are all superior specimens, as are the optional toppings: bacon, cheddar, blue cheese, Jarlsberg, sautéed mushrooms and avocado. It is a high-end meal in its genre, though; with fries, a brewer’s burger comes to $8.50. The brewery also makes its own kick-ass barbecue sauce. Beware: Getting to this burger is not easy. One must wade through the gauntlet of Downtown Plaza parking and stores. Alas, perfection, by nature, is hard to attain.
545 Downtown Plaza, (916) 447-2739.
Best brandy Alexanders (by Brandye Alexander)
Back Door Lounge
What’s in a name? Brandy, crème de cacao and heavy cream if you happen to be this writer. Sharing a name with a cocktail isn’t an easy way to go through life. Kids found it hysterically funny to address me as “Whiskey.” Parents wanted to know if my mother had a drinking problem. Finally, at the age of 21, I stepped up to a bar, slapped down my license and said, “I’ll take one of those.” Sampling brandy Alexanders has been a hobby ever since. The best can be had at the Back Door Lounge, an Old Sacramento establishment steeped in old-Vegas ambience. Go on Friday or Saturday night, when Connie is manning the bar. She’ll set you up with the perfect mix of ingredients, blended with ice and served in a pint glass. The brandy’s flavor will be strong but well-balanced with cream and a hint of chocolate. Consider it the grown-ups’ milkshake, made all the more enjoyable by the Back Door’s black upholstered booths, crimson carpet, red-and-gold wallpaper and Sinatra-inspired lounge acts.
1112 Firehouse Alley, (916) 442-5751.
Best reasons vegans aren’t so skinny in Sacramento
Alternative Baking Company Inc. and Sun Flour Baking Co.
The Alternative Baking Company Inc. and Sun Flour Baking Co. both make cookies so big, so moist and so delicious that singling out just one of the bakeries would be a crime. Though both companies distribute their mind-alteringly delicious cookies nationwide, they are based right here in Sacramento. Amazingly, neither company uses any animal products or refined sugars in its recipes. (Don’t be scared. The cookies taste so good, you’d have to read the label to notice.) Who knew we were living in the vegan-cookie capital of the world?
Best new dining room
You can’t walk past Lucca when the place is going full tilt and not want to drop in. We think the design of the place has a lot to do with that. The owners took an old Midtown building and created an airy dining room that proudly displays the building’s age—brick walls, open-beam ceilings and Roman-style front windows. Best of all, the windows slide open to the sidewalk, letting the fresh air in and filling the street with the sounds of a bustling new addition to Midtown. The restaurant still needs to fine-tune execution of the menu, but we like Lucca’s style.
1615 J Street, (916) 669-5300.
Best street-corner nourishment for the criminal-justice system
Every courthouse player—defendants, district attorneys, public defenders, bailiffs, court clerks, judges, sheriff’s deputies, jurors and bounty hunters—has encountered Señor Burritos. The sidewalk vendor is strategically located across the street from the county jail. The menu offers eight burrito choices, including one with steamed vegetables and one with chile relleno. Each burrito is a jampacked, two-handed, sloppy mess, served by an enthusiastic gentleman who addresses customers as “Amigo,” “Señor” or “Señorita.” The cost is $3.50 per burrito, including chips and fresh salsa. It’s a good deal that will sustain anyone through an afternoon of depositions and deliberations. Some argue that Señor Burritos makes the best street burrito in town. Our verdict: guilty.
Southwest corner of Seventh and I streets.
Best mouthwatering sight on a hot day
El Taquito Rico
It was during our hellish July that we dropped into El Taquito Rico, located in a scrappy area across the street from the Campbell Soup plant. The tiny dining room was as hot as the parking lot, but there was a shaded patio out back with a huge electric fan that could have lifted a helicopter. We sluggishly made our way to the patio and settled into plastic chairs, muttering about our desire for air conditioning. Then, we saw a waitress burst out the door with a metal bucket filled with ice and bottles of Corona, accompanied by a bowl of lime wedges. We quickly ordered a bucket for ourselves ($18 for six beers). Suddenly feeling upbeat, we noted the brightly painted patio. We were serenaded by a strolling musician. We wondered if we somehow had landed in a botana south of the border, and we happily quenched our thirst on a hot afternoon.
6223 Franklin Boulevard, (916) 392-5290.
Best serious wine list in a casual restaurant
Tapa the World
It has always been a casual place where you pick up your own menu, drink good-value Spanish wines and eat affordable tapas. Now, you can do all those things and ponder a wine list with 500 selections. Co-owner Paul Ringstrom has made wine something of a hobby these last few years, building a temperature-controlled wine room and developing a thoughtful selection of wines from around the globe. Spain and California are particularly well-represented, although there also are bottles from Washington, Oregon, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Hungary, Mexico and South Africa. You still can pick up solid values for less than $30, but if you also want to drink a half-bottle of Château d’Yquem ($200) with your slice of queso manchego, this is the one place in town to go.
2115 J Street, (916) 442-4353.
Best food and wine expert
In her 2001 memoir Comfort Me with Apples, Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl describes a late-1970s dinner at the home of Darrell Corti. Corti, of Corti Bros. market on Folsom Boulevard, long has worn many hats, as an importer, grocer, consultant, judge and lecturer. He also speaks fluent Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Reichl was impressed by her visit to Corti’s home, where she got her first taste of homegrown caviar (raised by Corti), authentic balsamic vinegar (which Corti received from a friend’s grandmother in Modena, Italy) and sherry dating from 1950. Reichl had been invited to the dinner by a noted food writer who told her that Corti “knows more about food and wine than anyone else in America.” He can be prickly (Reichl observed Corti slamming down the phone twice during the evening), but few are in Corti’s league at the dining table.
Best naked pastrami sandwich
The Hot Pastrami
It’s big, it’s greasy, it’s hot, and it’s naked. If you like your pastrami sandwich purist-style—condiment- and vegetable-free—make a pilgrimage to The Hot Pastrami, where they’ve served it up the same way for 30 years. The hole-in-the-wall’s namesake dish consists of juicy hot pastrami on a French roll, period. Pickles, peppers and chips are served on the side. If you try to defile the standard by asking for lettuce, tomato or onion, expect the server to, at a minimum, indignantly roll his or her eyes. “We prefer to put it on the side,” explained Missy, who’s worked as a waitress at the landmark for five years. The antithesis to “have it your way” fast-food campaigns and a throwback to the days of “no substitutions” menus, The Hot Pastrami relies on taste and not on gratuitous customer accommodation.
4321 Auburn Boulevard, (916) 488-5670, www.thehotpastrami.com.