Food & Drink

Writers’ choice

Illustration By Terry Allen

Best 24-hour Mexican restaurant

Like an eternal flame flickering at the crossroads of El Camino and Howe avenues, Beto’s serves up round-the-clock traditional Mexican fare with huge servings in a no-frills, working-class environment. Grab a tasty chili relleno burrito for less than four bucks—or anything else on the menu—and you’ll get unlimited access to fresh, hot corn chips and a choice of five salsas that range from extremely hot to thermonuclear. And with a 99-cent store open next-door during regular hours, you can get more bang for your $5 bill than anywhere else in Sacramento.
2234 El Camino Avenue, (916) 924-9402.

Best reason for vegan indecision

NV Vegetarian Restaurant
Vegans and vegetarians are the fastest orderers in any restaurant. After years of omitting animal products from their diets, a vegan usually can scan a menu, quickly eliminate all meat-based options and zero in on the restaurant’s one vegetarian entree in 30 seconds flat. Not so at NV Vegetarian Restaurant in Woodland. NV’s extensive menu of Asian dishes is entirely meatless but features soy- and gluten-based renditions of traditional favorites like almond chicken, Mongolian beef, noodle dishes and seafood clay pots. The sheer number of entrees is enough to make any seasoned vegetarian diner pause for contemplation—and gratitude.
537 B Main Street in Woodland, (530) 662-6552.

Best burger for Francophiles and the people who love them

Sure, crepes are all well and good, but there’s nothing like a big, juicy burger to sate a Midtowner’s mad-cow-sized appetite. Happily, the newly opened downtown Crepeville has anticipated the diversity of its potential customer base with an array of offerings—from sandwiches to pasta dishes—that will appease even the most reluctant companions of eager crepe lovers. And none are more impressive than the burger, a perfectly gourmet slab of tasty cow laden with fresh avocado, sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese. When it comes to burgers, even the most xenophobic burger lover will end up saying oui to Crepeville. A nice banana crepe for dessert, and you’re good for the rest of the day.
1730 L Street, (916) 444-1100.


Photo By Larry Dalton

Best Chinese lunch deal within crawling distance of CSUS

Royal Dragon Chinese Buffet
Lurking in a strip mall just east of California State University, Sacramento, Royal Dragon has the big windows, comfy booths and kitschy architecture of mid-period Denny’s—but the similarities end there. Extensive steam tables lie in wait of the all-you-can-eat crowd, but we’re partial to the massive lunch specials—from trusty kung pao chicken to surprisingly good veggie fare (black mushroom, mixed vegetables, etc.) complete with egg rolls, rice and soup—all for $4.25 (tax brings it to a cool $4.58). Tasty, filling and cheap enough for students, but grown-ups love it too!
8475 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 387-6868.

Best savory crepes

The Black Cat Cafe
A little bit of chicken curry, some pesto or some mole, and the Black Cat Cafe can do wonders with eggs. At a new location that bustles less than the cafe’s old digs on Folsom Boulevard, the Black Cat is slightly off the beaten path, but it’s worth finding. With greens or well-spiced potatoes on the side, and in a comforting, slightly European atmosphere, the crepes have become a favorite of East Sacramentans of all generations.
723 56th Street, (916) 451-9100.

Best place to stop for a burger after a late night out

Willie’s Burgers & Chiliburgers
A local hamburger aficionado might argue for Squeeze Inn, or Ford’s, or Nationwide Freezer Meats. But, though each of those places turns out a first-rate burger, none of them is open at that crucial time when the bars close. Willie’s, near the Tower Theatre and Tower Records intersection at Broadway, where Land Park Drive turns into 16th Street, is open for business. And the hamburgers—try the infinite variations of the Hammer (without sauce) and Slammer (with sauce)—are just what you’ll need after a long night of clubbing. The fries, dogs and chili are pretty darned good, too.
2415 16th Street, (916) 444-2006.

Best use of apple juice

Samples at Second Ciderday parties
Late on Second Saturdays, after the galleries have closed and the crowds on J Street have dwindled, it’s time for Second Ciderday, an open-to-the-public house party to promote the ciders of Two Rivers Cider Co. At past events, those who’ve strolled over to the party in Midtown have been treated to several flavors of free cider (hard apple, cherry, mango, pear and raspberry so far) and an unusual take on the art-show concept (anything from garage-sale paintings to children’s drawings displayed proudly outside in the yard). The parties, held almost every Second Saturday, are the brainstorm of residents Eric Evans and Dave McCullom. McCullom is an apprentice cider maker, learning the trade from Vince Sterne, who owns and operates Two Rivers Cider. In the future, the guys plan to provide other Two Rivers flavors, including strawberry, dry English, hard lemon and Key lime.
1515 1/2 28th Street,

Best seat in the house

Jack’s Urban Eats

Photo By Larry Dalton

The hanging bubble chairs at Infusion
Infusion is definitely a cut above your average java-slinging joint. It’s obvious from the wide selection of quality teas, the ever-changing panoply of original art on the walls, and the attention to décor. Where other coffee shops have uniform metal chairs and tables, Infusion features bubbling water tanks built into the walls, modern red vinyl sofas and a flat-screen television. Best of all are the hanging chairs. The clear-plastic, eggshell-shaped seats, reminiscent of Robin Williams’ spaceship on Mork & Mindy, are lined with white cushions and suspended from the ceiling by hefty chains. If Barbarella stopped for coffee in Sacramento, she’d sit nowhere else.
1628 K Street, (916) 442-8889.

Best drip

Fuel Espresso and Drip Bar
Relax, narc: We’re talking coffee here, not coke. Though both are amphetamines, Fuel Espresso and Drip Bar specializes in the former, and it does so with panache. Fuel, located at the ground floor of the Esquire building, offers organic coffees with a unique twist. Each cup is brewed as you order by a dutifully patient staff of hipster baristas who understand that downtown dwellers demand the most aromatic and potent of infusions. Fuel’s method of percolation first was introduced out West, in Santa Cruz, so as to create an earthier, livelier and more complex cup of joe. Having adopted the mantra of Heinz 57, roasters know that many varieties of good things come to people who wait at Fuel—namely, the best cup of bean roast in town.
1215 K Street, Suite 106; (916) 448-4634.

Best excuse to picnic in the park on a Wednesday night

Davis Farmers Market
The Davis Farmers Market, meeting on Saturday morning and Wednesday afternoon through evening, long has been one of the best in the region. Until October 27, the Wednesday market offers Picnic in the Park, making a good thing even better. A local band sets up on a stage in Davis’ Central Park, and a number of the local eateries sell dinner entrees and beverages. Buckhorn Steak and Roadhouse in Winters dishes up an excellent tri-tip sandwich, Steve’s Pizza offers a variety of pies by the slice, and microbrews from Brew It Up! are served on draft. Picnic in the Park helps make getting past Thursday and Friday a piece of cake.
Central Park, at Fourth and C streets in downtown Davis; (530) 756-1695;

Best place to get a $5 lunch in Midtown

The Bread Store
Everybody’s got to eat, but eating cheap can be tough even in Midtown, the land of many eateries. For a good comfort-food kind of lunch, try the special at The Bread Store. It’s a half sandwich (don’t worry, a half sandwich here is the size of a full sandwich elsewhere), a pickle, a bag of chips and a drink, all for $4.95. You can eat inside, on the covered side patio (a nice in-between spot) or at one of the street-side tables. The best thing of all: The Bread Store staff bakes its bread on-site, so the lingering scent of the morning’s work adds to the homey feel of the place. The store also serves soups, salads and a wide selection of baked goods. 1
716 J Street, (916) 557-1600.

Best place to get spicy panini

A La Carte

Photo By Larry Dalton

Dominick’s Italian Market and Deli
Dominick’s is a proud Italian-American deli, opened by a couple of New Jersey transplants at the beginning of the year. They’ll fix you a good lunch. If you like spicy, order the Calabrese, a panino that comes on toasted focaccia with hot sopressetta, hot capicolla, hot cherry peppers, pepperoncini and a spicy dressing. They also throw on a slice of provolone cheese, perhaps to soften up the incendiary taste-bud assault.
8621 Auburn-Folsom Road in Granite Bay, (916) 786-3355.

Best source for fine extra-virgin olive oil

Northern California
Mention “extra-virgin olive oil,” and Greece, Spain, Italy and other Mediterranean countries may come to mind. Time to start thinking about our own backyard. Consumer Reports and the Los Angeles County Fair recently assessed oils from around the world, using experts certified by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) in Madrid. Northern California oils, many organically grown, walked off with top honors. It is important to point out, however, that the U.S. government has not adopted the rigorous IOOC standards, so the words “extra virgin” on the bottle provide little guidance to quality. To obtain the finest of oils from our neighboring counties, look for the round “certified extra virgin” seal of the California Olive Oil Council.

Best court-ordered meal

The Leaven & Earth Sandwich Co.
As you stumble out of the Sacramento Superior Court downtown, wondering if demanding a jury trial on the fraud charge was the right way to go, it is time to face the bleak future you’ll have after the jury comes back. Time to get some healthy food before jail, but your attorney has drained you. Across the street you spot the mobile kitchen of the Leaven & Earth Sandwich Co. parked near the curb on Eighth Street. Moderately priced wraps, salads, smoothies and sandwiches on homemade bread can be savored before you have to force down that jail swill. You order the grilled portobello mushroom with marinated tomatoes, knowing nothing remotely like this is ahead. Perhaps you can bring back smoothies for the jury?
(916) 801-6363,

Best chocolate chip cookie

Philipp’s Bakery
Some people like their chocolate chip cookies crisp; others like ’em chewy. We like both, which is why we love the chippers at Philipp’s Bakery. They’re baked crunchy at the edges and softer in the middle, and they have an old-fashioned brown-sugar flavor that’s perfect with a glass of milk or a cup of coffee. Plus, the big palm-sized treats are a steal at 65 cents.
3300 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 455-5535.

Best postmodern cafeteria-style hof brau

Zodiac Teahouse

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jack’s Urban Eats
When Sam’s Hof-Brau deserted its J Street location—now home to Hamburger Mary’s—Midtown residents had to drive out to Watt Avenue in order to line up, trays in hand, before an altar brimming with succulent animal carcasses, sweltering steam tables, and wizened old servers who look like they’ve been working there since the 1930s. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. OK, so Jack’s Urban Eats may not have the old-school flavor of Sam’s—the serving staff is way too young and attractive—but there’s no better place to go in Midtown for hand-carved turkey, hearty mashed potatoes and all the fixings. Jack’s also mixes up some of the best and tastiest salads ever, putting it at the forefront of a new urban culinary tradition.
1230 20th Street, (916) 444-0307; 2535 Fair Oaks Boulevard, (916) 481-5225.

Best fried chicken in a sports bar

Joe Marty’s
Divey old sports bars usually aren’t known for their food, but there’s one where the grub is good enough that people actually come to pick up takeout. The highlight is juicy, just-greasy-enough fried chicken, just like Mama never actually used to make. Don’t be fooled by the menu, where the chicken is listed as “broasted.” It’s definitely the classic fried article, with a crisp crust that’s just as delicious as the tender meat within. We have no idea why it’s called broasted, by the way. Asking a waitress yielded the utterly unenlightening reply “Because it’s fried and pressure-cooked at the same time.” Um … OK. Our advice? Don’t sweat the semantics; just order up a chicken dinner (with salty, savory fries on the side), settle in to watch the game, and eat up. Your cardiologist might not be happy, but you will be.
1500 Broadway, (916) 448-7062.

Best place to find free food

American River Parkway
You might think free food is indigenous to the aisles of Trader Joe’s or Costco, but we’re here to tell you different. If you’re willing to take a walk or a bike ride, tote a basket and do a little foraging, the American River Parkway is a great place to load up on fruit. Just a mile or two from the start of the trail at Discovery Park (and in many other spots along this 23-mile gem), you’ll find all the blackberries you could want, there for the picking. Their dusky, wild flavor makes jam or homemade blackberry milkshakes to die for, and they’re pretty much there all summer long. Less ubiquitous wild figs (look for their distinctive foliage, shaped like giant oak leaves) have a shorter season, but if you look closely, you might get some of those, too.

Best trio of fry sauces

Malt vinegar, blue-cheese sauce and ketchup
We like french fries any number of ways: old-school with ketchup; dipped Dutch-style in mayo; nouveau avec aioli; or guilty-pleasure-wise, plunged into a chocolate shake. Heck, we just like fries. So, we were pleased, if puzzled, to find the exact same trio of dipping sauces on first one, then a second and yet a third Sacramento menu. The Black Pearl Oyster Bar, Joey B’s and Riverside Clubhouse all pair their frites with a savory blue-cheese dip, classic ketchup and tangy malt vinegar. The Black Pearl’s superior fries make it our pick of the three, but they’re all tasty.
Black Pearl Oyster Bar, 2724 J Street, (916) 440-0214.

Best indefinable dessert

Café Morocco
Middle Eastern desserts can be too syrupy and cloying even for those, like us, who have a serious sweet tooth. But Café Morocco makes a hard-to-describe dessert that’s a welcome change from the ubiquitous baklava. With a texture as delicate as its flavor, aish esaraya, or rich man’s bread, has a layer of bread soaked with a barely sweet, aromatic rosewater and topped with a cool, rich layer of custard and a sprinkling of shocking-green minced pistachios. With a cup of mint tea or Turkish coffee, it’s a perfect afternoon snack—and with a square going for just $1.95, you don’t have to be a rich man to enjoy it. 1221 Alhambra Boulevard, (916) 731-4637.

Best breakfast for those bored with bacon and eggs

Gam Lei Sig
Most Chinese restaurants are distinctly quiet on Sunday mornings, but not Gam Lei Sig. Pass it at the traditional brunch hour—or any morning, for that matter—and you’ll find patrons gathering for a breakfast that goes beyond the omelets and French toast of more run-of-the-mill brunch spots. This little restaurant serves up giant bowls of congee—a bland but comforting rice porridge that’s a traditional Chinese breakfast—as well as steamed buns, dumplings, Chinese doughnuts and more. The congee comes plain or with additions like chicken and mushrooms or pork and preserved duck egg. Go for one of the latter if you’re feeling adventurous (we like to stir in a little chili oil), or nurse a hangover with the plain stuff.
918 S Street, (916) 446-6888.

Best place to get an espresso with a side of legal advice

A La Carte
A La Carte looks like a particularly friendly coffeehouse, with bright oilcloth-topped tables, cushy couches, espresso-themed prints and even a playpen in the corner. But something is different: the framed diplomas on the wall. They belong to lawyer Susan Garcia-Swain, who dispenses not only espresso drinks, but also low-cost legal services. Here you can get wills, forms and the like, but also the brilliant Java ’n’ Justice package: 15 minutes of matter-of-fact, easy-to-understand legal advice for just about any problem under the sun, plus a coffee, for just $25. There’s no need to wait until you have a legal problem to drop in, though; the espresso, made from fair-trade Batdorf & Bronson beans, is absolutely delicious, without any bitterness. Can the same be said for legal disputes?
3260 J Street, Suite B; (916) 498-1459;

Best reason to visit Old Lincoln

Beermann’s Beerwerks pub and restaurant
This brewery, located in what’s left of quaint, old downtown Lincoln, inhabits an enormous brick Odd Fellow’s Hall that’s been renovated to approximate a Victorian parlor, fit with player pianos, muraled walls and a wait staff in gamblers’ vests. Named after the Beermann’s Meat Market that used to occupy the bottom floor, the restaurant is crowded with more than half a million dollars’ worth of Victorian artifacts, according to General Manager George Morales. On the premises, Beermann’s brews 10 beers and complements them with both pub fare and a full restaurant menu. The pub is the real draw—dark, cozy and relaxing, especially on long winter nights.
645 Fifth Street in Lincoln, (916) 645-2377,

Best bar for Mr. and Mrs. Clean

Joshua Pup’s
When you enter this unique establishment, the scent is subtle yet unmistakable. And it’s not the usual stale beer or spilled drinks fermenting on the floor. The aroma of disinfectant cleaning products will immediately be recognized and embraced by patrons who likely have hand-washing obsessive-compulsive disorder or fond memories of a Jewish mother. “We clean a lot. This is the cleanest bar around,” confirmed bartender Karlie Jones. And if you also happen to be looking to buy a house or need a mortgage, this may be the place to get a clean start. Real-estate agents and mortgage brokers frequent the place. On the downside, the drinks aren’t cheap, and the dress code is strictly enforced. No sports jerseys are allowed, and you’d better take off that hat, or an imposing employee will do it for you.
617 Munroe Street, (916) 972-7877.

Best place to fuel up before clubbing

Tokyo Fro’s Rockin’ Sushi Bar
If fish is brain food, Tokyo Fro’s is the place to invigorate the gray matter before proceeding to kill off a few brain cells with a night of drinking and dancing. Starting its third year, the “Rockin’ Sushi Bar” has established itself as the place to fuel up on hamachi and California rolls, and polish the pickup lines before heading out to the Midtown dance clubs. “We’re the pre-clubbing spot,” explained General Manager Al Santa Catalina. But the eclectic clientele of California State University, Sacramento, students and local young professionals hangs around later on Thursday nights for the live band and dancing on the back patio area. And if you need to nurse a hangover on a Sunday morning, the fish and rice selection is half-price.
2224 Fair Oaks Boulevard, (916) 648-1115,

Best pho not on Stockton Boulevard

Pho Bac Hoa Viet
We’re still obsessively eating our way through the seemingly infinite number of pho places way down on Stockton Boulevard, so we can’t possibly declare a winner in the overall best pho category (stay tuned for that next year). But sometimes you—OK, we—don’t want to drive for 20 minutes for a fix of aromatic beef broth and slippery rice noodles. At such times, head to Pho Bac Hoa Viet on Broadway. The broth is clear and savory, the chilies are lip-blisteringly hot, and the herbs are super fresh. There are several other branches in the area, including one on—you guessed it—Stockton Boulevard. Hell, maybe it is the best pho in all of Sacramento. We just have a lot more slurping to do before we can say for sure.
1827 Broadway, (916) 443-7888.

Best place to answer the question “Hey, baby, what’s your sign?”

Zodiac Teahouse
With an overhead TV that’s often showing Asian soaps, and with sweet snacks like the inches-high, sprinkle-topped peanut-butter toast, Zodiac Teahouse would be a good place to visit even if it weren’t for its vast array of sweet and milky bubble teas, pastel icy drinks and mind-bogglingly colorful triple-color jelly icies. It’s hard to think of a fruit or flavor that isn’t on the menu, but our favorite might just be the eponymous Zodiac juices: mixed-fruit slushies keyed to your astrological sign. We don’t know what makes Libras more likely than others to like a pineapple-and-coconut-milk drink, but our extensive testing revealed clear affinities for the consumer’s own sign. On the other hand, maybe it’s just because they’re all so yummy.
2100 16th Street, (916) 558-2799.