Food & Drink
Best new restaurant
Sacramento’s restaurant scene is enjoying a real boom, making it extra-tough to name a single spot that’s the best of the year. New and ambitious places are springing up all over town (some so recently that we couldn’t try them before press time). From Moroccan small plates in Midtown to a quirky wine bar in Davis, the choices for area diners have never been so eclectic and enticing. Of Sacramento’s new offerings, our favorite has to be Kru, where sushi, Japanese-inspired small plates and well-executed entrees mingle on an exciting menu that makes sharing with a group practically mandatory. The fish is excellent, but other items are more than an afterthought: There’s a fantastic warm mushroom salad and wonderful fried tofu, and even that old warhorse chicken teriyaki is stylishly and thoughtfully presented. The design is hip, the drinks are cool, and the food is great, all of which makes Kru stand out in a crowded field. 2516 J Street, (916) 551-1559.
Best place to get plastered
The Flame Club
“At the Flame Club, it’s like the reverse of regular bars, where they water down your drinks,” one local barfly explained. “The Flame Club fills your glass with booze, and then they wave a little juice over the top.” This venerable dive bar on 16th Street has become the hangout of choice for Midtown socialites on Monday nights—the one night a week when there’s never a dance club or a party. The Flame Club’s liberally poured drinks are so affordable (in the $2-$3 range) that even partiers who blew their budgets over the weekend can get drunk for the price of the change scrounged from their couch cushions. Of course, the hangovers generated by such easily purchased cocktails are legendary, but it’s nothing that can’t be shaken off at Lipstick on Tuesday. 2130 16th Street, (916) 442-9622.
Best old-world pizza pie
Giovanni’s Old World New York Pizzeria
Here, just minutes from downtown, is New York pizza worth raving about. Giovanni’s pesto is perfection, with just the right combination of garlic, basil and pine nuts; the slices are big, and the crust thin, as any New Yorker would like. The secret to business partners John Ruffain and Carlo Grifone’s success lies in the ingredients. From the basic tomato sauce to the dough to the lasagna, everything is made from scratch, and many of the ingredients are imported from Italy and New York. The ricotta salata, for example—the specific sheep’s-milk cheese that Ruffain was raised on in his native Brooklyn—is imported from New York. The extra-virgin olive oil is imported from Southern Italy. In fact, the partnership between Ruffain and Grifone works so well, Ruffain claims, because their families’ heritage is steeped in the Southern Italian flavors they use in their cooking today—recipes from Sicily, Naples and Calabria. “We’re both familiar with these ingredients; we grew up with them,” Ruffain said, noting that Giovanni is Italian for John. So, whether you’re in the mood for a quick lunch or a whole pizza pie for the gang, you won’t go wrong with Giovanni’s. As my Italian grandmother was fond of saying, “Mangia! Mangia!” or “Eat! Eat!” 6200 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 455-8831. Giovanni’s also has locations on South Land Park Drive and Fair Oaks Boulevard.
Best dining room for the daring (traveling to 1851)
Lady Adams Hotel— Lewis Keseberg, proprietor
In search of a full meal, rather than the bread, beans and beef offered in most taverns, a visitor to Sacramento in 1851 found herself trying the dining rooms attached to local hotels. Noticing a sign offering “board” outside the Lady Adams, a clapboard hotel on K Street just off Sacramento’s bustling waterfront, I asked a local newspaperman if the fare was any good. “Well,” said he, “you’d better ask Ned Coffeemeyer.” Coffeemeyer had lost a slander suit to the proprietor, Mr. Lewis Keseberg, a few years back. “Of course, the jury only gave him a dollar,” said Coffeemeyer, “an’ ever’ word I said was true.” After downing a few glasses of beer, and glancing over his shoulder to ensure privacy, Coffeemeyer explained why one should avoid the roasted meats at the Lady Adams. His gruesome tale, surely worth the cost of the refreshments, detailed his own efforts to reach the stranded Donner Party of emigrants in the Sierra four years earlier as part of a relief effort. Keseberg, now the master of the Lady Adams, was among the few survivors. Coffeemeyer described him as living wild-eyed in a hovel, surrounded by human remains, a few of which made up the contents of Keseberg’s stewpot. “Some of ’em was children’s bones,” Coffeemeyer said with a shudder. “Whatever Keseberg’s cooking,” he said, “I’ve no stomach for it.” Nonetheless, those few daring diners at the Lady Adams seemed quite sated. K Street between Front and Second streets.
Best brain-freeze- inducing treats
Every summer, Osaka-Ya opens its snow-cone window, and droves of locals make a mad dash for the shop’s slushy treats. It isn’t uncommon to see a large gathering of children and adults (with childish yearnings) lining up outside the sidewalk window. The store offers up a variety of brain-freezing options, including snow cones, ice cream and a Japanese treat called kintoki. And the choices don’t end there. Try adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to your orange-flavored snow cone. Voilà! Instant orange Creamsicle. Add vanilla ice cream to a root-beer snow cone, and you’ve got a root-beer float that could knock the socks off of A&W’s Great Root “Bear.” Osaka-Ya is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Saturday through Monday. 2215 10th Street, (916) 446-6857.
Best spicy tofu
Thai Palace has both new, interesting dishes and tasty variations on traditional favorites. The servers smile, and the walls are decorated with all sorts of Thai artwork, but by far the best thing about Thai Palace is the spicy tofu. Along with the animal-saving protein goodness that is tofu, it has a sweet and spicy chili sauce, and it’s topped off with fresh, crunchy basil leaves to give it a little kick. Even carnivorous types will like this stuff. 3262 J Street, (916) 447-5353.
Best weekend-brunch waffle
The Plantation at Hukilau Island Grill
For the purist, there are waffle stops aplenty, and it’s easy to find the traditional version with strawberries or blueberries. But if you want the perfect weekend-brunch waffle—served with an exciting tropical drink, like perhaps a Coconut Kiss—try the Hukilau Island Grill’s Plantation. It’s a banana-and-macadamia-nut waffle, topped with toasted coconut and served with more macadamia nuts and sliced bananas. Add some whipped butter and a bit of syrup, and it’s a brunch waffle delight. For the non-waffle enthusiast, there’s a wide variety of brunch choices, all with an island theme. 1501 16th Street, Suite 100; (916) 444-5850; www.hukilauislandgrill.com.
Best noncorporate coffee
The Naked Lounge
After the death of the True Love Coffeehouse in Midtown, we were left trudging through the corporate wasteland of Starbucks and Java City for our evening coffee. While some may have given up, we pressed on to find another local coffee spot with decent prices, quality coffee and a relaxed atmosphere that wasn’t bustling with the briefcase-and-tie crowd. At last, relief. Luckily for those of us who still refuse to buy corporate coffee, hope can be found at The Naked Lounge coffeehouse among the comfortable, cushiony chairs; the agreeable employees; and coffee that’s consistently high-quality and aromatic. 1500 Q Street, (916) 442-0174, www.thenakedlounge.com.
Best place to go out to (when you feel like staying in)
Kasbah Lounge offers the perfect compromise for people who want to hit the town without leaving behind the comforts of home. Its bustling Midtown location and nightly 3 a.m. closing time make the restaurant’s central bar a viable spot for nightlife watching, while the Kasbah’s quiet nooks are lined with pillows for lazy lounging. The waitresses bring you snacks and tea while you recline, and the dim interior lighting means no one notices if you happen to doze off for a moment. 2115 J Street, (916) 442-4388.
Best Southern California-style veggie burrito
There are a few signs you’ve found a good taco shop. First, it’s in a stand-alone building. No strip-mall joints. Second, it has “berto’s” appended to the end of its name. All decent Mexican fast-food places in San Diego end in “berto’s.” There’s Roberto’s and Royberto’s and Alberto’s and, of course, Philberto’s. Third, the prices are cheap. And last, the place knows how to make a vegetarian burrito. We’ve been to places in Stockton, for example, that laughed when we asked for a veggie burrito, and then suggested we just order a quesadilla. Um, no. A good veggie burrito comes with refried beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, cheese and guacamole. It must have guacamole. Adalberto’s (also known as Adalbertaco’s) includes all of that. Plus, the place has some of the most quality hot sauce you’ll find in the capital, and, at most locations, chips and salsa are complimentary. Multiple locations, including 2474 Florin Road in South Sacramento, (916) 393-5866; and 8844 Greenback Lane in Orangevale, (916) 988-6508. Adalberto’s is also in Carmichael, Vacaville and, yes, San Diego.
Best reason to drive to Roseville for dinner
Old Town Restaurant
Let me break it down like this: At Old Town Restaurant, you’ll find knockout Mexican food, cooked home-style, made with love and a dash of sass by owner Isabel Bravo (known as “Mama Isabel” to her many regulars). Established in 1981, Old Town celebrated its 24th anniversary August 15, and if you eat there once, you’ll understand its longevity. Two items on the menu are particular standouts. The first is Bravo’s chile rellenos. These aren’t your ordinary rellenos—they’re grilled, not deep-fried. Additionally, the sauce is creamy and not tomato-based, but don’t try to wrangle the ingredients out of Bravo; she’s not talking. The second is something I’ve never seen at any other Mexican restaurant: Bravo’s “Fedio"—a vermicelli-style Mexican noodle, cooked in its own sauce with a bit of tang to it. Bravo serves it in place of rice as a side dish, and when asked about its origin, Bravo simply says, “Do you think that Mexicans only eat rice and beans?” One more thing: If you like your food very spicy, ask for the “killer salsa"—you won’t be disappointed. 119 Church Street in Roseville, (916) 786-8790.
Best place to drink like a Czech
When vodka becomes too pedestrian, gin strikes you as generic, and rum feels humdrum, head over the causeway to a restaurant, bar and bakery where the spirits are as “velvety” as the country they come from. The menu, the owners and much of the wait staff at Little Prague originate from the Czech Republic. And the alcohols—the Becherovka, Fernet and absinthe—are as exotic as the accents. Our favorite is Becherovka, an herbal alcohol that tastes of anise and cinnamon and is touted for its medicinal properties. Drink it up or on the rocks, or maybe with a bit of lime and sugar. The bar serves the more familiar Fernet in tropical concoctions. Absinthe is also available, but only the non-hallucinogenic kind legal in the States. 330 G Street in Davis, (530) 756-1107, www.littleprague.com.
Best reason to blow off your morning run
On the occasional morning, you can smell them all over McKinley Park as you jog around the sandy path dodging the ducks: doughnuts, doughnuts, doughnuts. The sweet scent of glaze and yeasty dough wafts everywhere. But where are they? The surrounding streets, lined with leafy trees and brick houses, are resolutely residential. Is it all a trick of the senses, an olfactory mirage? No. They’re at A&A Imports, where a small, no-frills deli sells sweet extras from its manufacturing operation. (There are also Greek foodstuffs, so if you’re in the market for imported feta or cherry preserves, check it out.) For just $1.25, you can get an assortment of glazed, chocolate, Danish and more in a bag so big you’ll need at least 10 more laps around the park—some other day. 326 Alhambra Boulevard, (916) 441-1120.
Best trend in local agriculture (traveling to 2008)
An explosion of neighborhood gardens
Sadly, in 2005, it appeared that local interest in neighborhood gardens had waned. By 2008, however, things have changed. There’s no threat to our local farmers’ markets, which Sacramentans still support with a passion, but something has shifted in the collective conscience. When time-traveling to 2008, we found Sacramento full of neighborhood gardens that had recently taken root in formerly empty lots choked with weeds. In Oak Park, there were rows of sunflowers and greens, onions and tomato vines. Downtown, rows of corn and carrots. Even in suburban Sacramento’s expansive parking lots, pavement had given way in places to small plots of land apparently maintained by neighbors and merchants. Although people long have created their own backyard gardens, there seemed to be a new emphasis on sharing space—and a marked deficit in the number of lots crowded with old appliances and fast-food wrappers.
Best cocktails at 1979 prices
Plaza Hof Brau bar
Don’t let the price of a gallon of gas force you to cut back on driving—this is, after all, California, land of the sacred suburb and endless freeway. Instead, economize elsewhere, especially if you’re spending money buying overpriced cocktails. Cut back on the booze budget without cutting back on the booze by taking a short drive to the anything-but-trendy bar inside the Plaza Hof Brau, adjacent to Tower Records on Watt Avenue. The mostly AARP-eligible veteran bartenders there will pour you, for example, a Ketel One vodka martini for $3.75—at least half off the price of the same drink at the latest hot spot. 2500 Watt Avenue, (916) 482-2175.
Best appetizer to obsess over
Vegetarian samosas at Dragonfly
OK, we know these crispy fried-pastry triangles stuffed with steamy, spicy filling are just supposed to be appetizers. We know we shouldn’t order samosas, and only samosas, for lunch, but we can’t help it! The tangy tomato dipping sauce is a perfect complement to the delicious pureed-vegetable filling that bursts out of a samosa’s golden shell every time we bite into one. Call us narrow-minded, but we think Dragonfly’s vegetarian samosas are so irresistible that they render the rest of the menu superfluous. We also know the restaurant offers a beef-filled samosa, but we’re choosing to ignore that fact. If you want to quibble, you can find us at the Dragonfly at lunchtime. We’re the ones at the table with nothing on it but samosas. 1809 Capitol Avenue, (916) 498-9200, www.dragonflysac.com.
Best street to eat your way up and down
Sacramento’s diversity is a surprise to outsiders and a happy fact of life to denizens. Our heterogeneity finds some of its best expression in the range of foods available here, and there’s no better way to sample than by checking out the restaurants up and down Broadway. You’ll find everything: paletas and pancakes, Jamaican beef patties and Vietnamese beef noodle soup, dim sum and dragon rolls, fast food and (a stone’s throw away) a farmers’ market. Broadway may not be the hippest street in town, but it can satisfy almost any food craving you can think of.
Best shortbread cookie
There are cookies, and then there are cookies. Some folks salivate for chocolate chip cookies; some regress to kindergarten with peanut-butter cookies; some wallow in nostalgia for Grandma’s kitchen, with its oatmeal cookies. But true cookie purists, particularly of the coffee-with-cookies type, know that a shortbread cookie is the best way to go. The Capitol Garage offers a large shortbread cookie—tender, flaky and golden—that dissolves on the palate like ambrosia. But this is not just any shortbread cookie—it’s got mini chocolate chips. But be sure to get yours early; they sell out quickly, especially on weekdays. If you wait until after work, you’ll have to go without. 1500 K Street, (916) 444-3633.
Best fake meat
Let’s not debate the culinary merit of soy protein, or what is more commonly referred to as vegetarian meat (or, as a friend once remarked, “that shit"). Some true foodies avoid such pseudo-gastronomic entanglements on general principle. Like John Kerry, however, vegetarianism has the world’s endorsement: No-meat eateries are popping up worldwide, including here in Sacramento with the newly reinvented Andy Nguyen’s. Lien Thi Nguyen, the restaurant’s owner and a devout Buddhist, made the change to vegetarian cuisine because she could no longer compromise her spirituality by serving meat—an audacious business maneuver to say the least. However, just one taste of the restaurant’s lemon-grass vegetables or irresistible peanut-sauce dip, and meat surely will be an afterthought. Abandon all hope, ye carnivores; the faux-bovine revolution has arrived! With the possibility of an avian flu or a mad-cow pandemic very real, diners will be frequenting this excellent Vietnamese haven for many years to come. 2007 Broadway, (916) 736-1157.
Best local thirst quencher
Two Rivers Pomegranate Cider
The once-humble pomegranate, best known as the downfall of Persephone in Greek mythology, seems to be having a moment. Pomegranate juice is in every store, and the gorgeous but off-puttingly seedy fruits are more available than ever. But leave it to a local cider maker, Vincent Sterne, to develop the best expression of the trend: crisp, light, ever so slightly tart and barely blush-colored pomegranate cider, from his Two Rivers Cider Co. Low in alcohol and easy to quaff, it’s great for a low-key night out. You’ll find it locally at the Waterboy, Rubicon and Kru; Two Rivers’ other ciders, including basic apple and specialty fruit flavors like cherry, mango and raspberry, are also on tap around town. (916) 456-1614, www.tworiverscider.com.
Best one-stop wine shopping
If this beloved full-service supermarket, the provenance of gastronomic polymath Darrell Corti, seems de rigueur on best-of lists, let it stand as a challenge to the greater Sacramento area: Try to build a better wine shop. Good luck. Here is why the wine section at Corti Brothers sets a perennial best-list standard: It stocks many wines. Some are rare. Some are more affordable than they should be, considering how good they taste. None are lousy. A recent example: Harbor Winery’s mature 1989 Sémillon, for less than $10. Wow. Strolling through these aisles will make the connoisseur feel at home (note the detailed map of Bordeaux or the life-cycle diagram of the vine parasite phylloxera) and the amateur feel welcome. Corti Brothers’ staff responds to questions with knowledge and enthusiasm instead of pretense and indifference. Best of all, accessories include the Sacramento Cookie Factory’s exquisite, discus-sized California Wine Wafers, which might seem unwieldy at 7 inches in diameter but are tasty enough to shrink quickly. 5810 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 736-3800.
Best taste of home for German tourists
Morant’s Old-Fashioned Sausage Kitchen
Truth be told, one doesn’t have to be a German tourist to appreciate Morant’s—just ask Edie Zeiger, a Valley Springs resident who likes to stock up on her favorite German delicacies. “There’s more than just sausage here,” said Zeiger, noting that she always picks up tins of herring in aspic (her husband’s favorite), as well as German dumpling mixes—items she can’t find in other stores in the region. After 16 years in the business, owner Dirk Müller says he still relishes the thought that he is providing a niche service for his customers while also continuing a tradition from the old country. Müller spent five years in Germany in an intensive training program, and then three years as an apprentice, learning the meat-processing and sausage-making business before coming back to America to eventually buy Morant’s. Today, all the meats are still cured, smoked and made on the premises. The wide deli case offers more variants of sausages than you can shake a stick at and includes Chicago-style Polish, Thürlinger bratwurst, hot links and andouille. The same goes for sandwich meats, which include a wide variety of “wursts"—blutwurst (blood sausage, for the uninitiated), schinkenwurst and lyonerwurst. 5001 Franklin Boulevard, (916) 731-4377.
Best reason to dine out on Sunday night
Free 22-ounce beers at Hoppy Brewing Co.
It’s the end of a long, tiring weekend. Perhaps you drank too much, slept too little or worked too hard. Whatever the cause for your weariness, the last thing you feel like doing is standing in the kitchen cooking a Sunday dinner like the ones Grandma used to make. On Sunday nights, crowds are sparse and incentives are good at Hoppy Brewing Co., where you can take home one free 22-ounce bottled beer for every entree you purchase. If optimistic-sounding names like Hoppy Face Amber Ale and Liquid Sunshine Blonde Ale aren’t enough to boost your spirits, hopefully the promise of a free beer will. 6300 Folsom Boulevard, (916) 451-4677.