Food & Drink

SN&R’s choices

OTO’S “He’s not as radical as Mikuni’s. He’s more traditional,” said an Oto’s spokesman about Sushi Master Ray Yamamoto. In the sushi world, not being radical means not using cream cheese and a bunch of other fatty American crap to prep the ancient Japanese dishes. For that, we love Yamamoto and Oto’s Market.

OTO’S “He’s not as radical as Mikuni’s. He’s more traditional,” said an Oto’s spokesman about Sushi Master Ray Yamamoto. In the sushi world, not being radical means not using cream cheese and a bunch of other fatty American crap to prep the ancient Japanese dishes. For that, we love Yamamoto and Oto’s Market.

SN&R Photo By Anne Stokes

Best alternative to crepes

Sacramento is awash in crepes right now. We’re surrounded by Crepevilles, and there are other crepe houses opening seemingly every second. To this we say phooey. French crepes are fine and all, but the American versions thereof are overstuffed. We look instead to the blini of Russia for our stuffed floppy-pancake bliss. If all you know is the snooty (but, of course, tasty) little mini-blini that comes topped with caviar at swank New Year’s Eve parties, try the version spelled with a Y at Stolichniy, an atmosphere-free, but honest and delicious, Russian restaurant way out on Watt Avenue. Their blini are eggy and delicate, rolled around fillings like tender chicken and mushroom, or sweet berries for dessert. Of course, Russia’s cooking traditions were long influenced by France’s, so probably blini are just transplanted crepes with a Slavic accent. So what? They’re delicious. 5601 Watt Avenue, No. 207, North Highlands; (916) 332-5989. C.B.O.

Best ethnic food on a student budget

Sam’s Mediterranean Cuisine
The small space that Sam’s inhabits is the epitome of hole-in-the-wall. But for the poor college student, Sam’s offers the best shawarma in town—it’s portable, cheap and filling. They slap spiced meat with mounds of fresh shredded lettuce and tomatoes into a pita and top it off with a sauce of your choosing. The restaurant is so small that diners must resort to either taking their food to-go or dining outside in the covered patio area, because the tables and chairs inside are a tight squeeze. Family owned and operated, Sam’s offers two things that a diner on a budget will be hard-pressed to find: warmth and a smile. In addition to the traditional shawarma and baklava, they also offer chicken sandwiches and hamburgers—just in case the heady flavor of shawarma isn’t up your alley. 247 Third Street, Davis, (530) 758-2855. E.L.

Best excuse to gorge yourself

Valerio’s Tropical Bake Shop
Back in the Philippines, a hard day’s work is finished with toasted pastries and coffee. Here you can be as lazy as you want and still eat pastries whenever you feel like it, because this is America, which is why Valerio’s Tropical Bake Shop is such a treat. The bakery’s shelves are stocked with traditional Filipino breads and pastries, such as Haba-Haba, a 14-inch-long baked pastry with cream cheese and coconut; or Pan de Coco, a baked roll with coconut filling. Local Filipino-American college student Harold Largo likes the Pan de Sal best because its not-too-sweet and not-too-plain taste sparks memories of the homeland. As he says, “Valerio’s is a cool pastry shop because it takes us back to the Philippines for a little bit, you know what I mean?” With visions of butter, sugar and tradition, we sure do. Valerio’s Tropical Bake Shop, 6051 Mack Road, Suite D.; (916) 399-1833. S.C.

Best one-stop pan-Asian food shop

Oto’s Marketplace
Where in Sacramento can you get quail eggs, vegetarian tamales, Kobe beef, corned beef, Sicilian olives, shrimp-flavored chips and premium pastrami all in the same store? At 9,000-square-foot Oto’s Marketplace. “For the neighborhood, we have all the regular items, but we try to be a complete Japanese grocery. Plus, we also have many Chinese and Korean items,” explains general manager Russell Oto. Open since May, Oto’s also carries delicious prepared foods. The morning I stopped in, the counter was laden with saba bento boxes, aji fry and barbeque saba shioyaki. Sushi Master Ray Yamamoto prepares elegant fresh sushi every day. It’s worth the trip just to watch the pro in action. 4990 Freeport Boulevard, (916) 424-2398. J.Fo.

Best place to duck and run

Cheung Hing Company
At Cheung Hing Company, the storefront is nondescript. The aisles are narrow. The faded, red menu board listing takeout fare is ancient and half-obscured by a layer of what must be grease and smoke. No matter: You’re here not for the ambience, but for the duck, the best in town, roasted “Hong Kong style” (so says the menu board). Hanging by their crooked necks, these fowls drip with succulent juice (OK, it’s fat) and boast taut, burnished skin that would make the Coppertone girl weep with envy. The flesh has just the right subtle hints of smoke and gaminess; that skin—oh, the skin—has a five-spice base note. There’s very tasty dim sum, too, and some old-school entrees. But, really, it’s all about the duck. Get it hacked up with a cleaver and challenge yourself: Can you make it home before you pry open the Styrofoam lid to nibble a piece, at grave risk to your car’s interior? We can’t. 2005 11th Street, (916) 448-2174. C.B.O.

Best place to go if you’re Hungary

Marika Café
Silly puns aside, we’ve long held that the best comfort food is that which is buttery and full of carbs—think spaetzle, or the Hungarian version served at Café Marika, which they call spetzels. These bland, doughy, little noodle-things will melt in your mouth, especially when you fork them down with one of Marika’s two chicken specialities—Chicken Paprikash or Chicken Thermal. And yes, the goulash is to die for. It’s made in the old Hungarian style, with delicately flavored pork. But you’ll need to plan your trip—this little taste of Budapest keeps limited hours. 2011 J Street, (916) 442-0405. K.M.

Best place to live out a legend

Mochii Yogurt
Mochi is made by tiny rabbits who live on the moon. They pound rice with mallets until it becomes a sweet, glutinous cake. How do mochi rabbits live in the harsh conditions of outer space, you ask? I dunno—but they do. Mark Otero, (Mochii’s owner) and his staff are some of the friendliest rabbits in town. What I mean is, they’re nice. Like, almost inhumanly nice. If you don’t believe it, go over to Mochii, where they’ll teach you lingo, like “zang,” (gourmet frozen yogurt with a unique bite), and they’ll clue you in to their ever-changing seasonal toppings (how about fresh boysenberry or Cap’n Crunch?). And they’re always ready with their little spoons, to suit your sampling needs. OK fine, so it’s just a Japanese legend. Otero says their mochi is made by a family that’s been in the game for 45 years. But come to think of it, he never did say whether it was a family of rabbits. 1530 16th Street, (916) 441-2601, J.F.

Best place to stuff your bouche

La Bonne Soupe Cafe
Among the countless, crappy downtown blocks where hideous reeks will ruin your appetite if low expectations for an edible meal haven’t already, there is a tiny lunchtime oasis. It’s called La Bonne Soupe Cafe. As you might imagine, it’s a French joint. Does soup. Is good. Great, even. Chef Daniel Pont, a genial older fellow, runs the place all by himself. Besides the soup, he also assembles highly flavorful, freshly baguetted sandwiches—pork shoulder, duck breast, brie and prosciutto—right before your eyes, which usually means you’re waiting in line, wondering whether there’ll even be room for you at one of the cafe’s few tiny tables. There will be, and it’s so worth it. But what about Monsieur Pont? Does being all alone in there, answering to all the hungry lunchers, incline him to soup-Nazi style freakouts? Mais non. The guy’s a pro; it’s plain to see where the cafe gets its warm, easygoing, rustic good taste. 920 Eighth Street, (916) 492-9506. J.K.

Best place with a German name and American portions

Plaza Hof Brau
The last of the Hof Brau chain still open in Sacramento, Plaza Hof Brau retains the portions, if not the Geist des Plätzes, of the Munich beer halls from which the dining concept sprang. Serving hefty chunks of roasted meat and a variety of side dishes at El Camino and Watt since 1956, Plaza Hof Brau is simplicity itself. Start with meat—lovely, fresh-roasted meat, sliced right before your eyes—and add a few sides for a platter of goodness. And we do mean platter—the carved ham amounted to a double portion, and the turkey sandwich was stacked to slide. The carvers weren’t stingy in the least, with either the meat or the jokes. The only truly German touches were the delightfully tangy hot potato salad and the hot-tart pickles; everything else was thoroughly Americanized. Nonetheless, the spirit of the beer hall remains, even if sauerkraut was missing on our visit. On top of all that, it’s cheap: Entrees start at $7.99. 2500 Watt Avenue, (916) 482-2175. K.M.

Best replacement for your same-old ham and cheese

Tortas at Oscar’s Very Mexican Food
We have no doubt that the Earl of Sandwich was an interesting fellow, and of course we’re grateful to him for inventing our favorite handheld lunch. But we don’t think he really explored its possibilities. Spicing up the sandwich has been left to other cultures: think Cubano, think banh mi, think tortas. Especially think of the tortas at Oscar’s Very Mexican Food, where they’re a bit smaller and a bit fresher than you might find elsewhere. We love the big dollop of avocado, the crunch of the lettuce and the savory meat; your choice, but we like the pork adovada, and you also have options like machaca (oh, and while we’re mentioning it, go some morning for a breakfast burrito), chorizo and carnitas. From the outside, Oscar’s is unassuming but often packed with students from McClatchy High School across the street. Take a bite of the torta and you’ll see why they don’t brown bag it. 3061 Freeport Boulevard, (916) 443-8310. C.B.O.

Best small restaurant with a big heart

Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon
Don’t let the size of the restaurant fool you. It might be small, but the Maalouf family’s hearts are bigger than the enormous servings of spicy shawarma, yellow rice and falafel. “It’s not a restaurant. It’s a home kitchen,” said owner and head chef Abdul-Massis Maalouf. “In one visit, you will feel like you are a member of my family. I never feed anybody what I don’t like to feed my own daughters.” The Maaloufs are proud of their heritage and want to share it with everyone. If new and foreign foods have never been your cup of Turkish coffee, spend five minutes chatting with Abdul-Massis and watch the belly dancer whirl about—it should be enough to convince you to at least try every dessert and sip mint tea. Must-eat selections include the beef and chicken shawarma combination platter; and kanafi, a square of ricotta cheese on a thin bread base, swimming in a pool of rose water and topped with crushed roasted pistachios. 1433 Fulton Avenue, (916) 972-8768. E.L.

Best source for un-gizzard

Eight Way Vege
Every grocery store stocks tofu, but something as exotic (and oxymoronic) as vegetarian organ meats requires a little searching. Eight Way Vege, a tiny shop tucked behind a larger store on seemingly endless Stockton Boulevard, caters to vegan carnivores with hundreds of Asian faux-flesh products. Kidneys? Got ’em. Gizzard? Of course. Abalone? Done. Amorphous gluten puffs? By the bagful! Choice “cuts” are available fresh, frozen, dried or canned, so you can cook tonight or stock the pantry for the next Mad Cow scare. Move over Tofurkey. Now there’s something meatier. 5810 Stockton Boulevard, Suite B; (916) 399-5819; B.C.

Best taste of Spain

Tapa the World
The food is billed as “Spanish cuisine with a theatrical flair,” and while what’s on your plate has generally been Americanized for your Sactown consumption, there’s no denying that Tapas is about as close as Midtown gets to Hispania. Just pass up the fine Californias on the endless wine list and order a Spanish wine or sangria; ignore the incessant tableside chatter and tune into the recorded, or sometimes live, flamenco guitar; and ditch the regular-portioned main dishes in favor of tapas, appetizer-style choices that include an always-winning empanada and croqueta of the day. Pretend that the older couple getting snockered in the corner are your chaperones and it’ll be just like that high-school trip to the real Spain—right down to the slow service when it gets unbelievably busy. 2115 J Street, (916) 442-4353. M.C.

Best place to find a phallic sea creature

Shun Fat Supermarket Inc.
Oh, geoduck, you wanton little beast! No, not “wonton,” but now that you mention it, those can also be purchased at the SF Supermarket. In fact, this place has one of the largest selections of ethnic groceries in the area. From MSG-soaked snacks and spicy lollipops to frozen delicacies and fresh produce, this market will leave narrow-minded shoppers heading for the exit door faster than you can say “meatloaf.” But for the shopper with a taste for Eastern cuisine that reaches beyond Rhode Island, SF offers a wide array of flavors that will keep your dim-sum palette satisfied, and your taste for cheese and corn ice cream totally fulfilled. Plus, there’s take-out food near the entrance with some really cheap, delicious sandwiches. And tell me, Mr. White Guy Who Loves Asian Culture, when you get that mid-morning hankering for pig uterus, where the hell else are you gonna’ go? 6930 65th Street, Suite 123; (916) 392-3888; J.F.

Best Greek eats without a plane ticket

The Symposium
OK, so this particular dining establishment lives, on a temporal level, in a truly atrocious, eyesore of a strip mall in east Davis. Once you step inside the Symposium’s doors, all that fades away. You have journeyed to Greece, with its clean, blue seas, white marble towers and toga-wearing, ancient partygoers. The cradle of western civilization, indeed. Treat yourself and friends to a full meal there—a first course of tzatziki (made from homemade yogurt) is a must. For a main course, try the Symposium’s to-die-for mousaka (Greek eggplant casserole) or the souvlaki (grilled stuff on skewers.) Both come in veggie and non-veggie versions. Don’t forget the dolmas, those delicious stuffed grape leaves that no Grecian dining experience is complete without. For you newbies: Don’t make the mistake of thinking the Symposium is just a pizza joint—though if you’re in the mood for some delicious, biscuit-y, crusted pizza, try the spankotiropizza (spinach and three cheeses) or the pepperoni and feta. 1620 East 8th Street, (530) 756-3850, M.W.

Best Buddhist eats

Andy Nguyen’s
Andy Nguyen’s provides three of my favorite things in one place: Buddhism, vegetarian cooking and Southeast Asian cuisine. Nguyen’s is the first place I like to take out-of-town friends because it’s such a mind-blowing experience for the unprepared. Pictures of the Buddha, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and various monks adorn the walls. And when the food starts coming, usually all it takes is an order of Enlightened Mind rolls or maybe a big tureen of Wish Fulfilling Jewel soup to make the look on a first-time diner’s face worth the price of the meal. The food is fresh, aromatic and bursting with flavor, and there’s no meat or fish. It resonates with healthy vibrations. And the service is always ultra-friendly. Andy Nguyen’s originally opened in 1984, but reopened in 2003 with a meatless menu after owner Lien Thi Nguyen decided to put her Buddhist belief in not harming sentient beings into practice—a paragon of the new California. 2007 Broadway, (916) 736-1157. J.G.

Best after-dinner smoke

Casillas Cigars
We all can’t have a smoking tent at work like Das Humidor at the Capitol. But at our respective abodes after a satisfying meal, there’s no reason why we can’t light up a Casillas cigar, sip coffee, and play world leader just like the president of California. And even though our friends and neighbors don’t curry our favor with boxes of Cubans á la the Österreich Oak and his post-partisan party favors, the next-best thing is mere blocks from the Horseshoe. Casillas Cigars, a modest storefront cigar shop on 16th Street, is the purveyor of a diverse selection of hand-made stogies, all reasonably priced and with a selection that runs the gamut: full and medium-bodied Rothschilds, Coronas, Torpedoes, Cognac-flavored and more. On a recent visit the owner offered this writer a Cognac free of charge. I paid it forward and sent it to Join Arnold: Maybe Da Gov will puff up instead of blowing smoke up our asses. 2020 16th Street, (916) 448-5052. N.M.

Best pasta

Soprattutto Salumeria & Ristorante
My octagenarian Sicilian landlord—God bless him—loves to bust my balls. He grumbles: “Nick, why you no water the lawn?” “Nick, you recylce those beer bottles?” “Nick, who say you allowed to have girls over?” And when he’s not slavedriving, he likes to complain that there’s no real Italian food in Sacramento. But he’s wrong, however, because the excellent Soprattutto up and left the sticks and moved, settling in to their new spot near McKinley Park in East Sac. And Soprattutto lives up to its name: Their house-made pasta, be it delicious ravioli or of the noodle variety, is above all others. The family-run ristorante’s ambience is sophisticated, even romantic, but they also offer various to-go items, including incredible homemade desserts. I can hear it already: “Nick, you bring me cannoli, OK?” Hey, the rent’s cheap. 3440 C Street, (916) 341-0905. N.M.

Best baked goods for picky eaters

Azna Gluten Free
You’re allergic to gluten and lactose intolerant, and eating refined sugar makes you crash like a NASCAR driver asleep at the wheel. Life has dealt you a rough hand in the digestion department, but that doesn’t mean you have to be fun intolerant, too. Azna Gluten Free bakery has plenty of treats that won’t upset your delicate constitution. How about a brownie, apple-cinnamon waffles or the softest scones in the foothills? (We recommend the lemon raspberry.) Custom cakes are available for any occasion, many items can be ordered online, and nothing on the menu contains gluten, dairy products or refined sugar—not that you’d notice by the taste. So go get yourself a frosted chocolate cupcake, cupcake. You deserve it. 2647 Cameron Park Drive, Cameron Park; (530) 677-5810; B.C.

Best lunchtime nod to paradise

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue
Go for the Spam and eggs with a side of rice for $5.75 and the Honolulu Star for free. Or try a classic Plate Lunch of Asian and Islander dishes with American and Asian sides. Along with two scoops of rice and one scoop of macaroni salad, you get a hot entrée of meat, seafood or saimin (noodle soup). L & L earned “Best Plate Lunch” accolades from the Honolulu Star Bulletin between 2003 and 2006. The folks at L & L say, “It is the de facto meal of choice in Hawaii and the best representation of the blend of cuisine and multicultures found in Hawaii.” Sweets include haupia (coconut jello) or Kauai cookies. 1049 Broadway, Suite 40; (916) 930-0833; J.F.