Food & Drink

Writers’ Picks

Ginger Elizabeth brings the chocolate.

Ginger Elizabeth brings the chocolate.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Best grown-up birthday cake

The gâteau du maison at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates
Sure, you could stop in at Safeway and pick up some horror covered in shortening-based frosting for your friend or sweetie. But how happy a birthday would that be? Hie thee to Ginger Elizabeth and get the ultrasimple, meltingly fudgy gâteau du maison, with a prettily scrolled “happy birthday” plaque rendered in chocolate. The gianduja cake is also a winner, but we can’t resist pure chocolate. It doesn’t have—or need—frosting, but it’s still the most satisfying cake the birthday person will have all year. 1801 L Street, Suite 60; (916) 706-1738;

Best place to order french fries with your Mexican food

Oscar’s Very Mexican Food
Sometimes you just crave french fries with your vegetarian burrito, and Oscar’s Very Mexican Food can fill that order. This unassuming hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Freeport Boulevard has been serving McClatchy High School and Sacramento City College students for several years now, which means it’s quite popular. The line is often outside the door. Customers are in for a wait, but it’s totally worth it. The food is inexpensive, portions are sizable and flavors are delicious. As one student said, “Very greasy, very bad for you, very wonderful.” 3061 Freeport Boulevard, (916) 443-8310.

Best elusive vegan treat

Joshua Ploeg’s calzones
In Sacramento, where vegetarian dining has yet to catch up with the rest of the city’s 21st-century developments, it’s the early vegan who gets the calzone. To gain possession of a fresh-baked mushroom-pesto or eggplant-marinara creation by Joshua Ploeg, a.k.a. the Traveling Vegan Chef, you’ll need to get to Pieces pizzeria within hours of their arrival. Well before closing time, every bite of tenderly baked eggplant, basil-laden sauce and flaky crust will be happily digested in the bellies of local vegans. Ploeg’s calzone deliveries are irregular (most often on Thursday nights around 5 p.m.), but he always sends a hot-food heads-up to his e-mail list. To sign up and chow down, visit his blog at Pieces Pizza by the Slice, 1309 21st Street; (916) 441-1949.

Best restaurant that makes you cook your own food

The Melting Pot
If you have plenty of cash and neither you nor your dining partner is vegetarian, get a table at The Melting Pot. Go with a four-course meal, which gives you a cheese fondue, salad, an entrée and a chocolate fondue. For your entrée, you get to pick a selection of meats and a cooking style. Pay attention when your server tells you how long each meat needs to cook. You only need to burn your expensive dinner once before you realize how important this is. Save room for the chocolate fondue. Spoon the melted chocolate onto a piece of cheesecake and you’ll know what heaven tastes like. 814 15th Street, Sacramento; 6839 Lonetree Boulevard, Rocklin; (916) 443-2347;

Best place to strike black gold

We’re not talking oil here, Jethro. We’re talking licorice. In the candy aisle of your average supermarket, a stale bag of Twizzlers is about the best you can hope for. Serious licorice aficionados know better: They beat feet to Newsbeat, which has the largest selection of black licorice in the Sacramento area, as far as this writer knows. Scottie dogs, licorice pipes, Kookaburra, they’ve got it all at Newsbeat. If they don’t have it, they’ll order it and stock it just for you. Oh yeah, if licorice isn’t your bag, they’ve got all sorts of weird candy, ice cream and about a bezillion glossy magazines, too. 1050 20th Street, (916) 448-2874; 514 Third Street, Davis; (530) 756-6247.

Best mac ‘n’ cheese

Dad’s Kitchen
It seems so simple. Macaroni. And cheese. A child could make it, no? But restaurant versions of this American classic tend to fall short of our dreams of creamy, carby goodness. Not, however, at Dad’s Kitchen, where they eschew plasticky cheese food, overcooked pasta and stickily unctuous sauces in favor of a smooth and rounded white-cheddar sauce, just-soft-enough macaroni and a crunchy crumb topping. It ought to make the kids at your table happy, but you might want to order an extra bowl for yourself, especially if you’ve had a tough day. This is comfort food par excellence. 2968 Freeport Boulevard, (916) 443-3237.

Best healthy meal

Salad from Jack’s Urban Eats
Some of us were not born to be grazers, and it’s not because we lack the evolutionary apparatus for cud-chewing. Instead, it’s because we never had salad the way Jack’s makes salad. There’s something about the way it’s mixed up in those lovely, stainless steel mixing bowls. (Tossed? Nope—Jack’s is to tossed as shaken is to stirred.) Yeah, there’s probably a touch more fat in some of the dressings than is good for us, but how can anyone say no to this combo: mixed greens with Gorgonzola vinaigrette topped with dried cranberries, diced Fuji apples and walnuts? Add a bit of sliced, roasted turkey, and it’s the best turkey sandwich ever, without the carb overdose. Various locations,

Miguel Barrios at La Mexicana Bakery tempts the children of Sacramento with piñatas and pan dulce.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Best pan dulce

La Mexicana Bakery
Beware of taking a small child into La Mexicana. If the wilderness of countless brightly colored, sugary baked goods—many at kids’ eye level in the well-labeled boxes lining the walls—doesn’t produce awestruck begging, the piñatas will. That said, you should absolutely stop in for a nibble or three, whether your pleasure is soft, fresh sweet rolls covered with swirls of crumbly sugar; cakey gingerbread pigs; palmiers and much more. (There’s also a taqueria and prepared-foods shop inside, but truth be told, we’ve never gotten past the pastries.) The fun of taking your battered metal tray and tongs and sliding open the little cases to grab your treasure makes the experience all the sweeter. 5550 Franklin Boulevard, Suite 104; (916) 457-9506.

Best reason to go downtown after dark

Ella Dining Room and Bar
Light, bright and filled with those quirky but successful reclaimed shutters, Ella Dining Room and Bar beautifies a forlorn corner of downtown—and gives the neighborhood a serious, very good dining option as well. Choices include fresh, inventive cocktails; small plates like grilled, prosciutto-wrapped quail; and larger plates like grilled hanger steak with chimichurri. The kitchen has a particular way with seafood, including a cold bar and roasted fish dishes that are always winners. It’s a great date spot (you can chat about the improbable stack of tables that comprises the service station) and good for after-work drinks, too—or for any reason at all. 1131 K Street, (916) 443-3772,

Best patty melt

Ink Eats & Drinks
Ah, the patty melt: so delicious—with its crusty, tangy rye bread, melted cheese and slippery-sweet onions—yet so elusive. But wait! At Ink Eats & Drinks, it’s not elusive after all. There, a toothsome but not too thick medium-rare burger sits demurely between toasty slices of pretty marbled rye, covered with a tangle of golden onions, Swiss cheese, and just a little special sauce. You wouldn’t think you’d eat the whole thing—especially with those thin-cut, salty fries alongside—and yet you will. Too lazy to go get one? Ink also delivers from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., Wednesday through Saturday. 2730 N Street, (916) 456-2800,

Best burger joint with a ‘70s vibe

Hot Rods
A good burger isn’t just a burger, it’s the whole concept. Hot Rods is a tribute to an old-school diner, but it’s got a surprisingly retro, disco feel. Most afternoons are quiet, and a late lunch includes ‘70s and ‘80s music videos on two big-screen TVs, along with clips from vintage sitcoms. A traditional single-patty hamburger (complete with lettuce, onion and pickle), a generous serving of fries and a chocolate milkshake go down smoothly with the Commodore’s “Brick House.” Welcome to 1976, when none of us were worried about our waistlines, in spite of the way those Danskin dresses showed every ounce. Hot Rods also serves up a decent hot dog—along with plenty of double entendre—that the late Ralph Brave used to swear by. 2007 K Street, (916) 443-7367,

Best breakfast pastry

La Bou’s raspberry scone
There are plenty of contenders for this prize (including buttermilk old-fashioned doughnuts that make morning coffee an event), but La Bou’s raspberry scone offers just the right balance of pastry sweetness to fruity goodness to scone-y crumbiness. Yes, there are crumbs galore, but there are also big, juicy raspberries that obviously were real berries in the recent past. And unlike many scone recipes, La Bou’s seems to tread that very hallowed ground between so scone-y it becomes dry and so cakey that the scone identity is lost. For a well-balanced, fruit-speckled, and—at less than $2—cheap breakfast pastry, stop by any of local franchise La Bou Bakery and Cafes. Various locations,

How many calories can you fit on a stick? Find out at the California State Fair!

Photo By Anne Stokes

Best source for deep-fried everything

California State Fair
Alongside former fried attractions like Oreos, frog legs and Twinkies, State Fair fry guy Chicken Charlie introduced some new calorie-dense goodies this year aimed more towards the savory taste buds than the sweet. Charlie’s deep-fried White Castle burger will go down as 2008’s biggest fried-food unveiling, but let’s also consider the deep-fried cheese ravioli, deep-fried Spam, and for dessert, deep-fried Pop-Tarts. If your heart managed to survive that experience, you couldn’t leave the fair without having a funnel cake. The fair had stands planted about every 50 feet, tempting patrons to an extra-sweet finish: a funnel cake topped with Bavarian cream and whipped cream. Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Boulevard; (916) 263-3247;

Best salsa

El Novillero
We hate to reduce El Novillero down to its salsa. The Mexican restaurant in south Sacramento has developed quite a delectable menu over the last 38 years it’s been in business. The problem is we’re always too full from the delicious chips and salsa to eat much of the main courses. 4216 Franklin Boulevard, (916) 456-4287,

Best special- occasion meal

Hawks restaurant
Got that new job? A milestone anniversary? Time to drive out to Granite Bay and go to Hawks, without question. With its modern sensibility, ultrasmooth but never fussy service and unbelievable food, it’s well worth the drive and the price tag. Try the luxe housemade charcuterie plate or the short ribs if you don’t believe us—but be advised that the menu changes often. Heck, we’re thinking about manufacturing a special occasion (half-birthday? third Wednesday of the month?) just to go. 5530 Douglas Boulevard, Suite 110, Granite Bay; (916) 791-6200;

Best vegetarian getaway

Sunflower Natural Food Restaurant
Only about 20 minutes from Midtown, this unique vegetarian institution comes complete with vegan meals and desserts, shaded outdoor seating and roosters—lots of roosters. Dining on the wooden picnic tables amid towering green trees with roosters strutting around your feet gives the impression of being far removed from the city. The nut burger is the most popular item to grace the menu of the walk-up establishment, but the nutty taco and vegan potato salad are equally tasty. And the vegan cookies are so delicious (especially the chocolate chip), they have the power to convince any nonvegan to make the transition. 10344 Fair Oaks Boulevard, Fair Oaks; (916) 967-4331.