Go for the meat

Sheepherder Inn

11275 Folsom Blvd.
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742

(916) 638-4584

I never went to the old Sheepherder Inn, a Basque-style family place out in a sparsely populated part of Rancho Cordova, but to judge by the dinner crowd at the new and quite different iteration, it had a loyal, mostly older clientele, who are now coming back. That’s not the same as the bar crowd, which was young and on the loud side, clustered around the flat screens for happy hour. I was thankful that the sign out front advertising karaoke was not applicable on this particular evening; dinner in the capacious dining room was reasonably quiet, the surroundings placid and handsome.

I really liked the remodel of the historic building (Rancho Cordova’s oldest), which balanced a classic look—the bones of the space, in big beams and a river-rock fireplace—with new touches: copper mesh screens surrounding little crystal chandeliers, a round of two-top booths, exposed ducting weaving around hefty rafters.

The menu tries hard for a similar balance of the old and the new, but where the dining room is attractively updated, the food just seems confused. Big portions of meat, simply prepared—prime rib, lamb shanks, chicken with mashed potatoes—vie with an odd Asian theme among the bar-food-like starters. Call me crazy, but I don’t think a lot of sheepherders were chowing down on chicken lettuce wraps and Kailua pork sliders back in the day. The themes proliferate further: pizzas here, chicken tequila fettuccine there, stews and sandwiches still elsewhere.

Here’s the deal: If you’re going to go—say, because you need a place to take the whole extended fam—stick with those big, old-school meat plates. You’ll get a big mound of mashed potatoes, a hearty slab of some sort of large animal and a bunch of relatively predictable but not unappetizing vegetables. Scan the menu, though, to make sure you’re not getting something super sweet. The kitchen has a tendency to load up plates with sugary sauces.

Drinks suffer a similar fate: The cocktail menu is rife with syrupy ’tinis of one sort or another—or fruity offerings like the Tropical Breeze. (Fruity doesn’t mean wimpy: the Breeze was a big, colorful glassful, with a knockdown dark-rum float on top.) I liked the approach of one couple I saw across the dining room, who were each downing plain bourbon and waters as fast as the server could bring them. The wine list is pretty average: You’ve got a couple of choices of each varietal, an emphasis on California and nothing particularly distinctive.

To return to the food, we led off with a little plate of crab-cake sliders with something called “mango-mojito aioli.” It tasted faintly of mint and strongly of mayonnaise. They were on cute (if slightly greasy) little fluffy buns, which the menu oddly described as housemade focaccia. Italian flatbread it was not; they reminded me of long-ago dinner rolls from my grandma’s Thanksgiving table, which is not at all a bad thing. The demure little crab cakes within had a straightforward, sweet seafood flavor and not too much filler, though they were a little oily, and their fried crust could have been crisper.

We shared a salad of field greens, with a strong dose of balsamic vinaigrette—again, sweet—and some oddly chewy candied pecans with a curried flavor about them. Strangely, slices of raw shallot adorned the top of the salad, and the greens should have been sorted with a little more care: We had a couple of big chunks of radicchio core in there.

The best dish of the night was my husband’s skirt steak, though it had some kind of thick, dark maple-berry-chipotle sauce that would have been better left in the mind of whoever thought up the combination. The meat itself had a smoky flavor and was appealingly tender; the mashed potatoes tasted fresh; and the sprinkling of fried onions added crunch and savor.

I was less pleased with the pizza with lamb meatballs, arugula leaves and Manchego—the latter just a dusting of grated cheese. The rest of the pizza was heavy with a lot of standard-issue mozzarella, as if it couldn’t decide whether to be a lightly topped nouveau-style pizza or an old-school style. The thicker, slightly doughy crust tipped the balance toward the latter. The lamb meatballs were a great idea, and I liked their flavors of lemon and oregano, but they were almost gummy with too much bread-crumb filler, and their lamb flavor was faint. They also made the pizza hard to eat and sat on top of some terrible, hard, garlic-imbued tomato slices.

The dessert menu doesn’t suffer from quite the identity crisis as the rest of the menu—it’s mainly straight-up American sweets—but there are a few execution problems. A huge toffee sundae with tons of ice cream, very good chocolate sauce and real whipped cream was enjoyable, but the nuts in the big chunks of housemade toffee that adorned it tasted a tiny bit burnt. Moist, old-fashioned lemon-pudding cake with berry sauce and crème anglaise tasted off, like it had been sitting around the refrigerator a little too long, though its tang did shine through. All told, this unevenness was a bit of a constant at Sheepherder—except for the attractive surroundings. It’s a shame the food doesn’t quite measure up to them.