Good to the bone

Macau Cafe

4412 Del Rio Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95822

(916) 457-8818

Dear Reader,

I have an urgent question for you: When, may I inquire, was the last time you had Macau-style crispy pig knuckle? If for you, like an estimated 99 percent of your fellow readers, the answer is “never,” I urge you to remedy this sad situation immediately. At your earliest convenience, I pray, make your way to the unprepossessing confines of Macau Cafe (just south of Land Park’s various kiddie attractions) and sample this delightful dish.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Knuckle doesn’t sound like the most appetizing of cuts.” But put aside any feelings you may harbor about the word “knuckle” for a moment and concentrate on the more promising parts of the name: “crispy pig.” Crispy. Pig. Doesn’t that sound nice? OK, here’s the deal. You order up that bad boy, and what you get is a platter with a lineup of watery, pinkish tomato slices and some shredded lettuce—you can safely ignore those parts—fanned out next to a majestic hunk of bone. (Is it a pig’s lower leg? Its calf, as it were? And which way does it go? My friend and I held it up and turned it around, but didn’t quite figure it out.) The bone has some gnarled, crunchy, chestnut-colored shards of meat and some sort of connective tissue hanging onto it—all the better to nibble at later—but it’s mostly bare to the knuckle.

On the other side of the bone, though, is where the action is: surprisingly meaty slices of deep brick-red pork, visibly falling-apart tender, held together by crescents of creamy fat (what, you thought crispy pig knuckle was going to be a diet-plate special?) and a rim of bubble-blistered, caramel-toned skin. When you bite into it, the skin has the kind of crunch that shatters at first and then sticks to your teeth a little, and it’s redolent of the anise-y, cinnamon aroma of five-spice. As for the meat, it has some crispy edges but more melting texture, and falls just shy of the saltiness of ham.

Anyway, in case you can’t tell, I enjoyed it. If you like pork, you would, too. But woman cannot live on pig alone, so Macau Cafe offers a lot of other menu items, most of them pictured in slightly faded color photos that adorn the walls of the otherwise fairly bare-bones establishment. Macau is a Chinese city not far from Hong Kong, a former Portuguese enclave with its own brand of southern-Chinese cooking, and the menu—while it has a full assortment of your basic Chinese-American glop (sweet-and-sour chicken) and standard Chinese dishes—offers several sections of what they call Macau-style dishes, many served with spaghetti: Portuguese-style curries (or so they say), baked ox tongue (I want to go back for that), sizzling plates with lamb or other meats and so on. I am not precisely clear on the full scope of the contribution made by the Portuguese to the civic cuisine, but I will say I was bummed that there was no bacalao or some of the other, more distinctively Portuguese dishes that Internet research revealed are part of Macau’s culinary lineup.

There are also a lot of interesting snacky foods, like those popular in Hong Kong cooking, and Macau Cafe does an enormously appealing-sounding tea-snacks business in the afternoon: salt-and-pepper tofu, French toast and so forth are on offer for cheap. Next time I am enervated from a trip to the zoo, I am absolutely going over there for a reviving pot of tea and fried nibble. The drinks menu is also long and fun: Horlicks, Ovaltine, banana and other fruit shakes, and I tried the Cold Almond Mix. It was supersweet and milk-white, and it tasted like almond or some other kind of milk goosed up with a ton of sugar and almond extract, but it was weirdly good.

As for more food, we also had a dish of wonderful Chinese greens (water spinach) stir-fried with savory fermented tofu with ginger chunks and red slices of chili adding pungency. With crunchy stems and wilted leaves, the dish tasted fresh and wonderful. The best deal here is the lobster e-fu noodles—at $14, a total steal, even though they retain the tail, presumably for pricier dishes. But who cares, I say? The chunks of shell-on lobster meat you do get are sweet and plenteous, and the garlicky, gingery wheat noodles that twine around the lobster are chewy and lovely—though I might have liked them just a touch more wok-seared and highly flavored. The dish is very simple, basically just lobster, noodles and some aromatics (including a few lengths of scallion) but nicely balanced.

Plus, they do give you the lobster’s head, so if you incline to silliness you can poke your dining companion with its feelers, or maybe set up a fight between it and that pig bone. I won’t tell anyone. I just think you should go explore that long, intriguing menu. After all, you don’t run across a pig knuckle every day.