Goodwill ambassador

Hacienda Los Portales

1345 Merkley Ave.
West Sacramento, CA 95691

(916) 375-1414

Rosario Marin, California’s Cabinet secretary for Consumer Affairs, is making a dip out of sour cream and a very fiery salsa verde at a low-budget Mexican restaurant in West Sacramento.

The former United States treasurer arrives a few minutes late at Hacienda Los Portales, just off Jefferson Boulevard a few doors down from Penny Rod & Bait and a self-serve dog wash.

While waiting, I examine my paper money to see if Rosario’s signature is on any bills. Sadly, all have been printed since she left the job in 2003, during which time she was the highest-ranking Latina in the Bush administration.

I also notice the powder-blue cushion on the chair next to mine. Its stains bear mute witness to years of use—and abuse.

To say it’s a teensy bit incongruous that a major power hitter who favors St. John knits and is wearing pretty much the coolest herringbone shoes on the planet is gobbling menudo in a joint furnished in early Goodwill Industries would be vast understatement.

But that’s the facts, Jack.

We’re joined by the seriously pregnant communications director Amanda Fulkerson, who asks what menudo is. Rosario says ignorance is bliss. The moment Rosario leaves the table, I clue in Amanda. I’m evasive about tripe, however.

Rosario spoons radishes into her menudo and, in a move that’s new to my playbook, bends a lime wedge around the edge of a spoon, elegantly and expertly dripping juice into the bowl. Then she spoons some of the bowl’s contents onto a tortilla and has her way with it.

I gulp a Jarritos Tutifruti; she sips a Tamarindo.

Memo to GOP: Recruit more members like this.

The food at Hacienda Los Portales is the real deal. A passel of hardy flies, somehow genetically inured to the chill temperature, adds to the authenticity. Amanda doesn’t share my enthusiasm for musca domestica, or Rosario’s menudo, for that matter.

It’s a family joint for sure. There’s few things more heartening than seeing the kitchen crew—clearly related to our waiter—gather at a table after the lunch rush to chat and nibble.

The food is fresher—and tastier—if ordered from the menu, however.

The $7.99 lunch buffet, which Rosario selects, is diminished by too much quality time under the heat lamps. Rosario leaves one-third of a taquito on her plate but enjoys the chile relleno. Perhaps she had too much menudo beforehand.

The salsa bar rocks hard, though. Far harder than Los Primos or Los Amigos, the inside-a-gas-station restaurants of a few issues back (see SN&R “First cousins,” December 18). At Hacienda, there are the aforementioned radishes as well as cucumbers, onion slices, emerald-green jalapeños and a kick-in-the-pants red sauce eclipsed only by the Fahrenheit 451 salsa verde.

Rosario’s verdict of the fare, as expressed to our waiter: “Muy bueno.” Privately, she says, “It was either very good or I was very, very hungry.”

Amanda and I ask for menus. Prices are slightly more than those shown, we’re told.

Amanda is complimentary about her carne asada tacos—$6.25 on the menu; $6.75 on the receipt.

My carnitas ones are flavorful, although something is awry with the beans. Perhaps they’re too authentic for my inexperienced palate, but they make me wish I’d gone à la carte and had Rosario snag me a couple extra chile rellenos from the buffet.

Assuming the same 50-cent or so markup on other menu items, the pick-three-items-of-your-choice combo seems a steal at $8.50 and remains so even after splurging another 50 cents to substitute a couple of the house specialties—chile verde or chili Colorado—for the standard pork, chicken or beef.

Solo-item lunch specials hover in the $4 to $5 range.

We walk to the hybrid Rosario-mobile and agree the cuisine was good but the company better.

Appealing in the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover kinda way.