Health nuts to please your gut

Backbone Cafe

The vegan carnitas verde tacos transform oyster mushrooms into convincing pork—on the first bite.

The vegan carnitas verde tacos transform oyster mushrooms into convincing pork—on the first bite.

photo by rebecca huval

“The restaurant bear-hugs vegans as heartily as it does carnivores.”

Good for: A healthful meal that tastes like it belongs on a cheat dayNotable dishes: Bone broth and power bowls—all the power bowls

Backbone Cafe

729 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 970-5545

Sometimes, California cuisine can be all flashy flaxseeds, no flavor. You might think that the new Backbone Cafe downtown follows that formula as it caters to paleo, gluten-free, ketogenic, raw and low-carb eaters.

The self-styled hippie restaurant is responding to the latest diets, yes, but its thoughtful dishes go beyond hitting all the trendy check boxes.

Owners Matt and Yvette Woolston also operate Matteo’s Pizza & Bistro in Carmichael and Supper Club, but it’s their sons and co-owners Joey and Tomas who really make up the backbone of Backbone in the kitchen and the front of the house. Tomas was there on my every visit, asking with genuine curiosity about how I enjoyed my food as if I was his grade-school buddy.

The fitness-conscious Joey planned the restaurant when he was stuck in bed after falling 30 feet from a tower at Burning Man and injuring his back, as SN&R reported previously. His menu is as obsessive about flavor as it is about health. It offers grass-fed beef burgers on Acme buns, vegan cauliflower steaks with organic thyme sauce, beef tallow and pork lard fries. The restaurant bear-hugs vegans as heartily as it does carnivores.

The striking storefront painted by local muralist Anthony Padilla hints at this, ahem, back story: Roots sprout up from the sidewalk into a vertebrae, then into leaves and peacock feathers. The carmine red and yellow enliven an otherwise dull downtown block on J Street. Inside, the walls are painted with a Lord of the Rings-style forest and, in a display of the restaurant’s mushy hippie heart, a community bookshelf allows visitors to peruse books for free.

The chicken power bowl ($13) was the best thing I tried there: Shredded chicken without any trace of tripe was warm against the comparatively cool rice, mint and cilantro. Roasted squash, zucchini, carrot slivers and spinach were bathed in the house “Mahogany sauce”—a chili-citrus combo that’s sweeter than it is spicy.

I also tried the Hippie Hemp Curry ($9) because, well, when in Rome. The curry sparkled with cumin, tempered with a creamy coconut milk sauce. Flecks of black hemp seeds added a fun crunch to the avocado-zucchini-squash medley.

Less exciting? The vegan carnitas verde tacos ($10.50),which were actually delicious on first bite. My only quibble is that, after eating three of them, my palate tingled with saltiness. To amp up the savory and umami qualities of the oyster mushrooms, a generous helping of salt is required, so this is forgivable.

It was exciting to see bone broth on a Sacramento menu, an offering you’d expect to only see inside a health-nut household. The chicken ($6 small, $9 large) was cooked down with carrots, celery, onions, oregano and thyme to create a purely liquid Thanksgiving feast. The drink filled me up in a soothing, light way, and I began to believe in its supposed gut- and microbiome-promoting powers.

The cafe wears its heart on its backbone, and it’s strong look. If eating health-forward food always tasted this satisfying, I’d do it more than once a week.