Here comes the sun

Cafe Soleil

917 9th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 444-6422

I’m always grateful for the spell of good weather that comes to Sacramento in February or early March to break up the gray, chilly, foggy days. This year, I presume we have global warming to thank for its unusually early and lengthy appearance, and I was determined to make the most of it by donning skirts and flip-flops and going on picnics. I couldn’t make time for a real picnic, though, and the ground is still pretty muddy at most parks, so I compromised by heading to Café Soleil for lunch at the behest of an acquaintance.

I had never noticed this downtown institution, which sits in sunny Cesar Chavez Plaza, despite the fact that it has a line well out the door at lunchtime, particularly on bright and pleasant days. (I think I saw the building and just assumed it was dedicated to park maintenance or something.) The spot is brightly glass-walled and surrounded by tables for sitting out in the sunshine. My friend tipped me off to the high-quality lunches the place turns out in great quantity, making excellent iterations of everything to order, from basic tuna salad to more imaginative fare like crab chile rellenos, with seriously constrained kitchen space.

Indeed, on my first visit, it was these two dishes that I had to choose between. There’s a short menu up above the busy cash registers, augmented by hand-lettered sheets of paper in bright felt-tip markers, taped up on the walls and showing the specials that day. The choices are practically dizzying, but the simple all-American sandwiches are hard to beat. My friend got a plate of roast turkey (they roast it themselves) by ordering a turkey sandwich sans bread. I ended up going for the tuna melt. I love a good tuna sandwich, and for more than a year, during and after my pregnancy, I had stoutly resisted the siren song of chicken of the sea. But now I figured one little sandwich couldn’t hurt.

I don’t think my rapturous response was solely due to this previous deprivation. This was a good sandwich, with plenty of cheddar; crisply golden grilled bread; and meaty, flavorful tuna salad without too much mayo. A similar density gave the potato salad on the side of the plate a special quality; it managed to be herbaceous, dense, creamy and just a little tangy all at once. I often find potato salad too gloppy, but this was just right. I also was very pleased with the lemonade, lauded on the sign by the register as the “best lemonade ever.” With advertising like that, I couldn’t pass it up, and it was indeed excellent, with fresh lemon juice and a nice sweet-sour balance.

I wouldn’t have wanted to pass up the tuna melt, but on my next visit I was sorry not to spot the crab chile relleno amid the welter of signs. Instead, I hesitated between a crab-cake sandwich and the fish tacos. I ended up going for the latter when I heard the two women behind us in line both praising them, preparatory to a double order.

They were not quite the triumph the tuna melt had been, but they were quite good, with spicy, tomato-y chunks of fish; green and orange spiced mayonnaises; shredded cabbage; and a fresh chopped pico de gallo topping soft corn tortillas. They came, as nearly all the specials do, with a Caesar salad that was pleasant enough but nothing special, just crunchy chopped romaine with a run-of-the-mill dressing and shredded cheese. I also ordered a tasty-looking slice of focaccia, herby and topped with tomato slices; the bread needed more salt and tasted a tiny bit stale.

My husband had a plate of roast pork tenderloin—flavorfully roasted, though the lean meat was just the tiniest touch dry, as is the nature of pork tenderloin—served with fresh-tasting steamed vegetables and real mashed potatoes. The whole was covered with a thin but savory gravy, per request; the server/cook called out my name (given with the order) and asked before finishing the plate. As he worked, I watched it all being dished up (the meat sliced to order) from big trays in a little annex to the busy main room. Cold food, sandwiches and salads are prepared in the main room; the hot meals are dispensed in the smaller room to the side. The system for getting orders to the cooks and then to the customers is chaotic and hard to parse at first, but it works fast and reliably, so there’s no need to mess with it.

Those taking and distributing orders are brisk and no-nonsense but nevertheless friendly, managing a quick smile even during a considerable lunch rush. It’s just one way of several that this reliably tasty, unfussy and economical cafe brings a spot of extra sunshine to the downtown lunch scene year-round.