High spirits, low oink
Sacramento, CA 95816
Let’s talk about the painting at the Shady Lady Saloon. You know the one: the large painting by Ryan Seng depicting a trio of topless women in the foreground. You’ve seen it, but have you ever really looked at it? My eyes are magnetically drawn to it, and each time look, I see something new. Once you get past the three pairs of breasts, one of which has a crying Christ tattoo betwixt, you will see other elements, including a blindfolded tiger, a weasel-like panther (or a pantherlike weasel) eating a human arm, a dude busting a tree pose in the corner, and some sort of bike riot occurring outside. All rendered with a sense of perspective that would make Grandma Moses proud.
Luckily, if you can tear your eyes away from the painting, your senses will be equally stimulated by the food and drink.
So many bars try to do bar snacks, and so many fail at this seemingly simple task. The Shady Lady, however, nails it, with surprising tweaks to the form. The fried green tomatoes are punched up with a tarragon rémoulade that makes me bemoan the dearth of this finest of fine herbs on local menus. The house-made pork rinds dramatically snap, crackle and pop when dipped into the assertively fishy sauce. The huge charcuterie board is more like a groaning board, stocked with abundant regional meats and cheeses and is best split between three or four people. The pickle plate looks like Peter Rabbit’s dream, all teeny turnips and tangy carrot chunks. A buttery pretzel knot is a head-scratching addition, but a welcome one: Offer four of these as an appetizer with a side of mustard, and I will swear off (my guilty pleasure) Pretzel Time for life.
The steak salad can serve as dinner: Juicy slices of medium-rare steak are arrayed on an abundance of arugula and greens, dressed with an apricot vinaigrette (the dressing changes seasonally) that avoids the syrupy sweetness of many fruit dressings. The Lady has a way with beef and arugula: The thin slices of warm beef in the French dip wilt the arugula and the au jus soaks into the nooks and crannies of the flour-dusted ciabatta. The burger that comes topped by a perfect, thick slice of heirloom tomato reveals another of those little touches that shows the attention to detail paid by chef Kevin Ritchie.
When queried about the proper pronunciation of “porchetta” our tattooed, efficient server (a description that fits most of the staff) sings out “Por-ketta!” in a passable Italian accent. The pork in the sandwich is absent the expected strips of fat or herbal flavors, as well as any hint of oinky flavor—the strongest note is Dijon mustard.
Elsewhere, the deconstructed fried-chicken entree left me wishing for the reconstructed eat-with-your-hands kind offered so rarely. Here, ho-hum strips of breaded breast meat are interspersed with that novelty dish that is the bane of modern menus—deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese. The smoky pile of dry fish meat on the house-made corn tortillas needs a lash of Baja-style sauce.
Generally excellent, the quality of Shady Lady’s classic cocktails waver from bartender to bartender. On one visit, a Horse’s Neck (made with spicy house-made ginger syrup and bourbon) satisfyingly stings. On another, the sugar overpowers, and on a third, the drink packs a bourbon wallop. At one point, a Pimm’s Cup has to be sent back, because it seems the ginger has been completely forgotten; the server confirms my suspicion.
The cocktail list also veers from the classics with a list of bartender-created drinks with unusual, but wisely considered flavor combinations: cilantro and tequila, blackberry and thyme, and the surprisingly sublime mixture of celery and pineapple.
I love to while away a languorous afternoon on the Shady Lady patio after a bite or two inside, chatting and ordering “just one more” drink that turns into two or three. Not only is the patio comfortable, but the painting is safely inside, so that I can concentrate on the well-oiled conversation and the cocktail before me.