Fire Rock Grill
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
At 101 years old, the building is stately and elegant, with hewed wood beams and gleaming river rock columns. Now, the former Sheepherder’s Inn, once a hotel, a brothel and many times an eatery, has been restored to well-deserved glory.
Now called Fire Rock Grill, it reopened in February with the Alimena and Gandy families at the helm. As managers of one of its past incarnations, they saw the promise the grand old building holds and hired Randall Christian as executive chef; his résumé includes local restaurants as well as ones in Los Angeles, Miami and New York City.
Because of its massive dining areas and parking lot, Fire Rock is already a draw for work groups and events, although it gets quite loud with all the hard surfaces. There’s outside seating (albeit facing busy Folsom Boulevard) and a smaller bar area with tables for those seeking less din.
Service on both of our visits struck just the right tone of attentive but not pushy. The servers seem well-schooled in menu details, and the hosts were full of historical trivia about the space.
While the menu features comfort-food favorites that don’t push any boundaries, the execution is impressive. A simple cup of New England-style clam chowder, for instance, was chunky with potatoes, clams and bacon in a silky cream base, without a hint of gumminess.
An heirloom-tomato stack featured several colors of perfectly ripe tomatoes, milky-fresh mozzarella and a syrupy balsamic reduction. A bed of ultra-fresh greens and basil added just the right complement to the gorgeous fruit and cheese.
Even an order of grilled cheese from the kid’s menu showcased thickly sliced bread with real cheddar (no American, thank you!) and nicely charred broccoli with a scattering of sea salt. It even came with juice and dessert— a scoop of Vic’s Ice Cream.
The sandwiches were equally good. The menu lists a juicy sounding Napkin Burger, but we went with the Fire Rock Burger, which we hoped would be just as juicy. We weren’t disappointed: It’s one of the better burgers we’ve eaten recently. Half-a-pound of Angus beef cooked perfectly medium-rare, it required at least three napkins to soak up the finger-licking juices. Caramelized red onions, pepper jack cheese, pickled jalapeños and chili mayo, plus tomatoes and lettuce, made for a big stack of flavor.
Vegetarians are just as lucky: Our grilled portobello sandwich arrived layered with that high-end mozzarella, roasted peppers, onions and basil mayo on a focaccia bun. Unlike many mushroom “burgers,” this one is just as swoonworthy as the beef variety.
Seared ahi tuna makes for another good choice. It’s available sesame-crusted with watermelon salsa, or on a salad with mango, spinach, avocado and macadamia nuts. The tuna was expertly just-barely cooked, leaving the majority of the thinly sliced fish bright red. It paired nicely with the salsa presentation, but was a bit overwhelmed by the goat cheese on the salad.
The roasted corn risotto is another really lovely entree—an excellent example of al dente rice enhanced but not overwhelmed by garlic, herbs and Parmesan. It tasted of fresh, sweet corn without being too heavy. The only drawback was the slightly dry—although nicely flavored—optional chicken on top.
There is a reasonable selection of wine and beer, with many local options. On Monday nights, there’s 50 percent off bottles of wine. Signature cocktails are curiously listed without prices, but include standards with fresh juices and brand liquors.
There are several desserts, and they don’t seem an afterthought, as in many places. There is a moist house-made olive-oil cake with berries, and a crunchy bread pudding with bourbon-caramel sauce. We didn’t brave the fried Oreos.
If you live or work near Rancho Cordova, Fire Rock Grill should be a welcome addition to the area. It may not be a destination spot, but the quality of the cooking and management make it a worthy renaissance for a historical location.