In the neighborhood
Sacramento, CA 95814
At lunch the other day, I was reminded that not everyone is looking for the same things in a restaurant. My friend and I went to the newly reopened 524 on 12th Street. I was hoping for a fresh or interesting take on Mexican fare—maybe something spicy, authentic or regional. My friend, who lives in the neighborhood, was kind of hoping for the opposite: something not too challenging, where she and her spicy-food-averse partner can go together. My friend got what she wanted, and I got a tasty enough, but fairly bland, lunch.
The renovated 524 is attractive and freshly scrubbed, inside and out, with vibrant earth tones, folk-arty metal lizards, and Diego Riveras on the walls. It was almost full at lunch, but service was quick and attentive anyway. The chips and two salsas promised well for the lunch: the chips were fresh, thick and crunchy; the pico de gallo chunky and as sharp as the eponymous rooster’s beak; the thin, brick-red red salsa, hot, with an herbaceous oregano bite.
The lunch choices encompass all the usual combo-plate suspects: tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, burritos, chile rellenos and so on. There are some intriguing options, too, like “tortas de carmaron con nopales,” which I thought, based on the menu description, would be fried shrimp and “nopales,” that is, cactus. When I asked, though, it turned out it was nopales fried in a shrimp batter. I decided against it. In winter, I’d go back to try the albondigas (meatball soup), and there are a lot of other homestyle meaty options: pork chops, fried chicken, carne seca. Cheered by the presence of so many meat plates, I was hesitating between carnitas and chile verde and asked the server which she thought the kitchen did better. Unhesitatingly, she said chile verde was the way to go.
Granted, I haven’t tasted the carnitas, but I’m not sure she steered me right. The chile verde was bland and very watery; the pork itself was tender and meaty, but there was little chile flavor. Indeed, it was so bland that I suspected that the chunks of peppers might be green bell peppers.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. All the main courses are preceded by a tasty little bowl of soup, with rough-cut carrots, pasta, and beefy broth—a nice little opener. And there are, of course, tasty cheese-covered refried beans and plenty of rice along with the entrees. My friend had a combo plate with a carne-asada taco (the meat had a good flavor but was a little greasy) and a very bland chicken enchilada.
All this was unobjectionable, but very much the kind of Americanized Mexican food that we all probably grew up on, with homestyle options thrown in, too. I felt something spicier must be hiding on the menu, though, so we went back for breakfast, and there I felt happier—maybe because a big, homey, cheese-covered Mexican-American breakfast is always pleasing, and the coffee’s pretty good, too, if not fancy. (My husband had a serviceable, but absolutely standard, hot chocolate; I was sorry they had missed the opportunity to do Mexican hot chocolate, because what is better than that?)
The breakfast menu is short: huevos con chorizo, huevos rancheros, omelet, eggs and bacon, and chilaquiles. It all comes with soup, rice, beans and tortillas, and it’s a whole passel of food, so go hungry or go with a mild hangover. Or, go with a toddler whose favorite food is rice and beans. Ours absolutely demolished her plate of scrambled eggs and thick-cut (but not-so-crispy) bacon. I was meanwhile occupied with some deceptively light-textured eggs and chorizo, which had just a hint of spiciness, as well as a tang of vinegar from the sausage, and which were great folded up in the hot tortillas and with a drizzle of that red salsa. Each plate also had a salsa-topped bit of cool, crunchy shredded lettuce, with a dollop of very fresh, good guacamole.
My husband’s chilaquiles were a hearty jumble, eggs and soaked tortillas and hottish red sauce, all glued together with gooey cheese: no deceptive lightness there. I kept reaching across the table for just one more bite—but there was more than enough there. We left carrying two big takeout boxes, provided by our very sweet and thoughtful server; she was someone who clearly knew what it was like to eat in a restaurant with a small child, and she seemed genuinely warm and friendly. Indeed, it’s a pretty family friendly place; there was hardly anyone there at breakfast, but family members somehow related to the restaurant came in to eat, with a baby, and the staff all gathered around to see him. If you’re in the neighborhood, and you like Americanized Mexican food, 524 is a pleasant stop, especially at breakfast—even if the food isn’t what I was originally hoping for.