Lunch on fire

The Firehouse Restaurant

1112 Second St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 442-4772

In nearly 12 months of hugely entertaining and largely appetizing adventure, only the lunchtime maitre d’ at The Firehouse has used the word “homage” to describe a dish.

This after being informed that the Sacramento institution’s “Brown Derby” salad is not the same Cobb salad created by the legendary Los Angeles eatery. The Derby’s Cobb, invented in 1937 by the restaurant’s owner, Bob Cobb, features chicken, not the strips of rib-eye in the $16 Firehouse version, which are laid out in diagonal planks to form the body of an “abstract pineapple,” again in the words of the maitre’d.

Shortly after the Earth cooled back in 1960, The Firehouse opened. It’s been in operation since the days when Old Sacramento wasn’t exactly the savoriest part of town. The Firehouse has created a number of fond memories over the decades, most notably Mrs. Lucas and I meeting and then hoisting a few with Ray and Maggie Bradbury some 20 years ago. Those memories leaven—somewhat—the stark fact that the luncheon fare is uneven.

It isn’t exactly ideal when my pal Tracy, a legitimate food expert, and I agree that the green salads accompanying our entrees rock far harder than the entrees themselves. And for a joint where the guy pouring water puts a napkin behind the glass to avoid splashing diners, where Tabasco is brought in a small silver cream pitcher, where the butter is shaped like a rose and where words like “homage” and “abstract” are bandied, expectations are heightened. And, regrettably, not met.

Nor is the waiter terribly conversant about the contents of the dishes he serves. Tracy’s creamy $7 tomato bisque has a lemony lilt, which, in my abysmal ignorance, I attribute to cumin or roasted red peppers. She tenaciously clings to coriander as the culprit.

Lunch is served alfresco, in the courtyard, not indoors in rooms reminiscent of Ted Balestreri’s Sardine Factory on Cannery Row and Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Leafy trees with misters twined on their branches make summer afternoons bearable.

But even on the hottest days, the expectation is that a $15 dish called “roasted halibut tacos” will be warm. Maybe the fish tacos are supposed to be cold, but if so, better to know in advance.

And again, for something called “fire-roasted tomato salsa roja,” the expectation is that there is some serious heat involved. There isn’t, although the waiter cops to this beforehand, leading to the demitasse of Tabasco. The tacos are wrapped in paper, complicating consumption.

The bread, which Tracy eats without deflowering the rose-shaped butter, is “great.” But we’re unanimous in selecting the salad accompanying the entrees as the meal’s standout. Mixed greens, pine nuts, slices of pecorino in a fruity balsamic vinaigrette. There’s a slightly swankier $5 stand-alone version on the menu that includes melon. It’s the cheapest thing on the menu, actually.

Despite it not really being a Brown Derby Cobb salad, it is a nice homage, sharing with its namesake bacon, avocado, hard-boiled egg and tomato, but lacking the aforementioned chicken, watercress, chicory and chives of the original. Also, it would be better to follow Old Man Cobb’s recipe, which uses French dressing, because bleu cheese dressing on a salad with a healthy portion of bleu cheese leads swiftly to a bleu cheese OD.

My pal Sabrina digs into the large salmon BLT, which comes on a cousin to a kaiser roll and, oddly, tastes like a juicy burger of beef. The sandwich is eager to fall apart. Lifting it to take a bite inevitably cascades salmon bits back onto the plate. She gives a shrug that says it’s merely OK.

Perhaps dinner with its grilled raspberry quail, Moroccan game hen and steak Delmonico is more uniformly reliable? Don’t know. Checked out lunch first before dropping the big coin on dinner, which would likely cause coronaries to SN&R’s accounting team. Good news: The mixed-green salad is also on the evening menu—marked up to $7, however.