No stinking rose

Garlic Grill Cafe

8166 14th Avenue, Suite A
Sacramento, CA 95826

(916) 457-4795

We’ve all seen them: those drab food counters in even more drab business parks, full of faux-wood siding and people on their lunch breaks. Generally, they seem like they’re one step above the coffee-break truck that comes around tooting an unwontedly jaunty version of “La Cucaracha,” but not a very big step. Garlic Grill Café is just such a place, with one difference: They’re actually making some tasty fare, and they’re making it from scratch.

In appearance, Garlic Grill Café is not far removed from the standard counter, though the walls are a bright and cheery goldenrod. But the “wood” paneling is there, and the area, east of Power Inn Road in a stretch of Sacramento you might never even know was there, could not be more drab.

Much of the menu is equally standard deli fare: you’ve got your tuna sandwich, your turkey sandwich, your Philly-style cheesesteak made with mass-produced roast beef, your various burgers. But there’s a surprising section of the menu with Mexican items, such as steak or carnitas tacos and a chicken quesadilla with avocado relish. Moreover, some of the sandwiches, like the warm tri-tip sandwich, are made with meats prepared in house. There’s even a plate of spaghetti and meatballs with house-made meatballs. Not that house-made meatballs are especially remarkable, but you don’t necessarily expect to run across them at an average-looking deli.

The secret seems to be that the owners of Garlic Grill, Roberto and Maria Espinoza, have long experience in the restaurant business. Roberto has cooked at places in Sacramento as diverse as El Torito and Andiamo, and while this café is not crazily ambitious, there is a focus on fresh, cooked-from-scratch stuff. And that’s what to stick to, if you go. Fries (doubtless from a frozen bag, though dusted with fairly tame spices after cooking) were dull, but the tri-tip in my sandwich had a savory, garlicky marinade that flavored the meat through and through. It was enhanced by the fact that the sandwich was on fairly powerful garlic bread, though I should have asked for it without the mayonnaise, which was de trop with the garlic butter.

Clam chowder was less distinctive, full of canned clams and with the usual thick, creamy base. I wasn’t quite sure whether it was from-scratch or not; it seemed like it had more herb flavor than most, but the super-smooth, thick texture seemed a little canned to me.

My friend got the three-fer of tacos, asking for one carnitas and two steak. That turned out to be the right call. The carnitas were nice enough, porky and rich, but the steak had chewiness and mild chili spice with a great flavor. Each of the tacos came on a toasty soft corn tortilla and was topped with a big dollop of not-too-assertive yet fresh guacamole, and a sprinkling of shredded orange and white cheese. The refried beans and rice alongside were standard fare—pretty clearly from a can and a flavor packet, respectively—and they faded into insignificance next to the tasty and filling tacos. A little dipping bowl of roasted-tomato salsa accompanied the plate, with a nice toasty flavor and mild zinginess.

I returned one morning for breakfast, and once again the Mexican-themed items seemed to be the best. A chorizo burrito was huge and filling (I couldn’t quite eat half of it), stuffed with mild chorizo and eggs, glued together with cheese, and studded with some of the crunchy, well-cooked potatoes that also accompanied the omelet. It came along with some more of that good roasted-tomato salsa—not too hot for breakfast, but just enough to wake a person up.

I’m pretty sure the potatoes came out of a frozen packet, but they spent enough time on the griddle to get nice and crusty, so that was a plus. The omelet was stuffed so full that not all the cheese was melted and the ham in it was just so-so (squares of not-so-flavorful deli ham), but the eggs were golden and nicely cooked. We also had a side order of pancakes, which were thoroughly average: They tasted of mix and were small and on the slightly tough side rather than being fluffy.

Drinks are standard fountain drinks plus a full cooler of bottled options, and desserts are brownies and cookies. At the café, you order at a counter—the woman working the register on both our visits was on the sullen side, though the cook, who also seems to be the owner, was very friendly—and your order is brought out to you fairly quickly. They were doing a brisk business at lunchtime, though breakfast was quieter.

The Garlic Grill Café is not necessarily somewhere you’d go out of your way to get to—and it’s not near much of anything but the enormous family court complex. If, however, you find yourself in the neighborhood, or in severe need of a steak taco, you’ll find some lunch possibilities that are better than the restaurant’s setting might lead you to expect. Just pick carefully among the menu to find the things made there and you’ll be set.