Not your childhood cafeteria

Cafeteria 15L

1116 15th St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

It’s a pity Cafeteria 15L isn’t one. The fervent hope is that the space at 15th and L streets, formerly known as Mason’s Restaurant, echoes with the clack of porcelain being plunked on plastic trays edging down a counter of stainless-steel tubing.

In the halcyon days of youth, Manning’s magical behind-the-glass manna was a mecca where even a wee lad could exercise culinary free will, with but few parental vetoes.

So discovering Cafeteria isn’t Manning’s reborn is, in modern parlance, quite the buzzkill. Cafeteria has its charms, however. There are more seats than Mason’s—a quirky collection of utilitarian ’60s molded plastic jobs with spindly wire legs, milking stools and what appear to be tractor seats. While some don’t look terribly comfortable, on every visit nearly all are occupied.

Cafeteria’s fare, created by the eponymous owner of Mason’s, Mason Wong, is haute comfort food, assuming, like “gourmet corn dog,” such a juxtaposition of words is possible. Apropos of that, the menu promises future blue plate specials. The accommodating hostess cites the macaroni-and-cheese appetizer as a personal favorite. Somewhat well-versed in this area (“The great mac ’n’ cheese caper”; SN&R Arts&Culture; March 19, 2009), no resistance is offered to her temptation. The white cheddar and Parmesan, dusted with bread crumbs, coats orecchiette, not elbow noodles. How does it compare with the gold standard of Ink Eats & Drinks? Favorably, but nowhere near triumphantly. The dish suffers no harm from several shakes of pepper. Waitress Nicole pitches French onion over the day’s tomato soup. Good call—a healthy onion ration and caraway seeds in the bread atop its surface. The incongruous, heavy-on-the-orange poke appetizer is a bit Spartan for $12, but the delayed fuse of its spice ever so nice.

Of the seven sandwiches—four remain on the evening menu, while the four lunch entrees expand to nine at night—several feature whole wheat, which is a vestige of childhood, unlike cafeterias, better consigned to the past. To Cafeteria’s credit, it is not some fiberocious, 17-different-grains hand-picked-by-Tyrolean-dwarfs nonsense. It’s straight-up, honey-sweet whole wheat that, admittedly, complements the egg salad and smoked trout sandwiches. As to the egg salad—more capers, gherkins and lemon-herb aioli, please—it’s chunky. The lack of creaminess causes egg avalanches to fall regularly from sandwich bottom. Otherwise, eggcellent. The lemony trout, a bit overpowered by avocado, is more bland than smoky. Neither sandwich suffers from a shortage of lettuce. The pleasant assortment of mixed greens that can be substituted for the stellar fries is a bit dry. More vinaigrette, thanks. Perhaps suggest the house barbecue sauce with the fries. Even ketchup junkies won’t look back. Also, unsure green goddess is the idle pairing for tart slabs of preserved tomatoes, but the skirt-steak salad has enough tender meat that the spinach and arugula are exhausted before it is. Perfect.

Dining at Cafeteria is elevated by swift and inspired service. (Emphasis added.) Open for six weeks, they’ve got team waitering knocked—unlike some other notable restaurants downtown. When a dish comes out, someone fetches it to the table. So on behalf of Mr. Wong and management: Thanks to those nameless food transporters, the hostesses and Brandy, Nicole and Cameron, the conscientious bartender who alerts that the day’s soup, creamy potato and leek, is vegetarian but not vegan and the somewhat spiced orange dipping sauce for the hard-to-taste-the-ground-beef-on-the-inside tater tots contains almonds. So if allergic to nuts … (“Son, a 19-year career writing about the Capitol precludes an allergic reaction to nuts” goes unsaid.)

Shakes and malts using Vic’s ice cream. Must more be said? And dig the inside—and delicious—joke of fizzy raspberry lemonade with straw-choking fruit chunks arriving in a Mason jar. Those crazy, kooky culinary cutups. What will they think up next? Have to go find out.