Old becomes new
Saddle Rock1801 L St #50
Sacramento, CA 95811
With the sheer number of restaurants opening recently, we have a seeming glut of farm-to-fork spots and fancy cocktail lounges in Sacramento. So, what stands out?
Two restaurants that have emerged from the pack are Mother and Empress Tavern—both formerly headed by chef Matt Masera, who became a last-minute sub for Saddle Rock’s originally billed executive chef Kevin O’Connor.
Now, Masera brings a background in pastry, lifelong interest in hunting and keen eye for detail to the three-month-old Midtown restaurant. He skillfully reworks classic dishes once common to gold rush-era dining spots, like the original Saddle Rock, circa 1849.
That’s not to belittle the modern touches sprinkling the menu. One of the most impressive dishes we tried was the Chicken “Skin” a Biscuit ($6), some of the flakiest I’ve had and full of crispy, salty hits from chicken skin. Drops of pine syrup and rafts of crunchy skin crowning the biscuits make them as unique as they are delicious.
The Saddle Rock burger ($18) appears restrained, with just a topping of shredded lettuce and house sauce, but the kitchen incorporates brie, cheddar and bacon into the beef patty. We expected more flavor, despite the welcome smokiness. With thin fries somewhat overseasoned with cumin and salt, it didn’t seem worth the cost.
Much better is the gum san chop suey ($16), a dish so vintage it’s rarely seen anymore. It’s usually a gummy stew of tired produce, but in Masera’s reimagining, it becomes a vibrant mix of seasonal vegetables stir-fried with a soy-based sauce, served atop soba noodles.
Another curious but successful item is the daily selection of hot cakes ($9). These are, indeed, pancakes, but inventively flavored and offered in savory and sweet variations. One night, the sweet version included chopped, sweetened pecans, thinly sliced pears and shards of fried mint over the buttermilk cakes. The pears got a bit overwhelmed by the big nut flavors, but overall, we loved the idea of pancakes for dinner.
Anticipating great things from dessert, we tried the bay chocolate ($9), a deconstructed devil’s food cake that arrived as an unattractive pile. Still, each of the elements tasted wonderful: tender chocolatey cake layered with unctuous vanilla cremeaux, sprinkled with cocoa nibs and coarse salt. If that doesn’t appeal, there’s always the legendary browned butter cookie ($5), a holdover from Masera’s Mother days.
Brunch at Saddle Rock isn’t heavily promoted, so it wasn’t surprising that we were the only diners aside from a bridal party one day. The best item we tried was the French toast sticks ($8), thick rectangles of airy, fried bread served with housemade cider syrup and cooked apples.
The pancakes ($5 for a short stack), so good at dinner, let us down a bit. With additional fried chicken ($6) though, you get three pieces of Korean-style sticky, craggy scrumptiousness.
The space’s layout has always been challenging, with a lounge area, tall bar tables and a small upstairs dining room. Saddle Rock added a front patio, though, and utilizes the back patio, unlike the former Capital Dime. The interior manages to feel very modern urban, but with old-fashioned touches of rough wood and distinctive artwork.
Similarly, the old-new balance shows in the ambitious cocktail menu, with several retro Ramos gin fizzes and the Dirty Means ($9), a potion of bourbon, leather, chocolate, chili and peanut oil.
Masera’s food is clever and challenging, and mostly quite good. It begs for multiple visits to try everything he dreams up. Just be prepared for a somewhat loud experience and close quarters—probably much like the original Saddle Rock.