Old-school foodies

Maryellen and Keith Burns

photo by lovelle harris

Sacramento is fast becoming a scene for dining enthusiasts, with what seems like a constant influx of ambitious chefs and an intense focus on the region's own harvest. But even with a whole lot of self-proclaimed foodies and elite Yelpers running around, it's hard to imagine anyone who knows the city's culinary history better than siblings Maryellen and Keith Burns, co-authors of Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes (The History Press, $19.99). Raised in the New Helvetia housing projects off Broadway and later, in the Tallac Village neighborhood, the siblings experienced the culinary bounty of the city's ethnically diverse communities at a young age, instilling in them a lifelong fascination with food and its connection to culture. Now in its fourth printing, the book has been a surprise hit among locals curious about Sacramento's rich restaurant history. The pair sat down with SN&R recently to talk oysters, Jimboy's Tacos, their next project and misbehaving politicians dining out.

You grew up in the 1950s. What role did food have in your childhood?

Keith Burns: When our father was growing up, he was basically on his own [from the age of 8]. He ate whatever was handed to him. When he had kids of his own, he made sure we ate well. … [He] had a job where he wasn't in the office, so he was basically the cook. And we went to restaurants almost every week—

Maryellen Burns: Which, I have to say, was very unusual when we were growing up. Restaurants were for special occasions.

Why do you think food stuck with you the rest of your life?

Keith: Food is one of those universal events. Everyone eats. They may not drink water—the French drink wine—but everybody eats. Sacramento is interesting in that when people came here, they brought their food with them. … If you look down on anybody, or don't like a [group of people], you miss a hell of a lot of good food.

Maryellen: We grew up in a very multiethnic neighborhood. And because of the way my father grew up, he wanted to make sure we would eat anything. We ate chocolate-covered ants! … We actually started cooking at a very young age, because we thought our parents were bad cooks.

What lost restaurant do you miss most?

Keith: The Market Club. In my memory, it was the perfect weird restaurant. Run by a weird little Japanese gentleman [and built in 1933].

Maryellen: One day, there was fried chicken that was just the best. Tuesdays, [it served] short ribs that fell off the bone. Thursdays, corned beef and cabbage. Sundays, you could get fried rice with egg on top.

Keith: It was such a mixture of people. … I like eating in an atmosphere. It's not just the food. I'd rather eat in a weird atmosphere, and if the food is not that great, OK, that's fine. If you can find cheap food, that's great! [But] now, chefs have become the stars of the show. Some of the restaurants are forcing the unusualness.

Sacramento once had quite the oyster legacy. They’re popular still, but more expensive. What’s the future of the oyster here?

Maryellen: It's really expensive. You almost can't afford it. … The taste has also changed. They used to be cooked, stewed, put in pies. Now, they're pretty much only served on the half shell. It has gone from being poor-people's food to being a delicacy and an elite-person's food. [I think] market demand is keeping the price high.

Your book details a Sacramento dish called the Hangtown Fry, a dish of cooked oysters, eggs and bacon. Any chance it makes a comeback?

Maryellen: (Laughs.) No! It's a simple dish. But I think it's an acquired taste.

It’s mentioned that the tacos at Jimboy’s taste different than they used to. Can you bring yourself to eat modern-day Jimboy’s?

Keith: No. I tried it once. No.

Maryellen: (Laughs.) Yes. I still do! How anyone could pick Taco Bell over Jimboy's, I don't understand. But, having said that, there are so many incredible little taco spots now. The quality of Mexican food is so much higher now than what we [used to] get.

Next project?

Maryellen: We're working on a proposal for a book that is tentatively titled Coming of Age: Sacramento's Restaurant Renaissance that takes you from 1970 to the current restaurant scene. It'll allow us to talk about the chefs that have influenced the city and all the new tastes.

There’s mention of anecdotes about politicians and local celebrities patronizing certain restaurants that were too risqué for the book. Are they too risqué for an alternative-news weekly?

Maryellen: (Laughs.) I will just put it this way: A lot of restaurants closed because of drugs, and some are still open because of drugs.

Keith: We will not mention any names! But a few were kept going by men in high positions of business and government being entertained by young women in back rooms.

Maryellen: I don't think we have prostitution in restaurants now like we did back then.

Keith: But then, the argument is: Bills were passed! Stuff got done!