Back in the day, before Taco Bell and gourmet South American restaurants such as Centro redefined the outer limits of Mexican food, there were places like El Novillero, large, boisterous family-style restaurants where hearty chow featuring the four major food groups—meat, beans, cheese and rice—was served on platters the size of sombreros.
Those days are gone, but you can revisit them by entering the time portal at 4216 Franklin Blvd., where El Novillero sits like a tile-and-stucco monument to California’s missionary past. Call it the unofficial American embassy of Franklin Boulevard. It’s a place where those who don’t know the language can ease their way into Sacramento’s vital Latino business district—where a host of culinary treasures await those who are willing to search the small shops and stalls that line the street.
El Novillero may be old school, but it remains as popular as ever. The parking lot was full on a Saturday night, and the line ran out the door. This was no ordinary line. We followed the throng of people through the front door, down several long passageways decorated with bullfighting posters and around several corners before arriving at the cashier’s station. The place is cavernous. There must have been 100 people waiting, but our party of two without a reservation was seated within 10 minutes.
The interior looks exactly like the set for the Mexican ranch house in A Fistful of Dollars. We were seated in an outdoor patio, except it’s not outdoors. It just looks like it is, especially at night. I kept expecting Clint Eastwood to bust out of the wine cellar at any moment. A matador leaned over the rail of an upstairs balcony. Poinsettias and Christmas wreaths added to the outdoor feel. A waiter quickly deposited a bowl of freshly made chips and salsa at our table.
We split an exceedingly large dinner salad that I felt was worth the price based on size alone, although we did encounter a few pieces of wilted lettuce. Suffice it to say, the emphasis was on quality, not quantity, and if you like vegetables with your dinner, this is the best way to get them at El Novillero, since most of the offerings don’t feature a lot of greenery. For entrées, we went with the three-way combination plate featuring chiles rellenos, carnitas tacos and chicken sopes, along with the chicana de puerco dinner, which loosely translated turned out to be pork stew.
We knew we were in trouble as soon as the aforementioned sombrero-sized platters arrived. No one in their right mind can eat that much food in one sitting. It’s good, solid food, no question there. The carnitas tacos were the highlight of my dish; El Novillero is well known for its carnitas, and the two doubled-up soft tortillas I was served were stuffed with so much tender, stringy roasted pork that hoisting them by hand was impossible. Better to cut off a bite and soak it in the refried beans first. The abundant chunks of pork in the stew turned out to be every bit as tender as the carnitas.
The major bummer of the evening: No dessert. A nice side of flan would have finished us off nicely.
Not that we weren’t finished off as it was. The sheer volume of the food was daunting, and we were embarrassed that we couldn’t make a bigger dent in it.
It wasn’t until we saw other people leaving with multiple to-go containers that we realized we were in the clear. We filled up three cartons with our leftovers, and the next day it turned out to be enough to feed a family of four.
Let’s see: Dinner for six for the price of two.
That’s the kind of value that never goes out of style.
That’s why old school still has its place.