Sacramento, CA 95814
El Rey, one of the first places to open near the new Golden 1 Center, seems to be aiming for a clientele for whom conversation and food are secondary to drinks and atmosphere.
The large, open space in the historic Ochsner Building couldn’t be better situated to attract crowds before and after arena events. Co-owner Kenny Thomas, a former Kings player, partnered with Trevor Shults and Bob Simpson, both veterans of the local bar scene, to anchor the still-evolving 700 block of K Street. Next door, Shults also opened Malt & Mash, a 21-and-over bar with limited food. For now, El Rey stands as the closest potential dinner spot outside of arena vendors.
Dark wood juxtaposed with turquoise accents give the impressive space a very polished, high-end look. Most of the seating amounts to bar tables and high banquettes, with every spot in view of one of the 13 televisions. Two large bars make drink service quick—even during busy periods. Unfortunately, the food service can sometimes lag. On our first visit, during an early Monday lunch, the servers got so backed up that tables started taking their food to-go as soon as it arrived.
It’s notable that chef Bryce Palmer contracted with local tortilla maker La Esperanza. The fresh flour tortillas become outstanding thick and crunchy chips, while the restaurant gets custom-sized corn tortillas for its tacos. Order chips with a choice of three salsas ($7) for an easy bar snack or starter.
The menu focuses on tacos, with 10 choices of fillings. Each arrives loaded with numerous toppings. Our favorite was the rojo mole beef ($4.50), with tender brown sugar–braised meat under red cabbage, cotija cheese and cilantro crème. The garnishes tame the strong mole while adding welcome texture.
The others we tried just fell flat. Pork chile verde ($4) turned out bland and soft. The Meatless Marvel—no price break at $4—jumbled together underseasoned beans and sweet potato with roasted peppers. Duck carnitas ($4.75) also underwhelmed.
While they all come with excellent pickled vegetables, most of the tacos could use some spicing up. Go on a Tuesday, when you can get some for $2 and splurge on salsa on the side.
The real standout turned out to be the smoked carnitas nachos ($12). A mountain of sturdy chips arrives on a baking sheet piled with meltingly tender meat, black beans and four kinds of cheese. Pickled pineapple salsa and red onions cut through the richness, making these easy to inhale.
Another solid dish is the pork belly pozole ($13). Thicker than you find at most taquerias, it’s essentially a stew of spicy, tangled shreds of pork. Stir in the garnishes of fresh hominy, sliced radish, cilantro and onion for a hearty, sinus-clearing reward.
With only a few destination-worthy menu items, El Rey is a bar, first and foremost.
With that in mind, definitely order margaritas. The house version ($7) delivers a good deal with El Jimador Blanco tequila nicely complemented with lime juice and Cointreau. It isn’t too sweet and the tequila stands out. We also liked the tart Border Town ($9), with bourbon, Campari, agave and grapefruit juice. The beer list is expansive, including at least four locals on tap and more than 20 others in cans or bottles.
If you’re looking for a party atmosphere near the arena, El Rey is your place. It’s big and loud and has some good bar food—but you won’t get away without spending quite a bit. Let’s hope there’s still opportunity for smaller, quieter concepts near the arena as well.