Real-life eats

Plates Café and Catering

14 Business Park Way
Sacramento, CA 95826

(916) 381-2233

Eat at Plates. Portions are prodigious enough to be dessert prophylactics. The service is bubbly and efficient. Its salads, lettuce and pasta are spot-on. More importantly, at Plates, a meal—or 50—is good for the soul. And it’s good for St. John’s Shelter and the formerly homeless women with children it serves. Like the menu says, Plates serves inspiration.

Open a skosh over two months, the breakfast-and-lunch-only eatery occupies the former mess hall at Depot Park on Fruitridge near Florin-Perkins Road, the business park created after the Army Depot on the site was shuttered in 1994. If it isn’t already, Depot Park ought to be placed somewhere high on the Best Base Closure Bounce-back list. Not to get mushy, but Depot Park’s landlord allows Plates to operate rent free. St. John’s picks up the utilities.

Given the ruthless functionality of military architecture, it’s clear the long rectangular space is designed to accommodate long, rectangular tables, which makes Plates seem a bit sparse with its series of tables for four and two persons spaced throughout. The kitchen, with its long, serve-yourself stainless-steel counter, screams cafeteria-style eating. The space is brightened by light colors highlighted with original artwork from shelter residents, some of whose success stories appear on the walls and the back of the card with the order number.

Small plastic plates with messages of support and thanks line the entryway. “Nice place to spend an 83rd birthday,” reads one. “Loved the cuisine,” writes Bobbi Lungren, wife of the congressman. “Yum, yum 4 the tum,” writes one erstwhile poet.

The intent at Plates is to give graduates of St. John’s 90-day program a chance to hone real-life job skills. The 90-day program includes mental-health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, parenting, employment training, and help with budgeting.

But graduates often face the same challenges persons coming off welfare do: lack of affordable child care, lack of transportation and lack of employable skills. So Plates is a threefer. There’s free Depot Park child care. Transportation to and from Plates is one of two 20-seat shuttles donated to the shelter last year by Thunder Valley Casino. And whether out front or in back, the women, over six months to one year, are learning job skills in an industry always in need of gifted people.

Polite and thorough, the servers bring orders to the table after diners place them and pay at the register in front of the kitchen. The lunch menu is varied, affordable and, in spots, ambitious. The orecchiette pasta and the chicken paillard, for example.

The hostess, who describes herself as a “big girl,” recommends Philly cheese steak, this day’s sandwich special. The soup special is gazpacho, which, as a regular creation in the Chez Lucas Test Kitchen, always gets a nod. Pal Donna Kaylor, normally a sushi devotee, is here as reward for sending the e-mail putting Plates on the radar screen. She goes for the croque monsieur, a ham and Swiss on crisply grilled sourdough tarted up with caramelized onions, seriously sweet tomatoes and whole-grain mustard mayonnaise. She pronounces it “awesome,” although the juiciness of the tomatoes causes it to become swiftly structurally unsound. The accompanying mixed greens are fresh, doused with the perfect amount of housemade dressing.

While not pho-sized, the bowl of gazpacho is bodacious—nearly a lunch when combined with the is-there-seconds-please cold farfalle salad with Kalamatas, peperoncini slivers, cherry tomatoes and patina of feta tossed with a well-balanced homemade Italian dressing. Killer. The chunky gazpacho—always better than puréed—is a bit bland, but there’s Tabasco and black pepper at the ready. The Philly cheese is large with a sweet tomatoey finish that’s not part of the original recipe, but not off-putting, either.

Our server is quick to keep Donna’s water glass full and ask if a refill for me is needed. My lemonade returns as iced tea. So what. Inspiration tastes better with iced tea, anyway.