Spicy rivalry


Celestin’s Gumbo boasts enough meat for two meals.

Celestin’s Gumbo boasts enough meat for two meals.

photo by rebecca huval

Good for: an intimate date or catchup session with a friend, but not for large groups
Notable dishes: gumbo—seven versions of it
Southern, East Sacramento


3610 McKinley Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 258-4060

<p<b>My parents are from Louisiana, so I was raised sippin’ on gumbo and smack-talking ‘Bama football (Alabama, to you non-Southerners). Against my programming, I have to concede that the Alabamian gumbo at the newly reopened Celestin’s in East Sacramento may be the best in town.

The sharp sting of jalapeños rides on oil that pools in the thick roux, flavored with scallops, sausage and a strong allium flavor from sauteed onions. The Celestin’s Gumbo earns its $21 price-tag with enough meaty ingredients to be parsed out over two meals: flaky rock cod, chicken and wild shrimp marinated by the stew, and Polska Kielbasa sausage that carries a satisfying blood-pepper taste, all supplemented by rice.

Gumbo also graces the menu at such nearby favorites as South and Sandra Dee’s, as well as a kick-ass bucket of okra-laced stew at Tory’s Place, but I found Celestin’s rendition to be the most full-bodied and complex.

The recipe was passed down through Phoebe and Patrick Celestin’s family, whose Alabamian and Haitian culinary heritage is present throughout their menu. The husband-and-wife co-owners reopened Celestin’s on March 13—their original Midtown joint opened at 25th and J streets in 1983, moved to 18th and K streets, then closed seven years ago.

The new dining room is much smaller—only about 30 seats—with a cozy, Caribbean-influenced interior. Glittery artworks glitz up the wooden walls, while carmine red chairs and teal booths accent the elbow-to-elbow tables. Larger parties might have to wait during busy hours, but there’s often a stool or two available at the bar, even during lunch.

The menu brings back the old classics—the gumbo, the shrimp creole, the fried plantains—while adding a few more ambitious dishes, such as a small plate of Chiquetaille ($11), a Haitian meal of salted cod in a spicy vinaigrette. It’s a razor-focused menu with just a smattering of sides and salads and only four entrees outside of the seven varieties of gumbo. The Celestins know what they do best.

The vegetarian gumbo ($13) is a recent addition, and a rare find in most Southern restaurants. Though the broth lacks the umami of the meat version (duh), it’s thick as mud with a darkly peppery spice and wholesome seasoning from the many, many vegetables: jalapeños, zucchini, carrots, peas, cremini mushrooms and butternut squash that soaks up the garlicky stew.

Another Haitian dish resurfacing from the former menu is Griot ($14), which centerpieces crisp pork, marinated until dark brown, with a Caribbean jerk flavor that’s spicy and sour at once. I ordered it in part because this dish comes with fried plantains that you dip in bright ti-malice sauce (a vinaigrette of fresh lime, shallots, thyme and habaneros). These two made for a tangy, invigorating combo.

All entrees come with a small salad of diced heirloom tomato, avocado and red onion spiked with a delightful lime-paprika vinaigrette, and the one item that left me unsatisfied: overly dry rice with an underwhelming amount of beans.

But hold out for dessert. The housemade key lime pie ($7) is a brisk breeze of creamy citrus on a bed of crumbly graham cracker crust.