Suds and grub
Elkhorn Station Roadside Bar and Grill18398 Old River Rd.
West Sacramento, CA 95691
The quest for good riverside eats in Sacramento continues apace, and this week’s contender is Elkhorn Station Roadside Bar and Grill—a reopening of a famed old roadhouse, perhaps more bar than grill, but now with a fairly big menu of hearty fare, much of it calibrated to go well with a cold beer. OK, it’s not exactly on the river—you can’t see the water from where you sit or even from the parking lot—but it’s practically in the shadow of the big Interstate 5 bridge, and trust me, there are no other landmarks nearby. This place is technically in West Sacramento, but it feels a hundred miles out of town instead of about 10 miles.
That isolated feel can be kind of nice. I’m sure things perk up considerably on a hot weekend, but the night we were there, customers were a little thin on the ground; we saw a smattering of Harley dudes, some couples and the big house dog out front, patrolling the parking lot. (He was much friendlier than he at first looked, and after we left, we saw him inside strolling the bar and dining room.)
From the outside, the place looks like one of those little houses you see on country roads everywhere, except for the big sign with the elk head and antlers depicted with the lettering. Inside, the décor can best be described as eclectic: a broken-down old piano, an even older phone booth, various signs in the bar, random other artifacts and—we noticed at the end of our meal—some kind of stuffed feline (lynx, some of us thought; bobcat, other members of our party contended) that, truth be told, has seen better days.
We started off, as I think most everyone does here, with a round of beers. The draft list is shortish and not terribly adventurous, but a Shiner Hefeweizen made a refreshing choice. They also have a short and rather unusual wine list. No cruddy house red here, but rather affordable glasses of rosé and that kind of thing, with suggestions on the list for what to drink each with—a nice indication that there was a little more culinary ambition at work here than at your average country bar.
Still, it’s basically a drinking establishment, and what goes better with a cold drink than a fried appetizer? Nothing, apparently, based on the almost-all-fried starter menu. You got your onion ring (thick-cut but not too puffy), your fries (pretty average), your chicken strips, and the standout hot wings. The only nonfried app is “roadside rolls,” little sandwiches filled with Bledsoe pork and coleslaw, and they were out of them; we ordered the appetizer sampler platter and got extra wings on it instead of the rolls.
Now, I am not a big Buffalo wings fan, frankly; they are usually pretty ho-hum, but these were very nice—big, plump wings with crackling skin and nice juicy meat on the meaty parts, and a good, hot, vinegary sauce with plenty of spice to get you to drink the beer, but not so much as to overwhelm you. Plus, the Buffalo sauce puddled on the appetizer platter and got on a few of the onion rings, which makes a strikingly good combination.
After all that, I probably should have gotten a salad, but instead tried the barbecue pork sandwich: as the menu said, slow-roasted pulled pork with homemade bourbon barbecue sauce. On the side, with the sandwiches—which comprise most of the menu—you can get fries, slaw, potato salad or Portuguese beans, and the latter were very yummy. Savory and nothing like sweet baked beans, they were saucy and full of chunks of meat, with some peppery spicing. I liked them better than the sandwich, truth be told; I found the barbecue sauce too much of a flavor bomb, overwhelming the big shreds of pork with its sweet-sour-smoky tastes.
Two of my companions also ordered sandwiches, one a gooily cheesy, beefy Philly cheesesteak, which they make with rich prime rib, and the other the similar Elkhorn dip, with more of the good meat (and cheese as well), plus au jus for dipping. Aside from the sandwiches, entrees include fish and chips, various sizes of steaks and a chicken breast with brandy cream sauce. Every Wednesday night is “cioppino night,” and another friend ordered that: a huge bowl of thick red stew, swimming with fish and shellfish. Some of the fish had been cooked so long in there that it fell apart; it wasn’t a refined dish, but the herbed tomato sauce and the tender clams and mussels were enjoyable.
I guess they don’t make dessert, because our competent (if slightly offhand) server wordlessly brought the check as we were finishing up. That seemed about right here. Big portions and straightforward grub, prepared freshly and with care but few flourishes, are the order of the day here. As this area’s riverside eating goes, it’s a pretty good find.