Take me out to Marty’s

I had heard a vicious rumor that Joe Marty’s El Chico bar and pizza house had become a yuppie haven and so, muttering darkly to myself, I sped out to investigate.

Certainly the corner of 15th Street and Broadway has changed radically from the days when Denny’s made you pay before you got your food, if it was after midnight. Now, a trendy couple can grab a smoothie from Jamba Juice, catch an art house flick at Tower Theatre, eat global cuisine at the neighboring cafe, and finish the evening off with a grande caramel frappucino at Starbucks without ever getting in their car.

But Joe Marty’s is an outpost and remains largely untouched by time and unravaged by upscale pretensions. The giant neon baseball that advertises the joint is a classic featured on the kind of Web sites that are devoted to American kitsch.

In the bar, almost every square inch of wall space is covered with autographed pictures of baseball greats and not-so-greats. There are quite a few of Joe DiMaggio, who played with Marty on the San Francisco Seals. The 1936 Pacific Coast League batting champion with San Francisco, Marty also played in the big leagues for the Cubs and Phillies, then played for the Sacramento Solons.

Marty opened his namesake bar-cum-pizza joint in 1938 and it was the place to see and be seen through the ’50s and ’60s. It was then owned for many years by Marty’s long-time friend Noboru Keiunji, who can still be found most nights at the bar. Joe Marty’s is currently owned by Kevin Flynn, who bought the place almost two years ago.

While the bar is clubby and intimate with about a dozen stools, the restaurant seems like an afterthought. The décor can best be described as spartan, with framed tributes to legendary Sacramento sportswriter Joe Conlin, and a cement floor. A pool table occupies almost a third of the restaurant space, and dartboards ring the walls. The tables are covered with nondescript brown vinyl tablecloths.

While one soul patch on a 20-something was spotted, the clientele was a mixed bag of races and ages, with one foursome obviously wrapping up a fun afternoon of baseball.

You go to Joe Marty’s for truly old-fashioned pizza. The kind with a dense, crispy crust and traditional toppings, baked in an oven until it gets a few sooty burnt marks on the bottom. We ordered a small combination pizza ($12.25), which literally overflowed with pepperoni, ground beef, sausage, green peppers, olives and onions. No fancy ingredients here; Joe Marty’s doesn’t get any more exotic than pineapple and linguica. The sauce was a little sweet for my taste, but not overwhelmingly so. The crust was toothsome with a little crunch to it, sturdy enough to hold up under all that meat. I thought the combination was a little heavy on the ground beef and a little light on the sausage, but that’s a minor quibble.

We also ordered another specialty of the house—“broasted” chicken—that comes with huge “broasted” potato wedges ($5.95 for two pieces, $7.95 for four pieces). The waiter warned me that the chicken would take 15 minutes, and he was right on the nose. But the chicken was worth the wait, with a thin, crisp crust and tender, juicy meat. The broasted potatoes were tender throughout, a feat considering their heft.

My husband ordered an El Chico burger ($6.95), which came with bacon and Swiss cheese and a choice of french fries, broasted potatoes or potato salad. The burger was, to put it bluntly, a humongous chunk of beef. While it was tasty, it was also burnt on the bottom.

Our waiter seemed unprepared to handle more than a few tables and was sent into a tailspin by a four-top who couldn’t make up their minds on their order. When I asked what was on the El Chico pizza, he had to go back and ask the kitchen. But his friendliness won him bonus points when he led my 7-year-old son to the restroom through the bar and then told me earnestly not to worry, they wouldn’t feed him any liquor because he didn’t have an ID.

While I’ve never had breakfast at Joe Marty’s, you gotta like a place that advertises Spam as its breakfast special. Otherwise, their breakfast menu tends to the tried and true, with compose-your-own omelettes, pancakes and eggs.

The lunch and dinner menu includes a variety of sandwiches if you’re not in the mood for pizza or broasted chicken. Joe Marty’s serves steak or rib dinners, which come with soup or salad and broasted potatoes. It also features on its menu something called an El Chico Pizza Burrito, sort of a giant calzone stuffed with vegetables, meat or a combination of the two.

Devotees of the landmark restaurant shouldn’t fear a boho invasion. Joe Marty’s remains a bastion of honest, old-fashioned food. It’s the perfect place to go after a River Cats game to prolong the glow brought on by time spent watching the national pastime. It’s also a chance to go back to a time when hamburgers were not synonymous with McDonald’s and baseball players weren’t on steroids.