The B list

Pachanga Restaurant

825 Sutter St.
Folsom, CA 95630

(916) 351-5888

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out just what separates top-tier restaurants, the places I want to return to, from lesser lights. The distinction is now clear in my mind. At the former, there’s a seriousness about the food. A-list restaurants display a dedication to showing off excellent ingredients or combining them in ways that are fresh and interesting but not silly. Then there are the B-list places. They look similar to the A-list spots and are often just as pricey and popular, but you can tell immediately that something is off.

As soon as I read through the choices at Pachanga, a new-American place in Folsom, I got that bad feeling. The dishes listed were inoffensive enough, if slightly predictable: ribs, seared tuna, pasta primavera and so on. All of a sudden, it hit me. It was the vegetable medley. Just about every dish on the menu came with a vegetable medley and one of two other sides: asparagus risotto or garlic mashed potatoes.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, and indeed, offering risotto (a tricky dish) as a side is not something a kitchen should do lightly. But the fact that there was so little attempt to match up main courses with particular sides was worrying. I’ve never met a vegetable medley that especially enhanced the dish it came with. Its near ubiquity, to me, bespeaks a lack of either imagination or adequate kitchen staff.

Nevertheless, I liked the look of other things at Pachanga. The main dining room is inviting, with creamy yellow and rust-colored paint. Unfortunately, even though there were open tables in the main room, we were seated in a sort of annex. It seemed like a wide hallway on the way to the bathrooms and afforded me a clear view of the water and service station and little else.

The section of the menu featuring appetizers and small plates had some interesting choices, and the soup-and-salad section (confusingly printed on the back of the menu, where it’s easy to overlook it) did as well. We were drawn to both the crab cakes and the “penne and cheese,” so we tried one of each. The latter is available in small and large sizes, a nice touch, and the menu called it “irresistible.” I also threw caution to the winds and ordered a cup of corn-and-tortilla soup.

Each of the starters had their points, but they also had some unfortunate aspects—largely to do with texture, which also proved a problem in the main courses. The crab cakes were a little shy on crab flavor, and the accompanying caramelized onions were not cooked enough. Rather than being meltingly sweet and deeply browned, the onions were pale, with a faint crunch. The penne and cheese, made with manchego and other cheeses, had an excellent flavor, but it was simultaneously soupy with cream sauce and stringy with poorly amalgamated cheese. My spicy little cup of soup tasted good but was too thick and creamy. The base was barely distinguishable from the chunks of avocado floating in it, and the out-of-season corn was soft rather than snappy. The crisp tortilla strips on top offered textural contrast, but not quite enough to save it.

Still, I ended up happier with the starters than with my main course—an expensive dish of seared scallops with asparagus risotto, asparagus tips and bits of pancetta. I ordered it in part for its lack of the dreaded vegetable medley, but I didn’t escape the asparagus-risotto side, unluckily. The risotto was stiff and thick rather than creamy. Worse, each of the individual grains of rice still had a little starchy crunch in the center. Risotto, as I mentioned, is tricky. It has to be cooked just enough so that the rice is tender all the way through, yet not so much that it’s soft. This version was about five minutes of stirring and cooking, and a few good ladles of broth, short of being properly cooked.

The scallops, arranged around the enormous mound of risotto, had the same problem of being undercooked, with opposite results. Most of them were mushy and raw on the inside and slightly pale on the outside, rather than being seared to an appealing brown. I suppose this is better than them being tough and overcooked (a more common problem), but it’s still not what you want to see when you’re paying $24 for eight not-that-big scallops.

My husband’s chicken Marsala had more going for it, though the chicken breast could have been more tender, and I found the sauce a bit sweet. The vegetable medley was, well, a vegetable medley. The garlic mashed potatoes, though, were very good.

A thick slice of triple chocolate cake ended the meal on a positive note. The desserts (except for sorbet and gelato) are made in-house, and this one was thick, fudgy and yummy. I was hardly going to quibble over the fact that I couldn’t quite discern three layers in the cake; the two I could see clearly were more than good enough. Still, it was nowhere near enough to lift Pachanga off my restaurant B list. Doing that would take a lot more attention to detail in the kitchen, both in menu planning and in the cooking.