The low-key lunch

Fran’s Cafe

1616 Del Paso Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95815

(916) 920-0744

The area around Del Paso and Arden seems permanently “up-and-coming.” It boasts Enotria and the Supper Club for dining, plenty of galleries and some shopping. But it also has a lot of shabby storefronts, weird businesses and closed-down restaurants, not to mention a lack of visible residential life.

Whether the area needs more locals is another question. When I went to Fran’s Cafe, a sleek new joint (with an equally sleek, very personable and eponymous owner) in the same complex as the Supper Club, it seemed that the new restaurant could have benefited from a little more of a street scene. It was all but empty for lunch. The inviting garden tables stood unused and its glazed concrete floor and sage walls echoed. It’s too bad, really, because Fran and her employees make an appealing sandwich-and-salad combo. The food is tasty and thoughtfully prepared, though the kitchen is obviously limited.

The lunch menu offers cold and hot sandwiches—the latter pressed on a panini grill. I’ve noticed a plague of under-toasted and overstuffed panini at restaurants I’ve tried lately, but I’m happy to report that this was not the case at Fran’s. I ordered the “Italian Autostrada,” a multi-meat combo on a ciabatta roll with white cheddar, mortadella, coppa (a hot Italian sausage), dry salami, and prosciutto. I assume this is named for the fact that at any highway rest stop in Italy, you are likely to get one of the best sandwiches you’ve ever had (whereas here in the United States you can feast on a packet of stale Cheetos or a gas-station hot dog, which—ew). This sandwich was one I’d be glad to have on a road-trip break, or pretty much any time. It was hot all the way through, and the thin-sliced meats combined pleasingly without being heavy or greasy. The coppa was thicker, and consequently a little bit chewy, but it balanced the flavors of the cured meats with spark and spice. Other available panini include a simple white cheddar on ciabatta, portobello mushroom and pesto aioli, roast beef and provolone, or ham and gruyere.

My mother had a less Italian sandwich of curried chicken salad. (The filling is also available just as a plate of chicken salad.) It was mild and a pale lemon-yellow color, with a nice curry-spice flavor and a light touch with the dressing. If you’ve been to a bridal shower in the past 30 years, it would probably be familiar, but it was a fine and filling example of its kind, with apples and moist chunks of chicken bound by the dressing. The other cold sandwiches include meatloaf, roast turkey on ciabatta or in a wrap, roast beef on ciabatta or a BLT.

Both sandwiches came with side salads, though I requested an upgrade to the romaine-lettuce salad with red-wine vinaigrette, raisins, candied pecans and blue cheese. The dressing was pleasantly sharp, the raisins perhaps a little too copious, and the blue cheese rounded out the flavors. The lunch menu also includes a couple of soups and several main-dish salads. To drink, I got an iced tea (nice and strong). Cookies brought in from Cookie Connection were our only dessert option, and we couldn’t argue with a little post-lunch chocolate.

Lunch may be the strength of Fran’s Café, yet there were actually more patrons in evidence when we stopped by in the evening, when Fran’s offers a small-plates menu and a severely limited list of perhaps 10 wines. (There are also wine cocktails, which I didn’t try.) Despite the short list, there are appealing options like the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc—great for summer sipping and well-paired with the small plates we tried.

All of our small plates seemed to be finished on the panini press, striped with its telltale marks. I thought that was actually a clever response to a small kitchen and a small staff—and a heck of a lot better than microwaving the food. It worked splendidly for some very simple yet inventive and tasty cremini mushroom toasts: triangles of open-faced ciabatta with ultra-thin mushroom slices on top, pressed until the mushrooms were nicely toasted. Shaved Parmesan cheese over the top boosted the savoriness and added a hint of salty complexity, making it a great appetizer.

Chicken satay was a little less successful. The chunks of chicken were piping hot, but a little dry and tough—though the peanut sauce that came with them was sweet and spicy and very tasty. Prosciutto-wrapped prawns (again toasted on the press; you could see the marks) also yielded mixed results. I thought the prosciutto needed to be crispier to contrast with the sweet, tender shrimp meat, though the flavors went nicely together. The promised piquillo chili vinaigrette was in evidence on the plate, but understated in flavor. I might have liked more zing.

Despite its limited menu, Fran’s is nice for a low-key lunch or a glass of wine that doesn’t require battling Midtown wine-bar crowds. The menu notes that Fran’s does catering and boxed lunches. The cafe also has a program that sounds like a lot of fun: Friday dinner-and-a-movie nights that pair a prix-fixe dinner with a classic film (up soon, for instance, is Notorious). It’s just $25 per person (reservations included), and that’s the strength of Fran’s: fresh, satisfying fare for a good price. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, or looking for panini, check it out.