Let's face it: For all the cool suitcase sculptures, the food offerings at Sacramento International Airport haven't been too far removed from the typical mall food court.
That's all changing today.
It's the grand opening of Central Terminal B, and among the features of its $1 billion price tag are food vendors that emphasize local establishments.
That means you can hold the Whopper and instead munch Sacramento style from the following vendors: Burgers and Brew, Esquire Grill, Cafeteria 15L, Jack's Urban Eats and Dos Coyotes. Local pick-me-ups are also available from Old Soul Co. cafe and bakery and Java City Ecogrounds.
So, how does this new airport food stack up compared with the versions from their original locations, in terms of flavor and price?
We had a chance to sample some of these new eats on Sunday's Community Day open house at Terminal B, though Esquire Grill and Burgers and Brew were the only local operations running.
Before we do a little side-by-side comparison, let's take a quick look at the differences these restaurateurs face between Terminal B and their original locations.
While the menus and staff training will be the responsibility of the business owners, the eateries are being managed by HMSHost, a subsidiary of the Italy-based Autogrill, which specializes in airport concessions. Think of it as the restaurant equivalent of raising a baby only to pass it along to another parent.
Kurt Spataro, executive chef of Sacramento's Paragary Restaurant Group, has endured two weeks of 12-hour days to get Terminal B's Esquire Grill up to speed and anticipates another two weeks of marathon days to ensure the airport restaurant runs like it should.
"Some of the menu items are exact duplicates and some were created for this place," said Spataro, taking a quick break from overseeing Esquire Grill's kitchen at Community Day. "It's been interesting to work with HMSHost, and they've been great. When we were picked (to open at Terminal B), we said 'We'll do it, but we have to do what we do.' They've done everything we've asked."
The talent pool's also a little different than what some of the restaurateurs and chefs are accustomed to. Food-service workers from Terminal A were given first shot to work at the new terminal.
"We were given a staff to train," said Spataro. "We got good people, but many of them are from Terminal A, with concepts like Burger King and Sbarro. They don't do the same things we do."
So, let's pull up a napkin and see how the food compares. Note that Esquire Grill and Burgers and Brew were operating with limited menus Sunday, so this guide is a little burger-heavier than what you'll normally find. Also keep in mind that apart from the cafes, you need to be a passenger and get through security to try these eateries for yourself:
Burgers and Brew
Midtown price: $6.75 for a half-pound burger (includes a side of fries)
Terminal B price: $7.39 for third-pound burger (includes a side of fries)
Comparison: Given the toppings (lettuce, onion, pickle, among others), bun and overall appearance, these burgers were basically one in the same until you take a bite. You can definitely sense the size difference between a third- and half-pound burger when chomping down. By the way, the buns on both these burgers come from Village Bakery in Davis, a formidable yet fluffy bun that's among the area's best.
Spicy guacamole cheeseburger
Midtown price: $8.95 for a half-pound burger and a side dish
Terminal B price: $9.29 for third-pound burger and a side dish
Comparison: Once again, these burgers were basically identical save for the patty size. This burger comes with a creamy and spicy kick with the guacamole, and in both cases made our taste buds happy.
Other notes: While the midtown Burgers and Brew location has more than 100 beers by the bottle and on tap, the Terminal B kiosk has only 14 or so. But it's a much better lineup than the usual airport sports bar, with such offerings as Allagash Curieux, Kwak and Duvel.
Overall: While these burgers are more expensive than those from a fast-food kiosk, they're a better deal at Terminal B than those found at Esquire Grill and Cafeteria 15L (which will feature six burgers in the $13 to $15 range). Both of these burgers were solid, and the idea of sipping on a Brother Thelonious Abbey Ale before catching a flight sounds like a tasty way to fly the friendly skies.
Seared ahi tuna salad
Downtown price: $15.75
Terminal B price: $15.75
Comparison: The outward appearance of these salads was basically identical, with a drizzle of spicy peanut sauce and candied peanuts. The downtown location, however, included additional cucumber slices. Flavor-wise, the dishes were very close, with a slight edge going to the downtown Esquire, which had a bit more snap with the dressing and ahi tuna that tasted slightly fresher.
Barbecued pork sandwich
Downtown price: N/A
Terminal B price: $11.25 (includes fries)
Comparison: This sandwich isn't on the menu at downtown's Esquire. However, the sandwich itself was certainly filling, with its slow-cooked pork slathered in a tangy, tomato-based barbecue sauce.
Creekstone natural Angus beef burger
Downtown price: $12.50
Terminal B price: $12.50
Comparison: In both cases, this is a very beefy burger, and at the airport the bottom bun had trouble holding up to its juiciness. Once again, the downtown location gets a slight edge for fries that tasted fresher and crisper than those at Terminal B. The side of pickles served downtown was also less intense in vinegar taste. But in the end, there was little difference between these hearty burgers.
Overall: The architects did a fine job in replicating the dimly lit feel of downtown's Esquire Grill with its wood furnishings and cozy booths. Chef Spataro has also done well in replicating the restaurant's items, and for those looking for a meal away from a kiosk or sports bar, this is a fine choice. Also note that prices are equal between Esquire Grill's Terminal B and the downtown locations.