First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juno's Kitchen & Delicatessen
3675 J St., Sacramento
People who are good at what they do have several traits in common. Topping the list is the desire to learn more and reach higher.
Think of the pro golfers who hire swing coaches and sports psychologists, top- dollar lawyers who over- prepare for every hearing and deposition or, in this case, chefs who never stop thinking about the food they make and how they can improve upon it.
Veteran chef Mark Helms is one of those guys, and if you told him to cook you a "pretty good" burger or a "decent" steak sandwich, he'd rather not even fire up the gas burners. That's why Helms, as low-key and humble as he may seem, is one of the best chefs in town.
His quest for perfection may make for more than a few sleepless nights and plenty of long hours. But it's also part of what makes Juno's Kitchen & Delicatessen so good so soon. Helms started the business after selling his much-admired Ravenous Cafe in the Pocket area so he could work closer to the house he and his wife share with their dog, Juno, a bull terrier/pitbull mix whose quirky talents, claims the chef, include swimming under water.
Open less than a month, Juno's already is serving incredible food in a casual atmosphere. There are salads, a changing selection of soups and 10 different sandwiches all for less than $10, including a Haloumi cheese on grilled bread that was warm, crunchy and gooey the way it ought to be, with flavors sweetened just a tad by adding balsamic vinegar to the traditional lemon juice.
Also on the menu are a pasta dish and risotto. But wait, the risotto has just been changed, after Helms got to thinking and thinking some more that maybe risotto isn't the greatest dish for takeout. Risotto is all about flavor and that perfect texture.
"Somebody is going to put that in the microwave and then blame me," he said during a recent chat on the phone.
Now he's doing Israeli couscous instead, with mushrooms, truffle oil, red pepper, lemon, garlic and olive oil. It was on the menu after our two recent visits.
Helms is baking his own sourdough bread, which underscores his obsessive personality. It is time- consuming and, to get it just right, you must have all the elements dialed in just so. For most of the sandwiches, he buys his baguettes and other bread styles from Acme, the renowned bakery in the Bay Area.
Like a lot of chefs, Helms also is caught up with his tools. His Hobart mixer, for instance, is a tank of an appliance that dates to the 1940s. The chef bought it for $100 and, when I jokingly offered him $150 on the spot, Helms replied, "That will be buried with me."
This little eatery focuses as much on takeout as sit-down meals. The bottom line is top-notch ingredients with a focus on sustainable and, whenever possible, local ingredients.
There are a few tables inside and, with any luck and absent any bureaucratic stumbles, there will be a couple more out front. The inside is cozy but not cramped. You order at the counter. You can catch a glimpse of Helms in the small kitchen. While we waited, Sinatra was singing.
The best is yet to come for this joint, but it's not too soon to wonder whether Juno's already is serving the best burger in the city. It's made with grass-fed Wagyu beef imported from New Zealand. I recently wrote on The Bee blog "Appetizers" about taste- testing this beef.
Says Helms: "It's better than anything I've ever had."
That explains why he is using a product that breaks his local-sourcing edict.
Our burger was cooked perfectly medium-rare. With beef of this standard, going beyond medium would defeat the purpose and dry it out. Add caramelized onions, manchego cheese, aioli, pickled cucumbers and a special bun from Acme, and we're looking at a trophy burger possibly without peer.
I say that knowing that one of the city's other great burgers is served just two blocks away at Formoli's Bistro, bigger and even better since it swapped digs with always-delightful Gönül's (now called Vanilla Bean Bistro). Trying to figure out whose burger is tops could make for an appealing pastime for the passionate and analytical foodie.
A tip for fellow dog-lovers: If you bring in a photo of your pooch, the folks at the eatery will put it on the wall next to that of a dog that swims underwater.
Downtown's Kitchen (inside the Round Corner Tavern)
2333 S St., Sacramento
Compared with Helms, Carlos Jose Lopez is a completely different cat. He's new to cooking, has about as much experience as a kitten in a tree, and came up with a menu so weird it just might work. He's appealing to meat-eaters and vegans alike and he's doing it in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet.
Lopez is the force behind the new food coming out of the popular dive bar at the corner of S and 23 streets called the Round Corner Tavern.
"We have a menu that's unlike any menu I don't want to say in the world, but in this nation there is no menu that has the cross-genre-ing that ours has," Lopez told me.
OK, so he made up a word. But he probably had to.
Lopez was just crazy enough to think it was a good idea to create a vegan destination that also serves plenty of meat, including an admirable tri-tip melt that comes with bacon, onion rings, cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce.
I was reluctant to ask Lopez what team he was on, but he volunteered it.
"I'm a carnivore through and through," he said. "We do vegan. We do carnivore. Our fryers and pots are separate, so nothing is cross-contaminated."
The "vegan bacon Boca burger" already is a big hit, thanks to a nice balance of seasonings and a beefy, toothsome texture without the moo-factor. The "bacon" is some kind of soy product, but it's tasty. On the carnivore side, the beef burger and the turkey burger both were decent, but the french fries thinly sliced wedges were outstanding, a solid bet whether you prefer eating plants or animals.
Downtown's Kitchen, which has been open nine months, has solid food, a seriously weird menu and great hours for those on the prowl (11 a.m. to 1:15 a.m. every day).
Lopez says he's working 15 hours a day to make this thing work. Vegan options are expanding in town, but they're still limited. If you want to try something different and support the folks behind it, stop by the Round Corner. These days, you don't have to shoot pool, look mean or even eat meat to like this place.