We were on our way to El Papagayo in Carmichael, lunch pal Don Burns at the wheel. He's the public information coordinator for the Sacramento Public Library, and knows something about eating.
"Every Mexican restaurant I've been to has one or two dishes that I think are exceptional," he remarked, "but there's no single place I know of where every item on the menu is great."
I get it, but every diner could pretty much say that of every restaurant. Just the same, it turned out El Papagayo brushed close to his ideal at least, during our limited experience there.
Inside, the tiled-floor dining room is spacious and heavily decorated, feeling like a south-of-the-border art gallery. The tile mosaic is striking, as is a dominating painting of a parrot ("papagayo") perched among sunflowers. Take a look at the wooden tables and chairs, carved into the shapes of gigantic flowers.
The menu is crowded with from-scratch dishes (included vegetarian choices) that reflect various states and regions of Mexico Jalisco, Yucatán, Baja, Puebla, Veracruz. That's because owners Rosalinda and Horacio Aceves have gathered recipes during their travels there.
"We find restaurants in Mexico where we like (certain dishes) and ask the owners if they will show us how they prepare them," explained Rosalinda Aveves, who is from Guadalajara. "They are always very friendly and invite us to go into the kitchen and (we) watch them make (the dishes). Our other recipes are from our families."
We began with corn tortilla chips dipped in red, green, hot and mild salsas from the salsa bar. Then came the rarely seen and boldly flavored cochinita pibil tacos. The shredded pork had been marinated and dipped in Yucatán-style sauce involving sour orange juice, vinegar, chiles and seasonings, then wrapped in tortillas and pan-toasted. If you don't relish strong flavors, keep looking.
Less pungent were the well-prepared green-chile enchiladas with chicken and plenty of fresh-tasting melted cheese, and a luscious chile relleno.
The vegetarian tacos were assembled from sautéed fresh mushrooms and tender-crisp pieces of green cactus (nopalitos).
"As a born carnivore, I would treat these as an appetizer rather than as a main dish," Burns said. Agreed.
The show-stopper was the superb Veracruz-style fillet of halibut. Fresh, expertly seasoned and perfectly cooked, it was the "come back" dish. You know, the compelling reason to return another day and order the same thing.
El Papagayo is not a one-size-fits-all kind of place. Every dish we tasted possessed highly individualized flavors and unique seasonings.
P.S.: Beans and rice are staples of Mexican cuisine, of course. We found the whole beans far better than the refried version. The rice was ho-hum.
Two places for fine baked goods
We dropped by Town & Country Village on Saturday and sampled some breads and pastries at the unusual Bäcker Bäck Bakery. The slices of cherry strudel were still warm from the oven, and we kept eating them just to be sure.
Other fine pastries crowded the display case, along with 30 kinds of rustic whole-grain breads in traditional and wedge-shaped loaves. They're made in Germany and France from proprietary recipes, and arrive partly baked and frozen, then are finished off at Bäcker Bäck ($1.89 to $4.59).
The bakery is going seasonal with fruit- and nut-studded stollen, marzipan, pannetone with cranberries and walnuts, and other treats. Our problem was getting past the cherry strudel (916-487-2225).
Around the corner from Bäcker Bäck is the Village Cake Shoppe, home of handmade gingerbread people. They were such a hit last year that owner Patrick Clarke has them back through Dec. 24. They're $2 and up "depending on how elaborate the design is," he said.
The from-scratch little people are made in small batches from organic butter and molasses, brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.
"It's a good idea to call first to make sure we have them at the moment," Clarke said. "Or people can call for special orders and customized decorations, such as children's names" (916-485-8611).
Town & Country Village is at Marconi and Fulton avenues, Sacramento.
WHERE: 5804 Marconi Ave., Carmichael (near the intersection where Marconi turns into Palm)
HOURS: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner
FOOD: 3 stars
AMBIENCE: 2 1/2 stars
HOW MUCH: $-$$
INFORMATION: (916) 487-7742, http://elpapagayo.net
By Allen Pierleoni