When we heard that Henry's high-end steakhouse was serving lunch on weekends, Billy Blaze and I hightailed it over to the Red Hawk Casino.
Three years ago, we teamed to review the casino's Waterfall Buffet (still a good deal), so the former minor-league pitcher was a natural choice for a lunch pal.
Why pay $50 for a porterhouse steak at dinner, we figured, when we could get a lunchtime taste of Henry's for less? We were thinking lobster roll, French dip, grilled ribeye with hand-cut fries.
Like many of California's Indian casinos, the Red Hawk is undergoing some rocky financial times. You wouldn't guess that, though, when you step inside the casino. It was so crowded with gamblers on a Saturday that we had to weave our way around clusters of stern-faced men and women. Why all the frowns?
We stopped at a craps table so Billy Blaze could point out that numbered cards are used in place of actual dice. There must be a reason why the essential tumbling dice aren't part of the game's ritual at Red Hawk, but we were so disheartened we didn't want to know. We walked on.
Eager now, we rushed up to Henry's. Hey, what was this? The dining room was dark, the doors locked.
A consultation with two Red Hawk managers told the story: Henry's stopped serving lunch a week ago. Perhaps we should have called ahead? Duh.
We ended up at the Pearl Asian restaurant instead, where we quickly learned the drill: Stand in a long line, then order from a menu board and pay at the front counter before you take a seat. That's for the sake of expediency, the only way to accommodate all the diners. There is no table service at lunch, but traditional full service is the norm at dinner.
The lunch menu ($6.28 to $28) had the usual suspects, including sweet 'n' sour pork, kung pao chicken and salt 'n' pepper prawns. But a closer look revealed many specialty dishes that spoke to the menu's authenticity jelly fish in spicy sauce, braised sea cucumber, chicken with salted fish and tofu, and sauteéd cod with salted egg yolk.
Further, Pearl's dinner special in March was wok-stirred fried frogs' legs with ginger and scallions. Among its upcoming Easter brunch offerings will be chicken with lemongrass and sesame seed balls.
We later learned that Pearl executive chef Kan P. Li graduated from the Pui Ching school of culinary arts in Hong Kong, cooked at the legendary Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, and later opened his own place in Reno.
At our table, we were a bit surprised when all the dishes we'd ordered arrived at once. OK, we can handle this, with a little help from the Mae Ploy and Sriracha chili sauces in the condiments caddy.
Here's the rundown:
Pot stickers: Crispy but dense, saved by a delicious sauce made of vinegar, soy, sugar, salt, ginger, garlic and cilantro.
"Can you give me a gallon of potsticker sauce to go?" Billy Blaze asked a passing hostess. She laughed because she thought he was joking.
Honey walnut prawns: A solid version with just the right amount of creamy sauce on the firm shrimp. The crisp walnuts added a lot.
BBQ pork noodle soup: "I've never seen this much meat in a soup," Billy Blaze said, forking slice after slice onto his plate. The tender, flavorful pork was well-matched with al dente noodles and fresh bok choy in a tasty (though lukewarm) broth.
Beef chow fun: Slices of lean, tender beef joined green onion, bean sprouts and chewy wide noodles in mushroom-soy sauce.
Korean-style spareribs with rice: The steamed meat on the little pieces of pork ribs had loads of flavor and easily pulled off the bones. But they just lay there on a big mound of dry white rice, joined by a tired piece of bok choy. What presentation?
Dim sum: Standard shrimp har gow and shrimp-pork-shiitake mushroom siu mai. We spooned that luscious potsticker sauce over them.
The dinner menu is lengthy and impressive, and we managed to wrangle an item from the kitchen. The juicy and tender pan-fried slices of beef tenderloin in the "Peking steak filet" were covered in a zingy bell pepper sauce delivered waves of flavors.
For us, one lunch at Pearl was enough, but we're eager to try dinner. Maybe a whole steamed black bass and a bowl of Singapore-style vermicelli.
Better yet, more steak.
Lots of sports and grub
Clubhouse 56 is a sports bar with a menu of Big Food. We sat in the Theater Room, dominated by a TV screen the size of a soccer field. At the other end of the bar is the picnic table-filled Garage, where one of the original signs from Shakey's pizzeria is stashed.
Best bites on the table came from the crisp, deep-fried chicken wings with perfectly pitched hot sauce.
We expected more but found the overcooked meat on the New York steak sandwich thin and tasteless. Dried-out diced chicken and diced steak "street tacos" had plenty of cilantro, but little seasoning.
The house specialty Whisky 56 Burger was so loaded with stuff that the Angus beef patty got lost.
We really wanted a barbecue brisket sandwich on Dutch crunch bread, but the server said it had sold out the day before. We settled for juicy pastrami with Swiss cheese and clunky steak fries from the freezer.
Look, you go to a sports bar to watch games on TV and drink beer (or whatever), not necessarily for the pub grub. Usually, food gets better with the next round or two.
Clubhouse 56, 723 56th St., Sacramento; (916) 454-5656. Kitchen hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily.