At one end of the dining spectrum are chain-restaurant outlets that seem to pop up overnight. At the opposite end are fine-dining houses that most of us visit a few times a year for special occasions.
Somewhere in between is the comfort zone of the neighborhood eatery, perhaps a short drive or a brisk walk from your front door. The draw is social familiarity and consistency of fare. We dropped by a few in recent weeks.
Lunch pals Tom and Jackie Eres and I took a booth inside the Kilt Scottish Pub and cruised the hard-copy menu and the "specials" list lettered on a wall-mounted whiteboard. Tom Eres is an attorney and the former two-star adjutant general of the California National Guard. His wife, Jackie, is a community activist. They live nearby and drop in now and then for lunch and dinner. "Let's say the nighttime crowd is 'vibrant,' " Tom said.
We found a mix of dishes: shepherd's pie meets panini, bangers (sausages) and mash (mashed potatoes) hold hands with salmon BLT. There's a traditional sausage roll with baked beans in there, too.
We went through a broad sampling, beginning with an appetizers platter of crab cakes (slightly burned outside, mealy inside); hand-cut and -battered onion rings (crunchy puffs of onion-y delight); flavor-drenched button mushrooms steeped in garlic-flecked Guinness beer; and standard deep-fried mozzarella cheese sticks.
Hand-battered, deep-fried fresh cod and crisp-creamy fries teamed for one of the better versions of fish 'n' chips we've seen lately, enhanced with tartar sauce and malt vinegar. The salmon BLT disappeared in a flurry (ask for crisp bacon), along with a juicy grilled-chicken clubhouse sandwich on perfectly toasted sourdough.
As an homage to the California State Fair, the Kilt is offering its version of a corn dog. A fat, juicy Louisiana hot link was battered and fried. The link was terrific, though Tom warned, "If you're skittish about spicy, don't touch it with a 10-foot pole."
The kitchen might want to rethink the batter, which heat dynamics had transformed into a hard, tough shell.
From-scratch chipotle aioli was so flavorful that we got a cup on the side, for dipping everything.
The Kilt has a number of nightly specials during the week, but its Around the World in 80 Beers program rules. Drink 80 different imported beers (no, not in one sitting) and get a commemorative T-shirt.
Big doin's at Mighty Kong
The Mighty Kong Cafe has reopened after a makeover that involves an ornate 105-year-old bar and back bar made from Cuban and African mahogany. Owner King Smith bought it at auction in Atlanta a few months ago, and now it's the centerpiece of the dining room.
"There have been a lot of elbows on this bar over the years," Smith said.
The bar gets plenty of use during happy hours, 3 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. The 10-item bar menu works well with the beer, wine and "cocktails" made with Han-brand rice-infused Asian spirits.
King's son, Lane, and chef Jameel Pongyan are cooking up lots of good stuff for breakfast (fried chicken and waffles, house-made sausage) and lunch (shrimp po' boy, tri-tip cheesesteak sandwich). They're smoking beef, pork and chicken on a hickory-fueled smoker out back; concocting side dishes, sauces and dressings from scratch; and grinding chuck steak for the half-pound burgers.
Oh, and 21 flavors of bran muffins are on offer in the bakery, which is how the restaurant got its start in 2009.
Mighty Kong Cafe, 3701 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 231-3631, www.mightykongcafe.com.
Good, traditional pizza
Locally, pizza has been trending toward thinner crusts topped in unexpected ways (figs, pulled pork, salmon, Brie), with sauces ranging from red to white to pink.
An old-school pie is still the centerpiece at Roma Pizzeria II, where owner Maria Guerrera has served home-style Italian dishes for 31 years. The retro baked spaghetti casserole with a side of fennel seed-flecked sausage is a go-to.
Guerrera's garlicky tomato sauce bubbles away in heavy metal pots. It covers a thick, yeasty pizza crust heavy with mozzarella cheese and toppings (ask about new toppings and specials).
"We have customers who brought their children here for years, and now those children are bringing their own children," she said.
Roma II Pizzeria, 8491 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 383-9264, www.roma2pizza.com.
Fine Mexican fare
The upscale Centro Cocina Mexicana and Zócalo restaurants are favorites of the midtown Sacramento crowd, but we keep returning to La Fiesta Mexicana.
Using family recipes, husband-wife owners Alberto and Martha Mendoza (former owners of La Placita in south Sacramento) make homemade dishes from family recipes.
We especially like the tender carnitas, veggie tamales, well-seasoned black beans, hard-to-find machaca (seasoned, shredded beef) and fragrant chicken tortilla soup.
La Fiesta Mexicana, 6438 Elvas Ave., Sacramento, (916) 456-5962. Centro, 2730 J St., Sacramento; (916) 442-2552, www.paragarys.com. Zócalo, 1801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento; (916) 441-0303, www.zocalosacramento.com.
Peach shake alert!
Once again, the seasonal sign has gone up at landmark drive-in Whitey's Jolly Kone: "Fresh peach milkshakes." Chunks of tree- ripened freestone peaches are blended with high-quality vanilla ice cream for one of the best shakes anywhere.
Through August, owners Steve and Paula Ericson will sell peach shakes as fast as they can make them ($3.50 and $4).
Whitey's Jolly Kone, 1300 Jefferson Blvd., West Sacramento; (916) 371-3605.
Where: 4235 Arden Way, Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays; 4 p.m.-midnight Mondays-Wednesdays; 4 p.m.- 1 a.m. Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.- 1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Food: Two 1/2 stars
Ambience: (check out the dartboards and vintage photos)
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 487-4979, www.kilt-pub.com