Growing up in Spain, Paul Somerhausen learned to see food as a focal point of daily life.
Friends and family planned meals. They gathered. They cooked. They shared. They ate and talked and regaled late into the evening. Flavors, colors, aromas, music, laughter, friendships, stories it was all there to be celebrated.
Next day, same thing.
It's not like that in this country not yet, at least. But more and more people seem eager to embrace the idea of food as a vehicle to meet new people and pursue new adventures.
For the past nine years, Somerhausen, 39, a political consultant specializing in California-Mexico relations, has become something of a food evangelist, leading dozens of Sacramento-area foodies and would-be foodies to a more enlightened way of dining. Along the way, he's been highlighting the array of cuisines, cultures and good cooking throughout the region.
As founder of Sacramento Epicureans, a no-strings- attached dining club open to everyone, Somerhausen arranges monthly outings to restaurants. Those interested in attending pay a small fee to cover the cost of the food, but there are no membership dues and no requirement for attending a minimum number of events. The email list is at 500 people and growing. Gatherings tend to attract 20 to 30 people monthly.
The mission statement of Sacramento Epicureans, it turns out, is to introduce folks to new and underappreciated restaurants, encourage folks to support local businesses and, in doing so, expand the customer base of restaurants that agree to participate.
Beyond that, Somerhausen is telling the story of what's worth knowing and appreciating in Sacramento, month by month and meal by meal. Members learn to appreciate the breadth and quality of the Sacramento culinary scene, itself underappreciated by far too many, according to Somerhausen.
"A lot of people tell me they like Sacramento but wish it was more like San Francisco or L.A. when it comes to restaurants," he said. "But those are world-class cities. You've got to learn what's great about your community and stop focusing on what it's lacking.
"I honestly believe we have better food options than almost any community in the world because we're in the food basket of this country. We have an agricultural industry that feeds half of this country in our backyard. We have a variety of restaurants with 40 to 50 ethnic cuisines. It's all available to us, and I think it gets overlooked."
Somerhausen is a food enthusiast not a food snob. Some of the places he takes Epicureans might be dives. Some are in sketchy parts of town. Some don't even have signage. There's often a language barrier even though Somerhausen speaks seven languages.
"It's my attempt at getting people to see something in a different way," he said. "It's the Mediterranean approach to food getting people together around a good meal and getting them to know people they didn't know before. When people become friends or they start dating, that's really neat. I've had people who have been part of this group for nine years."
Trystan Calhoun is one of them.
"I was looking to meet new people and try new things," said Calhoun, who works in property management. "I love it. It's always fun. You never know who you're going to be sitting next to, and you never know what you're going to be eating. He finds these restaurants that we never would have noticed and that we frequent afterward."
Among the highlights for Calhoun is Somerhausen's written critiques of the meals he sends out via email.
The monthly events run the gamut from lowbrow to high-end, menudo to filet mignon, though the food tends to be extraordinary either way. While the price generally is $15 to $30 per event, Somerhausen makes it a point for the group to visit the ultra-premium The Kitchen Restaurant each year so folks can experience the $135 per-person demonstration-style dinners. But he is not above a jaunt along bustling Stockton Boulevard in a strip mall for Vietnamese food or, as he did in September, a visit to Macau Cafe in Land Park for the kind of Chinese food more common in China than the United States.
That's where Calhoun "accidentally ate a fish head," she said with a laugh. "I enjoyed it, but then the lady next to me pointed out what I did and I sort of freaked out."
Somerhausen is engaging, passionate and quick to laugh but he's no elitist when it comes to highlighting great cooking. In addition to Sacramento Epicureans, Somerhausen is a founder of SactoMoFo, the grass-roots group that promotes area food trucks.
"A food snob is somebody who is very exclusionary about food, where they only want the best of the best and only go to high-end restaurants and the trendy places," Somerhausen said. "I don't consider myself that way at all. I really enjoy the experience of food. As long as the food is good, I don't care who prepares it and under what conditions."
Squeamish eaters need not worry. Before Macau Cafe, Somerhausen led Sacramento Epicureans on a dessert trek through midtown, including bacon and chocolate artisan doughnuts from Doughbot, handcrafted macarons at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, an English scone with Devonshire cream at Old Soul and a pecan and maple brownie at De Vere's Irish Pub.
In addition to The Kitchen, Somerhausen has his favorite haunts, including Lalo's (Mexican food), Boon Boon Cafe (Thai fusion), Bamiyan (Afghan), Chando's Tacos, New Canton (Chinese dim sum), Queen Sheba (Ethiopian), Pho Anh Dao (Vietnamese soup) and Vientiane Cafe (Laotian).
During his visits to Boon Boon, Somerhausen got to know the owner, Linda Chindalucklate, and has since recruited her to help lead group tours of various Asian markets in the Little Saigon section of Stockton Boulevard.
In recalling the last such tour, Somerhausen could not contain his enthusiasm for the stores and for convincing people to try them.
"We explain what is good about each market and how to get around the language barrier. If you know where to go, the fish is fantastic out there," he said. "You need to know what you are looking for and be a little patient with the language issues. It is about being comfortable outside of your spectrum of what you know and what you eat, and being a little adventurous."
JOIN THE CLUB
Sacramento Epicureans is a dining club open to everyone, with monthly outings to restaurants.