Casa Garden restaurant isn’t as trendy as, say, LowBrau or Red Rabbit, nor does it offer as many dishes as Ruchi or Venita Rhea’s. It does, however, serve a larger cause and has history on its side. It’s celebrating its 40th anniversay next week, a remarkable feat of longevity considering most restaurants close within a year of opening.
Casa Garden is operated by Los Ninos Service League, an auxiliary of the 143-year-old Sacramento Children’s Home. The restaurant is a fundraising program that has sent more than $2.7 million to the home, which shelters kids from abusive environments and provides family services.
We spoke with restaurant manager Joan Simmons, on site for 19 years.
You’re the cook, too?
I’m probably the closest to it. I’m also the chief plumber, electrician, fixer-upper and everything else. I was a (home cook) who started here as a volunteer.
How large is the staff?
The paid staff is myself and one other person, with about 150 volunteers who work four-hour shifts twice a month. They do all the prep work and most of the cooking, under our direction.
Do you set the menu?
I do. It’s very limited, and we change it weekly. We have a hot main entree, a salad main entree, a salad-sandwich option and a dessert.
How has the fare evolved over the years?
When I first came here, there were a number of canned products and heavier egg-based items. The most important thing now is everything is fresh and made from scratch. I try to get a range of flavors and textures.
Do you see Casa Garden as competing with other restaurants?
Yes, and we have one great advantage over other restaurants. At the end of the day, our volunteers are able to buy any entrees that may be left over. So there is very little waste.
What’s on the special 40th-anniversary menu next week?
The main entree will be retro, a dish from when we first opened. Casa soufflé is a concoction of eggs, cheese, bread and butter, baked and topped with mushroom-cream sauce. It’s really rich and we would never do anything like that now. The second dish will be contemporary – Asian noodles with chicken and vegetables in lemon-hoisin dressing. Dessert is an old favorite – raspberry-walnut torte.
What are some specialties of the house?
You’ll find a lot of chicken, which seems to be what our diners want. No. 1 would be lemon chicken, which has been on our menu since 2000. It’s a lightly breaded chicken breast with very light lemon-cream sauce. Second would be chicken picatta with capers. Third would be three-cheese garden lasagna, a vegetarian dish in an absolutely wonderful marinara sauce.
Who are your customers?
Eighty percent of them come here to help support the Children’s Home program, which is evident by the size of the gratuities they leave, which is much, much more than the standard. They know where the money goes.
We also serve the general public, and a number of groups meet here monthly, (such as) the Soroptimists. We do have some diners who come regularly from out-of-town. We prefer reservations, but we get 10 to 20 walk-ins a day, too.
Any plans for a farm-to-fork program?
I would love to, but we have a very limited budget. … It would be great if we had time to research other suppliers.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
We have the usual problems that restaurants have – produce doesn’t arrive, a piece of equipment breaks down – so we have to work around those. On a daily basis, it’s having to adapt whatever we’re doing to our volunteers.
The best part of your job?
It’s joyful to work with so many people who are working for the same cause. I wouldn’t have been here for 19 years if I didn’t care about the kids (at the home) next door. That’s why I came here in the first place.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.