The 33rd Street Bistro has been around since 1995, when it exploded onto the local restaurant scene and established itself as a neighborhood hot spot with some cool ideas, pleasant surroundings and food that won raves.
It was a busy, noisy place with a “clientele,” according to The Bee’s archives, “as youthful and fashionably attired as any in town.”
This is where the Haines brothers, Fred and Matt, made a name for themselves as restaurateurs. At the time, there wasn’t a lot going on food-wise in venerable east Sacramento. The bistro, with an open kitchen and outdoor seating along Folsom Boulevard, was at the forefront of the local food scene, serving a cuisine inspired by the Pacific Northwest and using local ingredients when possible.
There were sandwiches with hip names like “Mt. Hood” and “The Rainier” that became menu mainstays. There was a nice brunch in a town that wasn’t doing a whole lot of brunch. There were good cocktails and a wine list with enough variety to hold your interest. What’s more, they were doing all the little things that made people happy, from solid deals at happy hour to special deals on wines.
This was before Wi-Fi, social media and iPhones – yes, there once was a time, kids, when people merely received and ate food instead of photographing it and posting shots to Instagram and Facebook first. It was before we knew about slow food, and it would be many years before we would make “farm to fork” our city slogan.
In 1996, my predecessor, Mike Dunne, gave the food three out of four stars, emphasizing the quality and value and noting that a couple could enjoy dinner for about $30. In 1998, the rating had climbed to three-and-a-half stars, identifying 33rd Street Bistro as one of the best restaurants in its category.
And then something happened. No, 33rd Street Bistro didn’t change much. But Sacramento sure did.
What once seemed new and enterprising now feels safe and sometimes dated. With so many new players in this casual-bistro category serving New American/Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, 33rd Street Bistro faces challengers all over town.
While it continues to attract throngs of folks, many seeking their old favorites, the stylish young crowd has either grown up or moved on, and this restaurant, fashion-wise, is now more like the mom’s jeans of the local culinary scene.
The Haines brothers and their SRO Inc. restaurant company appear to have hit the glass ceiling with 33rd Street Bistro, its two Bistro 33s, Riverside Clubhouse and Suzie Burger. It’s hard to picture any of those eateries being on any foodie’s short list of favorite restaurants, and it would be a challenge to find anyone who would call the menu, as a Bee headline did 16 years ago, “provocative.”
Over the past decade in Sacramento, burgers got way better, pizza more authentic, and the use of disparate local ingredients became far more varied and sophisticated. Additionally, the dining public’s expectations climbed to new heights.
With that in mind, I invited a friend who identified himself as a longtime 33rd Street Bistro regular to share a meal. In its heyday, he went there once a week for the Mt. Hood (pork with slices of Granny Smith apples on Italian bread) and intermittently for brunch.
The last time he was there? Eight years ago. He’s now a Juno’s regular, and Juno’s food is on a whole other level – the bread is baked in-house, the meats are cooked and seasoned in a superior way, the pastas are extraordinary and the salads are fresher and more interesting. Other excellent east Sac restaurants include Formoli’s Bistro, where the chef-driven menu and cooking are several notches above 33rd’s at comparable prices, and OneSpeed, where Rick Mahan and company serve some of the best pizza and casual bistro dishes in the city.
My friend and I agreed that the Mt. Hood – now pulled pork instead of thick slices of pork – has lost some luster over time. It’s a decent sandwich served on pugliese. It’s on the small side, a tad bland and comes with a nice little side salad of fresh greens.
While 33rd Street Bistro continues with many of its legacy dishes (or risk the wrath of regulars with every tweak or change), there have been limited updates. The restaurant recently created a stir when it unveiled a salmon dish costing $27, the same price as the 6-ounce filet mignon. Those are serious prices approaching what you’d pay at fine dining restaurants. To substantiate the cost, the menu notes the Skuna Bay salmon is “craft raised,” meaning the salmon is farmed not by mere employees but by “artisans.”
Would this salmon stand up to the scrutiny its price tag inspires?
The salmon, to the restaurant’s credit, is cooked and served in various ways (the menu suggests you ask the server about the day’s preparation). Nevertheless, I found the execution to be off. One time it was overcooked and served with a smattering of fresh strawberries, an interesting idea that didn’t really work. Another time it was overcooked with a crust and was too salty. At that price, the salmon needs to be big and burst with flavor. This was small and dry and tame – a $16 dish posing as a sophisticated $27 entree.
Beyond the salmon, the menu and the food have the look and feel of a place whose concept is so dialed in that it is either unable or unwilling to evolve.
Is this a bad thing? Not at all – if the only arbiter of success is the bottom line. Here is a restaurant that’s clearly doing enough to satisfy its base – those who live nearby – but is not aspiring to anything more than that. It’s the same story at another Haines brothers neighborhood eatery, Riverside Clubhouse in Land Park, where none of the food is bad and very little of it is inspiring.
Is this a place worth checking out if you live in Elk Grove or Roseville or Gold River, or even if you’re minutes away in midtown? Not these days. Why not try Hook & Ladder, where the prices are similar and the food and cocktail program are vastly superior?
Our mostly disappointing dinner visits reinforced the notion that brunch and lunch, and maybe a happy hour glass of wine with a couple of appetizers or a salad, are this place’s strengths.
However, that comes with a few caveats, including one about the “House Kobe Burger.” Kobe is a trademarked, specific and very expensive beef that comes from cattle raised and fed with specific protocols and slaughtered in and around Kobe, Japan. Such beef, in the rare instances it is actually flown into the United States, costs $30 to $40 or more per ounce. This 33rd Street burger is likely American Wagyu beef, sometimes labeled as “Kobe style” – a heavily marbled beef that mimics some characteristics of Kobe.
This burger, described on the menu as “ground Kobe beef,” costs $13.95. At that price, it would be thimble-sized if it were really Kobe. Instead, it was a large, robust, visually appealing but an alarmingly overcooked disappointment of a burger aspiring to be upscale. The only saving grace on the plate were the tasty fries.
The waffle fries, too, are very good. They’re an appetizer that’s easily sharable or eaten solo if you think living past 60 is overrated. They’re thick and crisp and a beautiful brown color. The best appetizer on the menu is the ahi tuna poke, though it’s pricey at $16.95. The wonton chips look as good as they taste, and the tender cubes of tuna seasoned with ginger are delicious.
The pasta dishes can be a mixed bag but are mostly likable. The lobster ravioli with caramelized onion and scampi butter was too sweet for my liking. But the tagliatelle Bolognese featuring spicy sausage and ground beef with roasted red peppers was a fine interpretation of this classic preparation. The spaghettini with smoked chicken, prosciutto and spinach with a ginger cream sauce was flavorful and worked well as a light dinner.
Our favorite visits to 33rd Street Bistro have always been for brunch. That’s when the mood is more laid-back and the food is hearty, tasty and generally well conceived.
The breakfast/brunch fare is reliably good even by 2014 standards. The omelet with smoked turkey and pepper jack cheese was perfectly cooked, the filling highlighting the eggs’ natural flavor without overwhelming it. The huevos rancheros were very good, too, featuring three eggs seated atop crisp tortillas with a ranchero sauce and black beans.
One of the only knocks came with what’s probably the breakfast menu’s most robust dish – the smoked trout hash. It featured undercooked pieces of squash that detracted from this otherwise tasty dish. In addition, the French toast was a bit mushy; the center of the challah bread was too dry and the overall flavor note was cinnamon and not much else.
Coffee? It’s drinkable but stuck in the ’90s. In the years since 33rd Street Bistro opened, Sacramento has become a great coffee town, and so-called “third wave” shops are doing a lighter roast that highlights the nuanced flavors of coffee varietals. Our coffee was a dark roast that left a burnt taste on the palate. It was a reminder of how some things change. And how others stay the same.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.