You have your favorites dishes, and we have ours. To broaden the general repertoire – and give you some leads on new places to try – here’s a sampling of what we consider to be among the top eats in the region.
Smoked pork ribs: Barbecue is better and more widespread than ever. As proof, consider a brief lineup: Sticky Gator, Tank House, Fahrenheit 250, Boucane’s Smokehouse, Sierra Smokehouse, Lucille’s Smokehouse, JR’s Texas Bar-B-Que, MacQue’s Bar-B-Que, House of Chicken and Ribs, Sandra Dee’s, Ludy’s Main Street. Still, pitmaster Rodney Ray at T&R Taste of Texas turns out extraordinary racks of pork ribs, flavored with a proprietary spice rub, smoked over a mix of cherry, apple and mesquite woods, and served with several house-made sauces.
T&R Taste of Texas, 3621 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 739-1669.
Chicken tortilla soup: Many family-owned restaurants specialize in dishes handed down through the generations. One is La Rosa Blanca, whose chicken tortilla soup is a masterpiece. Dark, from-scratch broth (with heat from chipotle peppers) is filled with tender meat from chicken thighs and breasts, cubes of creamy avocado, crisp tortilla chips, and cheddar and jack cheese.
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La Rosa Blanca, 402 Natoma St., Folsom; (916) 673-9085, www.larosablancarestaurant.com. A sister restaurant is at 2813 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; (916) 484-6104.
Cuban sandwich: Last summer’s hit movie “Chef” raised curiosity about this Florida specialty. A genuine version is assembled from citrus-marinated and slow-roasted pork, top-quality ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickle chips layered on Cuban bread that has been smeared with ballpark mustard. It’s then grilled on a press called a “plancha.” At El Sol Cubano, the owners know all this.
El Sol Cubano, 5734 Watt Ave., Sacramento; (916) 332-2883.
Fried chicken and gumbo: Victoria Haggins at Tori’s Place dips chicken thighs (legs and wings are the options) in egg-milk mixture, dredges them in well-seasoned flour and fries them golden-brown. The thin crust is crunchy, the chicken hot and juicy.
Her Creole-Cajun gumbo is chunky with chicken, sausage coins and shrimp, along with okra, bell pepper, onion and enough heat to make a chilly day seem like July.
Tori’s Place, 1525 Grand Ave., Del Paso Heights, Sacramento; (916) 646-6038.
Mussels: Succulent Prince Edward Island mussels are prepared six ways at Cafe Plan B. Our two favorites are awash in rich sauces of coconut milk, chili, garlic and cilantro; and cream, celery, pancetta and thyme.
Cafe Plan B, 1226 20th St., Sacramento; (916) 447-3300, www.cafeplanb.com.
Fish ’n’ chips: Haddock is rarely found in local restaurants, but 36 Handles offers it two ways: beer-battered and deep-fried, or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko and pan-fried. Don’t forget a pint of Guinness.
Other top fish ’n’ chips are at Streets (beer-battered Icelandic cod) and Boxing Donkey (beer-battered wild Atlantic cod).
36 Handles in the Montano Center, 1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-3606, www.36handles.com. Streets, 1804 J St. Sacramento; (916) 498-1388, www.streetsoflondon.net. Boxing Donkey, 300 Lincoln St., Roseville; (916) 797-3665, www.theboxingdonkey.com.
Polenta fries: For his spicy polenta fries with Bolognese sauce, chef Tom Patterson at Fabian’s transforms locally sourced white polenta into crisp french-fry-shaped bars seasoned with cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin, salt and sugar ($9.95). The sauce is thick with ground beef and house-made sausage.
Carnitas: Seasoned, braised pork shoulder is a staple of Mexican cuisine, but the quality varies dramatically from place to place. The fragrant shreds of pork at Tres Hermanas are juicy, dark and crispy-tender. Add cilantro and salsa.
Tres Hermanas, 2416 K St., Sacramento; (916) 443-6919, www.treshermanasonk.com
Asian-style fish: The 85-item dim-sum menu at the massive Hong Kong Islander will occupy your time, but better is the succulent fillet of glazed skin-on sea bass with black bean sauce, remarkably flaky and flavorful.
Hong Kong Islander, 5675 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 392-3388
Ravioli: Too many restaurants ruin the delicate pasta dumplings with tomato sauce, but not Piatti. Its signature dish has been on the menu for 22 years. Hand-made ravioli are stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese, arriving in a bowl of rich, lemony cream sauce and topped with gremolata (a chop of breadcrumbs, lemon and lime zests, and parsley) and a sprinkle of Parmesan.
Piatti in Pavilions Shopping Center, on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue, Sacramento; (916) 649-8885, www.piatti.com/sacramento
Wor won-ton soup: This classic dish is a menu standard at most Chinese restaurants, and is a star at Lotus 8. Chef Eric Kuang starts with from-scratch chicken broth, then segues into the fresh contents – bulging pork-and-shrimp wontons, sea scallops, prawns, chicken, pork, beef, squid, mushrooms and greens.
Lotus 8, 199 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom; (916) 351-9278, www.lotus8folsom.com
Pho: The noodle soup called pho (pronounced fuh) is the national dish of Vietnam. An excellent version is at Lemon Grass, where chef-owner Mai Pham makes it from ginger- and roasted onion-infused chicken stock filled with rice noodles and a choice of chicken or Niman Ranch organic beef. Make liberal use of the side dish – bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeño and lime.
Lemon Grass, 601 Munroe St., Sacramento; (916) 486-4891, www.lemongrassrestaurant.com
Pizza: Sure, thin-crust “artisanal” pies dominate the pizza landscape, but old-school style is always in style. The chewy, yeasty, hand-thrown crust at Roma Pizzeria II is famously heavy with homemade tomato and pesto sauces, gooey mozzarella and fresh toppings.
Add the hefty pie at Luigi’s Pizzeria, which hasn’t changed much since the joint opened in 1953; toppings include homemade Italian sausage and Louisiana-style shrimp.
Roma Pizzeria II, 8491 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 383-9264, www.roma2pizza.com.
Luigi’s Pizzeria, 3800 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 456-0641.
Fried prawns: Forget about thick, spongy breading. With seafood, simpler is always better. The crunchy, sweet, fried prawns at Fins Market & Grill are shelled, deveined, lightly rolled in seasoned Italian breadcrumbs and fried in canola oil. The dill-flecked tartar sauce and lemon slices add tang.
Fins, 2610 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 488-5200, www.finsmarket.com. One more Fins is at 8680 Sierra College Blvd., Roseville (916) 783-5200.
Pasta: There are nearly as many good plates of pasta around town as there are shapes of it. One of the best is the linguine and clams at Dominick’s Trattoria. Imported pasta is topped with a load of fresh Manila clams and a rich sauce of white wine, clam broth, lemon juice, olive oil, butter, garlic and hot pepper flakes Add Parmigiano-Reggiano and cracked black pepper.
Dominick’s Trattoria, 8621 Auburn-Folsom Road, Granite Bay; (916) 786-3355, www.dominicksmarketdeli.com.
Appetizers: Two appetizers at the stylish Land Ocean are must-haves: tenderloin Wellingtons (puff pastry stuffed with pieces of filet mignon and mushrooms in brandy-peppercorn sauce, on a bed of Bearnaise sauce), and bacon-jalapeño-studded mac ’n’ cheese, crisped under the broiler.
Land Ocean, 2720 E. Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 983-7000, www.landoceanrestaurants.com.
Happiest happy hour: For uptown bites and sips at a bargain price (relatively speaking), take a seat in the bar areas of Ruth’s Chris Steak House at the Pavilions or the Galleria shopping centers. There, “Ruth’s @ the Bar Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl” happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays) serves six appetizers for $8 each (they’re $11 to $18 during regular hours). Savor the likes of lightly fried lobster in cream sauce, skewered tenderloin chunks and crab BLT.
Ruth’s Chris in the Pavilions on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue (916-286-2702); and Ruth’s Chris in the Galleria on Galleria Boulevard in Roseville (916-780-6910); www.ruthschris.com.
Hearty sandwiches: Stop wasting time at chain sub shops and step up to the classic muffuletta, “invented” in 1906 in New Orleans and sold at Pennisi’s delicatessen for decades. Salami, mortadella, Danish ham and provolone cheese are stacked on a Dutch crunch roll and heaped with muffuletta spread. It’s a piquant mix of chopped olives, peppers, cauliflower, carrot, celery, mushroom, artichoke, onion and garlic in olive oil.
For Roxie Deli’s meatloaf sandwich, co-owner Chris Tannous cooks meatloaf in an oak-fueled smoker for about 12 hours, then serves slabs of it on chewy ciabatta rolls with melted cheddar and provolone cheeses, horseradish, mayonnaise, tomato, onion and crisp jalapeño coins.
Pennisil’s, 1237 J St., Sacramento; (916)448-5610, www.facebook.com/pennisisdeli.
Roxie Deli, 3340 C St., Sacramento; (916) 443-5402, www.roxiedeli.com.
Best of the wurst: Before it closed in 2012, Capitol Dawg in midtown was the top dog on the wurst scene. Now that title goes to Ruffhaus, with 20 kinds of dogs (and a very good pork schnitzel). Among the best is the Wolfsburg, a fat, beer-steamed bratwurst aboard a perfect bun, with sauerkraut and German mustard.
Ruffhaus Hot Dog. Co., 4355 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-3647, www.ruffhaushotdogco.com.
Smoked brisket: As a notoriously tough cut, beef brisket must be slow-smoked to render it tender and juicy. Fahrenheit 250’s Jacob Carriker seasons briskets with a proprietary spice rub and smokes them for 12 to 14 hours over a mix of apple, fig and cherry woods. Choose “fatty” or “lean” – but, really, that decision is obvious.
Meanwhile, for meat with more intense smoke flavor, J.R. Rothenberger slow-cooks well-seasoned briskets over mesquite.
Fahrenheit 250, 7042 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 476-4508, www.fahrenheitbbq.com.
J.R.’s Texas Bar-B-Que, 180 Otto Circle, Sacramento; (916) 424-3520, www.jrtexasbbq.com.
French dip: The classic French dip sandwich endures in its traditional glory on the lunch menus of the Marketplace Cafe at Embassy Suites. Chef Clay Purcell stacks shaved prime rib on a “soft buttered garlic roll,” tops it with provolone cheese and serves it with a side of fragrant homemade jus for dipping. For a change-up, try it on grilled rye with melted Swiss and a pile of from-scratch coleslaw.
Marketplace Cafe, Embassy Suites, 100 Capitol Mall, Sacramento; (916) 326-5000, www.embassysuites.hilton. com.
Crab cakes: The usual problem with this delicacy is too much filler, not enough crab. Chef Luis Gomez at the reopened Buggy Whip breaks that mold with crispy-moist cakes made with blue crab served with lemon aioli and Asian coleslaw. Follow that with a jambalaya of prawns, salmon, white fish (sea bass alternates with halibut), chicken, andouille sausage, onion and peppers in tomato broth, ladled over rice.
Buggy Whip, 2737 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; (916) 900-8644, www.buggywhipsac.com.
Top ramen: Sacramento is fortunate to have a few great ramen houses. Among them is Ryu Jin, where the kitchen “cures” the broth for 26 hours. Satisfaction lies in a bowl of steaming aka tongotsu (“red” ramen), a fiery soup of noodles, thick slices of pork, steamed cabbage, black mushroom, red ginger, green onion and a sake-seasoned whole egg. Don’t overlook the fried oysters.
Ryu Jin Ramen House, 1831 S St., Sacramento; (916) 341-0488, www.ryujinramen.com.
More soups: To chase the chills, the French onion soup at Danielle’s Creperie starts with liquid from a five-hour onion reduction, plus beef consomme, red wine and bay leaf. Croutons are added, then topped with gooey Holland Gouda and Swiss Gruyere.
The clam chowder at Jamie’s Broadway Grille is a seachange of flavors – tender chunks of sea clams, clam broth, white wine, sherry, cream, butter, bacon, potato, fresh thyme, bay leaves, Old Bay seasoning, celery, onion, carrot and coarsely ground black pepper.
Danielle’s Creperie in Arden Town center, 3535 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 972-1911, www.daniellescreperie.com.
Jamie’s Broadway Grille, 427 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 442-4044, www.jamiesbroadwaygrille.com.
Schnitzel: Hard-to-find pork and chicken schnitzel reside at Crepe Town. Co-owner Alma Zildzo pounds out the meats, marinates them in cream and seasonings, coats them with breadcrumbs and sautes them over high heat. Crispy, moist and gargantuan.
Crepe Town European Cafe & Grill, 4064 Mother Lode Drive, Shingle Springs; (530) 677-5993, www.crepetowncafe.com.
Fine fowl: Chicken can be special, as in the luscious, smoky one that’s slowly cooked over open flames in an oak-fired rotisserie oven at Bandera.
If you prefer it fried, chef Evan Elsberry’s old-school rendition goes like this: It’s seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, sage and honey, dredged in seasoned flour, dipped in buttermilk and dredged again before it hits the pan.
Chicken gets a Mideastern twist at Saffron, where chunks of fresh breast are marinated in yogurt, saffron, garlic and mint, skewered and grilled until golden in color, and served with perfect basmati rice.
Bandera, 2232 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 922-3524, www.hillstone.com.
Evan’s Kitchen, 855 57th St., Sacramento; (916) 452-3896, www.chefevan.com.
Saffron Grill, 1300 E. Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 984-6800; www.saffrongrillcuisine.com.
Hamburger: The all-American burger is simple in concept yet infinite in variation. The hand-formed half-pound monster at Bones Roadhouse starts with a custom-ground blend of prime rib, rib-eye, tri-tip and chuck. It’s served on a toasted hoagie roll from the Truckee Sourdough Co., with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and Bones Sauce, a mash-up of mustard, mayo and Thousand Island dressing. Seasonings? Why, only salt and pepper, of course. Add cheese, thick-cut bacon, pastrami and avocado.
Bones Roadhouse, 4430 Pleasant Valley Road, Placerville; (530) 644-4301, www.bonesroadhousehangtown.com.
Pastries and cakes: A trio comes to mind, all selling baked goods that contain no fat or calories (don’t we wish). Choose the crisp-velvety napoleon at Mirabelle, the Bavarian whipped cream-topped cappuccino cake and the crustless bacon quiche at Amore, and the almond torte at Dianda’s.
Mirabelle European Bakery & Cafe, 7318 Winding Way, Fair Oaks; (916) 535-0100, www.mirabellecafe.com.
Amore Cafe & Bakery, 220 Gold Springs Court, Gold River; (916) 463-0011, www.cafebakeryamore.com.
Dianda’s Italian Bakery & Cafe, 10131 Fair Oaks Blvd., Old Fair Oaks; (916) 966-3757, www.diandasbakery.com.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.