When I reviewed Curtis Park’s Pangaea in 2011, I referred to it as an “amazing” place that stood out for its charm, its enterprising beer list and a dedicated band of employees that made the place feel special.
Back then, I was assessing it as a pub, not a full-fledged restaurant. And if Rob Archie, Pangaea’s thoughtful and engaging owner, had decided to keep things as they were, all would have been fine. Pangaea would still be cool – but I would no longer describe it with such a glowing adjective.
That has more to do with Sacramento than Pangaea. In four years, the city has experienced explosive growth in its beer offerings. “Amazing” in 2011 is now something of the norm when it comes to beer. The stakes have been raised. At LowBrau in midtown, for instance, to simply serve beer to customers, you are obligated to become a certified cicerone, which is the beer equivalent of a first-level sommelier. In 2011, probably five people around here had even heard of that word.
Scores of new craft breweries have opened locally, and there are excellent beer-focused pubs in Folsom, Rocklin, Roseville, Elk Grove and elsewhere. Sacramento Beer Week, which was in its second year in 2011, has become an economic force, and this year will be run by the Northern California Brewers Guild.
Add all this up and you get an average beer consumer who is more discerning, more demanding and has more options than any time in this city’s history.
Which means that if Pangaea wanted to remain amazing, it had to keep looking for ways to improve.
Archie, who grew up in Woodland and parlayed his athleticism into a stint in Italy playing pro basketball, clearly understands the evolving market. He saw where beer was going and didn’t want to make his moves after it was too late. When I chatted with him recently, he mentioned he was reading a book, “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable,” by Tim Grover, who was the trainer for Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, among others.
Archie’s constantly changing beer selections have continued to get better. Last year, he added a separate lambic bar to focus on sour beers. And the food, which was limited and underperforming when compared to the beer, has been seriously upgraded with the acquisition of Robb Venditti, a chef’s chef with more than two decades’ worth of experience in fine dining kitchens, including Mulvaney’s and Formoli’s Bistro.
Venditti’s kitchen is professional and efficient. Archie said that his chef is meticulous about being organized. The menu, full of classic dishes, is both tightly focused and broadly appealing. The cooking is high-caliber. The ingredients are seasonally inspired and mostly locally sourced.
And the dishes – including the half-pound burger with house-made pickles; seared scallops with pork belly confit and a pomegranate demi-glace; crisp fried chicken; braised lamb ravioli; mussels and chorizo with fennel shavings; mac and cheese – pair nicely with the wide array of beers on tap and in bottles.
The addition of Venditti nearly a year ago, just as the competition was starting to gain on Pangaea, has made this charming neighborhood beer destination something exciting and special all over again. It’s still a tremendous place to enjoy craft beer, even if the acoustics can make meaningful conversation a challenge at times. But now it’s a real restaurant, with a menu that will appeal to all kinds of folks, from foodies to fussy eaters.
The chef’s burger, featuring a custom blend of beef, special sauce, thick-cut bacon and a decadent dose of melted cheddar that oozes over the patty, has to be a contender for top burger in town, right up there with those from Juno’s, Formoli’s, Hook & Ladder and Broderick. It’s big. It’s beautiful. It’s delicious. Venditti doesn’t rely on trendy additions. This is a straight-ahead burger that wows you with flavor, tradition and quality.
The fried chicken will surprise you the first time you try it – it’s boneless, which makes it easy to eat while enjoying your beer. The only boneless fried chicken I have had this good is at Union Inn in Volcano. Brining the chicken in buttermilk, as Venditti does, gives the chicken a tenderness and an infusion of flavor. The meat strikes just the right balance of tender and toothsome, and features a subtle salty note as well as plenty of personality. The look, the texture, the taste – it’s all there. The dish includes braised greens, mashed potatoes with bacon gravy, and a cranberry-apple chutney. It’s a bargain at $14 and works nicely with several beer styles, including some sours.
The mussels, too, are beer-friendly, with just enough spicy heat from the house-made chorizo to make you pine for a second pint of hoppy IPA. One night when both Pliny the Elder and Nelson (by Alpine Beer Co.) were on tap, we enjoyed these two exceptional but vastly different IPAs with mussels and fries. It was a great combination.
So are Venditti and Pangaea. The chef has been a customer since the pub opened in 2008. Back then, it was called Pangaea Two Brews Cafe, a nod to Archie’s vision of having a coffee shop by day that morphed into a beer pub by evening. It was the kind of home-base cafe he admired during his travels in Europe. These days, it’s called Pangaea Bier Cafe, serving weekday lunch and dinner (except Monday) and weekend brunch.
Archie said that Venditti’s professionalism and organizational skills have rubbed off on the front-of-the-house staff. He is demanding more of them, and it shows. Even though the restaurant component is casual, including ordering at the counter, the staff is well-versed about the food. When I asked specific questions about ingredients and cooking techniques, I got detailed answers.
The same goes for the beer. On that night when I ordered both Pliny and Nelson, I asked our server how the two compare as IPAs, and she gave me an informed, nuanced response that helped me understand what I would be tasting and how different hop varieties (Nelson refers to a coveted New Zealand hop, Nelson Sauvin) can create distinctive flavor profiles with the same beer style. The server’s name is Alia Cruz.
Another staff member who stands out is Kyle Middlebrooks. He started coming in as a customer and loved Pangaea so much that he is now its beer coordinator. His passion, knowledge and charisma distinguish this cafe.
Much has changed since 2011, including our expectations for beer, pubs and restaurants. We’re so spoiled with good beer and great options for enjoying it that we may forget to notice those places that continue to strive for greatness. If you haven’t visited Pangaea since Venditti took the reins in the kitchen, you’ll find it to be a new experience, and that wonderful pairing of superb beer and food keeps Pangaea at the head of the pack.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.
Pangaea Bier Cafe
2743 Franklin Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beverage options: Ever-changing craft beer selection from around the world; small selection of wine.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise level: Very loud. When busy, conversations can be a challenge. Acoustics need improvement.
Ambiance: Casual, friendly, communal. Order at the counter. Some outdoor seating.
For years, Pangaea has been a great destination for craft beer lovers, but now this friendly neighborhood cafe has seriously upgraded the experience with a terrific menu that allows folks to pair beer and food in engaging, nearly limitless ways. There is no other place in the region that combines beer and food at this level.
Because beer and food are so enmeshed at Panagea, both are factored in for this category. The beer selection is almost always outstanding, including a main menu that changes frequently. The food, seasonally inspired and mostly locally sourced, is high-caliber.
Because table service is not offered, we stopped at three stars. But the servers behind the counter are friendly and attentive, and their knowledge of both beer and Venditti’s cooking is often outstanding. If you want to up your beer game, chatting with the staff here will help.
This is perhaps the most impressive, wide-ranging menu we have seen when it comes to value. Scallops, a trophy burger with fries, excellent fried chicken with mashed potatoes and, yes, a steak dinner, and nothing is more than $20. Only an experienced pro running the kitchen could create a menu like this and make it work.