Counter culture: Third Strike Cafe so far’s a solid hit

07/30/2014 4:00 PM

08/01/2014 11:39 AM

Now and then, we come across a small restaurant operated by sincere, passionate people whose family heritage and recipes are the foundation of their business. So it is with Third Strike Cafe in West Sacramento.

The truncated version of its story goes like this: Family patriarch Bonifacio Ulatan immigrated from the Philippines, ended up in Sacramento, worked long and hard, married, bought a “bungalow” in 1943 and raised a family.

Fast-forward to recent days. Some of Bonifacio’s descendants transformed the cottage into a very cute cafe with a delightful patio. They divided the duties of running a restaurant among themselves and opened at the end of May. Each family member has a responsibility, but they all do what’s needed at any given time.

At first, Third Strike was a coffee-and-pastries-only shop, but because of customer request it expanded its breakfast menu and introduced lunch three weeks ago. On the breakfast menu are baked goods (including “praegels,” cream cheese-filled bagels made from pretzel dough), quiche and a Denver omelet panino.

The lunch menu is evolving, but right now four kinds of mac ’n’ cheese (classic, jalapeno, bacon, garlic), two panini and a “hot dish” (such as Tuscan stew over polenta) are regulars. On Fridays, marinated and smoked tri-tip is sliced for sandwiches.

On the menu one day last week were those mac ’n’ cheeses plus a green salad, caprese and turkey-raspberry-chipotle panini, and adobo, the Filipino pork stew served over rice. We sat on the shaded patio and tasted an array of items, all first-rate.

“Our cafe is a family labor of love,” said Kimberly Guillen, one of Ulatan’s granddaughters. Among other things, she cooks and is the creator of the cafe’s silken mac ’n’ cheese. “My uncle, mom, husband and I laid the patio brick by hand. It’s a happy gathering place full of wonderful memories,” she said.

Another key player is Monica Ulatan, Kimberly’s mom, who grew up in the cottage. She cooks, runs the front of the house and coordinates the pastry side of things with the Freeport Bakery. She also bakes the cafe’s signature dessert, a dark-chocolate “stretch cake” sparked with coconut and nuts.

Monica is also in charge of the cafe’s panini program. She fell in love with the sandwich last year when she and Kimberly were in Torino, Italy, competing in separate categories (over 45 and over 55) of the World Masters Soccer Games. Monica medaled silver. “We ate our way through Italy on caprese salad (tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil) and caprese panini,” Monica said. “We have 12 kinds of panini in our lunch repertoire.”

Roy Ulatan is Monica’s brother and the barbecue pitmaster. Robert Anderson is Kimberly’s husband and the coffee aficionado who arranged for the cafe’s special blend of artisanal coffee from the McLaughlin Coffee Co. in Emeryville.

Trish Olander is a sister of Monica’s daughter-in-law and helps oversee the kitchen.

An array of coffee drinks are made by barista Britnie Berg, who isn’t a family member but has been welcomed as one. She invented a luscious drink she calls “french toast latte,” with just the right touch of sweet.

There’s a cast of offstage characters, too. “I have 27 aunts and uncles and 30 first cousins, and we’re using well-loved family recipes,” Kimberly said.

The catch: “We’ve never done this before, so we’re learning as we go along,” Monica said last week from behind the granite order counter.

How did this happen? “Roy, Kimberly, Robert and I bought Mom and Dad’s place when they passed, simply because of sentimental feelings,” Monica said. “We rented it out for a while, but then we decided to do something with the property. Roy and Robert always wanted to open a coffee house, so that’s what we did. Roy and Kimberly and I say to each other, ‘Daddy and Mom are looking down and they’re as happy as they can be.’”

There’s also this: Third Strike hosts a barbecue-and-beer happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., served only on the weekdays that the Sacramento River Cats play at home on Raley Field, a brief walk away. The idea is for fans to have a pre-game chicken or pork ribs dinner ($11 and $13, respectively). Which means the next three will be today, Monday and Tuesday ( www.milb.com/schedule/index.jsp?sid=t105 has the complete River Cats schedule).

We tasted the ribs, and they hit a grand slam. Roy marinates them in three kinds of citrus juice, soy sauce and ginger (among other ingredients) and rubs them with a proprietary blend of “eight or nine” spices he grinds by hand. The ribs were meaty, moist and tender, oinking with flavors that seemed to improve with each bite. In a word: excellent. The sauce – a bit of sweet, a touch of heat, appropriately served on the side – is “my wife’s grandmother’s recipe,” he said.

Is there a chance the ribs will move to the regular lunch menu? And what will become of them when the River Cats season ends? That’s still undecided, but “we’ll do what we have to do,” said Roy, who starts the ribs ritual at 6 a.m. for the 4 p.m. dinners.

“The ribs are very labor-intensive and it’s a matter of, ‘Can we handle it?’ ” Monica said. Then she added, “When my kids were little, I would say to my mom, ‘Isn’t he or she cute?” And she would look at me and say, “Monica, every old crow thinks her crow is the blackest.’ I’m sorry, I know I’m biased, but those ribs are the best in Sacramento.”

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