A few things have changed at Swiss Buda bar since the 1970s, ’80s and into the ’90s. The food, for one. Part of the clientele demographic, for another. Ownership, for a third, though you’d never know it. Some call it a dive bar, but we prefer to think of it as a timeless set piece from another era – even though we did get panhandled while sitting at our table.
In the early years, the former Japanese restaurant would fill with working people and small-business owners. Helping set the “aloha” tone in those decades was the late Mel Ah-Yun, the self-described “Chinese Hawaiian Portuguese” bigger-than-life character who was an engaging presence there for 50 years. He started as a bartender, became a partner, and then was the sole owner from 2007 until his death in 2012 at age 75.
In a Sacramento Bee interview, he explained how the joint got its name: “(Early co-owner) Pete Rossi was Italian Swiss and the other (co-owner’s) Japanese slang name was ‘Buda head.’ They talked about (naming it) the Jade Buda, Buda this, Buda that. I suggested Swiss Buda.”
It’s in a strip mall that also houses a psychic reader and the River City Gun Exchange. At the door is a dress-code sign that reminds customers that after 9 p.m., their pants must be pulled up around their waists, and their shirts must have sleeves. Oh, and no “long chains.”
Inside, we found atmosphere and character, and a barful of chummy regulars. A younger crowd shows up on weekends, we’ve been told.
It’s a rather dimly lit place watched over by mounted gamefish (ahi tuna, marlin, sailfish), elks’ heads, vintage and sports-centric photos. A long, old-fashioned wooden shuffleboard “court” with heavy metal pucks is retro entertainment that seems more engaging than the video games sitting in a corner.
“If it was in midtown, it would be full all the time,” said a lunch pal.
In the parking lot we’d noticed a massive smoker on a trailer. Pitmaster Eric McFadden has operated Sacramento City BBQ inside Swiss Buda since December, on a lease-the-kitchen basis. He also runs Sacramento Catering Co. and has the Gourmet hot dog cart at the corner of Ninth and O streets in downtown Sacramento.
For 10 years, McFadden was the cook at the Zebra Club at 19th and P streets in midtown, before he opened a restaurant called Good Eats inside Vic’s IGA market in South Land Park.
“I had a full restaurant there,” McFadden recalled. “I smoked (BBQ) out front every day.” Then, one day last March, suddenly Vic’s was locked and dark, a walk-up to its bankruptcy. “It took a week for me to get everything out of there. I had to leave a $4,000 stove (because of lack of a storage space).”
McFadden’s menu is surprisingly lengthy, from breakfast (chicken-fried steak, linguica and eggs) to the lunch/dinner focus on sandwiches (grilled steak, pastrami, shrimp po’ boy) and, of course, ’cue ($6 to $17). “This is California-style barbecue I smoke for five hours,” he said. “Yes, I make my own sauce.”
Via phone, I chatted with current owner Mel “Bull’’ Ah-Yun Jr. “We went through some changes, but it has the same vibe as before,” he said. “Now we have Eric, who likes to cook and wants to be here. (The clientele) is mostly neighborhood folks, but we’re also getting some of Eric’s followers.”
We settled on a sampler platter of pork ribs, tri-tip, hot link and chicken, with sides of collard greens, potato salad, greens and red beans ’n’ rice. A few minutes later, McFadden delivered plates to our table. “All right, gentlemen,” he said, “it’s time to get dirty a little bit.”
We went through the platter, agreeing that the chicken was tender and juicy, the crispy hot link appropriately fiery, and the four well-seasoned sides fresh-tasting and better than good. The ribs and tri-tip showed plenty of flavor, but were somewhat tough.
But, hey, the line at McFadden’s order window was continuous, and the ambiance inside Swiss Buda is worth appreciating, as it won’t be coming around ever again.
How extreme is hummus?
Lunch pal Dino Rotas led us to the family-operated Extreme Hummus, housed in a former fast-food restaurant building with a drive-through.
In an impromptu tasting, we lined up a half-dozen flavors of house-made hummus and baskets of warm pita bread. Hummus, remember, is a spread of mashed or puréed chickpeas (garbanzo beans) blended with tahini (a paste made from toasted sesame seeds), olive oil, lemon and garlic. Each flavor was chilled and fresh-tasting.
Here’s our ranking, from top to bottom: garlic-bean (great balance, not too garlicky), spicy red pepper (nice bite of heat), original (stands tall on its own), spinach (more garlicky than the garlic-bean) and cilantro (in need of a lot more cilantro). Finishing last, ironically, was the “extreme,” the restaurant’s namesake. Its confused, sour taste sent us back to the garlic-bean.
A more substantial choice was the excellent chicken kabob, chunks of tender, marinated fowl with shocks of flavor. Unfortunately, the overcooked white rice that came with it lacked flavor.
Extreme Hummus, 7898 Zenith Drive, Citrus Heights; 916-727-2500, www.extremehummusgyro.com.
Sac City BBQ inside Swiss Buda
Where: 2342 Fruitridge Road, Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. weekends. Breakfast is served “all day” on weekends.
Food: ☆☆ 1/2
Ambiance: ☆☆☆☆ for purists (☆☆ for tourists)
How much: $-$$
Information: 916-949-1850, to-go orders 916-421-6947