OneSpeed – so good, it's to lie for

01/10/2010 12:00 AM

08/13/2012 9:03 PM

OneSpeed has terrible, gag-inducing food. The people who work there are really funny- looking and much shorter than average, and they walk around in Lycra racing shorts and skimpy, sleeveless triathlon thingies. The chairs are rickety, and the one I sat in collapsed and I hurt myself. The funny- looking people just stood there and laughed. The front door sticks when you try to open it. It's just a bad place.

My recommendation: No one should go there.

What's more, Rick Mahan, the guy behind the food and the restaurant's bicycle theme, actually rides around town on a tricycle with a triple chainring. OneSpeed should really be called DorkSpeed.

There. I did it. I lied.

Overall: 3 1/2 stars
Service: 3 1/2 stars
Ambience: 2 1/2 stars
Food: 3 1/2 stars
Value: 4 stars

Maybe this isn't the most ethical moment in journalism, but I'd really like to go to OneSpeed once – just once – and not have to cool my heels for 20 minutes waiting for a table. The food, in all honesty, is worth the time – superb, straight-ahead cuisine, from the delectable nightly fish specials and delicious weekend breakfasts to the array of downright very-good pizzas.

Maybe I'd like to pass by that place just once, glance over at the big storefront windows and not see every table filled with people eating and having a good time.

Maybe you feel the same way. So I did you a favor.

That little fib at the outset is my attempt to thin the herd. I've just eliminated people who 1) skim newspaper articles, 2) move their lips when they read, 3) don't grasp sarcasm, and 4) live in caves and haven't heard that OneSpeed has enjoyed one of the most successful openings in local restaurant history.

Truth is, OneSpeed is to The Waterboy what Ad Hoc is to the French Laundry in Yountville – a fine chef's attempt at cuisine that is simple, fun and informal, an alternative to the refined fare at the restaurants that made their reputations.

Thomas Keller opened Ad Hoc because he wanted a place to get a hamburger. Mahan dreamed up OneSpeed because he wanted a place to get a pizza and share his passion with his neighbors.

Mahan, unlike Keller, is neither famous, Michelin-rated nor the author of three excellent books. But the owner and chef at The Waterboy on Capitol Avenue in midtown has been consistently turning out some of the best food known to Sacramento since he opened that place in 1997.

What's more, the food there keeps getting better.

So what, in all seriousness, are we to make of OneSpeed? It would be unfair to compare it with the finest white-tablecloth restaurants in the area because that's not what this place is trying to be.

OneSpeed is a neighborhood joint, nestled next to a hardware store and a "hot yoga" studio where people go into a very warm room and sweat like crazy while trying to touch their toes.

That said, just as chef Keller cannot resist elevating even casual food to near- perfection, Mahan thought he was opening a pizzeria but could not help himself.

The first time I visited was actually on opening night back in June. I came for the pizza but was so tempted by the salmon special that I ordered that, too.

What kind of pizzeria turns out exquisite salmon? Or grilled gypsy peppers, artichokes and steamed fennel? Or really good and pleasantly surprising mac and cheese? Or a very large serving of roast chicken hash with sage butter sauce topped with plump poached eggs? None, actually.

Another time, I couldn't get past the pan-seared mahi, the special that night, even though I thought the server said "ahi." I was looking forward to rare, red fish and got perfectly cooked, flaky white fish. No problem.

The restaurant is so noisy, a Learning Exchange class in lip-reading might be in order. When my girlfriend called one of the cooks a handsome fellow, I thought she said "your hands are yellow."

The 19 or so small plates, from the gnocchi in brodo to the carpaccio, are enough to keep most diners happy even without pizza. The prices range from $1.50 for focaccia to $10.50 for tomato-saffron risotto. Pizzas cost $12 to $14.50 and are what I would call medium in size. The delicious calzone with meatballs and mushrooms is $15.

Frankly, I was mildly disappointed in the pizza when I tried it the first three times.

To me, a perfect crust can be any thickness, though I prefer thin (but not puny-thin). The crust itself should have an aroma distinct from the toppings and cheese. There can be a crispy crunch to the outside, but it should have a chewy pull to it, a consistency I did not encounter when I first tried OneSpeed pies, which were otherwise very good because of the premium ingredients used for toppings.

The pizza has changed considerably. When I asked Mahan about it, he told me, "I'm so happy about how the crust evolved. It took 4 1/2 months to get the dough right. You have to remain open-minded."

That's actually the temperament of a fine chef. He had a good pizza but kept striving until he had a great pizza. Things must evolve until they are perfect.

"I was looking for the kind of pizza I first encountered at Chez Panisse 20 years ago," says Mahan. "It was crisp, a little chewy."

To get there, he experimented with different flours, settling on Giusto's all- purpose, which is mixed with water, salt, instant yeast and a touch of olive oil. The dough is allowed to ferment in the fridge for 36 hours, building flavor and texture that will reveal itself when the pizza is subjected to very high heat.

I have now tried every pizza on the menu, including one called "Rick's," which is as busy as he is, with chunks of potato, caramelized onions, pancetta, goat cheese, olives and arugula. My personal favorite is the house-made Italian sausage pizza with mozzarella, peperonata and broccoli rabe. Yes, the new crust is very good.

I could go on and on about the food, though the menu is limited to one page. There are only three "large plate" offerings: chicken cooked under a brick, flat iron steak and fresh fish of the day.

The wine list is also very fitting, with many moderately priced bottles, topping out at $47 for the always- excellent Frank Family chardonnay. Even OneSpeed's house white wine has developed a cult following. It's $3.75 a glass (same with the house red).

Mahan is actually far from being a dorky tricycle rider. He is a cyclist with more bikes than fingers, and he believes bikes can help make the world a better place. I agree with him on that one. He wants to encourage folks to ride to OneSpeed or even to work, as he does. Even his bike racks are cool.

Last time I locked my bike there, I waited 20 minutes for a table, and that was at lunch. Selfish desires notwithstanding, I don't really want that to change.

It's exciting to see a place do so well, be so hot and create this kind of excitement. It's great for east Sacramento and good for the food community as a whole.

Short of telling fibs, all I can do is stand back and applaud.

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