Pulled into the crowded parking lot of the vintage Loehmann's Plaza the other day and walked by a lineup of chain restaurants, including Jack's Urban Eats. It plans to move into the much bigger space – now under renovation – vacated by Scott's Seafood Grill on June 18. Just an FYI.
Met two lunch pals at Noodles & Company, whose service style is known as "fast-casual" in restaurant-speak. That means you order at a counter, and the food is delivered to your table. The chain has about 300 outlets across the nation.
"Travel the globe without leaving your table" is its motto. That catchy conceit is largely based on the three rows of "international" noodle- and pasta-based dishes on the menu board. Let's see, there's Italian (two pennes, one cavatappi and one linguine), Asian (Japanese pan noodles, pad Thai, Bangkok curried rice noodles, Indonesian rice noodle stir-fry) and American (Wisconsin mac 'n' cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, steak stroganoff and buttered egg noodles).
Another FYI: Yes, spaghetti and meatballs is an American dish; you won't find it on menus in Italy. In early 1900s New York, Italian immigrant restaurateurs gradually Americanized their traditional Sunday family dinner by adding meatballs to sauced spaghetti and serving it to non-Italians as one dish, instead of serving a pasta course ("il primo") followed by a meat course ("il secondo").
Anyway, there's much to like about Noodles & Company, especially on winter days when a dish of hot, made-to-order comfort food can banish the chill.
The Noodles news is "slow-braised naturally raised pork," a recent addition to the menu. We dug in to five dishes, all with add-ons of shredded, slightly salty, carnitas-like pork.
Our favorite was Bangkok coconut curry (rice noodles topped with veggies), followed by penne rosa (pasta with silken tomato-cream sauce, spinach, tomato and Parmesan), truffle mac 'n' cheese (white truffle oil, portobello mushrooms and Parmesan), barbecue mac 'n' cheese (somehow, barbecue sauce doesn't go well with elbow macaroni) and a disappointingly plain Mediterranean salad (between the feta cheese and Kalamata olives, way salty). We liked the pork a whole lot.
The menu also offers soups, sandwiches and salads. Customize any dish to your liking with a variety of add-ons. Prices range from $4.29 to $8.
One more thing: Let's turn down the music and turn up the heat. We had difficulty conversing at our table, and it was warmer outside than inside.
While you're there, check out the $20,000 Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machine, a futuristic marvel that dispenses 121 choices, including orange-flavored Coke. Customers line up to have their pictures taken with the sleek Freestyle.
Noodles & Company in Loehmann's Plaza, 2435 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 484-7250, www.noodles.com. Other locations: 7405 Laguna Blvd., Elk Grove, (916) 478-0373; and in the Fountains, 1186 Roseville Parkway, Roseville, (916) 780-1441.
After lunch, we made a beeline for another Loehmann's store – and one of my go-to bakeries: Grateful Bread, on the scene for 22 years.
Offered are eight seasonal goodies ($4.50 to $15.75): Black Forest bread (chocolate and cherries), Italian pannetone (golden raisins and citron), Swedish rye limpa (orange rind and anise seed), German Christmas stollen (raisins, almonds, hazelnuts and citrus peel) and fruitcake (only 100 brandy-fed cakes were made).
Coming Thursday will be alpine lemon bread, a puckery treat with a loyal following. Also: Choose any bread, and master baker-owner Joe Artim will shape it into bears, wreaths and Christmas trees (by special order only).
There's one more holiday bread to mention: Fragrant orange stollen is a rich, citrus-loaded loaf that lasted all of 10 minutes once we got what was left of it home.
"The recipe came from a seminar on enriched dough held in 2005 at the San Francisco Baking Institute," Artim recalled. "The chef (who demonstrated it) was from the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena in the Napa Valley. We played with (the recipe) a little bit and tweaked it for our needs."
Grateful Bread, (916) 487-9179. Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
Casing the hot-dog joints
Wurst-lovers went into withdrawal when the midtown restaurant Capitol Dawg closed Nov. 20 (remember the Hot Italian?), but let's be optimistic and consider the ongoing options for darn good hot dogs and sausages. As a Dawg substitute, you could try:
Wienery, 715 56th St., Sacramento; (916) 455-0497, www.thewienerysacramento.com.
Wiener Works, 5207 Madison Ave., Sacramento; (916) 334-8711, www.weinerworksmadison.com.
Parker's, 1605 Douglas Blvd., Roseville; (916) 786-2202, www.parkershotdogs.com.
Ruffhaus, 4355 Town Center Blvd., El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-3647, www.ruffhaushotdogco.com
Hangtown Hotdogs, 374 Main St., Placerville; (530) 626-6546, www.placerville-downtown.org.
Hotdogger, 29 E St., Davis; (530) 753-6291, www.thehotdogger.com.
Burney's, 886 Lincoln Way, Auburn; (530) 887-1262.
Not enough? How about the nostalgia-inducing griddle-fried all-beef hot dog sandwich on slices of toasted white bread with mustard, catsup and caramelized onions at Steamers, 101 K St. in Old Sacramento; (916) 737-5252, www.steamersoldsac.com.
Or the traditional European sausage plate at Little Prague, 330 G St., Davis; (530) 756-1107, www.littleprague.com. That's four grilled wursts, handmade and supplied by Dirk Muller, owner of the estimable Morant's Old Fashioned Sausage Kitchen, 5001 Franklin Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 731-4377; www.morants-sausage.com.
One more FYI: Muller holds a meister certificate in meat processing from a school in Frankfurt, Germany. You won't find better sausages anywhere near here.