With another year's adventures in casual dining under the belt, so to speak, here's a subjective list of the 10 places my lunch pals and I especially liked in 2012, in order of preference.
But first, to be clear: This column's agenda is to find small, diverse, mostly family-run places that offer recommendable dishes at fair prices, and bring them to readers' attention. We concentrate on lunchtime fare, and sometimes cover breakfast and brunch.
Most of our destinations are local, but because Sacramentans love to travel, we also hit the road.
About the star-rating system: My four stars aren't the same four stars that my colleague, Blair Anthony Robertson, assigns to the fine-dining houses he covers.
Take the hamburger as an example. The half-pound hand-formed burger at, say, Maranello, is far better than most burgers around town and rated four stars in this column. We're not comparing it to Blair's four-star dishes served at, say, Meadowood in St. Helena. It's all in the context.
1. Sammy's Rockin' Island Bar & Grill, 238 Vernon St., Roseville; (916) 773-7625, www.sammys beachbarandgrill.com, www.redrocker.com
The Red Rocker continues his restaurant run with this two-level, 10,000-square-foot showplace. Bonus: live rock 'n' roll Thursday-Saturday nights.
What's good: Kahlua pork glazed with pineapple-ginger barbecue sauce, candied-bacon cheeseburger, seafood bisque, Cuban sandwich and anything from the raw bar.
2. T&R Taste of Texas, 3621 Broadway, Sacramento; (916) 739-1669
Pitmaster Rodney Ray learned his craft in the Lone Star state and creates Texas-size flavors in a Rhode Island-size space. His proprietary barbecue sauces help define what 'cue is meant to be.
What's good: ribs, tri-tip, chicken, hot links and the rarely seen fried pork ribs. Moist and salty, they taste like a crisp hybrid of pork chop and chicken. Side dishes are outstanding.
3. Boxing Donkey, 300 Lincoln St., Roseville; (916) 797-3665, www.theboxingdonkey.com
Ideally, an Irish-style pub is a comfortable hideaway where the quality of the fare matches the quantity of the whiskey and beer. Here it is.
What's good: clam chowder, fish 'n' chips (wild Atlantic cod and skinny fries hand-cut from Kennebec potatoes) and "pork wings," sweet-spicy trimmed-down shanks with the meat on the bone.
Veteran restaurateurs Matt and Yvette Woolston bring their "seasonal, local and sustainable" philosophy to the art gallery.
What's good: cold-salad trio, soups, burgers, pizza, sandwiches, bavette steak, marinated "mahogany" chicken and three-citrus salmon. The menu is ever-changing, so look for daily specials.
5. Ruchi Indian Cuisine, 601 E. Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 983-2871, www.indianruchi.com
Bold flavors result from creative seasoning, using ginger, cardamom, anise, cinnamon, coriander, tumeric, tamarind, nutmeg, mace, saffron, fennel, hot peppers and more.
What's good: The keyword: experiment. Lamb, seafood, chicken, curries and vegetarian dishes benefit from flavorful sauces – the hotter, the better. Naan (flatbread) goes with everything.
6. Ryu Jin Ramen House, 1831 S St., Sacramento; (916) 341-0488, www.ryujinramen.com
The secret of great ramen is the broth, and chef Viengxay "Sai" Vongnalith cures his for 26 hours.
What's good: Aka tongotsu ("red" ramen) is fiery, pork-based broth brimming with noodles, thick slices of pork, steamed cabbage, black mushroom, red ginger, green onion and a seasoned whole egg. Don't overlook octopus-cabbage cakes and fried oysters.
7. Village Pizza & Grill, 403 G St., Davis; (530) 750-0100, www.daviswiki.org
This is the sister of the terrific Village Bakery, 814 Second St., Davis; (530) 750-2255, and it shows.
What's good: pizza, burgers, kebabs, falafel, fried-fish sandwich on ciabatta.
8. Dingus McGee's, 14500 Musso Road, Auburn; (530) 878-1000, wwwdingusmcgees.com
The revamped roadhouse has a heap of history, as well as an expanded lunch menu.
What's good: St. Louis-style pork ribs, tropical-style voodoo salad with grilled prawns, shrimp po' boy, open-face New York steak sandwich.
9. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op Deli, 1900 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 455-2667, www.sacfoodcoop.com
An indoor picnic goes on at the co-op deli case, where the cooks have upped their game over the past year. Bonus: regularly scheduled cooking classes.
What's good: chicken drumettes, soups, beet and arugula salad, turkey wrap, spicy udon noodles, curried chicken and cherry turnover.
10. Stevie Boy Burgers, 6036 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento (near the intersection with Lemon Hill); no telephone, no website, cash only
Steve "Stevie" Hy is dedicated to his grill, his burgers and his hand-cut fries.
What's good: Stevie's only main dish is the hand-formed, half-pound hamburger, in six versions. It's tall, meaty, stacked high with thick-cut bacon, melted cheese and fresh condiments. The real thing.
ON THE ROAD
Bistro Jeanty, 6510 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-0103; www.bistrojeanty.com
Unpretentious dining in a self-conscious gourmet town.
Try: succulent pike dumplings with lobster sauce.
Chloe's French Cafe and Patisserie, 3883 Airway Drive, Santa Rosa; (707) 528-3095, www.chloesco.com
A culinary outpost with a surprisingly diverse menu.
Try: baked mac 'n' cheese, any pastry.
Yank Sing, 101 Spear St., San Francisco; (415) 781-1111, www.yanksing.com.
The definitive dim sum house in a dining capital brimming with Asian restaurants.
Try: Shanghai ginger pork dumplings with red wine vinegar and ginger.
Nico, San Carlos Street near Ocean Avenue, Carmel; (831) 624-6545 or www.nicorestaurant.com
A Mediterranean-Italian gem whose gastronomy seldom gets its due.
Try: spaghetti alla carbonara with pancetta.