Tahoe Joe's Famous Steakhouse in Folsom was seemingly humming along, but then abruptly went dark in May from lack of business.
Ten stores, mostly in California, remain open in the mini-chain, specializing in steaks that we too often found tough and fatty.
In fairness, the former Folsom site is the only one we've visited.
The decor was Tahoe rustic-ski lodge, dominated by logs, river rocks, knotty pine ceilings and paneling, "tepee" lampshades, vintage skis and snowshoes, and photos from mountain winters long gone by.
All summer long, the restaurant-hungry Folsom/El Dorado Hills area held its collective breath, waiting to see what would move in to the spacious building. After much local speculation and speedy construction, Skipolini's Pizza opened Dec. 17.
Skipolini's is a family- operated mini-chain with six stores in Antioch, Clayton, Concord, Rocklin and Walnut Creek, and a lengthy menu of OK items.
In case there's any doubt about its target clientele, a big sign in the dining room announces, "Food, friendship and family."
Lots of family. Children can even build their own pepperoni or cheese pizza at their family's booth or table.
Coming to the rescue of harried moms and dads is the full bar, offering nine specialty cocktails and wines by the glass and bottle.
The star of the house is pizza, of course, with plenty of optional toppings. General manager Victor Perez estimates the restaurant sells more than 1,000 pizzas a month.
But the kitchen doesn't stop there. Keep turning the pages of the clunky, oversize menu to find 13 appetizers, soups, salads, pasta (even Cajun pasta and mac 'n' cheese), panini and the like ($5 to $26).
Replacing the Tahoe Joe clutter (some knotty pine remains) is a sleeker incarnation that showcases a gas- fueled fireplace, refurbished bar with a gorgeous granite top, three stylish murals, chandeliers, new curtains, an exhibition kitchen (where cooks toss and catch pizza dough) and a gelato bar (don't pass it by).
A tall fireplace with a built-in 60-inch TV screen dominates the expanded patio. The food servers are sharp, the bartenders are personable. Everyone, it seems, has a smile.
The décor is fine, but the dining booths are way too snug for adult comfort and maneuvering, especially when you struggle to handle the heavy menus without knocking over the water glasses, or try to accommodate a big pizza, plates and utensils at the same time.
The lunch pals and I started with crispy-fried ravioli, with creamy sauce for dipping. Fine, but nothing special. The "Skip's Dip" is a round, warm loaf of crusty bread with a piquant dipping sauce of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, herbs, garlic and Parmesan, enough for eight.
Our family-size pizza was loaded with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, jalapeños, pepperoni and fresh tomato, half with creamy pesto, the other half with marinara sauce. Someone at the table wanted anchovies, and our server brought a few on a side plate. Nice touch.
When we asked for "thin crust," the server said, "We don't have thin crust." So we settled for "thinner." Still, the puffy crust was surprisingly light. The pie was tasty, sure, but didn't get a "Wow!"
Potentially more interesting were two pasta dishes – gamberetti (shrimp) ravioli in a creamy citrus sauce with crisp, fresh prawns, and fettuccine topped with tender pieces of chicken and mushrooms in creamy pesto sauce.
Both dishes were served appropriately hot, and both needed a lot more pasta and fewer marinated artichoke halves and chewy pieces of sun-dried tomato.
"You can't judge an Italian restaurant if you don't taste the spaghetti," said one lunch pal, so we finished with a bowl of spaghetti and marinara sauce from the children's menu. The pasta was standard, the red sauce fresh-tasting but slightly bitter.
"I would bring my grandchildren here; they would love it," said another lunch pal.
P.S.: Curiously, the menu also lists the "labor-inducing prego pizza." The bizarre explanation is on the company website, telling the story of a 4-pound pizza that induces labor in pregnant women. With testimonials from dozens of new moms. Decide for yourself.
The Chinese-dining hunt
Our ongoing search for great Chinese food continued the other day with a stop at the small, family-run Szechuan Garden in a Raley's-anchored shopping center. The dining room is wood-paneled and dated, the menu extensive.
We sampled doughy potstickers improved with dips in garlicky sauce; well-seasoned homemade won tons in thin, lukewarm broth that gained flavor from the pork, shrimp, green onion and other veggies in the bowl; and tasty general's shrimp and orange chicken, looking very much alike in their dark jackets of fried batter. Which was which? Hard to tell.
The top dish was succulent, honey-garlic short ribs – tender and moist, sweet and garlicky.
The hunt goes on.
Szechuan Garden, 4804 San Juan Ave., Fair Oaks; (916) 961-9381, www.fairoaksszechuan-garden.com.
Where: 191 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom. A sister restaurant in Rocklin is at 6600 Lonetree Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Food: ★ ★ 1/2
Ambience: ★ ★ ★
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 355-8555 (Folsom), (916) 789-1818 (Rocklin), www.skipolinispizza.com