La Cosecha is a Mexican restaurant and urban-renewal project in one.
The 3-month-old venture by restaurateur Ernesto Delgado (Mayahuel, Mesa Mercado) and the city of Sacramento seeks to help revitalize downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza, a hub for homeless people when special events such as Concerts in the Park are not occurring.
The goal of the public-private project – the city footed about half the $1.1 million bill for the venture, Delgado said – is to bring more people out to the park on a more regular basis. To make it more like Mexican plazas that are the hearts of their towns.
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All indications on our review visits to La Cosecha were that progress was being made on the civic end. The crowd who came to drink and listen to a live band on a recent Friday night was so large, people were sitting on the redwood fencing bordering La Cosecha’s outdoor area. When we visited on recent weekdays, we saw workers from nearby offices patiently waiting in line for cashiers to take their lunch orders.
These patrons came despite there being no special events the park on on those days, and despite the potential deterrent of an ongoing sewer project that has limited traffic to one lane on Ninth Street, which La Cosecha faces.
Delgado thoroughly renovated the city-owned structure that once held Cafe Soleil. The redwood, meant to evoke barns, plays into the new restaurant’s name, which translates to “the harvest” in English. When asked about the name’s origins, Delgado mentions Sacramento’s “farm-to-fork” movement as well as the farm-labor movement led by the man for whom this plaza is named.
With its light-filled interior, welcoming al-fresco bar, and outdoor tables and chairs placed on an unpaved patio, La Cosecha does not look as if it were just built. It feels as natural to the setting as trees and grass.
But if one looks past the design and civic mindedness, to La Cosecha purely as a restaurant, it impresses less. Several of its dishes disappointed, its cocktails did not dazzle, and service never moved beyond adequate.
Born in Mexico and raised in Napa County, Delgado is a gracious host who likely will be familiar to patrons of his restaurants, all of which he usually visits in a day, he said. He also is willing to stick his neck out where others might not, by opening a restaurant in a city park, or in a newfangled public market, as he did with Mesa Mercado in Carmichael.
Delgado likes to say he “inspires” dishes at his restaurants. He works with chefs to hammer out the details. To develop La Cosecha’s opening menus, he collaborated with Adam Pechal, the talented chef formerly of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en.
Pechal signed on to work for La Cosecha for three months, including one before the restaurant opened, Delgado said. He was gone by the time we made our visits, leaving us to wonder if things might have gone differently were he still there. Most issues with the food involved execution, and might have been prevented were a sure hand like Pechal around.
The achiote chicken in the large, $9.50 burrito we ordered on our first lunch visit was plentiful, but it was also lukewarm and tasted under-seasoned. The burrito also came with guacamole, when we had declined when the cashier asked if we wanted to add it. We do not like guacamole in burritos, and especially not La Cosecha’s guacamole, which also tastes under-seasoned.
Underwhelmed by its other ingredients, we homed in on the satisfying queso fundido inside the burrito. Made with three cheeses and house-crafted chorizo, the tangy-spicy queso tasted even better on its own, as an $8.50 starter. The queso fundido also contributed to the overall tastiness of La Cosecha’s best item – a burger with well-seasoned Niman Ranch beef and earthy, roasted Poblano peppers within a sturdy yet airy bun.
The burger seems reasonably priced at $12.75, and then less so when you notice fries cost $2.25 more and then try those fries, which are undercooked.
Still, things had improved dramatically on our second lunch visit, when we had the burger, queso fundido and a surprisingly hearty $7.75 “Tijuana Caesar” salad containing fresh chopped Romaine nearly as crunchy as the salad’s fried tortilla strips.
We also liked the peach salsa – La Cosecha buys fruit from the plaza’s Wednesday farmers’ market, Delgado said – used on the fish tacos. But we were put off by the carne asada tacos (three for $13, like the fish), the meat in which was too spice-forward, masking the beefy taste we sought.
We tried the carne asada tacos again during a dinner visit, at which point they tasted chili-dominated and as if whatever grilling had happened to them was so long in the past that no smokiness, char or other obvious indicator could be detected. Almost everything we tried seemed a little off that night.
The tortilla chips, which we previously had liked for their thickness and perfect level of salt, tasted stale. The sauce on the $13 enchiladas verdes lacked nuance: The flavor was too intense, too pointed. The green sauce in the $12 shrimp cocktail lacked flavor dimension, and the boiled shrimp within it much flavor at all.
But the food at least always came out quickly, during lunch, when La Cosecha offers counter service, or dinner, when it becomes full service. The quick turnaround time was vital on one lunch visit, when I only had an hour, and had to stand in line 15 minutes before ordering.
Service was friendly enough throughout our visits, but there were no standout moments beyond one in which a staff member who had been cleaning tables near us noticed we were done with a few dishes and asked if we needed a box. We liked this proactive approach. But she never returned.
Sitting at La Cosecha’s outdoor bar can be pretty delightful, especially on milder evenings. The rustic element and Delta breeze can give a visit the feel of a getaway within Sacramento’s urban center. But can be a guilty getaway, given the contrast between the restaurant’s upwardly mobile vibe and the scene just outside its redwood fencing.
That scene is of the dozens of homeless people who occupied the park on my visits. Seeing them sitting or lying beneath trees, suitcases or other belongings nearby, as I walked toward La Cosecha, evoked memories of people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks in San Francisco as I walked to restaurants or movie theaters.
But that was San Francisco. Before my review visits to La Cosecha, the gulf between haves and have-nots had never before seemed so San Francisco-level-stark in Sacramento.
Maybe this means I am a Pollyanna who should have been “woke” long before my Eureka! moment en route to gourmet tacos. Or maybe all the downtown development tied to the arena has displaced homeless people from previous, less-visible downtown spots and sent them to the park.
What I know is my most lasting impression of La Cosecha was not of food, or service, but a sign at its door announcing its restrooms were for customers only.
The city closed the plaza’s public restrooms before he came in, Delgado said, due to sanitation issues and other safety concerns. And it’s hard to envision how it could ever work for La Cosecha’s restrooms to be open to everyone, especially at night.
Yet there is something inescapably unfair about there being restrooms within a business underwritten by the city, inside a public park, that members of the public cannot use without buying something.
It is so unfair, it has turned a food critic momentarily into a social critic, who wonders why progress and the meeting of basic human needs cannot somehow coexist.
Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (or later) Friday. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar. Draft and bottled beers. Limited wine list.
Vegetarian friendly: Not especially.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Depends. When a band is playing, it is loud.
Ambiance: This renovated restaurant inside Cesar Chavez Plaza pulls off its rustic, woodsy look so well that it blends in well with the environment. The outdoor bar is a fun place to be, and things get very lively when there is a band playing.
The place is inviting, and appears to be succeeding in trying to bring more people into the plaza on non-special event days. But the food can be lackluster.
There are some real stars, like the burger and queso fundido, but other items tasted under-seasoned or slightly undercooked.
Friendly enough but otherwise unremarkable, beyond the staff member who asked if we wanted a box and then never brought it. Food comes out fast, but the wait in line at lunch can be 15 minutes long.
Tacos run three for $10 or three for $13, depending on ingredients – on par with other midscale places in the central city. No price struck us as outrageous, or as a bargain.