Reviewing restaurants is an act of journalism in which your critic (me) travels the region visiting all kinds of eateries to establish various benchmarks. It stands to reason that I will encounter a few excellent restaurants, along with a few so bad you might expect the tempestuous Gordon Ramsay to barge in and shout expletives as you choke down a dried-out hamburger that had been, oh, I dunno, reheated in a microwave.
This reviewing process – often rewarding, sometimes thrilling and only occasionally fraught with assaults on one's gastrointestinal fortitude – is about gathering information, sizing up the performance and comparing it to the competition.
I've often wondered when the disastrous restaurant experience would befall me, where my palate is hijacked, my stomach terrorized.
That time has come, at a place called Pork Belly Grub Shack. You want a rating with stars? How about a Purple Heart for yours truly?
For many months, I had counted on returning to this edgy, adventurous eatery in suburbia because it was run by two of the best chefs in Sacramento under the age of 35 – Bill Ngo of Kru and Aimal Formoli of Formoli's Bistro.
These two dudes are talented, ambitious, smart and conscientious. They source the best ingredients and employ all manner of techniques to bring out the best in their food.
Here's what I said in early 2012 in a "First Impressions" piece: "The Grub Shack is a chance for Ngo and Formoli to go downscale and informal while still showing off their inventiveness and their ability to showcase flavors and textures. Done right, (pork belly) can be crispy on the outside and dreamy and creamy on the inside."
When my return visits were frighteningly bad – so very different from those earlier encounters – I knew something was amiss. Either Ngo and Formoli had undergone simultaneous lobotomies, had embraced the wonders of packaged food, or they had ditched this restaurant altogether.
As it happens, Ngo and Formoli sold the Grub Shack a few months back, a transaction that took place under the radar. We hadn't heard a thing about it. But, with horrible flavors still dancing on my palate when I telephoned Formoli and got the lowdown, it was beginning to make sense.
Formoli said he and Ngo were so busy with their own restaurants that they couldn't maintain their high standards at this new venture. Formoli's wife, Suzanne Ricci, had created the very entertaining menu specifically with her husband's and Ngo's cooking chops in mind.
The buyers bought the concept. They inherited the menu. But they couldn't recreate the passion and they certainly couldn't duplicate the skills needed to pull it off.
Unwittingly, I went there expecting to be wowed. I had had the pork belly all kinds of ways when it first opened and loved it. The burgers were incredible, including one with the yolk from a perfectly fried egg oozing everywhere, and one called "Big Piggin'," which included two thick strips of pork belly on top of the beef patty.
Everything back then was fun and lively and brimming with quality. It wasn't fine dining. It was more like a celebration of the kind of food a chef might wolf down after hours.
My first clue was with my sense of smell. Yes, it was the aroma of rancid meat, an all-too-familiar mix of sweet and scary as I brought a banh mi sandwich close to my lips. I had just watched an employee clumsily assembling this thing and thought to myself, "Has she ever actually done this before?" She fumbled and bumbled and finally arrived at what looked like a sandwich.
I took my seat. I sniffed. I paused. I looked around. And, as my eyes began to water, I dug deep. In the interests of journalism, of expanding those benchmarks, I ate that foul banh mi – or some of it. I ate a reheated hamburger drowning in a dark sauce. I ate a rice bowl in which the rice was dried out, clumped together and clearly had just been warmed up in a microwave.
I ate pork belly fries where the pork had been cooked well in advance and had dried out something fierce. Dried-out chicken? They've got that, too. It's called "Funky Chicken," and it left me gasping for water. Everything here is pretty funky, but not in a good way.
I thought I had reached the depths. It could get no worse. To the companions I dragged out here, I found new ways to apologize, reminding them that this gig has winners and losers.
Then I got the bright idea of ordering macaroni and cheese. I had just eaten a rather amazing mac and cheese at Broderick Roadhouse. I ate an incredible mac and cheese with rock shrimp from Juno's for my birthday. Those were my benchmarks.
Goodness, how can you screw up mac and cheese? First, make it float in a soupy, molten mix in which sodium and a host of unfamiliar seasonings are swimming around. The pasta should be dried out, reheated and tough to chew. Top it off with aging pork belly cubes and you've reached the nadir of comfort food ineptitude.
The hip catchphrase at Pork Belly Grub Shack is "Come get your grub on!!!" That made sense when Formoli and Ngo, two cool guys covered in tattoos, ruled the roost. Now it's an empty phrase in need of revision: "Get your grub on – at your peril."
The pork belly dishes were so bad over three visits that it nearly erased my joy for pork belly. I had forgotten why I liked it and how to eat it. So I ventured over to Magpie Cafe, my benchmark for greatness in so many ways, and ordered, of all things, a pork belly salad.
I watched the line cook in the distance standing over the hot pan, searing a crisp crust onto the oversize rectangles of pork belly that had already been brined and then cooked confit-style over low heat for several hours, then cooled and pressed and cut, and finally, finished with such hearty elegance in a hot pan with a glaze of honey and sweet wine. It turned out to be one of the finest dishes I had ever eaten.
Pork Belly Grub Shack never set out to be Magpie. And if it wasn't for the confusion over the original owners and the new folks now running the show, I might have just walked away.
But this is an act of journalism and sometimes you need your news straight and unfiltered: Now you know that Formoli and Ngo sold Pork Belly Grub Shack and, in doing so, cleared the way for a whole new and unfortunate benchmark.
Pork Belly Grub Shack
4261 Truxel Road, Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Beverage options: Soft drinks, no alcohol
Vegetarian friendly: No
Noise level: Moderate
Overall: one star
If you sought this place out because you heard about the cool menu and the two dynamic chefs cooking the food, you will be stopped in your tracks, as we were, by how bad the food actually is. The new owners may have bought the concept, kept the menu and continue to use the hip slogans, but the food is simply terrible.
Food: 1/2 star
When we received our banh mi sandwich, we were curious. That aroma, was it a new pickling style? Some kind of hybrid cilantro? No, it was rancid meat – thick, pale slabs of pork belly that tasted as if they had been left out in the sun. That may have been the worst of the meals, but the cooking throughout our visits – a reheated burger, parched pork belly, poor-quality greens and dried-out cucumbers in the salad – never rose to the level of competent. The fries are actually decent. The mac and cheese, soupy and sodium-laden, is the worst we've ever tasted.
Service: Two stars
Friendly. You order at the counter, so there's not much beyond order-taking.
Ambiance: Two stars
Generic strip-mall feel to the place, more like a fast food chain.
Even if they paid you to eat here, it wouldn't be worth it.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.