The people in charge of the revived Joe Marty’s emphasize that the sports bar and restaurant in the Tower Theatre complex on Broadway is a “work in progress.”
The same could be said for most 4-month-old restaurants that The Bee reviews. But it does seem especially true of Joe Marty’s Bar and Grille, the concrete-floored, high-ceilinged bar/restaurant that occupies the gutted, rehabbed spaces that once held the divey but beloved Joe Marty’s bar and El Chico restaurant.
Former Chicago Cub and Sacramento Solon Marty opened his bar on J Street in 1938. In 1951, he moved it to Broadway, down the street from Edmonds Field, where the Triple-A Solons played. Baseball fans, former players and assorted other neighborhood denizens swilled liquor and swapped stories at the stalwart, memorabilia-filled Land Park watering hole even after Marty’s death in 1984.
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A kitchen fire finally closed the place in 2005. It sat dormant until December, when local businessmen Devon Atlee and Jack Morris opened the current iteration, which features an Americana menu of hot dogs, sandwiches and salads (plus breakfast on weekends), a full bar and seven TVs that recently were tuned to early season baseball games.
But Marty’s has shown noticeable forward movement – or the progress part of the work-in-progress status that co-owner Atlee and restaurant general manager Kelly Ariza cited when they spoke to The Bee last week – even since December. Or at least its food has. If new Sacramento restaurants were a baseball team, Joe Marty’s would be a strong contender for the “most improved” award.
We shouldn’t have noticed the food the night we visited, in December. We’d come in for a drink, and to see the place. I’d never been to the original, which closed just after I moved to town.
But when we entered the new space, which is clean in design but a bit plain apart from the baseball-themed photos and other memorabilia on the walls, there were no seats in the bar area. So we sat in the restaurant area, which occupies the left half of the building as one enters. Because we were taking up precious restaurant seats – seats for which people were waiting – we ordered a few food items, including the wings.
Although I knew I would not be reviewing these wings, they were so singularly terrible that it was not as if I could wipe the experience from my brain. They tasted as if they had been boiled, with the toughness to match. I was so taken aback by this texture that I don’t recall any sauce at all. A friend of mine had the grilled cheese sandwich, and remarked that as hard as it was to screw up a grilled cheese, Joe Marty’s had managed it.
We’d had better food at ballparks. High school ballparks.
Flash forward to my three review visits in recent weeks, when the food had improved by – to use sports parlance – 110 percent. The wings, though not quite hot enough in temperature, held a highly memorable lime-Sriracha sauce, its heat and tang grounded by butter, and its garlic component fragrant enough to fill the air around the table yet subtle to taste.
The panko-coated French fries were crisp outside and creamy in. In other words, fried perfectly. The “grand slam dog,” the $10.95 price of which causes one to blanch at first ($11 for a hot dog?), is hearty and tasty enough to merit the price. A pliable yet sturdy Village Bakery bun holds a Nathan’s beef hot dog plus Joe Marty’s house-made pulled pork and an apple-jalapeño slaw. The salt from the hot dog, sweetness from the pork, vinegar brightness from the slaw and the pepper’s heat work together in every multi-faceted bite. Plus, the hot dog comes with those panko-coated fries.
Joe Marty’s starting menu was designed by Scott Leysath, the “Sporting Chef” from the Sportsman Channel. He seems a counter-intuitive choice, since he specializes in food from the wild and Joe Marty’s ballpark-style menu is the very definition of domestic.
Yet things seem to be meshing in the Joe Marty’s kitchen, despite Atlee and Ariza (she co-owned and managed Crawdads for many years) characterizing it as being in flux. A kitchen manager came and went, and Joe Marty’s is seeking a new person to take charge, they said.
But there appear to be some fine utility players among the line cooks, judging by the dishes we mentioned above and by the satisfying “Marty burger.” Its well-seasoned Angus patty held a nice amount of char counterbalanced by acidic dill pickle and snappy red onion.
The grilled chicken breast on the “spicy chicken salad” is tender and loaded with Buffalo-sauce flavor. This dish hits all the vegetable-based-but-still-a-splurge marks one seeks when ordering a salad at a sports bar. It contains ranch dressing and blue cheese crumbles.
Joe Marty’s recently introduced an homage to the broasted (marinated, battered, then pressure-fried) chicken for which the original bar was known. This $10.95 entree comes with three pieces of chicken that are juicy inside, crispy outside and approach the edge of being too salty without tumbling over it, plus crunchy/cushy potato wedges.
Joe Marty’s winning streak ended with the pulled-pork sandwich, the meat within which was exceptionally dry on the day we tried it. The pretzels in the “Parmesan pretzel bite” appetizer were nearly taste free. The sweet-potato tots also lack much flavor. The house-made balsamic dressing on the “Little League salad” was an oil slick.
The restaurant offers pictorial tributes to Marty, the Solons and other baseball heroes from the region. Former Dodger Steve Sax, who is from West Sacramento, has been in to the new Joe Marty’s, Ariza said, as has Del Campo High School graduate and longtime San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker. A framed Sax jersey hangs over the bar/restaurant’s entrance.
The crowd on our visits skewed quite a bit older than typical sports bar patrons. Joe Marty’s seems to draw a lot of seniors, many of whom no doubt made fond memories at the original bar.
And they’re not just eating, but contributing memorabilia. Ariza said a diner recently informed her that he was in possession of some official Solons scorecards he wanted to donate.
Because the neighborhood clearly holds the old bar close to its heart, and because of the food’s dramatic improvement during the new iteration’s short life, we are feeling sentimental toward Joe Marty’s. So we underplayed the menu’s lack of creativity, that watery mixed drink we ordered at the bar, and the spotty lunch service we received on one visit – the place seemed understaffed – when we compiled its scorecard.
Joe Marty’s is a 2 1/4 -star restaurant. But we’re giving it 2 1/2 stars, because we believe ties go to the runner. Especially when that runner is trying to honor a Sacramento institution.
Joe Marty’s Bar and Grille
1500 Broadway, Sacramento. www.gojoemartys.com, 916-382-9022
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 9:30 p.m.-midnight Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar. Compact list of red, white and sparkling wines. Beers on draft include Track 7 and a rotating local tap.
Gluten-free options: No
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Ambiance: Concrete floors and unfinished ceilings give the place a stark feel that’s warmed up, somewhat, by the many pieces of baseball memorabilia on the walls.
The place offers sentimental appeal, satisfying if unimaginative bar food and decent prices.
The “Marty burger,” “grand slam dog” and spicy chicken salad all are winners. The Sriracha-lime wings were tasty but not hot enough, temperature-wise. The pork in the pulled-pork sandwich was dry and the Parmesan pretzel-bite bucket appetizer nearly tasteless.
Friendly but not especially noteworthy, apart from one lunch visit, when the place seemed understaffed, and it took some time to get our order taken.
Sandwiches are hearty and come with fries or a side salad, for $7.95-$11.50. The “cheesecake in a jar” dessert tastes creamy and fresh and costs just $5.95. Specialty cocktails run a reasonable $6.50-$9.50. But although prices for pretzel bites and-sweet potato tots are not ballpark-level high, $4.95 still seems like too much for such flavor-lacking appetizers.