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This column usually applies the term “first impressions” to all aspects of an introductory visit to a restaurant. But walking into the new Oak Park taqueria La Venadita was such a disorienting experience that we’ll start with the more literal meaning.
I wandered into La Venadita one afternoon last week and kept wandering, past what I later would learn was the counter where one is supposed to order, and into the bar area beyond. The usual signposts that direct newcomers to how a place works were not there. A menu blackboard above the counter was blank, and therefore did not catch the eye. Employees smiled and said hi without voluntarily setting me on course.
Once at the bar, I asked where I was supposed to order, and was shown the counter, where I found a wrinkled sheet of paper near the register, a.k.a., the menu. The blackboard menu was blank, the young man who took my order said, because the menu still was being determined. So each diner had to wait until she or he reached the counter to become aware of food possibilities.
Granted, the place had been open about a week. But letting people know where to order is a basic that La Venadita, the Sacramento extension of an acclaimed Bay Area Mexican restaurant empire co-owned by Sacramento native Tom Schnetz, probably should have nailed on opening day.
My second impression, however, was a good one – of a large, airy renovated interior with walls of brick or hacienda-pink and big storefront windows. My third – and thankfully most lasting – impression was of expertly seasoned, moderately priced Mexican food that one can pair with a crisp draft beer or craft cocktail. Because La Venadita, which Schnetz owns with his brother, David, offers the unusual combination of highly casual Mexican food and a full bar.
Menu: La Venadita offers six tacos, with “crispy-shell carnitas” and “albondigas” (a riff on the soup) iterations among them. The taqueria also serves a salad, tostada and combination plates.
Price point: The substantial tacos are $3.50. Prices top out at $12 for combination plates. La Venadita sits on Third Avenue and 35th Street near Broadway and Oak Park Brewing Co., and Arthur Henry’s, other restaurants that have opened recently in renovated older buildings as part of a recent redevelopment surge in the challenged neighborhood. La Venadita is the most affordable of the three restaurants.
Ambiance: Tables within the dining room are spaced far enough apart so that diners do not feel like they’re on top of each other. Further opening up the space are side windows offering a view of an inviting patio that holds tables covered in colorful oil cloth.
Prints from Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists line the taqueria’s walls. La Venadita’s logo, painted on its front window, depicts Rivera’s wife, artist Frida Kahlo, with antlers on her head – an homage to Kahlo’s 1946 self-portrait “La Venadita (Little Deer),” in which she placed her head on a deer’s body pierced by arrows.
The painting was one of Kahlo’s many allusions to her own poor health.
Nom nom, everybody.
Drinks: La Venadita counteracts the mournful Kahlo art with its “Maria Feliz” cocktail, a happy rather than bloody mary with Aperol, bourbon, lemon and orange bitters. The taqueria also serves house cocktails with tequila, gin and vodka and offers Modelo Especial, Negra Modelo and Track 7 Panic IPA on draft. It also serves one malbec and one chardonnay.
First impressions: The counter confusion is likely to be sorted out very soon, if it hasn’t been already. But La Venadita would be worth the effort regardless. Its tortillas taste freshly made – even the one fried into a crispy shell to hold juicy, tender carnitas.
The standout item is the “vampiro” taco, which is as red as it sounds, with a flavor-packed salsa ranchera drenching al pastor pork. Best of all, our bill for two tacos, a tostada and a Track 7 Panic was $19 before tip.
Try it if: You like your tacos to taste fresh and be filling, for a reasonable price.
Skip it if: Potentially inefficient ordering systems trouble you.
3501 3rd Ave., Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday