You have to admire the way Mark Helms goes about his business: He's focused, passionate, sincere and loyal to his craft.
He does things the right way, and at a consistently high level, from the crusty and tender sourdough bread he bakes each day to the steak he braises in white wine for one of his many excellent sandwiches.
The food at Juno's Kitchen is dynamic and delicious, equal parts robust and refined. A kale salad with anchovy vinaigrette dressing ($8.25). Local mixed greens salad ($6.50) so fresh and so very mixed – greens spicy and cool, toothsome and buttery – with a balsamic vinaigrette, sun-dried currants and, on the day I visited, roasted pumpkin seeds.
Sandwiches to inspire, including smoked trout with apples and arugula ($10.25) and banh mi ($9.25) with pork that elevates this street-food staple to gourmet heights. Panko-crusted eggplant with Manchego cheese, roasted peppers and basil aioli reminds us that Helms watches out for vegetarians, too. Same with the haloumi cheese ($8.95), which could be loved by anyone who bites into the crisp grilled bread and thick melted cheese.
And unless you're unplugged from foodie blogs, Twitter, Facebook or this newspaper, you know about the greatness of the burger ($10.50) and how much thought goes into every element – the brioche bun made with natural leaven and butter, the caramelized onions, Manchego, pickled cucumber and a roasted garlic aioli. It's unquestionably excellent. Helms is even considering a more traditional burger. When I asked, "You mean, with mustard, lettuce and tomato?" his reply was typical Helms: "Well, maybe not mustard."
Helms uses the best ingredients from the finest purveyors and changes up his menu often to reflect the market, Mother Nature and his latest ideas. He buys the best equipment he can afford and dreams of equipment he can't, like a steam-injected deck oven that would make the rigors of baking great bread about four steps more efficient.
And who wouldn't like a guy who names his restaurant after his dog – a pooch of uncertain pedigree living a life of luxury, whether she's dropping by the neighborhood pet store or feeding on the occasional gourmet burger, cooked to order by the master himself.
Juno the pooch may be just as intense as Helms the chef. She swims under water in the American River when Helms goes scuba diving, enjoys many a romp through the woods and, not too long ago, came out on the losing end of a tussle with a rattlesnake.
The dog survived, Helms and his wife nearly had a heart attack – when they saw the bite and when they saw the vet bill. And the restaurant, it just kept plugging along, cementing its reputation as one of the great little places of its kind anywhere.
Juno's Kitchen, which opened last fall after Helms sold his Ravenous Cafe in the Pocket so he could work close to home, is not a fine dining restaurant and doesn't pretend to be. It's too cramped, too casual and too modest for that.
And the menu doesn't depict the whole story. On paper, the place could be easily overlooked because it's mostly about sandwiches, sides and salads. Much of the food is designed for takeout. How good could it be?
Helms learned his craft and honed his repertoire through years of learning from others, taking all kinds of kitchen jobs and figuring out along the way what works, what doesn't and, eventually, what kind of food was really his food. He studies, he experiments, he dreams up new ideas and revamps old ones.
That's what Juno's is – one chef's manifesto about life and food and what really, truly works. It's his food, his story, his way. The menu is everything he likes to cook and eat. If you believe in what he does, this is a chef you can trust. Order anything – order blindly or randomly – and what you get from the kitchen will be top-notch.
Helms works alongside his wife and a small staff. Friends with special talents chip in where they can. There's no consultant behind the scenes, no gimmicks, no pretense.
And while he certainly is trying to please his customers, he won't stray from what he's about in order to please everyone.
If you're not into the intense bits of preserved lemon hiding here and there in his amazing pasta with rock shrimp or chicken, that's perfectly cool – maybe you'd prefer something else, like a steak sandwich next to a side of potatoes sautéed to order and seasoned with a pinch of special salt from Portugal, a grind or two of pepper and just the right dappling of herbs de Provence.
If you're a foodie who thinks a banh mi sandwich is supposed to cost $2, you might blanch at the idea of the premium – and pricey – version. He pickles the daikon and carrots in a pungent mix of fish sauce and rice vinegar. He does his own cucumbers (which you'll also find on the burger), throws on some Thai basil, cilantro and pork so tender and subtle you might think you're eating veal. And the roll? That's a housemade creation, too, with the same natural leaven as the sourdough loaves. The crustiness is tremendous – a hearty crunch that gives way to a tender crumb.
Helms and I have talked before about sourdough and ovens and the challenges of baking perfect bread. This time I asked him why he does it. Why not order from Acme or someplace else?
It's because he wants to. And he has to. It's the way he's wired.
If you're into food – really into food – you'll want to get to know Helms and what he's all about.
Find a spot inside or sit at one of the tables on the sidewalk and take in the world of east Sacramento – a world that is better with Juno's in it.
3675 J St., Sacramento
Hours: Daily (except closed Sunday) 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Alcohol: No license but diners can bring their own wine.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes.
Noise level: Moderate.
Overall: Four Stars (excellent)
Sacramentans have no reason to feel insecure about where we stack up in this restaurant category – here's a casual eatery serving top-notch sandwiches, burgers and salads that would thrive in New York or San Francisco. We're fortunate to have it here.
Food: Four Stars (excellent)
Sourdough bread made from scratch and for sale by the loaf. Amazing sandwiches, excellent salads. Our favorites include the smoked trout with apples, the steak with caramelized onions, the superb burger and the banh mi with tender pork that takes this French/Vietnamese sandwich to great heights. Desserts seem to be an afterthought and could be expanded. A wine and beer license would add to the experience.
Service: Three Stars (good)
You order at the counter, but you get plenty of attention at your table. When it's busy, sometimes it can feel a bit rushed.
Ambience: Three Stars (good)
It's a cozy little place with a few tables inside and a few more along the sidewalk, where people-watching on a lively stretch of J Street is part of the vibe. Serious foodies can watch the chef at work and, if it's quiet, ask him for a couple of tips.
Value: Four Stars (excellent)
Top-flight ingredients, fair prices, excellent cooking by a chef who lives three blocks away and believes in his community. What's not to love about all that?