We arrived for dinner in the early evening. It was part of the plan. There's just something entertaining about watching a mostly empty room come to life – with more and more people as the minutes tick by, with sounds large and small, with movement, with energy.
The last time we did such a thing – an early-bird dinner – was at AQ in San Francisco, a wonderful new restaurant in a seedy part of town that optimistic urbanites like to describe as "on the upswing." Back then, the room emerged and flourished like a blooming tulip captured by time-lapse photography.
Now, we're at Mama Kim Eats on Del Paso Boulevard, a stretch of Sacramento on the upswing in its own right, just seven minutes by car from downtown and 15 minutes by bicycle.
The food here is something special for California – a fusion of American classics and Southern/Cajun twists that soothes and entertains from start to finish. It's farm to table with a touch of soul. It's rustic and comforting and clever. At its best, in full stride, this restaurant can, indeed, sizzle.
But on this recent Friday, I was beginning to worry – was anyone else going to show? Was this place going to catch on the way it deserved to? Would it even survive?
We order. We toast. We nibble on the heirloom beet salad with pistachio-crusted goat cheese and the puréed squash soup with maple- infused cream. Our server makes it look easy. The room is big and open with that industrial, artistic feel about it. By 6 p.m., people begin to file in. A couple. Then four women. Then a couple with a child, followed by two friends.
The kitchen gets busy. The staff is on the move. The wine begins to flow. Orders come out from the kitchen. I hear chatter, laughter all around, and then
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a man rise from his table near the open kitchen, and with the casually quick stride of an athlete, he slots in between a guy playing electric guitar and a blind man on keyboards, seated next to his dozing guide dog.
Turns out, it's Phil Rayburn, who co-owns Mama Kim Eats with chef Kim Scott. Over the next 90 minutes, as we eat some fabulously tender and tasty bourbon-braised short ribs ($25) served with grits, Brussels sprouts and carrots, Rayburn and his beautiful singing voice will convince me he is the coolest restaurateur in town.
When you pair what he's doing with Scott's vision for the food, we have the makings of a restaurant that's really good, potentially great and already so very cool.
Rayburn and the band, called Kumyn, mirror what's happening in the kitchen. The music is soulful, approachable and smooth, a whole bunch of favorites that sound so new.
The only problem with the menu is narrowing down our choices. There's fried green tomatoes with prawns. There's oysters on the half shell with grapefruit granita. Baby back ribs with jalapeño corn bread. The delicious pepper-rubbed New York sirloin with a wine reduction revealed the only misstep – undercooked au gratin potatoes.
Everything else met our expectations over multiple visits for dinner and one enjoyable brunch, when Rayburn also happened to be crooning.
The rack of lamb ($29), cooked perfectly medium-rare, was plated atop a delicious sweet potato hash, pairing something comforting and casual with a cut of meat that personifies fine dining. It's the priciest item on the menu, but it works as a kind of New Southern sensibility that Scott is masterminding here.
The fried chicken ($19) with greens and cheddar mashed potatoes had that same DNA. Tender and juicy on the inside, crisp and crunchy and golden-brown on the outside, the chicken is a recipe passed down, I'm told, from Rayburn's grandmother.
The grits were pretty amazing – smooth and creamy without being goopy, brimming with fresh flavor – and really are a must if you want to embrace the ethos that is Mama Kim Eats. I've lived in the Deep South and can't remember any grits that good in Alabama or Georgia. Scott tells me she sources them from Nevada County, of all places.
The brunch menu is so compelling that I wondered if I would create a commotion by ordering one of everything. Perhaps Rayburn could distract the patrons with his lovely rendition of "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" and super-smooth "L.O.V.E."
With apologies to the late, great Otis Redding, if I left my home in Georgia and headed for the Frisco Bay, I would surely make a detour for the eggs Benedict on Del Paso Boulevard, where Mama Kim does them with king crab and sautéed spinach, a deliciously spicy tomato hollandaise and – here's the kicker – served on a fluffy house-baked biscuit with crispy edges instead of those relatively boring English muffins.
Now that's some fabulous eats, Mama Kim.
Mama Kim Eats
1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday for brunch.
Beverage options: Wine and beer.
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat.
Noise level: Moderate.
Overall ★ ★ ★ (out of 4 stars)
Since our first visits last summer, Mama Kim Eats has emerged as a seriously good restaurant, even if most folks don't know about it yet. With a fusion of New Southern and farm-to-table American cooking, and in an inspiring atmosphere that often includes live music, you'll be in for a thoroughly enjoyable and delicious dining experience. The only thing holding back this rating is the limited hours for dinner.
Food ★ ★ ★
Nearly all of our favorite dishes here take classic components and add a twist and a bit of sizzle, whether it's with Creole spices or organic vegetables sourced locallly. Don't miss the fried chicken with greens and cheddar mashed potatoes (or chicken and waffles for brunch). The rack of lamb is excellent. The New York steak with wine sauce was perfectly prepared, and we loved the bourbon-braised short ribs with grits.
Service ★ ★ ★
Polished, attentive, friendly. The service here is on the money.
Ambience ★ ★ ★ 1/2
When everything is hopping, this is a great room – and the live music on Friday and Saturday during dinner makes it extra special.
Value ★ ★ ★ 1/2
With several great happy-hour specials, the prices here will appeal to folks at various price points, whether you drop in for wine or beer and small plates or you want a full dinner with all the trimmings. The quality of the cooking, the excellent ingredients and the overall vibe add up to very good value.