The checks have been paid and the tables cleared as our adventures in casual dining close for 2013. For dessert, we’re serving this subjective list of the 10 places my lunch pals and I liked most this year, in order of preference.
But first, to be clear: This column’s agenda is to find small, diverse, mostly family-run places that offer recommendable dishes at fair prices, and bring them to readers’ attention. We concentrate on lunchtime fare, and sometimes cover breakfast and brunch. Most of our destinations are local, but because Sacramentans love to travel, we also hit the road.
About the star-rating system: My stars aren’t the same stars that my colleague, Blair Anthony Robertson, assigns to the fine-dining houses he covers. For instance, consider the Calabrese sausage sandwich at Sampino’s Towne Foods. It’s far better than most Italian sausage sandwiches around town and rated four stars in this column. We’re not comparing it to Blair’s four-star dishes served at, say, Kru. It’s all in the context.
Most Chinese restaurants seem to be from the same template, serving predictable dishes tailored to “fit” the Western palate. An exception is Lotus 8, where the cooking is a revelation.
Veteran chef Eric Kuang is all about dedication, experimentation and attention to detail. His dishes are seldom seen in mainstream Chinese restaurants – fried salt-and-pepper tofu, fish maw with crab meat soup, steamed minced pork with salted fish, curried lamb, sauteed scallops and octopus in spicy seafood sauce, sautéed beef cubes and shrimp in black pepper sauce, sizzling oysters.
Too exotic? More traditionally, the wonton soup is the best we’ve had, as are the Hong-Kong-style noodles with pork, seafood and mushrooms. A 2-pound disjointed Dungeness crab is redolent with shallots and garlic; a plump Peking duck is crackling and juicy; orange chicken is an ideal balance of citrus taste and crispy texture; steaming-hot sesame balls of sticky rice and black bean paste are sweet and textured.
To complement it all is the extraordinary “fire and lightning” hot relish, a blend of dried bean curd and hard-to-source special peppers.
199 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom; (916) 351-9278, www.lotus8folsom.com
When veteran restaurateur Richard Righton (Bidwell Street Bistro, Relish Burger Bar) opened his Irish-British-themed restaurant-bar, he and chef Heather Zamarripa agreed to take traditional pub food “for a spin.” The ride has worked well.
Backed by an ever-changing array of 32 draft beers and four wines on tap, the fare is solid and at times unexpected. Pub-grub classics are present (Prince Edward Island mussels and fries, shepherd’s pie, corned beef), but so are jalapeño-bacon mac ’n’ cheese, charcuterie plate, bruschetta, Mediterranean gyro and California-centric salads.
The centerpiece is fish ’n’ chips with a twist. Choose from haddock, cod and salmon, served either battered and deep-fried or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko and pan-fried. One big plus: The bartenders know how to correctly pour a pint of Guinness.
In the Montano Center, 1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-3606, www.36handles.com.
Tori’s Place is a step up from being a shack, painted vivid violet, a curiosity you’d glance at while driving by. But pay attention to the sign out front of the soul-food restaurant: “Home cooking.” Portions are big, prices are fair, ingredients are fresh.
Working in a tiny kitchen and using family recipes, twin sisters Victoria “Tori” Haggins and Veronica Richmond turn out spicy gumbo, chunky with chicken, sausage, shrimp, okra, green and red bell peppers, onion and enough heat to knock your senses silly.
If you can get past that, move on to juicy fried chicken and catfish, perfectly seasoned black-eyed peas and pinto beans, tender collard greens, mac ’n’ cheese gooey with pepper jack and cheddar, and pancake-shaped, crisp-soft cornbread.
1525 Grand Ave., Del Paso Heights, Sacramento; (916) 646-6038, www.torishomecooking.com
DOT ISLAND GRILL (formerly Fish’s Wild)
The (mostly) seafood restaurant with the fast-food vibe changed its name, but the dishes remain fresh and tasty. Where to start? Maybe with fried oysters, clams and calamari? Or the steamed clams, mussels and shrimp in garlic butter, lemon pepper and Cajun-style sauces? Or how about the salmon burger, fish tacos, and grilled mahi and yellowtail tuna?
Beyond seafood are grilled short ribs, chicken katsu and veggie wraps. Better than french fries are brown and white rices, excellent steamed vegetables and grilled zucchini.
Dot Island Grill, 516 Second St., Davis; (530) 753-8883, www.dotislandgrill.com.
HONG KONG ISLANDER
Big portions of traditional Chinese food are served in a warehouse-size space, which regularly rents to parties of 600 for special occasions.
Part of the adventure is ordering off the menu written in Chinese – do so carefully, though. Less daring but equally gratifying are more familiar items: boneless squab with plum sauce; wide chow-fun noodles chunky with pieces of duck; spareribs with spicy salt; Szechuan-style, ginger-scented eggplant with tender sea scallops; slices of honey-roasted pork.
One showstopper is a huge and succulent fillet of baked, skin-on sea bass, glazed to a crisp on the outside, remarkably tender and juicy on the inside. Option: a feast of dim sum served daily from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
5675 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 392-3388, www.hongkongislander.com
TAK FOOD MARKET
Tak is one of those ethnic restaurant-grocery stores that operate under the mainstream radar until someone outside the culture tastes the food. Then get out of the way.
Husband-wife co-owners Majid and Forouzan Foroutan are from Iran, and brought their family recipes with them. The menu is short but intense: beef, lamb, chicken, salmon and tofu kebabs, and succulent lamb chops, marinated and grilled over charcoal, and served with long-grain white and saffron basmati rices.
Not to be overlooked: stone-baked flatbread sprinkled with toasted sesame and poppy seeds; “ash reshteh” – broth full of noodles, beans, lentils, mint, fried onion, leek, parsley, cilantro and turmeric, topped with yogurt cream; marvelously flavorful potato-chicken salad; and thick, tangy house-made yogurt studded with chopped shallots.
9045 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 944-3188, www.takfoodmarket.com (click on “Videos” for some fun)
The breakfast-lunch classic is a regular destination for droves of diners, and with good reason: It specializes in hearty portions of quality food made by savvy cooks and delivered by friendly servers. Another draw is its consistency in the face of volume, so vital to any restaurant’s success.
Highlights of the expansive menu include the over-the-top, cinnamon-roll french toast; grilled bone-in ham steak as big as a catcher’s mitt; perfectly cooked omelets (splash on some Pepper Plant California-style hot sauce); chicken-fried steak and Kobe-style burgers; excellent fresh fruit and and salads.
4415 Granite Drive, Rocklin; (916) 624-2697, www.venitarheas.com
The food center at William Jessup University is run by the same company that operates cafes at Google in Sunnyvale and Oracle in Redwood City. The attraction is a serious all-you-care-to-eat smorgasbord of from-scratch dishes at the bargain price of $9.50 per person. The cafe is open to the public, but closed for winter break until Jan. 20.
The buffet-style feast is mostly served at stations, such as the sandwich-salad-soup bar, pizza bar and Asian wok. Entrees on the seasonally changing menu can include bone-in chicken with sautéed Swiss chard, pork roast, pasta, honey baked ham, roast beef and spareribs, with locally sourced produce.
On the campus of William Jessup University, 333 Sunset Blvd., Rocklin; (916) 577-2200, www.jessup.edu.
“We use saffron in everything,” said co-owner Taraneh Nikoumanesh (with husband Akbar Rouholiman). Together, they prepare Persian cuisine from family recipes.
Favorites: chilled yogurt mixed with cucumber and dried mint; lentil salad and perfect basmati rice; a “savory stew” of herbs and kidney beans with sun-dried lime; a “beef stew” with split peas, onion, tomato sauce and tomato; tender lamb chops. For the garlic mint chicken, chunks of tender, juicy chicken breast are marinated in yogurt, garlic and mint, skewered and grilled until golden.
1300 E. Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 984-6800
The brick-and-mortar incarnation of Davin Vculek’s popular food trucks has become a go-to outpost for cops and firefighters, state workers and folks from around the ’hood. Proudly displayed is the “people’s choice” trophy from the 2012 Sacramento Burger Battle.
Choices are limited, but it’s all good stuff: six “mini” burger styles (four beef, one fish, one turkey), salads and sides (tots and fries). Krush Burger’s signature Ninja mini burger (two come with an order) is grilled and shredded Korean-style short rib topped with crunchy Asian slaw, with a side of Sriracha aioli. “It has a cult following,” Vculek said.
Milkshakes made with hand-scooped ice cream are tops, or opt for craft beer.
700 N. 10th St., Sacramento; (916) 930-6828, www.krushburger.com