Year-end wrap: Sacramento cooks with confidence in 2013

It was the year Sacramento’s food scene came into its own, shedding much of its inferiority complex about living in San Francisco’s shadow. In 2013, Sacramentans simply did what they do best: grew some of the country’s finest ingredients, cooked them with gusto, threw some hugely successful festivals – and never looked back.

From beer and wine to cheese and charcuterie, 2013 teemed with culinary talent in an expanding industry.

Expectations were already running high for the city’s food offerings as 2013 approached. A group of civic officials, farmers and restaurant leaders had branded Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” in October 2012. Mayor Kevin Johnson took this notion a step further by proclaiming 2013 as Sacramento’s “Year of Food” in his State of the City speech at the Memorial Auditorium on Feb. 28.

This momentum had been building for years. Local chefs had long established tight relationships with area farmers and purveyors such as Heidi Watanabe of Watanabe Farms, John Bledsoe of Bledsoe Meats and Shawn Harrison of Soil Born Farms. The Sunday farmers market under the freeway at X Street remained perpetually packed and a place to be seen.

Restaurants that specialized in locally focused foods, including Mulvaney’s B&L and The Kitchen, were among the most coveted dinner reservations in town.

This appetite for Sacramento food hit a ravenous high in September with the debut of Farm-to-Fork Week. Even the folks at the Sacramento Convention & Visitor’s Bureau – one of the key organizers of Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork” branded activities – were caught off guard by the response. More than 25,000 folks descended on Capitol Mall for the debut Farm-to-Fork Festival and its showcasing of local foods and farmers.

A related event, the Tower Bridge Dinner, was arguably the most coveted dinner seat in all of 2013. While some griped about the $175 per-seat price, tickets were quickly gobbled up by corporate sponsors, the well-connected and others. About 200 food enthusiasts added their name to the dinner’s waiting list, hoping to be one of the 600 folks who’d be served a meal on the Tower Bridge as prepared by an all-star consortium of local chefs.

That’s to say, Sacramentans loved their food festivals in 2013.

Sacramento Bacon Fest, held in January, drew significant business spikes for restaurants participating with pork-laced dishes. Shady Lady recorded its busiest brunch ever during Bacon Fest, and Old Ironsides set an all-time paid attendance record with its “Kevin Bacon Tribute Night,” featuring local bands playing songs from Kevin Bacon movies and bacon edibles from chef Mike Thiemann.

Sacramento Beer Week, which actually lasted 10 days, helped quench Sacramento’s ever-growing thirst for craft beers. More than 75 area eateries and watering holes participated with beer tastings and various events, capped off by the Capital Beerfest at Cal Expo, which drew more than 3,500 attendees. Beer Week also translated into significant business boosts.

The masses endured epic lines for a taste of the rarefied Pliny the Younger and Samuel Horne’s Tavern in Folsom reported that business doubled during this 10-day sudsy celebration.

Speaking of beer, Sacramento continued to establish itself as a hot spot for ales and other brews. While fewer than a dozen breweries called Sacramento home at the beginning of 2011, that number has spiked to nearly 30. Upstarts for 2013 include Mraz Brewing Co. of El Dorado Hills, led by former Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. homebrewer of the year Mike Mraz, and West Sacramento’s Bike Dog Brewing Co.

More homegrown breweries are on tap for 2014. Look for Yolo Brewing Co., headed by former Brew It Up! owner Mike Costello, to open in the early part of the year.

Whether it came from a pint glass or a growler, local beer lovers had plenty to savor in 2013. While hoppier-than-thou West Coast IPAs remain a dominant style in the region, many other approaches to ale could also be found, including light yet complex saison, barrel-aged brewing projects and robust stouts.

Local brewers are also aligning increasingly with the region’s farm-to-fork ethos, with Ruhstaller Beer and New Helvetia using local hops for some of their beers.

Local breweries also found welcome partners with food trucks. Given that most of the startup microbreweries exist as tasting rooms and don’t include a food program, mobile eateries helped provide much-needed sandwiches and other edibles between sips of beer.

The local food truck industry, meanwhile, stayed on cruise control. Momentum to overturn city codes that are prohibitive for mobile food vending seems to have stalled in 2013, and there’s no telling when this issue might be taken up again at City Hall. But that didn’t stop food trucks from hustling to downtown lunch spots and local office parks to feed the hungry masses.

In addition, food trucks were allowed for the first time at Sacramento International Airport. Other food truck operators, including Andrew Blaskovich of Drewski’s and Davin Vculek of Krush Burger, found success augmenting their food truck fleet with brick-and-mortar eateries.

Some predicted that mobile food was just a fad a few years ago, but the general public has had a much different take. April’s SactoMoFo 6, which included more than two dozen mobile food vendors, drew between 8,000 and 10,000 people.

Back to the beverages, Sacramento’s cocktail scene was once again marked by creativity and a reverence for traditions – and outsiders took notice. Imbibe, a leading cocktail magazine, listed Sacramento as one of its “top 10 places to visit” for 2013.

The shout-out mentioned the rise of Midtown Cocktail Week, which this year attracted David Wondrich, the cocktail world’s premier writer and historian, as a panelist. The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar meanwhile received kudos from Playboy magazine in its online Barfly column, which highlights the country’s most notable bars.

Wineries from the greater Sacramento area also made numerous year-end lists, including those from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.

While zinfandel has remained synonymous with the Sierra foothills for decades, and some vineyards dating back to the Gold Rush days, the area’s becoming renowned as one of the state’s hot spots for Rhone-style wines.

Clarksburg also continues to thrive as a wine tourist destination, with the Old Sugar Mill and its 10 tasting rooms, and Bogle just down the road.

Chenin blanc and petite sirah from this area of southern Sacramento County are also becoming signature grapes, with a movement underway to brand chenin blanc as Sacramento’s signature white wine.

As locals and tourists alike flocked to the area’s wineries and restaurants, Sacramento enjoyed some time in the national spotlight. Adam Pechal, the executive chef and co-owner of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en, earned a spot as a contestant on ABC’s “The Taste,” a cooking show with Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson among the judges.

While our local boy didn’t win, he landed in the semifinals and represented our city well.

Praise also came from the highest echelons of the food world. Hank Shaw, the Orangevale-based author and blogger of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, won the esteemed James Beard Award for best food blog. Shaw, who also released the excellent “Duck, Duck, Goose” cookbook in 2013, wasn’t the only local feted at the New York City ceremony.

The venerable Frank Fat’s took home a James Beard Award for “America’s Classics,” one of five restaurants to be awarded this lifetime achievement.

But that’s not to say everything arrived like perfectly seared scallops in 2013. Restaurant closures were regular news, including such long-timers as Market Club and The Broiler (see accompanying article).

The restaurateurs and chefs soldiered on and kept the food coming. Shishito peppers, Passmore Ranch sturgeon and Mangalitsa pork were popular menu items, while the much-hyped Cronut found different interpretations as a “doissant” or “cronot” around town.

Sacramentans also craved plenty of cheese. The Cultured & The Cured received a hearty welcome in east Sacramento for its selection of cheese and charcuterie. The Rind was also a newcomer for 2013 with its menu of cheeses and fine wines.

And 2014 is already shaping up as another tasty year. While the restaurant industry remains especially itinerant, two notable chefs who previously left Sacramento have returned. Michael Tuohy, former executive chef of Grange, recently came back to head the kitchen at LowBrau and the upcoming Block Butcher Bar. Thiemann, who served as executive chef at Ella Dining Room & Bar before taking a gig with celebrity chef Tyler Florence in the Bay Area, has also boomeranged back to Sacramento. He’s eyeing the opening of two restaurants, including the all-vegetarian Mother. Judging by the lines stretching down S Street when Thiemann tested out Mother’s menu as a pop-up at Old Ironsides, his concept has already found fans.

With city-center rents not coming down anytime soon, especially with a planned downtown arena, the outlying neighborhoods may well be the next frontier for restaurateurs in 2014. Billy Zoellin plans to move his Bacon and Butter from the heart of midtown to the much more affordable Tahoe Park.

Stacks of pancakes, gigantic burgers and much more will be within walking distance for the many folks who live nearby.

Hungry yet?


Remembering some of the restaurants that closed this past year.