Food & Drink

Pony Express-themed "Bizarre Foods" episode takes celebrity chef into Sacramento

Andrew Zimmern listens to Stan Van Vleck discuss his family's history at Van Vleck Ranch in Rancho Murieta. Zimmern visited Van Vleck Ranch while filming an episode of "Bizarre Foods" that airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel.
Andrew Zimmern listens to Stan Van Vleck discuss his family's history at Van Vleck Ranch in Rancho Murieta. Zimmern visited Van Vleck Ranch while filming an episode of "Bizarre Foods" that airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel. Travel Channel

An episode of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods" airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. will follow host Andrew Zimmern as he dines in Sacramento, Rancho Murieta and other parts of Northern California and Nevada.

The episode chronicles Zimmern's journey along the Pony Express' final 200 miles from Fort Churchill, Nev. to Sacramento, the 1,900-mile trail's end point, and will also air at midnight. It's the first of seven episodes in the 23rd season of "Bizarre Foods," which also took Zimmern to Scotland for deer haggis, Kentucky for squirrel and pond frogs and the Battle of the Bulge site in Belgium for World War II rations.

This Sacramento trip wasn't Zimmern's first, he said in an interview with The Bee. As he drove into the city on "Bizarre Foods," he commented on Sacramento's self-proclaimed title as America's farm-to-fork capital and close relationships between growers and chefs.

"It's a vibrant food community " Zimmern told The Bee. "I think everyone who loves food would be well-served to visit (Sacramento), especially in late spring when the farmer's markets are really full."

While touring the ruins of Fort Churchill, Zimmern dined on son-of-a-gun stew — a mishmash of beef, elk, antelope and assorted vegetables cooked in a Dutch oven — and boiled elk tongue. He then moved onto Northern Paiute tribeland, where he roasted pine nut mash, whole wild jackrabbits and skewered duck hearts over a campfire with members of the Native American tribe.

Then it was off across the California border to Pollock Pines, where CalTrans employees were cleaning up from a storm that had dropped three feet of snow throughout the Sierra Nevada over the last two days. Zimmern chowed down on biscuits and gravy with four road maintenance workers at Sportsman's Hall, California's only Pony Express home station and one of the few Gold Rush-era restaurants still operating in California.

Zimmern's first stop in the Sacramento area was Van Vleck Ranch in Rancho Murieta for Zabuton-cut Wagyu steaks and thin, tender slices of beef served with green onions over vinegar-seasoned rice — "cowboy sushi," as he described it.

The final stop on Zimmern's trip — and the only restaurant he dined at while in Sacramento, he said — came at Mulvaney's B&L in midtown. Owner Patrick Mulvaney whipped up "sturgeon Doritos," a modified chicharron made from fried Passmore Ranch fish skin and sprinkled with ground chiles and cheese.

Mulvaney also served Zimmern a Hangtown Fry, an omelette with oysters and house-cured bacon named for its roots in Hangtown (now known as Placerville). Depending on who you believe, the dish was either requested by a momentarily fortuitous gold prospector who wanted a scramble of a local restaurant's most expensive ingredients or a man on death row seeking to delay his execution by making his last meal

The Pony Express was used for just 18 months before the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed and a government contract expired. Horseback riders sprinted from stop to stop, jumping off to a fresh horse every 10 miles or so, to deliver mail and news across the western United States prior to and at the start of the Civil War.

"The Pony Express was the best worst idea of all time," Zimmern told The Bee. "It was desperately needed, devastatingly effective, but at the same time the people behind it were ignorant to the fact that right down the hallway, there was a person inventing the telegraph to put them out of business."

A four-time James Beard Award winner and 11-time nominee, Zimmern made a name for himself by trying and often seemingly enjoying foods that might leave other chefs retching. In the last season of "Bizarre Foods" alone, he ate rotten tomato ketchup, stinkbug salsa, carp sperm sacs and campfire-roasted deer brain.

The Bee's Benjy Egel is launching a new effort to cover Sacramento's dining and beer scene. Please send tips and story ideas by email at begel@sacbee.com, on Twitter @BenjyEgel or by phone at (916) 321-1052.

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