Food & Drink

You Gotta Try This: An East Sac chicken-fried steak raises the bar for comfort food

Evan Elsberry’s fine dining background allows him to pull off eclectic wine dinners — “the fancy foo-foo,” as he calls it — every once in a while. Day-to-day favorites are more humble at Evan’s Kitchen & Catering, which Elsberry described as “comfort gourmet,” including a Southern classic that satiates about 200 customers per week.

Priced at $14, “The Starvin’ Marvin” comes with chicken-fried steak, two eggs any style and home fries or fruit. Like most other chicken-fried dishes, there’s no poultry in the CFS at Evan’s Kitchen — “chicken-fried” refers to the preparation method, which mimics how one would make fried chicken.

There is steak, however, and it’s a higher-quality cut than what’s normally used in restaurants throughout the South. Chicken-fried steak is usually made with cube steak, a tough, cheap meat similar to ground beef. Evan’s Kitchen cooks hand-cut, 5-ounce strip steaks to order from the short loin instead, resulting in a more-tender dish.

“You can’t get a better cut. It’s not a Salisbury steak, it’s not hamburger, it’s not gristly,” Elsberry said. “It’s all straightforward, just good, solid and fresh.”

The steaks are seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic before being flattened with a meat tenderizer and coated in a flour-buttermilk batter. A two-minute trip to the deep fryer awaits before the steak, now weighing in around 10 to 12 ounces, is plated.

Chicken-fried steak is always topped with white gravy, and Evan’s is a rich blend of heavy cream, salt, pepper, sage, a roux, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce and a 50-50 mix of Italian and traditional pork sausage from Reeds Gourmet Meat Co. Elsberry also gets most of his steaks from Reeds, a 53-year-old butcher shop located a mile down Elvas Avenue.

Elsberry, 56, grew up in Sacramento and cooked at now-shuttered Sports City Cafe and Andiamo, as well as the Delta King, before decamping for larger cities. He was working as the executive chef at Morton’s The Steakhouse in Chicago in 1997 when he got a call from a Sacramento friend named John Mikacich, who had previously run the bar at his family’s restaurant Andiamo.

Mikacich and his sister Jane had just bought Limelight Bar & Cafe from their parents, he said. Now he wanted Elsberry to make good on a promise from years ago: if Mikacich ever took over Limelight, Elsberry had said he would come cook at the Alhambra Boulevard pool bar and card room.

The only snag? Mikacich wouldn’t be able to pay Elsberry for the first few months. He would, however, let the chef write his own menu, a level of control Elsberry wasn’t afforded at Morton’s.

“(Morton’s) was very corporate, like you have to get a certification card to chop parsley. It was a little stuffy for me,” Elsberry said. “The Limelight was fun. They’d give you a shot of Jägermeister to start your shift.”

The Mikaciches and Elsberry set out to refurbish the dingy bar – then derisively nicknamed “Slimelight” – including the addition of breakfast and dinner service.

Elsberry stayed at Limelight for five years until leaving in 2002 to open Evan’s Kitchen and Catering at 855 57th St. with his mother Laurette, who ran the restaurant’s business side until her death last year. The restaurant opened in 2004 as a fine dining establishment with a separate “family room” for kids to play in, though the Elsberrys scrapped that experiment after two years.

Most of the dishes at Evan’s Kitchen are named after the restaurant’s longtime employees – Trista’s Omelet, The Big Al – but The Starvin’ Marvin traces back even further. Marvin Cornish worked for Elsberry at The Limelight, where the hollow-legged cook’s signature dish landed on the menu 20 years ago.

Evan’s Kitchen tends to draw East Sacramento families and seniors, though Sacramento State students often show up for $12 bottomless mimosas on weekends. Several customers started as or have become family friends of the Elsberrys; on one visit in February, he casually pointed out a customer who had donated blood to his mother while she was pregnant with him in 1963. It’s a humble home for a chicken-fried steak that’s been keeping customers satisfied for decades.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.