See what makes this honey walnut prawns dish special
Let’s start with a history lesson, Frank Fat’s start in particular. Before founding his namesake Chinese restaurant in 1939, he managed Hong King Lum at 3rd and I streets, a restaurant that opened at the turn of the 20th century in the middle of Sacramento’s bustling Chinatown.
Flash forward to today and Chinese restaurants are generously distributed across Sacramento’s metropolitan landscape. Takeout is popular, but why not dine in at one of these veritable way stations, culturally somewhere between China and The City of Trees.
What follows are 10 delicious excuses to visit 10 different Chinese restaurants in the Sacramento area.
1. Honey Walnut Prawns. $19.95. Frank Fat’s. 806 L Street Sacramento
There’s something exciting about Frank Fat’s. Its lack of windows, its blue neon lighting, and the black-and-gold motif otherwise make it feel like a cool casino club, minus the cigarette smoke.
The sign out front indicates that the honey walnut prawns are “An all-time Sacramento favorite.” The dish could indeed be the best-known Chinese fare in the city: about 10 crunchy-sweet walnut halves plus 30 lightly-fried, honey sauce-glazed prawns. The prawns have a moist pop to them, and they get a dusting of sesame seeds overtop. The plate’s balanced savory sweetness comes without the mayonnaise-heavy sauce typical of some other Chinese spots.
2. Chicken Chow Mein with Crispy Noodles. $7.00. China Palace. 5050 Stockton Boulevard Sacramento
On the opposite pole decor-wise is China Palace, a Stockton Boulevard establishment with budget pricing that has been in the same spot since 1991.
The menu item arrives on two plates next to a metal tea kettle that’s as hot as the surface of the sun everywhere but the handle. On one plate, the crispy noodles are like fried wontons, without filling, cut into strips; they’re crispy and robust. The stir-fried veggies in light gravy on the other plate are dominated by bean sprouts, but there are also white onions and cabbage that sit in the ramen broth-like, oil-speckled liquid.
3. Pan Fried Lotus Root. $9.50. Asian Pearl. 6821 Stockton Boulevard Sacramento
How about something different, at the gigantic Asian Pearl restaurant in the Little Saigon neighborhood? It’s especially busy on Sundays, with all generations of Chinese families present. Its concert hall-like interior smells like a big Asian supermarket with its intermingling aromas.
The pan fried lotus root is displayed on the laminated “Lunch local flavor tapas” menu; all the appetizers listed are just $9.50 and are only served during lunch. The delicacy arrives dusted with a sauteéd green and white onions as well as green and red bell peppers; it smells like home fries. The vegetable mix is slippery on the tongue and not very salty, pairing well with the savory, hand-dipped lotus root wedge sandwiches filled with little shrimp.
4. Steamed Purple Glutinous Rice With Red Bean Paste. $8.95. I-Shanghai Delight. 1115 Front Street Sacramento
This underground spot is a recent addition to the Old Sac dining scene. Come down the stairs and you’ll find two women preparing dumplings behind glass in what looks like a hockey rink’s penalty box.
The dish is a vegetarian dessert; something fun to order at this dumpling den at the end of a meal. It arrives smelling creamy, like the rice pudding you’d get at an Indian restaurant. It would taste similar if it weren’t for the lump of bean paste in the middle topped with cooked, tangy raisins that almost taste like apricots. The two together taste something like a Fruit Roll-Up.
Joy City Restaurant
5. Fish Fillet With Sweet and Sour Sauce. $9.95. Joy City Restaurant. 2745 Elk Grove Boulevard Elk Grove
As you enter you’ll see the specials written in Chinese on a whiteboard to your right on the wall; this indicates that the clientele is largely Chinese-speaking, but you’ll be fine if English is your language.
The dish is by no means the pinnacle of culinary excellence, but it’s delicious. The hand-floured fish fillets combine an American happy hour-like treat with a sweet-and-sour sauce that has an acidic edge that’ll cleanse your palette. The traditional onions, green bell pepper and pineapple bathe in the thick red goo.
6. Moo-Shu Pork. $8.75. Wong’s Garden. 201 Harding Boulevard Roseville
Also outside the city is Wong’s Garden in Roseville. This spot caters to those who cannot read Chinese characters, as their pint-sized, pizza-parloresque plastic Coca-Cola cups suggest.
The moo-shu pork is served with a side of coarse plum sauce, to be used sparingly on hearty, Mexican-style flour tortillas. The juicy mix of cabbage, pork strips, bamboo shoots, egg, and chewy wood ear mushrooms is simultaneously crisp, savory, and bitter; oil is lightly employed, and it is soothing to the stomach.
Hong Kong Islander
7. Kung Pao Chicken Lunch. $7.95. Hong Kong Islander. 5675 Freeport Boulevard Sacramento
Hong Kong Islander is adjacent to the Sacramento Executive Airport. A small private jet once crashed into a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor across the street back in 1972.
The kung pao chicken lunch plate arrives with half of it occupied by chicken and egg fried rice, nothing fancy, but the other side is a heap of celery, ginger, water chestnuts, chili flakes, bell pepper, peanuts, and chicken that complement each other appropriately; the ginger steals the show, balancing the strong flavors.
8. Macau Style Crispy Pig Knuckle. $10.99. Macau Café. 4406 Del Rio Road Sacramento
Outside, a Sacramento Bee news box is positioned next to a red one with 50-cent Chinese newspapers. Inside the restaurant, there is more literature; the menu is 28 pages long with culinary photography that varies in quality.
The pig knuckle arrives as a bare Flintstones bone on a plate, with its meat sliced off neatly at its side, looking like a flock of vultures had its way with it. The meat has three layers: the crisp fried skin on the outside tastes like a kettle-cooked potato chip, then there’s the generous layer of fat, and then the well-cooked pink pork meat in the middle that tastes something like corned beef.
Happy Garden Seafood Restaurant
9. Ginger & Scallion Steam Half-Shell Oysters (6). $13.00. Happy Garden Seafood Restaurant. 5731 Stockton Boulevard Sacramento
This spot’s menu looks like a $30 children’s book from the outside: a glossy orange cover with a golden pagoda and thick, glossy cardstock pages. The place is clearly set up for banquets or wedding receptions: it’s got a wood dance floor and the interior is a perfect rectangle.
The large half-shell oysters are steamed for eight minutes and topped with shredded scallions and ginger. A squeeze from one of the lemon wedges served on the side neutralizes the oil layer. The broth that lingers in the shell after oyster consumption is just a little sweet from the ginger; it would make a transcendental dipping sauce for cold soba noodles. The oysters are tender and fresh with little aftertaste.
10. Pepper Salted Chicken. $9.50. New China. 6363 Riverside Blvd Sacramento
As you enter you can hear the kitchen hood in back sucking air from above the cook, who is beating his wok like a drum; it leaves the air fresh. Paired with the ocean-blue carpeting and otherwise white décor above, it feels like you’re in a rowboat on the water on a foggy day.
The dish consists of deep-fried, boneless breast of chicken chunks. The breading is crispy and robust, and good news for the lean breast. The chunks are dusted with jalapenos, garlic, green onion, and some oil; some of the mix stays put on top of them and the remainder rests on the plate.