This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader and chronicled at sacbee.com. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Email reporter Benjy Egel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dave Hanke has overseen Nopalitos Southwestern Cafe’s kitchen for all of its 27 years, throwing together dishes like the Sonoran salad with charbroiled chicken alongside longtime sous chef Roberto Timoteo.
There’s no questioning who the East Sacramento restaurant’s boss is, though. Placing an order at Nopalitos’ counter doesn’t feel right without talking to Rose Hanke, the charismatic, warm host who bakes the pastries filling baskets by the register.
“My wife is the star of the show. (People) know that the minute they walk in the door,” Dave said.
The Hankes opened Nopalitos in 1992 after running Bunn Stop on Stockton Boulevard and the original Spinners Cinnamon Rolls, now a fixture of its own inside a Land Park gas station. The Southwestern restaurant has long been popular in the neighborhood but slightly unheralded outside of it, even after receiving four out of four stars from then-Bee dining critic Blair Anthony Robertson in 2011.
Nopalitos cooks throw together about 15 to 20 Sonoran salads a day, making the dish a favorite of some but a “minor player” in the grand scheme of things behind the restaurant’s burritos and pancakes, Dave said.
The $9.95 salad starts with a 10-inch flour tortilla from La Campana Tortilla Factory in Lodi, lightly grilled and laid across one of Nopalitos’ brightly-colored plates as a base. Pinto beans cooked in water and salt for two-and-a-half to three hours on low heat are spread around the tortilla.
A cook then piles on red leaf and romaine lettuce and a vegetable mixture (raw zucchini, yellow squash, carrots and red cabbage cut in thin strips with red, yellow and green bell peppers) sourced from Produce Express.
Customers can add beef, chile verde, carnitas or chicken to the Sonoran salad; the customer who nominated this dish chose the last option. Boneless, skinless thighs are marinated in orange juice, garlic and salt overnight, chopped into cubes and cooked on a gas-powered char-broiler over low heat for about 30 minutes.
The dish is topped with sesame seeds and Nopalitos’ house vinaigrette, concocted by the couple 35 years ago and the only dressing in the restaurant. Its full ingredient list remains a secret, but includes balsamic vinegar, garlic, onion and “Indian spices,” Rose said.
Southwestern food is similar to Tex-Mex with a few subtle differences: the former relies more on chiles, uses blue corn as often as yellow and is more plant-based. The last point is especially true at Nopalitos, which prides itself on being a lighter alternative to lard-laden dishes.
“I don’t put fat in beans, I don’t use lots of salt in things. We’re making everything pretty much from scratch,” Dave said. “We’re not using prepared or processed foods in the process of making what we serve, so it’s a freshness-inspired Tex-Mex sort of fare.”
Rose, an Arizona native, met Dave during culinary school in San Francisco. They eventually moved to Sacramento for that age-old comparatively cheap cost of living, and opened their Southwestern restaurant because they liked the food — and, as Dave noted, because salsa overtook ketchup as the top-selling condiment in America around that time.
Nopalitos opened with pretty much the same hours as it has today: done by 3 p.m., closed on weekends. The Hankes wanted lives outside the restaurant, including coaching their then-7-year-old son Aaron, who grew up to star at UC Davis and play two seasons of minor league baseball in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization.
“We wanted to participate and watch and enjoy him when he was growing up,” Dave said. “That’s the reason for that, and we’ve never changed the hours.”
Nopalitos Southwestern Cafe
5530 H St., 916-452-TACO (8226)
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Pro Tip: Bring cash. Nopalitos doesn’t accept credit or debit cards, and there’s no onsite ATM. As Dave said, “When you start taking credit cards, people want to buy a cookie with a credit card. We’d just rather avoid that.”