Allen Pierleoni

2016’s ‘best-of’ in casual dining

Lemon-ricotta pancakes with blackberry compote and crème fraîche are brunch items at Meadowlands, site of the former Sloughhouse Inn.
Lemon-ricotta pancakes with blackberry compote and crème fraîche are brunch items at Meadowlands, site of the former Sloughhouse Inn.

We’re looking forward to continuing our adventures in casual dining in the new year, but right now let’s get a taste of the 10 places my lunch pals and I enjoyed most in 2016.

First, however, this column’s agenda is to find diverse restaurants that offer recommendable dishes at lunch or brunch and bring them to your attention. Most of our destinations are small and local, but because Sacramentans love day-tripping, we also hit the road.

About the star-rating system: My stars aren’t the same stars as the ones my colleague, Carla Meyer, assigns to the (mostly) fine-dining houses she visits. For instance, consider the Wolfsburg Edition, a beer-steamed bratwurst with sauerkraut and German mustard at Ruffhaus Hot Dog Co. We think it’s worthy of four stars. We’re not comparing it to the sautéed veal sweetbreads Carla mentioned in her four-star review of Waterboy. Context is everything.

Now, in order of totally subjective preference:

1. Meadowlands

After a long and winding road dating from the 1800s, the former Sloughhouse Inn, 20 miles southeast of Sacramento in ranching and farming country, has been transformed into a bright new destination. Lucca and Roxy restaurants owners Ron and Terri Gilliland have created a high-energy oasis without sacrificing the heritage of the registered historic landmark.

Beef from their Lucky Dog Ranch shows up here and there (rib-eye and flatiron steaks, ranch burger, beef ribs chili), which is attraction enough. But chef Dan Origel brings sophisticated twists to brunch and dinner menus that raise the bar on the notion of roadhouse grub, such as roasted chicken and lamb meatballs.

12700 Meiss Road, just off Old Jackson Road (Highway 16), Sloughhouse; 916-525-1575,

2. Station 16

The spacious, sleekly designed space is mostly about seafood with a Cajun accent, but adds dishes that have Korean (grilled short ribs) and Vietnamese (banh mi) heritages. We concentrated on raw, grilled and baked oysters, steamed clams and mussels, shrimp and lobster rolls, and the best fried oysters we’ve ever made disappear (with lemon aioli). Try one of heavily seasoned “iron seafood skillets.”

1118 16th St., Sacramento; 916-228-4042,

3. Independent

The draw is an imaginative menu and a kitchen willing to take chances (grass-fed beef, fried leek rings, polenta-crusted smoked sausage). Tops are buttermilk fried chicken, tempura prawns in vodka-spiked batter, grilled prawn-strawberry salad, blackened salmon tacos and pulled pork. The libations program starts with 25 specialty cocktails.

629 Main St., Placerville; 530-344-7645,

4. Salt Sushi

The quality of the food is a match for the gorgeous space, designed in stone and wood, with a black-walnut sushi bar and modernist chandeliers.

Starring are appetizers (including grilled yellowtail cheek collar), nigiri, sashimi and other hallmarks of Japanese cuisine. Bento boxes and donburi (cooked seafood, pork, beef or poultry over rice) and kushiyaki (grilled meats or veggies on skewers) are expertly handled. Our go-to’s include house-made udon noodle soup, maguro (raw ahi tuna), pan-fried gyoza, shrimp tempura and pork katsu.

Salt Sushi, in Gold River Town Centre, near Gold Country Boulevard off Sunrise Boulevard, bordering Rancho Cordova; 916-859-0787,

5. Evan’s Kitchen

Evan Elsberry’s signature is heaped plates of hearty food at breakfast, lunch, dinner and out-the-door Sunday brunch. A loyal clientele (happier since the dining room remodel) are on familiar terms with his clam chowder, chicken fried steak, many Benedicts, seafood salad, Italian pot roast, blackened prime rib sandwich and eight burgers. His wine-pairing dinners consistently sell out.

855 57th St., Sacramento, in Antique Row; 916-452-3896,

6. Coconut’s Fish Cafe

Our motto: Eat as much fresh seafood as possible. Easy to do at the Hawaiian-themed restaurant where mahi-mahi (dolphin fish), ono (wahoo) and ahi (yellowfin tuna) rule the menu in tacos, on buns, in bowls and as variously seasoned fillets. Along for the swim are coconut shrimp, calamari, ahi poke and seafood chowders. The house-made sauces are special – mango salsa, organic tomato salsa, dill-flecked tartar and red cocktail.

1420 16th St., Sacramento; 916-440-0449,

7. Sawasdee

Thai food is among our most popular ethnic cuisines, and is done right at this family-run restaurant. Beyond such familiar (and expertly handled) fare as stir-fried noodle dishes, green papaya salad, tom yum soup and curries in green, yellow and red (avocado curry is a nice change-up) are more interesting pursuits – Sriracha fried rice, spicy basil lamb and garlic softshell crab.

1830 J St., Sacramento; 916-329-8678,

8. Peace Cuisine

Cantonese-cuisine specialist Eric Kuang and restaurant manager Michael Chow teamed on this archetypal hole-in-the-wall that shocks diners with its quality, freshness of ingredients, portion size and fair prices. Start with honey walnut shrimp and Singapore vermicelli heavy with pork and prawns, and move on to salt-and-pepper tofu and crisp “Chinese fried chicken.” Chow invites diners to “tell us what you like and we will create a menu for you.”

829 Jefferson Blvd., West Sacramento, in the Walgreen’s shopping center; 916-375-1499

9. Poor Red’s

Since the latest incarnation of the legendary roadhouse opened in April, customers have downed a staggering 30,000 of its signature cocktail, the Golden Cadillac. Past that, we like the nostalgia factor, the decor (glass bricks, stamped tin ceiling, antique wall murals) and steaks – chimichurri-topped flank, 16-ounce bone-in rib-eye and hand-cut filet mignon, grilled over oak and mesquite. Don’t overlook the hand-cut beer-battered onion rings and the exceptional wedge salad.

6221 Pleasant Valley Road, El Dorado; 530-622-2901,

10. Orangevale Meat & Sausage

Veteran butcher Manny Sol oversees cold cases stocked with most any meat or fowl you can name (including 34 house-made sausages), but his daily lunch program also draws a crowd. Coming off smokers in the parking lot are spice-rubbed bone-in skin-on chicken breasts and drumsticks; pork spareribs, baby back ribs, boneless country-style ribs and beef ribs; and a rotation of sausages, all sold by the pound.

8525 Madison Ave., in the Fair Oaks Pointe center, Fair Oaks; 916-863-5400,

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe