Allen Pierleoni

First Impressions: Sarom’s Southern Kitchen knows jambalaya

Sarom’s Southern Kitchen serves classic jambalaya.
Sarom’s Southern Kitchen serves classic jambalaya. apierleoni@sacbee.com

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

The dynamic is counterintuitive: Sarom Doeuk is a Cambodian cook-businesswoman with a background in doughnut shops, who now runs a restaurant specializing in Southern-style cooking and down-home barbecue.

How did that happen?

“My daughter visited the South, fell in love with the food and told me about it,” Sarom explained. “I did some research on Southern food and learned to cook gumbo and jambalaya, the first (Southern dishes) I made. Everybody who tasted them told me that’s what they’re supposed to taste like, so I decided to open this business (Feb. 25).”

Was there much of a cultural leap between cooking traditional Cambodian dishes such as lap khmer (lime-marinated beef salad) or bai sach chrouk (pork and rice), and making cornbread, collard greens and smoked rib tips?

“It was just a little tweak here and there from the way I cook Cambodian food,” Sarom said modestly. “The seasonings are different, and I adapted to them.”

Menu: Breakfast is “standard American,” with omelets, chicken-fried steak, cheese grits, pancakes, waffles, french toast, biscuits ’n’ gravy, ham, bacon and sausage. “Last Sunday we had brisket just off the smoker as a breakfast special, with eggs, potatoes and toast,” Sarom said. “Everybody was going crazy.”

Lunch segues to a Southern accent, with fried chicken and prawns, po’ boy sandwiches, and ’cue from a parking-lot smoker that burns oak and almond woods – St. Louis-style pork ribs, chicken, pulled pork, Andouille sausage and more.

Sarom’s son and daughter work there and have persuaded her to add some Cambodian dishes. Coming up will be a skewered-beef sandwich on baguette with a “salad” of pickled cucumber, daikon radish and carrot, likely to alternate with green papaya salad.

Price point: Most breakfast items are $4 to $9; lunch ranges from $6.50 to $17 (items include burgers and salads). Prices seem a bit high until you see the portion sizes and taste the homemade quality.

Ambiance: There’s a semi-cluttered table by the entrance with a stack of newspapers, just help yourself. Frank Sinatra over the sound system makes up for sparse decorations, though one curiosity is a pair of leather chaps hanging on a wall. “It’s a real hodgepodge of decor,” said a lunch pal. Roomy booths upgrade the comfort level.

Drinks: Iced coffee drinks, sodas, beer and wine, with root beer and coffee floats as novelties.

Service: Practice could make perfect.

First impressions: The star at our table was an overflowing bowl of deeply flavored jambalaya, the classic Louisiana dish of prawns, chicken and sausage in a moderately spiced tomato sauce with bacon and the “Cajun holy trinity” of celery, onion and bell pepper, over white rice. Add heat with a choice of four Louisiana hot sauces. It’s a “go-back” dish – we’ll go back specifically for this specialty.

A catfish po’ boy showed up with OK fish touched with mildly spicy tartar and remoulade sauces that yelled for more heat, on a spongy roll that did not do the sandwich any favors. The crust on the fried chicken was nicely seasoned and crunchy, but we wanted the breast meat to be juicier. Cornbread doesn’t get much better, while the wonderfully textured greens were way salty. Soy sauce and two kinds of peppers (“and my love,” Sarom said) gave the macaroni salad an unexpected flavor profile that improved with each bite. A “yum!” dish.

We also tasted dark and tender pork ribs that spent hours on the smoker before being finished in the oven. Ask for the Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce on the side, not squirted on just before serving. We’ll return for plates of smoked sausage and brisket.

Sarom opened, ran and sold three doughnut shops between 2000 and 2013. She bakes a variety of desserts on site, including pies and cobblers. I’m no fan of carrot cake, but this one convinced me it can be sublime.

Try it if: You love from-scratch dishes at small, homey places that reflect the passions of the owners.

Forget it if: Your ideal lunch is a quinoa-parsley salad with low-fat vinaigrette.

Sarrom’s Southern Kitchen

  • Where: 1901 El Camino Ave., Sacramento
  • Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 7 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends. Lunch starts at 10 a.m., breakfast is served all day.
  • Information: (916) 571-5355, www.facebook.com/saromssouthernkitchen
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