Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Rollin’ on the river at Rio City Cafe

Brunch – the leisurely meal that marries breakfast and lunch – is more popular than ever as diners seek slow-paced repasts twinned to the notion of getting out of the house with the family and letting somebody else do the cooking.

Not surprisingly, the queen of brunch holidays is Mother’s Day, followed by Easter, Father’s Day and Thanksgiving (why aren’t those folks at home prepping dinner like the rest of us?). Yet brunch draws crowds year-round, a point brought home one recent Sunday when we arrived at Rio City Cafe in Old Sacramento and snagged a choice table on the sprawling deck. Shortly, every chair was taken, though empty tables and seats at the handsome bar were available inside.

Rio City was built to resemble a riverfront warehouse, and the attractions of the outdoor venue are multifaceted – the fresh breeze off the Sacramento River, the slow parade of boat traffic (here comes a yacht) and the views of the Tower Bridge and theZiggurat Building (a.k.a. the Pyramid Building). When we leaned over the railing, we looked down on the cruise boat Capitol Hornblower, tethered to the dock.

We turned our attention to the seven-item a la carte brunch menu ($8.50 to $14.75), though we wandered off into the lunch menu and chose four dishes there.

Clam chowder ($5.75 to $8.95) was rather standard and a bit floury tasting, reflecting the template found far too often at too many restaurants – too many potatoes, not enough clams. The broth was not far beyond just OK.

Crispy fried calamari (rings and tentacled heads) fared better, helped by surprise bits of puckery fried lemon and excellent chili-based aioli with a touch of sweetness ($10.50).

Juicy and meaty Thai-syle chicken wings were complemented by another terrific sauce, orange hoisin chili ($8.95).

The lunch pals agreed the best item on the table was the portobello mushroom-stuffed ravioli ($14.50). The firm, tender pillows arrived with peas, tomato and Parmesan in an outstanding sauce.

As for brunch, get your hunger on before you show up. Our eyes widened when a massive plate filled with huevos rancheros arrived, dominating the center of the table. What started out generations ago in rural Mexico as “rancher’s eggs” – a simple and filling dish of eggs, chili sauce, beans and rice on tortillas – has been transformed in this country into a far grander dish. In this case, corn tortillas piled with a huge mound of chili verde (chunks of braised pork in tomatillo sauce), four strips of crisp bacon, rice, black beans, jack cheese and sour cream topped with crunchy strips of red-colored tortilla.

“This is perfect for a hangover,” said one lunch pal, “not that I would know ...”

“It’s too messy for my taste,” another lunch pal said. “It’s not solid enough.”

Usually, quiche comes out of the oven looking like a pie and is cut into wedge-shaped slices. Not this one. A twist on the classic quiche Lorraine was a puff pastry (almost like a croissant) that had been rolled and put into an oversized cupcake tin and filled with egg custard, applewood-smoked bacon, spinach and Gruyere cheese. That’s according to executive chef Brandon Umipeg, on the phone days later. “It’s like a little tasting party going on in your mouth,” said another lunch pal.

If you want the full brunch experience, add $10.50 for unlimited champagne, mimosas and Bellinis.

One regret: Not tasting the grilled flank steak with eggs and potatoes. Next time.

Dining choice at aquarium

By year’s end, the Monterey Bay Aquarium will have hosted 1.9 million guests, about 13 percent of whom are from the Sacramento area, said spokesman Ken Peterson. We joined the crowd recently, specifically to check out the newly renovated Cindy’s Waterfront restaurant. It’s named after Napa Valley chef-restaurateur (Mustards Grill) Cindy Pawlcyn, who created the menus and makes a point of coming by regularly to check on things. A sign on one wall says it plainly enough: “We source our ingredients locally from farmers, ranchers and fishermen who use sustainable practices.”

The space is divided into two sections. The self-serve cafe offers hot and cold items (pizza, panini, fish tostada, gazpacho, salads; $7.50 to $15) and a medley of desserts. Ordinary-sounding dishes, yes, but they carry Pawlcyn’s trademark imprints of integrity and originality.

The more formal restaurant resembles a refurbished cannery (as in Cannery Row) and features table service and a full-on menu ($3 to $27).

Everything we sampled was four-star, beginning with clam chowder that was chunky with clams and multi-flavored with fennel, leek and a splash of anise-flavored Pernod liqueur. Also: calamari with basil-lemon aioli; a sandwich of shrimp and Dungeness crab salad accented with lemon-tarragon mayo and accompanied by irresistible house-made potato chips; and a daily special – a rich but mild-tasting Laura Chenel goat cheese tart with roasted red and golden beets and an endive salad with honey-mustard vinaigrette.

At each table is a pair of binoculars for viewing Monterey Bay, the living body of water that heaves its waves on the rocks just outside the huge picture windows. We watched flocks of pelicans cruise by and spotted sea otters and pods of dolphins having their own seafood lunches.

Cindy’s Waterfront restaurant (11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily) and self-serve cafe (11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily) are open to aquarium patrons only. Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey; (831) 648-4800,

P.S. In the sit-down restaurant, take a close look at James Edward Fitzgerald’s 1934 painting “Net Menders.” It was created for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, and is in the same style as the murals in Coit Tower in San Francisco.