Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: A tasting trip to the Mideast, China and Japan

With so many of Sactown magazine’s covers focused on restaurants month after month, I put the question to my lunch pal: What’s so remarkable about the Sacramento dining scene to warrant such coverage?

“Not only the quality of the restaurants, but the breadth and depth of the cuisines that are represented across a wide spectrum of diversity,” answered Steve Childs, publisher of the 40,000-circulation city magazine. “We have everything from the farm-to-fork group to mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants. There are so many of those that it’s impossible to go to all of them, but we cover as many as we can.”

We were sitting in one, the Babylon City Market, run by family and friends from Iraq. The dishes are Middle Eastern, the prices shockingly low, the quality pretty good. Everything is served in foam containers; help yourself to plastic utensils and paper napkins. Sorry, no paper plates.

On the Friday we stopped by, the place was packed with working-class folks looking for hot meals at good prices, and by women wearing hijabs (head scarves), cruising the grocery shelves packed with imported items.

We ordered several dishes, some better than others. We watched as puffy loaves of pita bread were taken from an oven and put into bags. They looked great, but failed to deliver much flavor or texture. “They’re more like rounds of pizza dough or a kind of undifferentiated white bread,” Steve said.

We’d heard that Babylon makes killer baba ghanoush, a mix of cooked eggplant, onion and tomato, with olive oil and spices. Sorry, none on this day.

“We make it once a week when we have time, and it sells out immediately,” said a man behind the counter. Instead, we bought a plastic tub of of sweet-creamy “eggplant salad” made and distributed by the Sadaf company in Los Angeles. It wasn’t what we had in mind.

Foam boxes of falafel, beef kebab and beef/lamb schwarma showed up, with sides of creamy house-made hummus (mashed and spiced chickpeas with seasame-seed paste), chewy saffroned basmati rice, and small salads of tomato, onion and assertive pickled cabbage. We liked it well enough, though the dense and cold falafel (deep-fried chickpea fritters) were more like subdued hush puppies than the assertive, crisp balls fragrant with cumin and coriander we’ve found elsewhere.

For dessert, we chose baklava in two shapes – square, and in the rarely seen shape of skinny flautas or egg rolls, which we liked better.

More interesting than the menu was a cruise up and down the grocery aisles and through the meat market.

We saw thousands of items, many of which we did not recognize. There were Medjool dates, cans of hummus and jars of tahini, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, jams, dried apricot paste from Syria, teas, Turkish coffee, lentils, dozens of herbs and spices, bins of grains and beans, yogurts and cheeses, ginger paste, pickled and dried fruits, olives and much more.

The butcher counter stocks halal meats and poultry. Broadly put, “halal” is to the Muslim diet what “kosher” is to the Jewish diet. In both, meat and poultry are prepared by religion-bound, ritualistic dietary laws. Among the goods on display were chickens, cubed veal and leg of lamb, next to a pack of lamb’s feet and a packaged lamb’s head. Or was that a goat’s head?

“If you cook this type of cuisine,” Steve said, “this is the store to shop for the ingredients. It’s the real deal.”

It is, and we’re glad for the discovery. At the least, it’s worth a stop for the vast assortment of exotic herbs and spices.

The Babylon City Market is at 1745 Watt Ave., Sacramento; (916) 486-7777.

Staying old school

Sometimes, old school is the best school. Take the Mandarin as an example.

The Chinese restaurant has served cuisine from three regions (Hunan, Canton and Szechwan) since it opened in 1981, with Kay Lee running the kitchen and husband Steve Helmrich in the front of the house. In 1986, they were joined by their son, Michael Helmrich, who took over in 2006.

It’s a comfy place (glass bricks, subdued lighting) with lunch and dinner menus of comfy foods – 23 appetizers and 150 entrees for dinner, though Michael Helmrich points out, “I can cook just about anything Asian if a customer has a special request.”

Two dishes in particular stand out as house specials and timeless hits. “Triple delight” chow mein is chicken, prawns and scallops with mixed vegetables in lobster sauce, served over crisp Hong Kong-style noodles ($15.95). The other is prawns in white wine sauce seasoned with whole cloves of garlic and finely ground red peppers ($15.95).

The bar’s a bit old-school, too, with mai-tais, scorpions and planter’s punches. The Mandarin is at 4321 Arden Way, Sacramento; (916) 488-4794,

For grilling

Corti Bros. Market meat department manager Mike Carroll is cutting beef shoulder into what could be the hot new grilling go-to for summer. It’s beautifully marbled prime Wagyu beef (American Kobe) from the estimable Snake River Farms of Boise, Idaho.

Specifically, he’s cutting the “under-chuck flap” into “zabuton” steaks, so named because of the flap’s shape, similar to that of the flat Japanese sitting cushion.

What’s the backyard home cook going to do with a zabuton? “Prep the steaks with a little olive oil and light seasonings, because you want to taste the meat, not the salt,” Carroll said. “Grill them quickly over high heat, to medium-rare to medium.”

Zabuton steaks in various weights sell for $23 a pound at Corti’s, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 736-3805,