Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Tres Hermanas to the rescue

“My friends and I had lunch at a really cool place that you should write about,” said a veteran lunch pal earlier this year.

After being remiss for months, I looked at its menu online. Hmm, pretty fancy: ham and Gruyere cheese with mornay sauce, beef Bourguignon, crepes filled with Nutella, the hazelnut-chocolate spread from Italy.

So one day last week we parked across the street from the Ancient Future building, a center for world music and dance. My lunch pal went inside and emerged a minute later with bad news: The 24K Cafe had closed for public dining just days earlier. Undaunted, we walked to nearby Tres Hermanas and turned a loss into a gain.

The Mexican restaurant has been a highly regarded midtown staple for 19 years. Its name means “three sisters,” and we can name them and their brother. Tres Hermanas on K Street is owned by Sonja Saenz, the youngest of the sister trio.

Her older sisters, Dora and Norma Saenz, run Three Sisters in East Sacramento. Their brother, Sergio Saenz, has Tres Hermanas in Davis.

“Most of our customers are very loyal,” Sonja Saenz said on the phone later. “The consistency in our food makes a big difference.”

Walking inside her restaurant is like witnessing a collision between an art gallery and a hacienda in rural Mexico. The dining rooms are a hodgepodge of wrought iron accents, pastel colors, weathered wood, kaleidoscopic paintings, ceiling fans shaped like banana-tree fronds, and a string of lights that is really a collage of big stars. The back dining room is dominated by a dramatic metal sculpture of a tropical tree, with huge “elephant ear” leaves and branches snaking out above the tables. It all adds up to a lot of visual delight. Oh, and there’s patio seating, too.

Most Mexican restaurants start the table with fried corn tortilla chips (or puffy flour-tortilla chips, if you’re lucky) and salsa, and the quality of both can vary. The chips at Tres Hermanas were OK, but the semi-spicy salsa was so knockout fresh-tasting that we spooned it over most of the dishes that followed.

But first we were impressed with cups of steaming chicken-veggie soup. “The broth is so flavorful it’s obviously homemade,” said my lunch partner. That broth was filled with tender chicken, carrot, zucchini, onion and celery.

Next, we were surprised to find scant pieces of onion and tomato and not enough cilantro in the freshly made guacamole, which needed a squirt of lime juice. Problem was, our table was devoid of lime wedges.

Quickly landing on the table and bringing many “wow!” moments were hot (literally) plates of carnitas (roasted and shredded pork shoulder), chili relleno (cheese-stuffed pepper), chicken enchilada with mole sauce, and a shredded beef-stuffed crispy taco. They were joined by rice, refried beans and pico de gallo (a chop of tomato, onion, chili pepper and cilantro).

A note on rice ’n’ beans: The Spanish-style rice and melted cheese-covered refried beans at most of the Mexican restaurants we’ve visited over the years were treated like afterthoughts. But not these. The rice is cooked in chicken stock (there’s a vegetarian option), and the refried beans are seasoned with garlic, onion and other goodies, along with vegetable oil.

We jumped into the chili relleno, and were happy that the hefty, tender chilaca pepper had some heat. It had been stuffed with mild “queso fresco” (fresh cheese), dipped in egg-based batter and fried to a golden crisp.

Shredded beef can be tasteless, but the mound of moist meat in the produce-and-cheese-filed crisp taco had a lot of good things to say. The word “standard” was not among them.

We relished a red-carpet moment when the full-figured chicken enchilada arrived at the party, glamorous in a designer gown of dark and glistening mole poblano sauce, accented with melting cheese.

Mole sauce is one of the regional staples in Mexican cuisine, and typically contains chili peppers, seasonings, nuts and chocolate. Wonder what would happen if we poured it over vanilla ice cream? This one is made from “seven kinds of peppers, chocolate, peanuts and spices,” said the menu. It was silken and sublime, putting the enchilada into the spotlight – until the carnitas gave us a hug.

The fragrant shreds of pork shoulder were juicy, dark and crispy-tender, among the best we’ve tasted. As the server cleared the table, I quickly forked the last flavorful bite off the plate before he could take it away.

In the end, the lunch pal put it best: “I’m mourning the loss of the 24K Cafe,” she said, eyeing the last of the enchilada. “But wow! Did we luck out!”

Best bites

The classic French dip sandwich endures in its traditional glory on the lunch menus of the Marketplace Cafe and Tower Bridge Bistro at Embassy Suites. The hotel is a shout away from the Tower Bridge, where 740 folks will break bread Sept. 28 at the Tower Bridge gala dinner, the capstone event of Farm-to-Fork Week.

Chef Clay Purcell stacks shaved prime rib on a “soft buttered garlic roll,” tops it with provolone cheese and serves it with a side of fragrant homemade jus for dipping. We like it better on grilled rye bread with melted Swiss and crisp from-scratch coleslaw.

We took ours to a table on the hotel’s outdoor Riverfront Promenade, where the crowd will gather for desserts after their gala dinner. We gazed at the river and bridge, dipped the succulent sandwich into the fragrant jus and took big bites, comfortable in knowing the gala dinner is $175 a person and the French dip is only $12.

Get it at Embassy Suites, 100 Capitol Mall, Sacramento; (916) 326-5000,