Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Bargain bites, drinks at Ruth’s Chris happy hour

Happy hour at Ruth’s Chris Steak House includes, clockwise from top left: crab BLT with zucchini fries, skewers of beef, seared ahi tuna and spicy lobster.
Happy hour at Ruth’s Chris Steak House includes, clockwise from top left: crab BLT with zucchini fries, skewers of beef, seared ahi tuna and spicy lobster.

Happy-hour menus abound at bars and restaurants around town, rooted in the “free lunches” so popular in 19th-century New York saloons. When we’re in the mood for bites and sips at a bargain price (relatively speaking), we wade through the well-dressed crowds in the bar areas of Ruth’s Chris Steak House at the Pavilions or the Galleria shopping centers.

There, Ruth’s @ the Bar “Sizzle, Swizzle & Swirl” happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. weekdays) serves six appetizers for $8 each (they’re $11 to $18 during regular hours), along with five cocktails and three wines for $8 (usually $9 to $12.).

When the deal began in 2011, the price was $6 each for seven appetizer choices. By 2012, the price had inched up to $7. Along with the the latest $1 bump-up to $8, the menu has added a crab BLT with crunchy zucchini fries and lost its lobster roll sandwich.

Two happy-hour pals and I sampled pieces of lightly fried lobster coated in luscious cream sauce that carried a touch of heat; pink medallions of seared ahi tuna with a dark, sweetish sauce; surprisingly chewy chunks of skewered tenderloin paired with a terrific salad sprinkled with blue cheese; and the imaginative and very tasty crab BLT on grilled garlic bread, our top choice.

As for its four-star cheeseburger happy-hour choice, the hand-formed, half-pound patty is made from the house-ground trim cut off the prime steaks that are the restaurant’s signature. A fine example of “steak taste on a hamburger budget.”

Find the “Sizzle-Swizzle” happy-hour menu at Ruth’s Chris in Pavilions on Fair Oaks Boulevard near Howe Avenue (916-286-2702); and at Ruth’s Chris in the Galleria on Galleria Boulevard in Roseville (916-780-6910). More information:

Pennisi’s sandwiches

Walk into Pennisi’s and it’s easy to see why the venerable deli has been around since 1952. If you want to graduate to real sandwiches and stop wasting time at chain sub shops, this is the place.

One of its best offerings is the classic muffuletta, made there the same way for, oh, decades. Salami, mortadella, Danish ham and provolone cheese are stacked on a roll (go for Dutch crunch) and heaped with muffulletta spread, which can be bought in jars at specialty markets (giardiniera relish is a close relative).

The spread is a piquant mix of chopped olives, peppers, cauliflower, carrot, celery, mushroom, artichoke, onion and garlic in olive oil. The sandwich itself was created in 1906 by Salvatore Lupo at the Central Grocery in New Orleans and isn’t often seen in California.

Get it at 1237 J St., Sacramento; (916)448-5610,

Sampling fish ’n’ chips

Every angler is familiar with this silly-sounding but true mantra: “Fish are where you find ’em.” So are fish ’n’ chips, with some versions far better than others.

Our go-to’s are the Guinness beer-battered wild cod with skinny hand-cut Kennebec fries and housemade tartar sauce at Boxing Donkey (300 Lincoln St., Roseville; 916-797-3665,; and the haddock, cod and salmon at 36 Handles, either battered and deep-fried or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko and pan-fried, both served with thick-cut spuds flashed with tangy salt ’n vinegar powder. 1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills; (916) 941-3606,

Somebody was lauding the fillets at Ocean Fish & Chips (since 1999), so we dropped in. We skipped the potatoes and tasted fillets of catfish, cod and red snapper. Forget the catfish – the fishy-tasting fillets are frozen and pre-coated in a stale, oversalted cornmeal base. Better are the fresh cod and so-called “red snapper” (the best of the trio), most likely one of the 100-plus species of California rockfish. The cod and snapper are hand-dipped in OK batter and served steaming hot.

We helped ourselves to malt vinegar and squirts from a squeeze bottle of the glop that passes for tartar sauce in so many fish ’n’ chips places. The real thing is handmade from dill pickle, onion, bell pepper and mayo – but who has the time, right?

More interesting than the fish were bowls of chicken and beef with rice and teriyaki sauce. 2558 Cottage Way, Sacramento; (916) 483-3730,

Food and wine festival

Harrah’s and Harveys hotel-casinos are throwing a party this weekend. The fifth annual South Lake Tahoe Food and Wine Festival will offer food-and-wine pairings, wine- and bourbon-tastings, special dinners, cooking and winemaking demonstrations, discussions and seminars.

The centerpiece Grand Market Expo will be noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Harrah’s special-events center, where chefs from the best restaurants in the national hotel and casino chain will serve samplings of four-star dishes. This year’s stars are celebrity chef-cookbook author Rocco DiSpirito and chef-restaurateur Mark Estee of Reno.

For more information and to buy tickets: and (800) 745-3000.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.