Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: 2015’s ‘best-of’ in casual dining

Cioppino at Wine Spectator Greystone in St. Helena
Cioppino at Wine Spectator Greystone in St. Helena

Before we continue our adventures in casual dining in the new year, let’s get a taste of the 10 places my lunch pals and I enjoyed the most in 2015.

This column’s agenda is to find diverse restaurants that offer recommendable dishes and bring them to your attention. Most of our destinations are small and local, but because Sacramentans love day-tripping, we also hit the road.

About the star-rating system: My stars aren’t the same stars as the ones my colleague, Carla Meyer, assigns to the (mostly) fine-dining houses she visits. For instance, consider the hand-formed burger at Pangaea Bier Cafe. We think it’s exceptional, so it rated four stars. We’re not comparing it to the rarefied fare (such as rabbit tagliatelle with carrot purée) Carla mentioned in her four-star review of Localis. Context is everything.

Now, for the final-final, in order of totally subjective preference:

1. Wine Spectator Greystone

Under the guidance of chef-instructors, lunch is assembled in an open kitchen by the senior students at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America. A French-accented seasonal menu features dishes such as Arctic char, game hen, cioppino, duck breast, rock shrimp and chorizo, and, yes, a dynamite grilled-cheese sandwich. Some of the locally sourced ingredients are from the CIA’s own farm and garden. The gorgeous restaurant is part of Greystone, the 117,000-square-food stone-and-wood mega-mansion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside the Greystone building, 2555 Main St., St. Helena; 707-967-1010,

2. Strings Urban Kitchen

The dramatically handsome restaurant shows an Italian cuisine-centric menu and an impressive wine list. Among the hits are stuffed mushrooms, steamed clams, lasagna baked inside a garlic-onion pastry shell, and Pasta Mediterranean, thin spaghetti splashed with marinara sauce and a hint of curry, topped with prawns, spicy Italian sausage, tomato, basil and Parmesan.

On the ground floor of Capitol Towers, 1500 Seventh St. Sacramento; 916-444-6500,

3. Sammy’s Restaurant + Bar

The surprise of the year was finding a serious restaurant with an international menu inside a casino, though it turned out that Stones Gambling Hall is a class act. Among our favorites: lobster bisque, Thai grilled chicken salad, pork dumplings, duck tacos, wood-fired New York-style mushroom-sausage-pesto pizza and braised lamb shank.

Inside Stones Gambling Hall, 6508 Antelope Road, Citrus Heights; 916-735-8440,

4. Hidden Sichuan

This is the Chinese restaurant we’d been looking for, where the chef uses bold seasonings to create dishes that haven’t been dumbed-down for milquetoast palates. We love its dark and silken beef soup, salt ‘n’ pepper prawns in addictive broth, “magic chile” chicken wokked into marvelous morsels of intense flavor, cumin-dusted medallions of stir-fried lamb, braised pork in ginger sauce, and spinach with garlic.

9160 E. Stockton Blvd., Elk Grove; 916-686-8696

5. Tank House BBQ & Bar

Our local ’cue scene has dramatically improved over the past five years. That’s thanks to joints like Tank House. In fair weather, the place to be is on the patio near the smoker, where succulent meats cook over oak and cherrywood coals. The housemade sauces only improve the baby back ribs, juicy brisket and pulled pork, chicken, turkey and hot links. The habanero-spiked sweet sauce is brought out from behind the bar “only by request.”

1925 J St., Sacramento; 916-431-7199,

6. Yianni’s Bar & Grill

The husband-wife owners tap their Greek heritage and family recipes for skordalia (garlicky potato-bread-almond-olive oil spread), chicken souviaki (marinated and grilled chunks of chicken), spanakopita (triangles of crispy filo dough stuffed with chopped spinach, feta and seasonings) and super-sized baklava. The star is the grilled lamb chops, but look for Thursday-night specials and rotisseried whole lamb on Friday nights.

6628 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; 916-482-0796,

7. Sierra Smokehouse BBQ

Owner-pitmaster Ed Anhorn is a certified Kansas City Barbeque Society judge and former competitor, and his pork ribs are the meatiest and most perfectly cooked we’ve tasted. He also smokes rarely seen chicken thighs, along with brisket, pork shoulder, turkey, meatloaf and hot links. Splash on a choice of five BBQ sauces.

2533 Merrychase Drive, Cameron Park; 530-672-7477,

8. Sarom’s Southern Kitchen

The dynamic is counterintuitive: A Cambodian cook-businesswoman with a background in doughnut shops runs a cafe specializing in Southern-style cooking. It works, as we found out with fried chicken and prawns, catfish po’ boy, macaroni salad, deeply flavored jambalaya, and St. Louis-style pork ribs from a parking-lot smoker.

1901 El Camino Ave., Sacramento; 916-571-5355,

9. TM Noodle

Somehow, the tiny Vietnamese restaurant turns out 107 menu items in 11 categories without missing a beat. “Banh xeo” is a crisp crepe filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Skewered teriyaki-marinated chicken is char-grilled and served with crunchy fried shrimp. The accompanying produce (anise basil, cilantro, mint, bean sprouts) is remarkably fresh.

4110 Manzanita Ave., Carmichael; 916-486-2579

10. Morgan’s Lobster Shack & Fish Market

It’s simple: If you love seafood, go for the haddock fish ’n’ chips, oyster and Ipswich clam po’ boys, sea scallops in lemon-caper sauce, lobster grilled cheese and, ultimately, a real-deal version of the classic New England lobster roll.

10087 West River St., Truckee; 530-582-5000,

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

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