Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Sticky Gator, 19 Handles – soul in different ways

Chicken, mac ’n’ cheese, collard greens at Sticky Gator
Chicken, mac ’n’ cheese, collard greens at Sticky Gator

Some restaurants thrive because their go-to dishes are consistent and always on the menu (the muffuletta sandwich at Pennisi’s Deli, for instance, or the grilled lamb chops at Yanni’s Bar & Grill). Others succeed by evolving with the times. Rodney Ray has managed to combine both concepts at Sticky Gator BBQ and Soul Food since it debuted in midtown in October 2014.

The restaurateur who in 2011 opened the thriving T&R Taste of Texas Barbeque in Oak Park (3621 Broadway) has made some changes to the 18-month-old Gator, with more to come.

For one thing, he has altered the “fast-casual” quick-serve model and no longer holds sliced tri-tip, pulled pork and catfish nuggets in trays under heat lamps. “We found the hot case was destroying the quality of the food, even though it never sat there for long,” Ray said the other day. Now the meats, catfish and fried chicken are prepared to order, though the sides still sit on a steam table, which works just fine ($4 to $29; meats are also sold by the pound).

The 1950s-era booth seating has been roomily remodeled, a high-end soda dispenser is now on site, and beer taps could arrive by June. Alas, veteran pastry Vesela Peneva’s display case of luscious baked goods is a thing of the past.

“One new focus is our six-cheeses mac ’n’ cheese,” said Ray, showing off a trio of crawfish-bacon, pulled pork and original. He added, “Sunday is our biggest day of the week. I call it ‘Snuggle Sunday’ because my competitors are married and they’re at home snuggling, while I stay open.”

We’d forgotten how good the Gator’s from-scratch fare (from family recipes) can be. Buttermilk fried chicken was crisp and juicy, but a bit salty. You won’t find more tender pork ribs than the ones served here – ditto the pulled pork. Cornmeal-crusted fried catfish shouted, “You’re in the South!” Tri-tip is thick-cut, almost like brisket. One new dish is the four-star alligator and crawfish gumbo, with great texture and ongoing flavor. This is not the gator sold in shacks throughout Louisiana and Florida – greasy, fishy-tasting chunks – but small, well-handled morsels.

Too often, ’cue joints treat side dishes as afterthoughts, but not the Gator. We loved the garlicky mashed potatoes ’n’ gravy, collard greens and ham hocks (more vinegar, please), red beans ’n’ rice, and stone-killer cornbread stuffing, one of the best sides we’ve come across. Works well with sweet tea.

The decor is fun and funky, with red-and-yellow walls and a red ceiling, sheets of tin siding, tin buckets for chandelier shades, plastic utensils, and cardboard plates and containers. Framed photos of blues musicians decorate one wall, among them a poster from a B.B. King concert in Lake Charles, La. Admission was $1.50, or $2 at the door. The year was 1956. How about some music, Rodney?

Sticky Gator, 2322 K St., Sacramento; 916-382-9178, Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays, noon-10 p.m. Saturdays, noon-9 p.m. Sundays. Starting May 1, open till midnight Fridays-Saturdays.

Pub grub with an accent

We’re always on the hunt for outstanding fish ’n’ chips, a dish that likely originated in England in the 1830s. Three of our go-to’s are 36 Handles in El Dorado Hills (for the haddock), Streets in Sacramento and Boxing Donkey in Roseville.

We recently popped into the well-dressed 19 Handles (formerly Kilt Pub) in Sacramento for a taste of its hand-battered, center-cut Alaskan cod and house-made tartar sauce (and malt vinegar), with crisp-creamy fries. Other Celtic-centric dishes are on offer: Scotch egg, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie.

As good as the fish turned out (four stars), and as much as we liked the crisp, light coating (from a “secret recipe”), what caught our attention were menu items rarely seen in Our Town: goulash, potato pancakes, chicken and pork schnitzels, bratwurst, stuffed pepper and apple strudel.

Turns out that owner Alice Bolednik brought family recipes with her when she came from Czechoslovakia, and she’s been quietly adding them to the menu and as specials during the five years she has owned the restaurant.

“I’ve kept some of the British (dishes) and (six) hamburgers because people love them,” she said. “But it’s taken time to build the trust of my customers (regarding the eastern European items). The first time (they see a new dish) they say, ‘Oh, what is this?’ Then they try it and love it. They can tell everything is made from scratch.”

The huge beer selection of rotating taps, bottles and cans is so varied it requires its own menu and chalk board.

Tip: If you appreciate homemade soups, this is the place. Also, the so-called “ice cream sandwich” (big enough for four) will rock your sweet tooth.

19 Handles, 4235 Arden Way, Sacramento; 916-487-4979, Hours: 4-11 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Wednesdays-Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Saturdays-Sundays. Daily happy hour is 4-6 p.m.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe