Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Good eats meet good vibe at Carmichael Cafe

Among the hits at Carmichael Cafe are the chili, foreground, and the tri-tip sandwich on grilled sourdough, dubbed the Carmichael Melt.
Among the hits at Carmichael Cafe are the chili, foreground, and the tri-tip sandwich on grilled sourdough, dubbed the Carmichael Melt. apierleoni@sacbee.com

Quality food in hefty portions at fair prices. That’s the obvious triumvirate that helps spell success for casual restaurants, but the straightforward formula seems to elude a surprising number of places. Judging by the recent lunch crowd at Carmichael Cafe & Deli, though, it’s working well there.

Before he opened his landscaping company, Lawnman, cafe owner Burnie Lenau was a regional manager of 25 Taco Bells. In December, he paired his front-of-the-house operations expertise with the back-of-the-house cooking skills of longtime friend and business partner Simon Mandell, who has 43 years’ experience in restaurant kitchens.

“We brainstormed the menu, and a lot of the recipes are Simon’s,” said Lenau. Take Mandell’s excellent chili, one of the most satisfying versions we’ve tasted. It’s chunky with pieces of steak and al-dente beans, and topped with chopped red onion and molten cheddar cheese. His seafood chowder is thick with scallops, crab, lobster, shrimp, clams and salmon. “Unlike other chowders, it’s difficult to find the potatoes in there,” Lenau said earnestly.

I met two lunch pals there last week for a table of grub that far surpassed the usual fare found in most diners of our acquaintance. The restaurant has a homey, 1950s vibe to it, with low ceilings and lots of brick. Of special interest are the wall-mounted vintage photographs showing a history of Carmichael curated by photojournalist Susan Maxwell Skinner, author of “Carmichael: Americana on the Move.” Also, her eight years in the Buckingham Palace press corps positioned her to put together three coffee-table books about Princess Diana. Visit her at www.susanmaxwellskinner.com.

Our server, T.T., was fast and funny, and she called us her “table of sweetness.” Try finding that dynamic in a chain operation.

T.T. brought it on, starting with plates of crispy onion rings, so-so garlic fries, chili and seafood chowder. We followed those with a huge “pancake sandwich” of three flapjacks topped with a thick slice of country ham and an egg.

Next up was the star of the show, the Carmichael Melt of tender tri-tip, ham, cheese, tomato and red onion on grilled sourdough. A decent treatment of the classic Monte Cristo sandwich quickly disappeared – turkey, ham, Swiss and cheddar on bread that’s dipped in egg and deep-fried.

“I can make you the best coffee-ice cream milkshake you’ve ever tasted,” T.T. teased. In a few minutes we agreed she had been telling the truth.

Carmichael Cafe specializes in all-day breakfast-lunch, with nightly dinner specials such as vegetable-fettuccine Alfredo, grilled pork chops and prime rib.

One hallmark of a classic diner is its base of regulars, and they’re quickly establishing themselves. One of my “frequent flier” lunch pals shows up there three to four times a week, and Lenau recalled one customer “who lived only a block away and was here two or three times a day before he moved to Texas.”

P.S.: Just to be clear, Carmichael Cafe is in Sacramento, only a few hundred yards from the western border of Carmichael.

Korean fare in Dixon

Dixon is a town of history, parades and fairs, of farms and grazing livestock and grass roots where the Olde Vets Hall displays this sign out front: “All you can eat! Beer-battered fish fry, Friday 6-8, full no-host bar.”

It’s also sheep country, as reflected by the locally raised, grass-fed lamb chops and other cuts in the display cases of the family-run Emigh’s Market. The store also sells grass-fed beef, hot sauces, olive oils, and breakfast and lunch (including a lamb burger; 1660 N. Lincoln Ave., 707-678-8809, www.emighsmarket.com).

We found several down-home restaurants along an older strip of First Street a few miles from Emigh’s, the kind that come wrapped in American flags. Among them, counterintuitively, is a Korean place named Moyo Moyo.

I met a lunch pal there Saturday, and we were in the mood to experiment. Among the items that ended up crowding the table of our pinewood booth were side dishes of cucumber, jellyfish, radish, tofu, noodles and the like. We added a bunch of them to the flavor-free “seasoning is done at your table” beef noodle soup, which made it pretty good.

The best dishes were the tender stir-fried beef (bulgogil) with rice and veggies; and a traditional seafood pancake chewy with shrimp, octopus, squid, oyster, clam and green onion.

One interesting dish that owner Joy Kim brought unsolicited was a comfort food-like “steamed egg” in a small stone “cup.” Apparently, she had scrambled the egg and cooked it in beef broth, water, salt and green onion. The one-note flavor was delicious, the texture like delicate mashed potato, only better.

Moyo Moyo, 127 N. First St., Dixon. (707) 678-4982.

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

Carmichael Cafe & Deli

4314 Marconi Ave, Sacramento

Hours: 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Food:

Ambiance: (for its diner vibe)

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) (916) 481-5000, www.carmcafedeli.com

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