As summer heats up, the Sacramento restaurant scene continues to scorch. Zealous foodies are lining up at a food court’s worth of recently opened destinations, among them Coconut’s Fish Cafe, Shoki Ramen House, OBO’ Italian Table & Bar, the Japanese Binchoyaki, and the taquerias Nixtaco and La Venadita.
Amid all the subsequent Instagramming and Facebooking, a faded blue awning on J Street quietly reminds passers-by of Cafe Marika’s understated presence. Inside, husband and wife Louie and Eva Chruma quietly continue doing what they’ve done in their tiny space for 27 years – prepare delicious homemade dishes to a faithful core of regulars and I-can’t-believe-how-good-this-is first-timers.
The quarters are close – five tables and six stools at the “bar” – and the decor simple. An assortment of blue and white dishes brightens one wall, a display of copper cookware hangs on another.
Eva and Louie attended separate culinary schools in the former Czechoslovakia and met while cooking at the five-star Grand Hotel Pupp in the spa town of Karlovy Vary. After “escaping” communist Czechoslovakia, Eva said, they spent “seven months in Austria” before finding an American sponsor and immigrating to the U.S. “We were stationed in Sacramento,” she said. They learned English and eventually bought Cafe Marika from a Hungarian couple, wisely keeping the name for its established clientele.
Louie does the cooking while Eva works the front of the house, such as it is. The fragrant dishes are Eastern European, with Hungarian, Czechoslovakian and German fare such as goulash with pork, spicy chicken paprikash and chicken breast with mushrooms at lunchtime ($7.25), and pan-fried pork schnitzel, stuffed cabbage and pork roll-ups at dinner ($13.50 to $15.75). We’re talking a bargain-priced menu of a dozen dishes, total, with a daily special.
“Everything is made from scratch, it’s food we grew up with and learned to make in the old days,” Eva said. “We don’t have recipes, we have it in our heads. We just do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and taste.”
Lunch pal Bill Bronston is a regular there, a retired physician and the impassioned founder of Tower of Youth, whose goal is to “organize teens to manufacture culture and community through digital media and the arts.” It so happened that the special on the day we visited is his favorite. The chalk board described “Znojmo goulash” – named after the ancient Czech town – as “lean cubed pork in light, creamy paprika sauce with dill pickle and spaetzle.”
We wolfed that down, along with chicken paprikash and Hungarian goulash, seemingly simple dishes that tantalize with subtly complex flavors. The homemade spaetzle (German noodles) were tender and light, the pork and chicken succulent. Sauces were rich and sublime, contrasted with the crunchy, sweet purple cabbage. A slice of apple strudel put an exclamation mark on a homemade meal rarely found outside Europe.
Have the Chrumas ever considered expanding to a bigger space? “No, we would have to vary from this kind of food and do American food like hamburgers and hot dogs,” Eva said. “This food is just for a few people who appreciate it, that’s all.”
Noodling around in Davis
Lots of competition, but it has a reputation for dishing up mounds of authentic Chinese food in big portions at reasonable prices ($4 to $10.25). It’s especially popular with college students on budgets.
On a recent visit to the clean, pleasant dining room, a hand-written list of specials was taped to a wall, including orange chicken, tomato beef and eggplant with tofu.
The laminated menus at the table were certainly diverse, and something of a departure from those at mainstream Chinese restaurants. No honey walnut prawns here; instead, Sichuan shrimp and boiled wontons filled with shrimp and pork.
We must have ordered the wrong appetizers, as the two that landed on the table were disappointingly without character. The fried green onion bread was gummy and oily and could not be saved by the accompanying salty sauce. The big, golden squares of deep-fried tofu had perfect texture – crispy on the outside, creamy inside – but were absent of any flavor. Again, the sauce helped but couldn’t perform a miracle.
Noodle dishes are a presence, of course, so we tasted a big bowl of chewy dandan noodles with “Sichuan sesame peanut sauce” and an add-on of shrimp. Though the housemade noodles were tasty enough, and the shrimp and crushed peanuts dominant, we couldn’t find any heat. Surprising, as the Sichuan province of China is known for its fiery fare. Squirts of sriracha helped.
A vegetarian lunch pal was eager to taste the Sichuan eggplant, perfectly cooked pieces of fresh vegetable over more housemade noodles, but oversauced with heatless, gloppy stuff that was so sweet it was “a bit overwhelming,” she said. We agreed.
The best dish on the table was the one our server recommended, five-spice beef noodle soup. Fresh noodles with extraordinary chewy-tender texture joined chunks of tender beef in exceptional broth redolent with five-spice powder (typically fennel, star anise, clove, red pepper and cinnamon, though variations are common).
“I don’t know of any place in Northern California where you would find more authentic noodles,” said another lunch pal, who has traveled through China on many occasions.
“This is a nice solution for vegetarians,” said the other pal, who is 20-something. “But I wouldn’t recommend it for a date.”
Davis Noodle City, 129 E St. Davis, 530-757-2618. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sundays.
Where: 2011 J St., Sacramento
Hours: Lunch is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner is 5-9 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
How much: $$$; cash only