Proust had his madeleines. I, rather embarrassingly, have school-lunch pizza and Thrifty ice cream to remind me of times past.
I revisited these memory-triggering foods at Rancho Cordova’s Back to the 80’s Café & More, where you can play Ms. Pac-Man, pore over 45s of the singles you have long forgotten and, oh yes, eat.
The brainchild of Christopher Knecht, the café – opened in early December –is an extension of his previous memorabilia store of the same name, which also resided in Rancho Cordova. The name, by the way, makes for a perfect greeting; when customers walk in, a friendly voice rings out: “Welcome back to the ’80s!”
Knecht, who previously worked at Cheesecake Factory and also in food service in the Marine Corps, said he was inspired by ’50s-themed nostalgia restaurants (think Mels Diner). “I thought parents could bring their kids to show them how it used to be,” Knecht said. “I’m a huge 1980s fan, and it’s been so fun to see how it’s all coming back around.”
Knecht’s memorabilia obsession came in part from his grandfather, who owned an antique mall in Iowa. It was family practice that whenever a toy was bought, a second one was purchased as well and kept in its box. Knecht, who has a substantial collection of pop-culture artifacts in a large storage unit, holds a sidewalk sale at the restaurant every other Saturday morning. (The next one takes place March 17.)
With all these riches for Knecht to choose from, it’s no wonder there’s an in-the-box Freddy Kruger doll and Teddy Ruxpin (remember those?) perched above the counter –right next to the Thrifty Ice Cream menu and a vintage black-and-white letter board menu that’s a dead ringer for the one at the roller rink I used to frequent.
Having graduated from high school in 1990, I feel well qualified for assessing the 1980s authenticity on hand. The most formative years of my pop-culture life were spent entirely in the greed-is-good decade. The deep-cuts factor here is, in a word, high. The café packs in more obscure references, items for sale and smile-provoking details than I could chronicle in an entire section of this newspaper.
Food and drinks, naturally, fit the theme. Menu items’ names are pun-filled and period appropriate: a Paul Reuben sandwich; the Doc Brown burger; the Puttin’ on the Ritz (a classic “taco” salad. Get it?). The doughnut holes on the breakfast menu, which is served all day, is known as The Police.
No points for guessing that this section of the menu is called The Breakfast Club. Saturday breakfast is the way to go, as one of the TVs plays vintage cartoons –on our visit, the program featured animated Mr. T.
I tried The Fix, a breakfast burrito with black beans, scrambled eggs, cheese and crunchy tater tots. It was on the bland side, but dosing it with the salsa that came on the side and a healthy pour of Tapatio hot sauce (not a flavor I recall as a dominant one of the ’80s, but on hand here) fixed that.
A Monte Cristo was a touch greasy but still enjoyable, thanks to French-toast-like bread, lots of ham and the signature sweet-savory contrast with strawberry jam. I found myself, however, sneaking bites from my daughter’s kids meal, which was cheese pizza served on an old-school cafeteria tray, with more of those tater tots – golden, ultra crunchy and shaped like pieces from the game Tetris – on the side. That cheese pizza was served in squares, just like it was at my elementary school.
Was it good? It’s hard to say, exactly. It was salty, fatty and hit that sweet spot of nostalgia that sometimes that makes more sophisticated assessments of food all but irrelevant.
The “Time Warp” milkshakes underscored this point, too. The lineup goes big on pop-culture references: Karma Chameleon is multicolored; the E.T. comes with Reese’s Pieces. I – formerly a kid whose mom wouldn’t buy sugar cereal – went for the Captain Crunch, which was sprinkled with its namesake and tasted delightfully like cereal milk.
There has been a trend, led by Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar, of bringing this and other flavors of American childhoods into higher-end pastry kitchens. Back to the 80's Café is far from high-end, but its kid- and grownup-friendly tastes flip the same switches.
The milkshake comes in a jaunty, brightly colored plastic milkshake cup shaped like a sugar cone. Vibrant colors, naturally, abound here: Rubik’s-Cube-esque stools; electric purple and yellow zigzags on the tables; teal walls.
Some beverages, however, buck the trend. Crystal Pepsi and New York Seltzer are perfectly colorless. There’s no alcohol served yet, possibly sparing us all the iffy temptations of Bartles & Jaymes, though Knecht said a beer and wine license is on its way, along with late-night karaoke on Thursdays, in April.
One unusual colorful touch is tangy purple sauerkraut, made in house, on the Paul Reuben, a good rendition of the classic sandwich. I would have liked the marble rye bread just a little more toasted, but the golden fries (a lightly battered style) alongside were perfect. The fries also enhanced The Splash, with Guinness-battered fish, malt vinegar and tartar sauce.
Salads were a mixed bag. The Awesome Cobb was a little dull, a mound of iceberg with cold fried chicken. That Puttin’ on the Ritz taco salad, however, was much better than expected and a definite improvement on the pallid taco salad my mom served in the actual 1980s. The Ritz’s creamy cilantro-lime dressing added punch, the chestnut-colored tortilla bowl tasted freshly fried, and the ground beef, beans, and lettuce were all in balanced proportions.
The Where’s the Beef tri-tip salad was underdressed, so I couldn’t really taste the promised jalapeno ranch. The tri-tip was unfortunately dry and might have been better sliced rather than cubed, but the onion rings on top added savor. One aside: The flimsy plastic forks make it almost impossible to eat hearty salads and could use an upgrade to metal.
I didn’t buy a Care Bear or a movie poster, but I couldn’t leave without a cylindrical scoop of Thrifty ice cream. The rocky road is just as good as it was when my best friend and I used to ride our bikes to Thrifty after junior high let out. Thirty years later, cones don’t cost 35 cents anymore, and I didn’t have to ride my bike up Highway 50 to get the sweet treat. But sometimes, the taste of nostalgia is – forgive me – awesome.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Back to the 80's Café & More
3084 Sunrise Blvd., Suite 8, Rancho Cordova; 916-368-7616; www.backtothe80scafe.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Beverage options: Crystal Pepsi, Tab, New York Seltzer, Slush Puppies and specialty milkshakes, plus the usual fountain drinks. Owner Knecht says a beer and wine license is on the way.
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat, though vegetarian options are limited.
Gluten-free options: A few.
Noise levels: Heavy on the beep-boop Nintendo noises and ’80s synth-pop, but fine for conversation.
Ambiance: Like, totally rad, if your jam is neon, abstract angular shapes and walls lined with movie posters you had long forgotten. In addition, screens show MTV and other programs of yesteryear (David Hasselhoff, anyone?).
This restaurant delivers and then some on its promise: Step into the strip-mall space and you’re indeed catapulted into the recent past. Is all the food great? No. But whether you enjoy this place relies more on your level of interest in revisiting the era of “Thriller” than on what you will eat.
The menu, rife with pop-culture puns, is kitschy, fun and kid friendly. Crunchy golden fries and tater tots, a good reuben, burgers and over-the-top milkshakes anchor the lineup. Breakfasts and main-dish salads are mixed.
Counter service is chatty and ready to nod along with nostalgic ooh-ings and aah-ings, but also efficient.
A Thrifty single scoop is $1.99 — not the 35 cents it was in the 1980s —but prices are affordable, with entrees mostly under $10.