It’s hard to define the precise genre of Backbone Café, a new, laid-back, weekdays-only downtown establishment. Is it clean eating, paleo, gluten free, dairy free, Whole 30 or vegan?
The answer to all of those is yes and no. People following any of those diets can make a good meal at Backbone, but brother restaurateurs Tomas and Joey Woolston (sons of Matt and Yvette Woolston, who own Matteo’s Pizza & Bistro and Crocker Café by Supper Club) don’t follow any one diet — and seek to serve all kinds of eaters.
It might be most accurate to say Backbone aims to be a wellness restaurant, with all the well-intentioned, not-quite-scientific, occasionally-faddish ideas about the body, health and toxins that overused term connotes.
But don’t be put off by the broad theme. Whether you’re a skeptic or a true believer in regards to the healing properties of coconut oil, turmeric and bone broth, you’ll find enjoyable dishes, along with rare missteps, at Backbone.
The Woolston brothers, both in their 20s, grew up in the restaurant industry, gradually assuming more responsibility at their parents’ restaurants, which explains why they felt ready to take the helm of their own place at a young age. (Joey runs the kitchen; Tomas manages the front of house. The Woolston parents have an ownership stake.)
Backbone’s skew toward wellness-oriented foods stems from profound misfortune: Joey Woolston sustained two spinal fractures in a 30-foot fall at Burning Man. Formerly a competitive athlete, he spent a year in a back brace, and during his long recovery, was inspired to create Backbone’s menu — a story that lends poignancy to both the name of the restaurant and the golden mural of a spine arising from a welter of roots that adorns the J Street facade.
Inside, the vibe is laid back, with a neo-hippie air: Burning Man coffee-table books on a low table between cushy couches; a magic-mushroom mural on one wall and CBD oil bath bombs for sale at the register. It all feels like a direct descendant of the earthy vegetarian-communitarian restaurants of the '70s, but with much more meat and (thankfully) no carob in sight.
One would expect to see this restaurant occupying a bedraggled corner of Midtown instead of downtown, but it’s packing in an office-worker lunch crowd during its weekdays-only hours and inspiring hangouts throughout the morning at those cushy couches, which sport a nearby lending library of wellness books.
Breakfast, served all day, is a limited menu that leans toward hefty (and pricey, at $9.50) smoothies, plus avocado toast, breakfast tacos and fried rice.
A breakfast cheese and avocado quesadilla seemed more like little tacos to me. The menu touts two corn tortillas (made by Mi Rancho; the tortillas are the menu’s only corn), but the delivered dish had three tiny taco-sized ones, folded over a little melty cheese and a lot of mashed avocado.
Fried rice, topped with a perfect over-easy egg, was surprisingly light, with white rice, bright ribbons of red and yellow chili peppers, celery, cilantro and lime — a vibrant, invigorating start to the day.
Far richer was the keto coffee, something that has had a major moment among the CrossFit and paleo crowd in recent years: hot coffee blended with MCT oil (MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, in case you are deep into the molecular properties of fat) and grass-fed butter.
Look, I get it. If you’re unfamiliar with this cup of morning Joe, it sounds incredibly weird, but I’m here to tell you it’s better than it sounds to the uninitiated. It blends up frothy and tastes like a latte made with heavy cream.
On another visit, the cold brew iced coffee with rounded, flavorful housemade nut milk was a lighter treat. I was less won over by the hot golden milk, based on nut milk with turmeric and overpowering chai-style spices.
At lunch, the menu options widen to include burgers (available with gluten-free buns), tacos, curries and more. The “power bowls” —with a choice of grass-fed beef, free-range chicken or vegan “carnitas” over rice with roasted vegetables — were a hit. My order, with chicken, came with an earthy chile “mahogany sauce” sparked with citrus, mint, and char-edged roasted vegetables, though the blend of veggies perhaps relied too much on carrots.
Tacos and curries come with a similar choice of meats. Curry was mild and coconutty; tacos, which we tried in the chicken verde iteration, were bland and flat, the salsa uninspired.
A zippier choice was the punnily named jalapeno Cesar Chavez salad, though it was a bit less hot than expected. The rings of red peppers in the salad also didn’t seem to be pickled, despite their menu description. But the young kale in the salad was tender and well trimmed, the spiced tortilla strips had a nice chile flavor, and a sprinkling of goat cheddar added a pleasantly musky note to the dish.
Small “bites” are intriguing and successful. If you miss McDonald’s fries from back in the day when they were fried in honest-to-god animal fat, well, get yourself to Backbone right away. (The hamburger chain used a mix of beef tallow and cottonseed oil to cook its fries until the early 1990s.) Backbone's house-cut fries sizzle in beef tallow and pork lard, and I’ll be damned if they don’t taste exactly like the McDonald’s fries that even James Beard loved.
Bone marrow has become familiar on Sacramento menus since Ella Dining Room & Bar made it a signature dish a decade ago, but it’s usually confined to upscale menus. It’s refreshing, if surprising, to see it redefined as a casual “bite” here.
The presentation of a short piece of femur, cross-cut in a trough, was good, though I wanted a longer piece of bone (for more marrow) and a little less of the overpowering bacon-jam accompaniment, which was heaped on top with abandon. Thinly shaved citrus fennel, however, provided welcome crunch and tartness that cut through the rich, fatty flavors, and I’m hardly going to complain about marrow, a personal favorite, expanding to more menus.
Bones also figure, of course, in the broths. What, you might ask, is the difference between regular broth and bone broth? All non-vegetarian broths are made from bones, so in my view the name “bone broth” is redundant, but in contemporary usage, the phrase connotes extra-long simmering, designed to extract all the collagen and minerals from bones. At Backbone Café, the broth simmers for 48 hours.
Evaluating the health properties of bone broth is beyond my purview, but from a gustatory point of view, I liked the beef better than the chicken. The softer bones of chicken break down faster than sturdy beef bones, and the chicken broth has a chalky, almost bitter taste of leached bones, making it flatter and less pleasing than the rounded umami flavor of the rich beef broth. Backbone serves its broths in clear glass mugs, with herbs and a wedge of lemon on the side.
A mug of that broth would be a comfort on a rainy winter day. A more summer-centric offering is the Sour Patch smoothie, made with hibiscus tea, watermelon, mango and strawberries.
The menu touts the ingredient quality of all these dishes, pledging that all animal proteins are free range or wild, that the kitchen uses only natural fats, that all produce is organic and that the kitchen is free of soy, refined sugar, peanuts and other ingredients the proprietors deem problematic.
The kitchen also makes sauces, dressings, and the like in house, and from scratch — a commitment that’s getting rarer, especially in quicker and more casual establishments.
The result is, in the main, dishes that will please a wide variety of diners and a fresh, distinctive presence in Sacramento’s restaurant scene. This is the place to meet for lunch with your friend who tries a new eating plan every few months and your other friend who has serious health restrictions around his or her diet.
Backbone can, however, also please those with no dietary restrictions at all, thanks to food with integrity and its welcoming, open-to-all aura.
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729 J St., Sacramento; 916-970-5545; www.backbonecafe.com
Hours: 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Beverage options: No alcohol, but juices, tea, coffee and specialty drinks like golden milk and elaborate, pricey smoothies.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes. Although there’s a strong meaty paleo streak on the menu, there are numerous vegan and vegetarian options available, including vegan cauliflower steaks, tacos and vegetable curry.
Gluten-free options: All menu items are gluten free or have a gluten-free version available.
Noise levels: Modest, even at busy times.
Ambiance: Earnest yet laid back, Backbone Café feels like a little outpost of the Burning Man spirit in downtown Sacramento, with both welcoming cushy couches and traditional tables surrounded by prayer flags, a magic-mushroom mural and a moss-adorned antler chandelier.
Sacramento’s first big entrant into the current craze for wellness food, this casual breakfast and lunch counter offers aficionados of so-called clean eating ways to go paleo, vegan or anything in between — a boon with those following special diets, but plenty appealing for omnivores. There’s nothing else like it in town.
Mild curries, rice bowls and tacos form the bulk of the menu, plus some breakfast-all-day options, salads, smoothies and, of course, bone broth. If clean eating sounds potentially off-putting, don’t be alarmed; the serious food background of brothers Tomas and Joey Woolston (their parents own Matteo’s Pizza & Bistro and Crocker Café by Supper Club) shines through in most of the fare. Don’t miss the bone marrow with bacon jam or the fries cooked in beef tallow.
Service is warm, knowledgeable and — in keeping with the restaurant’s style — earnest, but can be slow and a bit unpredictable, with drinks coming out after meals.
Menu items aren’t cheap at this casual lunch-counter spot ($6 for a cup of broth; $9 for smoothies; $11-15 for entrees), but prices reflect high food quality and preparations with integrity, such as the use of free-range meats, all-organic produce and grass-fed dairy products.