It’s hard to come up with a better summer food than ribs. They are sticky, a little spicy and great for a picnic, and (since the best ribs are cooked by someone else) they do not heat up the house: What could be better? Well. What if they were deep fried?
You can find this spin on the smoked-ribs classic at NKG Café and Soul Food, which opened this year in a North Sacramento neighborhood that’s somewhere in between Woodlake and Del Paso Heights.
Owned by the friendly Leilani Ghanayem, who is usually working the cash register and who moved here from San Francisco to open the place, NKG has a bright-orange building that stands out like a beacon at the south end of Rio Linda Boulevard. You cannot miss the spray-painted initials on the façade, either —those of Ghanayem’s son.
The deep-fried ribs, incidentally, are great: crispy on the outside, tender within (but with more chew than long-smoked tender pork ribs) and anointed with a richly tangy barbecue sauce. They’re a menu item not often found at soul-food spots, and they are worth the drive to NKG.
That same sauce comes on more traditional ribs, which were also very good, properly pink inside and rewarding for gnawing, particularly as part of the combo platter with smoky quarter-chicken and tri-tip, though the tri-tip slice was dry and dense.
The combo plates come with a choice of traditional soul food sides: the star, superlative, tender collards; red beans and rice where the beans were just right but the rice a tad watery; chunky mashed potatoes with a Thanksgiving-savory gravy; soggy corn on the cob; potato salad and tangy coleslaw; and rich, cheesy, almost puddinglike mac and cheese. The latter had a very heavy dose of thyme and other herbs on a first visit, but it was perfectly balanced the second.
Up to this point in the menu, NKG Café seems like a basic barbecue joint, albeit with some twists like those fried ribs. Don’t miss the pulled-pork sandwich, layered with snappy coleslaw, that dusky barbecue sauce, and the fall-apart meat.
Besides pork, other menu items round NKG out to a soul-food destination: namely, the fried fish and chicken. The latter are crunchy, juicy wings, a treat. The fried fish, however, is the absolute star, highly seasoned and evenly coated with a golden cornmeal crust without a whisper of grease. I like the catfish, with a fresh earthy flavor of the soft flesh balancing the slight spice and shattering crispness.
Fried fish can come with or without fried shrimp; the shellfish are sweet and juicy in their crisp breading, so with is probably the way to go. A large order of the fried fish costs a whopping $12 and is a big enough portion to keep diners full for hours.
The fried fish comes in a plastic foam clamshell (as everything does, whether to go or for eating in), with crinkly fries seasoned with pepper. The fries are basic but hot and fresh; if you take your food to go, open up the clamshell so things don’t get soggy. Of course, you also risk eating half the fries on your way to your destination.
If you eat in, the space is on bare-bones. You order at a counter in the front, and the few drinks— including a dispenser of bright-yellow lemonade — are across the wide front room, which has only a couple of tables. Others, covered with oilcloth, are around an L-shaped corner. The setup may be a little awkward, but bright paint and Ghanayem’s warm hospitality make it feel welcoming. She is warm and voluble and inclined to offer little extras: a lemonade while waiting for food or a banana pudding for a friend who had had not ordered one. It is delicious, thick and sweet.
One thing to note regarding service: There’s a tip jar on the counter, but no tip line on the credit card slip if you’re paying that way. If that’s the case and you want to leave a gratuity, make sure you have some cash.
Most of the menu is available all the time, but there’s one offering you might want to make a special trip for: the gumbo. It’s only made on Sundays, and it comes by the 16-ounce or 32-ounce tub. Crammed with crab in the shell and sweet curled shrimp, its dark broth redolent of a rich brew of spices and studded with slices of sausage, it tastes homemade in the best way.
The rice served alongside was oddly wet and overly soft, but that didn’t matter once it was stirred into the zingy, brothy base. Since the crab meat is in the shell, you will want to be prepared to get messy while eating this dish — but if you don’t want to get a little messy, why are you coming to a place with ribs? The flavorful cooking at NKG is great for a summer picnic or easy dinner and well worth some sticky fingers. Besides, the owner makes sure to offer her guests wipes.
NKG Cafe & Soul Food
2626 Rio Linda Boulevard. 916-692-8262.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Cuisine type: Soul food
Price range: Entrees $6.50 to about $15 (for a large combo plate of barbecue), sides $2.50 and under
Food: Soul food classics abound here. The pork — including both smoked and succulent fried ribs and a pulled pork sandwich — is better than the tough-ish beef. Sundays-only gumbo is worth checking out. Good sides include flavorful mac and cheese and tender collards. Crunchy, light, greaseless cornmeal-crusted fried fish is a standout.
Service: Extremely unpretentious, chatty and hospitable: Order at the counter and food is delivered at your table. The friendly owner has been known to throw in an extra drink or dessert.
Ambiance: The opposite of fancy: The sign is spray-painted, a few tables wobble and everything comes in to-go containers, but the bright orange and yellow interior makes it cheery and pleasant.
Accessibility considerations: Easy parking, widely spaced tables. Condiments and napkins are self-serve at a high counter.
Noise levels: Quiet; conversation is easy.
Drinks: Soft drinks only, including sodas and lemonade.
Vegetarian options: There are a few among the sides, but vegetarians beware: Items like the collard greens do include meat.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Pork is used with abandon and the menu isn’t labeled for gluten or allergens, so those with special needs should inquire.