Restaurant News & Reviews

Less than a year in, downtown’s Tiger pivots from dining carts to tacos, ‘night market’

Can a Tiger change its stripes? The Golden Group hopes so.

Nine months after Tiger entered in the downtown Sacramento restaurant jungle on the redeveloped block of 7th and K streets, its ownership team is veering away from its flagship dim sum-style carts toward a simpler concept: tacos. A new menu introduced Wednesday showcased 5-inch corn tortillas filled with traditional fillings such as chorizo or carne asada as well as bulgogi brisket, roasted cauliflower or grilled jerk chicken.

Tiger’s ethos has changed multiple times since 2012, when Golden Group partners John Bays, Matt Nurge, Sonny Mayugba and Dave Pringle – who also own Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar and co-own Solomon’s Deli – first discussed opening a restaurant in an old K Street tattoo parlor. It was one of the first businesses to open under the Hardin in November, but the opening concept ended up not being what downtown clientele wanted, Mayugba said.

“We were sort of trying to put in a neighborhood restaurant and bar element at an entertainment destination location,” Mayugba said. “Putting that approach into K Street was a big mistake because K Street is its own animal, as we’ve learned. It is very different down here, even though we’re only technically 21 blocks away (from Red Rabbit).”

Tiger’s entire leadership team amicably left or was shown the door as part of the overhaul, Mayugba said. Barton Roberts – a Sacramento native who previously cooked at Mulvaney’s B&L, LowBrau and Red Rabbit – was promoted from sous chef to lead the kitchen, and new general manager Anthony Cordova brought several front-of-house employees with him from Revival at the Kimpton Sawyer.

Tiger fills the taco void left by El Rey’s recent closure on 7th and K, which came after a group of partners sued co-owner and ex-King Kenny Thomas. Thomas was allegedly banned from his own restaurant after running up a $23,000 bar tab and starting fights, and later filed a court declaration accusing his former co-owners of using El Rey’s money to fund their other restaurants.

Meanwhile, Tiger – or perhaps “El Tig-Rey” – saw an opportunity for the approachable Cali-Mex fare customers had been audibly seeking. Three tacos with achiote rice and black beans go for $12, and salads, burgers and Mexican-inspired appetizers round out the menu.

The goal is to be more kid-friendly, more comprehensible and more primed for the downtown crowd, not to imitate California’s neighbors to the south, Roberts said.

“If I want a traditional taco, I’ll go to Lalo’s or Chando’s or El Bramido or any number of places in this city that do great tacos or great Mexican food,” Roberts said. “I could never learn – I didn’t grow up with that. My mom is from South Dakota and didn’t know that spaghetti came in anything but a Franco-American can until she was in college.”

Cart service has long been used for dim sum and has begun to emerge in upscale restaurants across the U.S., the poster child being Michelin-starred State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. At Tiger, though, small plates from ex-chef Eric Sarmento (now with Urban Roots Brewing & Smokehouse and soon-to-open Bawk) proved difficult to relay to customers.

Take the pickled deviled eggs, for example. Each of the three eggs on one plate was pickled in a different solution and garnished with a different topping. Now imagine a server trying to explain each of those differences, along with a half-dozen other similarly complex items on the cart, to a hungry customer while battling music and nearby conversations.

Tiger’s deviled eggs are prettily pickled in different colors. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

“We were doing great food before, but unfortunately the guests weren’t happy, or at least we weren’t pleasing enough people,” Roberts said. “At some point you do have to listen to what guests want. And if they’re telling you, ‘Hey I want tacos,’ you can dig your heels in and say ‘No, you’re going to eat these small bites, and you’re going to like it,’ or you can say ‘OK, we’ll do tacos.’”

“We were flabbergasted. We came up with the coolest concept that everybody was talking about, we executed it and it wasn’t working,” Mayugba said.

The carts will now be used for $9 tableside guacamole service, where customers can select the spices and other ingredients they want added to their dip, and to wheel around mezcal and whiskey. A small mezcal bar made from the former host desk been installed in the top level’s back right corner.

Other interior changes include furniture rearrangement, more high-top tables downstairs, moving the host desk to the front patio and the installation of a DJ booth overlooking the stairwell. Two projectors now cast sports games on the southern back wall; on Sundays during football season, that area will be known as “Tiger’s Den.”

If it wasn’t clear, The Golden Group wants Tiger to appeal to more people. Cordova, a former employee of SoHo House and SBE in Los Angeles, plans to use the building’s 8,000 square feet to host a “night market” centered around food, artistry and craft cocktails. He’s modeling it after Hyde, the SBE-owned restaurant/lounge on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip; Mayugba offered a vision of Spanish cafe that transitions to a restaurant and then a nightlife destination.

“This is exactly what Sacramento needs, especially in this district here, and no one’s done it yet,” Cordova said. “They have ultra-nightclubs, but we don’t need to be that here.”

The entertainment structure will vary, but Tiger could serve as a downtown lunch spot, a Caribbean reggae lounge, a big-city dinner house and a Brooklyn-esque club all in the same day followed by 49ers football the next morning, Mayugba said. It’s intended to be an extension of Golden 1 Center, which transitions relatively seamlessly from hip-hop shows to Disney on Ice to basketball games.

The new concept is already underway at 722 K St., with a grand re-opening with one free taco per person scheduled for Aug. 29.

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.