‘People have great times here.’ See what Frank Fat’s has to offer
Frank Fat’s, a giant on Sacramento’s restaurant scene, passed two milestones this year: this month, it reached its 80th anniversary, and earlier this year it was one of just three Sacramento restaurants awarded Michelin “Bib Gourmand” status, along with Canon and Mother. (As most readers probably know, the only local restaurant awarded a Michelin Star was The Kitchen.)
The Bib Gourmand is awarded to outstanding restaurants serving two courses plus wine or dessert for under $40, with high-quality and usually creative cooking. The three places that attained this status in Sacramento left me wondering.
Canon, Mother, and Frank Fat’s have little in common with each other, and Mother is the only one of the three where the bill would fall within the cost guideline without extremely careful ordering. And though Fat’s is an institution – locally beloved for its banana cream pie, its almost equally sugary honey-walnut prawns, and its far less sweet though storied history as a political gathering spot – I wasn’t sure it would measure up to the other two honorees in terms of the kitchen’s creativity or quality.
With the restaurant’s big anniversary in August, it seemed like a good time to revisit Frank Fat’s to find out what the Michelin inspectors saw in it. Would it surpass other local spots that were given lesser recognition or bypassed entirely?
What I found was a mix. Fat’s has many strengths: a distinctive atmosphere with dramatic, gleaming décor and an old-time glamor that can only develop over 80 busy years; a flexible approach to its traditions that keeps many aspects of the menu fresh; some high-quality cooking and excellent service. But it also comes with weaknesses, which come with the territory of many places long reliant on local goodwill and reputation: some bland, dull dishes that rely too heavily on frying and sweet sauces; rather high prices for said dishes; a slightly dated feel about that exoticized ambiance (see: brocade jackets on the hostesses).
Fat’s is often described as a Chinese restaurant, but it’s distinctively Chinese-American; it’s not a place to expect food that hews closely to one particular Chinese cuisine, whether Cantonese, Szechuan, or any other.
The idea of authenticity as regards any cuisine can be a bit of a trap, but it’s especially irrelevant at Fat’s, where the menu includes a broad array of traditional items, Chinese-American dishes familiar from takeout menus, American fare that’s been on the menu since the days when Frank Fat ran the place (like steak and that banana cream pie) and new inventions from chef Quentin Truong. According to Lina Fat, Frank’s daughter-in-law and culinary director of the now-expanded Fat’s restaurant group, that mix was part of the place from the start: when legislators started to gather there, they demanded variety and familiarity, and Frank Fat delivered.
One such dish is the famous banana cream pie, which is very good: flaky-crusted, silky, and chock-full of bananas. The chocolate cream pie, on the other hand, had a slightly grainy filling. (If you aren’t up for a big slice of pie, don’t worry, you’ll get a fortune cookie – with all fortunes in Chinese, English and, for some reason, French.)
But starting with dessert is to start at the wrong end, especially when appetizers are a strength at Fat’s. I especially loved the West Lake Moons, a new appetizer created by Truong that’s a kind of fusion spin on the Scotch egg mashed up with arancini: Rough, almost shaggy rice balls, fried to that uniquely tooth-sticking and crunchy texture only rice gets on frying, encloses a gamy, almost livery layer of pork sausage with a soft quail egg within. A fragile crunch of lotus root added an extra, haunting textural note, while black mushrooms did the same for the flavor profile.
On a simpler note, Truong also added a lamb skewer, tender and spiked with cumin, to the appetizer menu; it’s a hit as well.
A longer-standing appetizer, yu kwok, were devised by Frank Fat to make use of trimmings from steak and pork, says Lina Fat. The mix of meats makes a savory meatball, all tied up in a dumpling wrapper and fried. They were irresistible, alongside solid potstickers and nicely crispy salt-and-pepper calamari on the appetizer platter, which our table attacked with relish. My only quibbles: the calamari could have used more seasoning to add interest, and the one miss on the platter was the veggie egg rolls, which were greasy and thick-skinned, with just a wisp of cabbage inside rather than a more interesting filling.
The chicken lettuce cups are charming, with the filling spooned into precision-cut shallow rounds of crisp, cold iceberg leaves. The filling itself, with white-meat chicken and the lavish crunch of celery, had good textural contrast, but could have used a little more refined cutting. Diced rather than minced, with plentiful sauce, the elements of the filling seemed like a jumble rather than hanging together as a unified mixture, especially the chunks of porky Chinese sausage. The blend of flavors, however, was strong, especially the welcome, resiny pop of pine nuts.
I felt just the opposite about a different chicken dish, the brandy-fried chicken. Its juicy texture and crunchy fried breading were stellar, while the flavor of brandy overwhelmed and left an odd, dissonant aftertaste.
Texture and flavor – and, for me, a more successful use of brandy in a marinade – came together perfectly in the immigrant’s beef, a dish Lina Fat originally devised for the now-closed China Camp. Medallions of gingery, tender flank steak, served over zucchini, were irresistible.
Another hit was the simple garlic-chili green beans, zippy and stir fried to an ideal al dente (but not raw) point. Less successfully, the gai lan (Chinese broccoli) with oyster sauce was very bitter and a bit tough.
Some dishes failed to rise above the level of ho-hum takeout joints. Both fried rice and the imperial chow mein fell in this category, with thick, one-note sauce on the latter and nothing notable about the former. The menu offers an extensive range of familiar Chinese-American standards: General Tsao’s and kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, Szechwan beef.
The honey-walnut prawns, a popular and often-lauded local favorite, have a light lacy breading under an equally light sauce. The dish is overwhelmingly sweet – the walnuts really taste like candy – but pleasant as part of a spread, balanced by other items with more spice or zing.
Speaking of sweetness, that’s the dominating characteristic of the house cocktail list, though the bartenders can of course mix up any standard drink and do it well. In keeping with the throwback feel, I tried a mai tai, juicy and tropical, and a friend had a lychee martini. The wine and beer lists are not extensive or ambitious, but the servers – who are highly professional and seem to be very well-trained– know them well and are adept at making recommendations.
I appreciated the sense of history at Frank Fat’s. There’s a big collection of Fat’s documents and photos in the archives at Sacramento State, but the restaurant itself is a living archive. Yet the restaurant has also shown itself willing to change with the times while retaining its essential character.
Fusion cuisine was a big trend a couple of decades ago, but Fat’s has been working for 80 years in the original sense of that term, fusing elements from different traditions of cooking into a relatively seamless and distinct whole. (It was telling that I couldn’t necessarily guess which dishes were recent additions and which had been on the menu for generations.)
Yes, the food can be a bit uneven at times, as it might be at any 80-year-old restaurant trying to please both old and new customers. And yes, some of the dishes are duds. But there’s still no better window into the Sacramento dining scene’s history and lore than dinner at Frank Fat’s, and as long as you order with care, there’s enough sparkle and surprise here to make such a meal a pleasure in its own right.
806 L Street. 916-442-7092. frankfats.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Cuisine type: Chinese-American
Price range: Appetizers and vegetable dishes portioned for sharing $12-17, noodle dishes and entrees $15-35.
Food: Fat’s is known for certain comforting old standbys – the candy-sweet honey walnut prawns, juicy but oddly dissonant brandy-fried chicken, the truly legit banana cream pie – and these are executed much as they ever were, with some (the fried rice) notably dull, others (immigrant beef) quite tasty. If you go, expect a highly Americanized take on Chinese flavors, with an emphasis on fried food, and enjoy a few surprises with less touted menu items like West Lake Moons and cumin-spiced lamb.
Service: Attentive and rather traditional in style; the servers are obviously well-trained, and it shows.
Ambiance: As befits the Frank Fat’s reputation and history, the vibe here is comfortable backroom-dealing political haunt married to old-school opulence with a distinctly exoticized air: red-and-gold ceilings, gorgeous silk robes framed on the walls, dragon-motif booths.
Accessibility considerations: The narrow restaurant space, which is especially crowded near the bar, may be difficult to navigate for some, though the booths in the back are comfortable and spacious. Although there’s a parking lot next door, finding accessible parking may be difficult, especially on nights with an event at the nearby Golden 1 Center.
Noise levels: Can be rather loud when it’s full near the bar, but conversation at a reasonable volume is possible.
Drinks: Full bar with a rather basic wine list and some beers. House cocktail list tends toward the sweet and strong; think mai tais and a lychee martini. Martini hour on weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m.
Vegetarian options: There’s a solid array of vegetable dishes, though many of them contain oyster sauce or may have meat as a flavoring element; vegetarians should inquire to be sure dishes are strictly plant based.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Those with shellfish or nut allergies or soy sensitivity should tread carefully, as oyster sauce, various nuts, and soy sauce appear in many dishes.