Restaurant News & Reviews

Taste of Sacramento: For the best food and drinks in East Sac, hit up Hilltop and more

Seth Wagner, like most bartenders, can carry on three conversations at once while mixing and pouring drinks. “I grew up in East Sac. I went to the old Sacred Heart and Sac High. I’ve done a lot of travel, but it’s always been home. I’ve never wanted to move out.”

The Hilltop Tavern is not going anywhere either.

Donna and Jack Nolan own the old, proper bar in East Sacramento, and Donna has an affinity for clowns. A quick scan of the Hilltop’s décor, largely stained wood and brick, reveals a variety of them, both two- and three-dimensional. A signed photo of Clint Black provides contrast. Wagner jokingly opines, “Unfortunately, there are more clowns than cowboys.”

Bar manager Rebekah Demott is from East Sacramento, as well, a product of the St. Mary School and St. Francis High School. “We know generations of people, and most of the bartenders have been here 10 years,” she said. There are nine of them, including her husband.

The taps are listed on a chalkboard; they have 20, with 10 that rotate. The Hemly Cherry Perry Cider, sounds like “Jerry Perry,” is flowing on one of them. It smells like a can of Bartlett pears, with a hint of cherry, and tastes the same, with a natural sweetness and cherry acidity in the finish. After a couple sips, a neighbor at the long bar is likely to start talking to you.

If you would like something drier, there is Yolo Brewing’s Dullahan’s Red, a roasted malty treat. Drafts are just $4 after 9 p.m. on Thursdays, and the crowd tends to get younger as any day progresses.

Early mornings pair well with coffee, which is provided just next door at Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters, at the eastern edge of the Fabulous Forties. Though it has a shorter history than Hilltop, just six years, Chocolate Fish promotes community building through its wifi-less communication: a rarity for a modern coffee shop.

The décor is solid wood with gray and white paint. It’s a calculated, calming aesthetic. A low bar with five heavy wood and metal chairs overlooks the two drum coffee roasting machines. In operation, they provide an enchanting aroma that beckons like the Pied Piper.

Opposed to 20 taps, owners Edie and Andy Baker have 20 visible bags of green coffee, each weighing in at about 150 pounds, organized on a two-level rack. It is more than a ton of coffee.

Large windows afford light and a view of the vehicular traffic on Folsom Boulevard, which was once Highway 50 before the construction of the freeway just a few blocks away. Dogs can usually be found relaxing with their owners on the street-side patio.

Chocolate Fish roasts some of the most consistent espresso beans in Sacramento. Their Koru blend is currently 50 percent Brazil Santa Luzia and 50 percent Honduras Los Popitos. Despite the blend being a lighter roast, there is ample chocolate in the nose when shots are pulled from the sleek, Italian La Marzocco espresso machine. The piping-hot espresso has a Granny-Smith-apple sort of acidity.

They have small bites, as well, including toast with avocado or almond butter.

If you would like a whole sandwich-worth of bread and produce, the Corti Brothers deli is just 11 blocks away on Folsom Boulevard at 59th Street. It is somewhat harder to notice for drivers approaching from the west due to the recent construction of a Chipotle outlet in the same parking lot. The old Corti Brothers sign indicates a history going back to 1947, and the store front blends well with the historic neighborhood that sprung up in the early 1900s.

Deli manager Shaun Freeman grew up in Pollock Pines, up Highway 50 at the foot of the Sierra. He got his start in the Corti Brothers kitchen at 15 years old and then went away to become a chef before returning to the store three years ago.

The deli is nestled among Italian wines and spirits. Three white goose figures loom over the deli counter with a golden egg that rests on a bed of beige straw.

The sandwiches are known for their bang for the buck. No need to pull a number from the red ticket dispenser. Customers fill out a 4-by-5-inch sheet of paper with their name on top. The Corti Special is just $6.99. The menu board indicates, “You choose the bread, garnishes, and cheese. We choose the meats.” It is a giant brick of a sandwich.

Freeman says of the meats and cheeses, “We’re full service. We slice for you, and we have more meat than any spot in Sacramento.” He says the bologna and hams are the most cost effective, and that the Monte Nevado Jamón Serrano is one of the most expensive at $32.99 per pound.

Then there is the cheese. Four different blue cheese wheels are beautifully cut in half in the aisle-long display case, showing silvery-blue interiors.

Freeman suggests the Norwegian Jarlsburg Swiss. It is uber creamy, with a buttery mouthfeel and balanced acidity.

“People ask for Swiss, and I try to give a better product than they’ll find elsewhere,” Freeman said.

And that has its merits.

“I get hugs and kisses from guests. We have a relationship. They ask, ‘How are your kids?’ We love our customers,” Freeman said.

Much of the deli staff has been present for 10 years or more. Linda Wright who has been there for 40.

Wagner, the East Sac native back at Hilltop Tavern, provides some insight into Corti Brothers’ longevity.

“If you can integrate yourself into the neighborhood, you can never go out of business,” Wagner said. “I’m just partial to East Sac. It’s where I’m from.”

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