In 2016, the Sacramento region’s dining scene allowed a critic time to notice scratch masa made from heirloom corn at a taqueria in a Roseville strip mall. And to appreciate the finer points of Japanese fusion cuisine made in modest restaurants steered by Sacramento sons returning to town after successes elsewhere.
Many ballyhooed new restaurants tied to the opening of Golden 1 Center have yet to be built. El Rey, an enormous cantina near the arena, did reach the finish line in August, drawing big crowds but disappointing with its food. The other highly anticipated new full-service restaurant of 2016, midtown’s Gold Rush-evoking Saddle Rock, also opened in August with impressive food but by November had lost its chef, Matt Masera, to Hook & Ladder.
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Plenty of magic, for a critic in search of the year’s most exceptional dishes, still happened in 2016, but often at smaller places, like the new Japanese-leaning midtown Sacramento seafood restaurant Skool. Its ownership team includes Jesuit High School graduate Andy Mirabell and his wife, Olia Kedik, and is a satellite of the successful San Francisco spot of the same name.
It should not be confused with Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, the 10th Street restaurant that specializes in Japanese yakitori and pub-style small plates and leans toward fusion. It’s owned by Kennedy High alumnus Craig Takehara and his pastry-chef wife, Tokiko Sawada, who worked together in fine dining in Southern California.
There were also discoveries to be made at new, fast-casual places with upscale food, such as OBO’ Italian Bar & Table, Nido and Nixtaco (the Roseville place with the masa). And at straight-up fast-food Middle Eastern spot Grills & Greens, in Rancho Cordova.
Though dishes from these understated places compose much of my top-10 list, fine dining intervenes. Biba Ristorante turned 30 and The Waterboy 20 in 2016. So of course we had to revisit them, and their exquisite food.
The 10 dishes below are drawn from 2016 review, or review-adjacent, visits to restaurants, with one dish offering a sneak peak of a forthcoming review. Since review visits do not happen until a few months after a place opens, we have yet to seriously dig into Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine since its move from J Street to Folsom Boulevard next to OBO’.
But we do include a dish from Hawks Provisions & Public House, a year-straddler from the 2015/16 review cycle.
10. Falafel, Grills & Greens
My dining companion, a chef, took her first bite of the falafel at this Sunrise Boulevard fast-food place and observed, “This guy is in it to win it.”
The guy is Grills & Greens’ Iranian-born owner Syamak Shabani. His win streak at his “new Persian” lunch spot includes gyro sandwiches and house-made dips and sauces. But it culminates in his falafel, in which the fresh taste of individual chickpeas is easy to discern, along with a lively, floral flavor whose origins Shabani chooses to keep a trade secret. But Shabani acknowledged the falafel’s zing and slight sweetness come from leek and bell pepper.
$6.49 falafel gyro sandwich, $9.99 falafel and rice plate. 3040 Sunrise Blvd., Rancho Cordova, 916-853-2265
9. Meatball sandwich, OBO’ Italian Table & Bar
Warning: Use of “moist.” People hate this word, which sounds bad coming off the tongue and often, when applied to non-food settings, describes something terribly awry. But although I avoid it, even in discussing a falafel (at No. 10) whose moisture is one of its attributes, I cannot here.
Meatballs contain bread crumbs, and therefore are not “juicy” or any of the other words people sub for “moist.” Good meatballs are moist, and OBO’ – the wildly successful East Sacramento Italian offshoot of Selland’s Market-Cafes – serves terrific ones, especially when they are housed in a well-toasted ciabatta roll.
OBO’ uses bread crumbs and tomato sauce in the preparation process to retain the moisture of a perfectly seasoned pork, beef and Parmesan mix. Add more bright tomato sauce and soothing mozzarella atop the cooked meatballs, and things get so humid that the ciabatta, despite its toasted firmness, merges with the meat.
It’s the power of moist.
$10.50. 3145 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, 916-822-8720, www.oboitalian.com
8. Short-rib raviolo, Wildwood Kitchen & Bar
I often complain in private about the over-abundance of braised short rib and pulled pork on restaurant menus. These meat preparations prone to over-fattiness too often invade dishes that would be better off with seafood or vegetable components.
But the slightly sweet short rib in the raviolo starter at Wildwood – the posh new Haines brothers (33rd Street Bistro, Riverside Clubhouse) restaurant that opened in September in the Pavilions shopping center, is not too fatty, and the pasta covering it is just wide and thick enough to handle it. A rich bordelaise sauce delivers a welcome salt hit before pistou puts a fine, herbaceous point on things.
We have not yet officially reviewed Wildwood, but we are working on it.
$12.95. 556 Pavilions Lane, Sacramento, 916-922-2858, www.wildwoodpavilions.com
7. Zesty wings, Nido
Magpie Cafe owners Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye moved into a new, larger space at 16th and P streets last year. But they kept the restaurant’s cozier R Street Corridor space, which they subsequently turned into the counter-service gem Nido, or “nest” in Italian and Spanish.
At Nido, Roehr and Inouye offer generous portions for low prices while maintaining the same attention to craft and sustainable ingredients they do at Magpie. The wings come with a lively, chimichurri-esque sauce made from green garlic, onion, jalapeño and cilantro, before vinegar adds enough Buffalo snap to remind one these are wings and thus a bit decadent.
But these wings are less greasily guilt-inducing than most. And at $6 for a dozen drumettes, Nido beats Wingstop at its own 60-cent-bargain-wing game.
$6. 1409 R St., No. 102, Sacramento, 916-668-7594, www.hellonido.com
6. Lasagne verdi alla Bolognese, Biba Ristorante
Discovering a wonderful dish at a brand-new restaurant is great. Tasting a Sacramento classic (though it was new to me when I tried it in August) that holds up is even better.
Sacramento culinary legend Biba Caggiano’s signature dish holds pork, veal, pancetta, deliciousness and history. In celebrating its 30th anniversary in August, Biba Ristorante marked an industry-odds-defying run that survived economic downturns along with a nearby hospital construction project that lasted for years and hurt the restaurant’s business.
The lasagna’s 10 layers of delicate-yet-solid spinach pasta combine into a strong whole. In much the same way, the restaurant’s beautifully executed food overall combines with plush surroundings and expert service to offer one of Sacramento’s best dining experiences.
$21 (Thursday and Friday only). 2801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento, 916-455-2422, www.biba-restaurant.com
5. Pepper-crusted bavette steak with potatoes gratin and Brussels sprouts, The Waterboy
That dish’s name is a mouthful, and a plateful, but we have spelled it out because sides are as special as meats at Waterboy. Perfectly seasoned by pressed-in salt and pepper, the steak is crisp outside and tender in, mirroring the composition of the excellent potato side. The textural contrast is slightly less sharp in the Brussels sprouts, but the flavor brisker; lemon, parsley and Parmesan are added post-deep fryer.
And talk about holding up: Rick Mahan opened Waterboy in 1996, before everyone else began serving locally sourced, fine-dining level food in a relaxed setting. Yet in any given week, it is still better or as good as any of those newer restaurants.
$29-$35 range for the pepper-crusted steak entree depends on the cut of steak. 2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento, 916-498-9891, www.waterboyrestaurant.com
4. House-ground Wagyu beef burger, Hawks Public House
I tried Hawks’ burger for my March review of this Sacramento offshoot of the Granite Bay fine-dining staple. Although I appreciated its house-ground beef and fluffy yet firm house-baked brioche bun, its combination of Gruyère cheese and caramelized onion lacked a certain panache.
The revised burger, with bacon marmalade and white cheddar, possesses that panache. The marmalade enhances the smoky flavor of a wood-fire-grilled, half-pound Snake River Farms patty while also adding sweetness and brightness. The cheddar adds a snap the Gruyère lacked. Though this excellent iteration of the burger, introduced about a month ago, missed our cutoff for our recent top-burgers list, consider it an honorary member.
$18, with hand-cut fries. 1525 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento, 916-588-4440, www.hawkspublichouse.com
3. Squid-ink spaghettina, Skool
Part ramen and part cioppino, this loaded soup offers the finest example of chef Toshihiro “Moto” Nagano’s inventive infusion of other cuisines into Japanese foods. In the spaghettina, Nagano (who co-owns Skool with his wife, Hiroko, and Mirabell and Kedik) incorporates Italian and Thai touches.
The bowl holds salty-earthy squid-ink black noodles in a traditional dashi broth brightened by tomato compote. Though it takes a second for one’s palate to reconcile the tomato liveliness with the dashi’s umami depth, once the tomato merges with the lemongrass also in the broth, everything starts to make Thai-soup sense. Though the noodles, prawns and calamari rings within it are tasty, the broth, in continually changing its nature, is the source of this intrigue.
$18. 2319 K St., Sacramento, 916-737-5767, www.skoolonkstreet.com
2. Duck ramen, Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining
Takehara named his tiny storefront restaurant in Sacramento’s one-time Japan Town neighborhood for the 1,000-plus-degree binchotan charcoal grill on which his expert staff uses paper fans to control flames below meat and vegetables aligned perfectly on skewers to avoid under- or over-cooking.
The grilled items would be enough to get people to Binchoyaki. But Takehara, trained in Japanese fine dining as well as classic French technique, offers so much more, via an izakaya menu that includes delectables such as as the fascinatingly chewy “krispy rice rolls,” and a wall board offering recurring specials like Binchoyaki’s best dish, duck ramen.
This soup features slices of duck breast Takehara renders in its own fat before searing off the fat and coating the breast with potato starch. The starch gives Takehara’s dashi broth an unusually thick, highly comforting consistency. Pepper within the broth and plentiful fresh green onion atop it cut the richness factor. But not too much, since richness is key to the soup’s appeal.
$15. Not always available. 2226 10th St., Sacramento, 916-469-9448, www.binchoyaki.com
1. Nixtaco poached egg, Nixtaco
Consider the obstacles this Scotch-egg-like Sunday-brunch item – consisting of a soft egg wrapped in short-rib barbacoa and then covered in masa – faced in winning the top spot in The Bee’s list of 2016’s best dishes.
The taqueria serving it sits in a nondescript shopping center in Roseville, 18 miles from the region’s culinary epicenter, central-city Sacramento. The dish holds short rib, my issues with which I made known in the No. 8 item on this list. Also, I prefer my yolks fully cooked.
But chef Patricio Wise, who opened Nixtaco in June with his wife and fellow Monterrey, Mexico, native Cinthia Martinez after the pair built a following for their food through farmers market pop-ups, knows what he is doing.
The tamale-pie-thick layer of slightly sweet, moist masa absorbs the fat from the egg and meat, which return the favor by enhancing the masa’s flavor. House red and green salsa further accent the masa, with lime-marinated onion offering a nice finishing prickle.
This intensely satisfying dish points to one of the great pleasures of being a food critic. It comes from ordering something I would never order otherwise, as part of trying as many things as possible from a menu, and getting exactly what I want.
$12. Available 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. 1805 Cirby Way, suite 12, Roseville, 916-771-4165, nixta.co