The Sloughhouse Inn, a restaurant housed in a rambling 19th century building 20 miles southeast of Sacramento, used to be where you stopped on the way from Sacramento to Amador County wine country. Not so much because it was good, but because it was there, and historical, and a tradition.
Various operators tried valiantly during the past several years to make it more than that. But the food often underwhelmed, at least for those people who could get past the place’s musty, Gold Country old-town-museum smell to order it.
But four months into its run as the renamed Meadowlands, under the stewardship of Terri and Ron Gilliland, the couple behind Sacramento’s Roxy and Lucca restaurants and the Davis/Dixon cattle operation Lucky Dog Ranch, the place has emerged as a genuine culinary destination. The food is good, the service top-flight and the setting warm, welcoming and mustiness free.
The Gillilands and crew scrubbed, polished, and ripped out old carpet from a building that always had “good bones,” as they say, especially in the cozy bar area, with its floor-to-ceiling wood and abundant, faded brick. In this bar, one can envision the place’s past as a stagecoach stop and lodging house for miners en route to Amador County. From the patio just outside – popular on warm days even during the place’s down years – you can see acres of current-day farm and ranch land.
The new operators have retained the essence of this historical landmark, keeping old photographs of local pioneers while hanging new, pastoral- and equestrian-themed paintings by local artists. The Gillilands also exposed and refinished the wood floors and brought in new seating and an Italian pizza oven.
The menu at this early stage draws heavily on greatest hits from Roxy’s refined-Americana menu, with a smattering of Lucca. Meadowlands’ emphasis on meat and potatoes in many forms is just what one wants from a roadhouse.
Entering Meadowlands makes one instantly hungry for steak and thirsty for whiskey. Meadowlands delivers on both fronts. A 12-ounce Lucky Dog Ranch ribeye – served with a red wine jus made from house beef stock – was juicy, tender and daringly flavored where most restaurant steaks are timid.
We consumed whiskey in two bracing yet well-balanced house cocktails: The “Above the Bit” came with Dickel bourbon, Aperol, winter-spice house syrup and cider. The blood-orange “Old Fashioned,” with blood orange, cherry juice, bitters and Bulleit Rye, offered a variation on a drink land barons and speculators might have ordered while slumming it at the Sloughhouse Inn.
The smashed marble potatoes served with the ribeye were under-seasoned. But the potatoes found redemption the next night as a side to the excellent, crispy-skinned roasted half-chicken. The spuds held enough salt even before we ran them through the white wine-garlic-caper sauce accompanying the poultry.
Start your meal with Meadowlands’ fluffy, slightly tangy cheddar buttermilk biscuits, served with rosemary butter and local honey. We liked them so much the first time we tried them that we ordered them the next night as well.
Having also ordered pizza both nights, we knew we were weighing down our stage coaches with too many rations of flour. But the biscuits, at $4, were simply too inexpensive to forgo. Also bargains are the $4 sweet-salty-spicy “Elvis caramel corn” and its $5 “hipster fries” bar-snack companion, which combines fried potatoes and Brussels sprouts with bleu cheese sauce and beef-jerky bits.
Prices overall ‑ $28 for the ribeye, $12-$15 for 12-inch pizzas, $9 for cocktails – are not cheap but are significantly lower than those at the closest nice restaurant down Highway 16, Plymouth’s Taste.
Of the Gillilands’ three restaurants, only Meadowlands serves pizza, to mixed results. Caramelized-onion sweetness, on the onion and potato pizza, neutralized the pie’s garlic and jack-cheese components too much. The potatoes once again tasted under-salted.
But the spicy-sausage pizza was a winner. The perfectly cooked house sausage did not go too heavy on the heat, allowing individual flavors, such as fennel seed, to reveal themselves. The thin Roman crust held its crunch under sweet-spicy tomato sauce, mushrooms, fontina cheese and a sunny-side-up egg we had added, for $2. The pie arrived with the egg contained on a single, square piece in its middle, making it easily removable – something we never had seen before.
Meadowlands’ cioppino is similar to Lucca’s, but here the use of an outdoor barrel smoker lends more briny intrigue to the bright tomato broth. Smoked lobster and shrimp shells are added to, and then strained out of, the broth before perfectly pan-roasted clams, mussels and fish are added.
The restaurant offers a daily “beef in a barrel” smoked-meat special. We tried the meatloaf, which lacked much flavor beyond the smoke. The lamb meatball starter, by contrast, offered too much flavor. Gamey, gamey flavor.
Though we mostly ordered heavier dishes seemingly appropriate to a roadhouse motif, Meadowlands chef Danny Origel – who also heads up Roxy’s kitchen – is capable of great finesse. You can see it in the tenderness of the seafood in the cioppino, and in the play of flavors in a shaved rainbow cauliflower salad featuring slivers of cauliflower tanged by Pink Lady apple and pomegranate seeds.
With many of its ingredients going out of season, this salad’s days were numbered when we visited a few weeks ago. Origel said Meadowlands focuses on seasonal produce and eventually will try to be hyper-local as well, befitting its location in an agricultural area. Origel already has brought in asparagus from nearby Davis Ranch and will try to incorporate its famous Sloughhouse corn this summer. The Gillilands also are planting an on-site garden.
The new owners already have battled flooding in the restaurant’s prone-to-submersion parking lot. Because the building is raised off the ground, water never entered the restaurant, Terri Gilliland said. But the flooding forced the owners to close the restaurant for a few days this winter.
Meadowlands’ wait staff already shows polish, confidently recommending selections from the Amador-heavy wine list and graciously separating dishes we were sharing into individual servings. Though the staff seemed stretched thin on one visit, we were impressed on our other visits by the sheer number of people on the floor. A big staff is necessary to a 125-seat restaurant that on a recent Friday night was packed with diners, including farmers in Wranglers and suspenders and women in jodhpurs (presumably after riding at Murieta Equestrian Center).
As word gets out about its improved quality, this new iteration of the Sloughhouse Inn also will draw the boot-less crowd – Sacramentans who will make a special trip to Meadowlands instead of just dutifully stopping in on the way to greener food-and-drink pastures
12700 Meiss Road, just off Jackson Road (Highway 16), Sloughhouse. 916-525-1575. www.meadowlands.restaurant
Hours: 3-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 3-10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Full bar with craft cocktails. Amador-heavy wine list. Draft and bottled beers.
Vegetarian friendly: Surprisingly, yes, for a roadhouse owned by cattle ranchers. Menus indicating vegetarian and gluten-free options are available available at the front counter.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Mostly moderate, but diners’ voices definitely carried in the main dining room on a busy Friday night.
Ambiance: The new operators have cleaned up the 19th-century building while maintaining its essence. It is now a perfect spot for Sacramentans who want to get away for dinner without having to drive too far.
Food and service are solid and the setting highly distinctive yet cozily familiar.
The ribeye, cioppino, spicy-sausage pizza and roasted chicken all are good bets, and the cocktails and wine list also impressed. The meat loaf and lamb meatballs disappointed.
Apart from one evening when the staff seemed stretched too thin, it was stellar.
Prices are midtown-Sacramento level, but in a more distinctive setting. And there are deals to be had, like the $4 “Elvis caramel corn.”