Carla Meyer

Dining review: Why Sacramento's Ernesto's packs 'em in

Crowds are everything to a restaurant. Crowds validate hard work and attention to detail. Crowds attract more crowds. Crowds are energy.

Those in the restaurant game, and those devoted to Sacramento's new and improved dining scene, spend some of their time looking for crowds. Mostly we do it by looking into restaurant windows as we pass by.

It's a shorthand way of seeing which restaurants are thriving and which aren't, what is working and what isn't. That's how we know OneSpeed and Hot Italian are bona fide successes, that the folks at Mikuni know what they're doing. Same with de Vere's, Mulvaney's, Formoli's, Selland's, Moxie and Magpie.

The objective this week is to find out what's behind the uncanny success of Ernesto's, why looking into a window at 16th and S streets practically guarantees a view of crowded tables, busy servers and happy customers – no small feat in this languishing economy.

My assumption was that they make a pretty mean margarita – and I was right. They also feature a mildly mind-altering tequila-based concoction called the Green Iguana, which I would liken to an adult Slurpee.

But Ernesto's is more than that.

Is it the food, which tries to touch all bases of Mexican cuisine? Perhaps. The ambience? Partly. The accommodating service? No doubt.

But surely, there's a secret lurking.

Let's start with what we see upon arrival. Folks are neatly dressed but not necessarily dressed up. This is less a pickup joint than a place to gather with friends and family. If it's date night, it's probably the 30th date, not the first or second.

It is easy to take Ernesto's Restaurant for granted because it's not a glamour destination or a place for foodies to unravel poignant cultural stories. But no one should overlook its role in our urban restaurant boom.

That golden-yellow stucco building that seems so settled and architecturally appropriate was once a ramshackle meltdown of a home burdened by a clunky addition out front. And just to be sure everyone saw it and shuddered, it was pink.

Ernesto's opened for business in 1992 and knew enough to hire Ron Vrilakas, a new architect in town who would emerge through the years as a visionary and a force for change. Vrilakas made the property cohesive and appealing.

Ernesto's took it from there.

When I called the architect to ask about Ernesto's, he agreed with my premise about the restaurant's role in the neighborhood.

"16th Street had limped along for decades. That site had a number of restaurants over the years, none of which attempted to stay open for dinner," he said. "Ernesto's committed to building a dinner market there where there really hadn't been one.

"It took a while. In the early days, you would go in there for dinner and it would be pretty empty."

Fast-forward to a recent Monday night: Packed. The following Monday at the same time: Jammed. Wednesday for lunch with a co-worker: We had to wait while they cleared a table.

This may be a slightly above midscale/casual restaurant, but its success is spectacular.

What went right?

My findings are startling.

Lesson 1: Good food.

Lesson 2: Good service.

Lesson 3: Good prices.

The big secret: There are no big secrets.

The food and service are good but not out of this world. No one in the kitchen is going to be vying for Bocuse d'Or or Iron Chef. But the ingredients are fresh, the menu is varied, the flavors are lively and the execution is fairly consistent.

The service, too, is good but not great. We were never dazzled with details or bowled over with charisma. But we got what we wanted.

When we asked about the pomegranate margarita, our server replied, "It's good, but if you don't like it, tell me and I'll get you something else."

When we asked about the Navajo chicken burrito ($8.99) with an eye to ordering something spicy, our server confidently said, "It's not spicy. But if you want it spicy, I will make it spicy for you."

It didn't hurt that the burrito was pleasing on the palate and big enough to be used in a game of rugby.

The guacamole fresco we ordered for starters was very fresh, with the right spicy kick from chopped peppers. The chips, too, were above average – light and crisp.

All this goes to show that Ernesto's, a key player in the blooming of the restaurant scene, is still worth your attention.

Ernesto's revealed itself to me slowly. The first time, the serving of meatball soup, albondigas, was pleasant and subtle with a mildly beefy broth. I liked the mainstay tortilla soup even more. The nicely flavored broth is thin, not creamy, and the soup is loaded with vegetables, along with crisp tortilla strips and a large topping of fresh avocado.

Ernesto's is known for being vegetarian-friendly, and I found out why when I ordered the enchiladas sauté ($10.49) – sautéed mushrooms, zucchini and bell peppers tucked into a large corn tortilla. It's a large platter served with Mexican-style rice and refried beans. Several more vegetarian options are available.

The enchiladas Suizas ($10.99) is also a good bet for meat and/or cheese lovers. You have a choice of chicken or cheese – we went with one of each – topped with a green tomatillo sauce, along with onions and pepper. Again, this wasn't earth-shattering food, but it was made fresh and handled with skill in the kitchen.

On another night, we were even more impressed with the marinated steak dish, carne asada ala Tampiqueña ($15.99). We weren't bothered that the marinade outshone the beef for top flavor mostly because the taste was so refreshing, possibly because of the inclusion of lime juice in the marinade.

If you're more carnivore than omnivore, try the carnitas dinner ($12.49), mostly because the large portion of pork is very tender and tasty, thanks to a marinade of red wine, caramelized brown sugar and orange slices.

If you're looking for something a little different, give the Veracruz shrimp ($14.99) a try. The large shrimp had wonderful texture and taste, and were nicely balanced with a citrusy chili pasilla sauce that was thick and creamy. This dish was my favorite.

When you add it all up, Ernesto's is an easy place to find appealing, especially if you're looking down your nose at a Green Iguana.


1901 16th St., Sacramento

(916) 441-5850

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday

Full bar? Yes

Vegetarian-friendly? Yes

Takeout? Yes

Overall: 2 1/2 stars (reliable)

If you're looking for a good time with friends or loved ones, this is a solid option, from the nice selection of drinks at the bar to the varied and thorough menu of Mexican food. This place does everything right without being spectacular in any single area.

Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

Order the guacamole and chips to start, and you'll notice immediately that the emphasis is on freshness and flavor. There are plenty of nice options for a satisfying meal, including the carnitas plate, the tortilla soup, Veracruz shrimp and very good carne asada. The many margaritas are done well, as they should be. And with the warm weather, a nice, slushy Green Iguana is also a satisfying tequila treat.

Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

It's a busy place, so don't expect to become best friends with your server, but the emphasis is on customer satisfaction. If you want something, they will make it happen. The orders hit the table impressively fast, even during busy nights.

Ambience: 3 stars (good)

A visit here is about casual good times without having to put on airs. Many folks consider it a regular hangout, and with good reason. There is plenty of energy, which means a good bit of noise. If your idea of eating out does not include shouting and reading lips, there are plenty of empty joints around.

Value: 3 1/2 stars (very good)

If the sum is greater than its parts, it's in this ratings category. All but one dish costs under $15 and many are under $10. The portions are significant and you won't feel gouged when you leave here. Ernesto's is solid all the way around, and it adds up to impressive value for the money.

Noteworthy: I'm told the restaurant staffers enjoy a significantly spicier salsa when they eat at Ernesto's on break. The regular mild salsa is what is served to customers. But if you want hot and spicy instead of tepid, you should request it at the outset. Same goes for your main course – if you want it hot, the kitchen will take care of you.