Carla Meyer

Dining review: Sacramento's Nopalitos cafe thrives on tasty, simple food

If Nopalitos Southwestern Cafe is not in your regular rotation of treasured spots to eat, perhaps your life isn't as fulfilling as it could be.

Several restaurants have gone out of business in recent weeks, but Nopalitos is a success story if there ever was one, despite more than a few eccentricities that border on the ridiculous. Its hours, for instance, are the worst in town. It is open for breakfast and lunch, but not for dinner, when, you know, most people actually go out to eat. It doesn't open at all on weekends, when most people actually have time to go out to eat.

Worst of all, when the owners go on vacation, they close the restaurant for days at a time (the record is nine straight) and deprive their customers of this intoxicating, practically addictive, approach to Southwestern cuisine.

Nopalitos doesn't accept credit cards, which prompts this cashless-society devotee to wonder, is this a restaurant in 2011 or that general store on "The Waltons"? If I brought in a holster, a couple of gold pans and a sluice box, would they trade for a tall stack of pancakes, a serving of corn hash and a bowl of that chile verde with the thick, spicy sauce?

I kid Nopalitos because it is so old-school and earnest that it transcends cool. It has been open since 1992, and despite the Great Recession that has made this city feel a little like Walton's Mountain, it is as busy as ever. It doesn't need free Wi-Fi. It doesn't need fancy tables and chairs or cool music.

Not when the food is this good, this interesting, this delicious and this consistent, and not when the service is so pleasant, prompt and understated. Several of the dishes here cannot be found anywhere else. The meats are perfect and it's always such a simple pleasure to dig in. The vegetarian dishes are first-rate and deeply satisfying.

Even the baked goods wrapped in plastic and sitting on the counter near the cash register are done in-house nearly every day – try the cookies, the coffee cake with walnuts in the middle and delicious muffins (the latest one I tasted had little chunks of pear).

Nopalitos can be enjoyed in several ways, all of which involve hearty portions, dynamic and soothing flavor combinations, and excellent prices. If you find anything on the menu over $8.95, you're in the wrong place (though I'm told some prices might go up slightly due to rising food costs).

The chile verde (served alongside rice, pinto beans, and tortillas) is perhaps my favorite dish at Nopalitos and is worth twice what they're charging: It's a hearty stew, spicy in a way that lingers without being jolting, and there's a subtle saltiness that brings balance to the flavors of the tender pork along with the poblano and jalapeño chilies.

And yet, just as I write that, I'm thinking, "Yes, but what about the carnitas?" They're as good as carnitas can be – pork that has been slow-roasted, shredded and then grilled, so that what arrives on your plate is this combination of tender meat that practically melts on your tongue, along with occasional browned crispy bits that add even more flavor. It's clear that it is the work of a pro who knows what he's doing and does it the right way every time.

And while we're at it, we must consider the chile colorado, which has a deliciously prepared red sauce to highlight, but not intrude upon, the deep flavor of the braised beef.

You could spend the next year of your life trying to figure out which dish is better and how each one goes differently with the rice and beans.

But there's so much more, and you don't necessarily need meat to leave here happy. You could go with one of the house specialties – the Nopalitos quesadilla, which is made with roasted poblano chilies and cactus and held together with melted cheese tucked between the warm tortillas. Topped with sour cream and guacamole, it just happens to be a vegetarian dish. There's also a vegetarian black bean chili rice bowl that is just the right size to leave you satisfied but not stuffed at lunch.

I say all that about the lunch dishes, only to find myself thinking (again) that maybe breakfast is even better than lunch, that maybe it's the breakfasts that define this place.

A seemingly simple dish like the "cheese 'n' yellow corn" breakfast burrito is such a pleasure because the gentle flavors are so distinct and appealing. You can get scrambled eggs with smoked bacon or chorizo or sautéed vegetables. But you have to try the nopales (tender cactus) at least once to be a true fan of this charming little café.

More recently, I've had the Nopalitos omelet, and even though the eggs might have been cooked a tad longer than I prefer (browned on the exterior and firm, rather than pale and slightly weeping), the pieces of tender cactus, poblano chilies and cheese made it an outstanding dish that kept me happy until dinner.

The understated brilliance that is Nopalitos is the work of a husband-and-wife team, Dave and Rose Hanke. Both are trained chefs. He cooks, she serves and, when the place closes in the afternoon, she bakes. She also keeps the books, and she says the no-credit-cards policy helps her keep things simple. When the couple opened Nopalitos in 1992, they decided to close on the weekends because Dave wanted to coach his son, Aaron, then 7, in baseball.

Dad must have been quite the coach and the kid quite the talent. Aaron grew up and eventually played a couple of years in the big leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks. These days, he's 26, lives in Sacramento and is a firefighter with Cal Fire.

And his parents? They decided they actually enjoyed having a life beyond the cafe, so they never opened on the weekends. And they're not about to open for dinner or branch out with another Nopalitos in El Dorado Hills or Roseville. No chance of a Sunday brunch either, even though this place seems so ideal for the kind of lingering breakfast experience that includes good food, good conversations and maybe some time reading the paper. It won't happen, even though we wish it could. Keeping it simple and being consistent are the hallmarks of this place. The Hankes know what they do really well and they don't try to be more than that.

Nopalitos has its many regulars, including six or more men who show up at 6:30 in the morning each Wednesday and insist on sitting outside year-round. There is a Sacramento State professor who has eaten there every morning (scrambled egg whites or pancakes) for years. Rose has watched many of her regulars grow up and continue to stop by for a bite.

Among its admirers are several chefs, including the esteemed Rick Mahan of the Waterboy and OneSpeed. Mahan is a fan of the concept, the cooking and, more than anything, those crazy hours (weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.).

These devotees certainly don't need to be told why this modest little joint is actually much more than meets the eye. This is a great cafe and an enduring business that is honest and earnest and, by now, recession-proof. Through the years it has come to be a part of the neighborhood's identity, eccentricities and all.

Wouldn't every neighborhood want a place this good?

Nopalitos Southwestern Cafe

5530 H St., Sacramento

(916) 452-8226

Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays. Closed on weekends.

Full bar? Beer only.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Takeout? Yes.

Overall 4 stars (excellent)

Modest in appearance, low-key in approach, Nopalitos rises to the level of greatness because it is precisely what it proposes to be – a neighborhood cafe with superb food and friendly, sincere service. The eccentricities, once you understand them, only make it more endearing.

Food 4 stars (excellent)

Creative, consistent, hearty, and healthy, the food is the star here. Like the business itself, the food isn't showy, but the flavors of its Southwestern cuisine are always spot on, the ingredients are always fresh and the cooking is extremely consistent. Too many great dishes to list, but be sure to try something with the tender nopal cactus.

Service 4 stars (excellent)

You order at the counter, you get a number and your food shows up in minutes. It's a pleasant and prompt experience, and it doesn't try to be anything more.

Ambience 3 stars (good)

The "counter" seats along the windows are pretty cool and the overall vibe of the place is cozy and warm, even if the room will never win any awards for interior design. It works nicely just the way it is and it's always spotless.

Value 4 stars (excellent)

The burritos at lunch are big enough to feed two people. Everything on the menu is under $10, yet the food could compete with many restaurants that charge twice as much. Everything in the cafe is a great deal.

Noteworthy: Nopalitos is in a little hot spot for places serving superb food in a casual setting. Within shouting distance of this east Sacramento institution are Cafe Rolle, Evan's Kitchen and Selland's Market Cafe.