Carla Meyer

Dining review: Macau Cafe like a trip to China, with Portugal tucked in

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

Food is one of the great entry points for learning about other cultures, seeing the world in new ways and, best of all, confronting new combinations of flavors and textures.

Broadening one's horizons can be expensive. Right now, for round-trip airfare from Sacramento to Hong Kong, we're talking $1,200 and 35 hours, including multiple connections and the inevitable full-body scan.

We recently visited a restaurant within 5-iron range of Land Park Golf Course that will give you more than a glimpse into Chinese cooking and culture, with a bonus peek at elements of Portuguese food.

The cost: about $1 worth of gas. It's just 10 minutes from downtown Sacramento, though it feels like a whole other world once you step inside.

Macau Cafe is an extraordinary cultural showcase of food and life in the Chinese region of Macau (also spelled "Macao"), which was inhabited by 16th century Portuguese traders. It features the kind of everyday cooking you would find in southeast China, none of it reconfigured for the American palate.

That may be a good thing or an alarming thing, depending on your perspective. When you order a whole chicken, are you ready for the whole chicken to show up on your plate, complete with a cleanly severed head?

OK, so you can ask for the head to stay behind when you get the salty chicken dinner ($13.99). It is served cold, after it has been cooked in a salty broth that builds flavor and tenderness by the time it is done.

The shrimp? That can be jarring, too. The salt and pepper shrimp, lightly battered and fried, includes the tail, the thin but not so toothsome shell, and the head. You pick them up, plump as can be, and eat them. There's no peeling. You'll find the shell is a distraction the first 150 times you try it, but they're darn good once you are willing to shift your viewpoint.

The menu is expansive, a little elusive and thoroughly affordable. Many dishes are photographed and written down. Most are on the menu and many others are taped on the walls. Some of the food has elements of Portuguese cooking, especially those featuring curry. The braised beef has a sauce that is both peppery and slightly sweet.

The robust and saucy baked pork chop ($6.95) is covered with melted cheese and placed atop a serving of spaghetti (you read that correctly). That was one of my favorite dishes. I was in a Chinese restaurant, but this hearty meal felt like it could have been partly eastern European cooking. The ample meat was tender, the overall dish something I had never seen before and the spaghetti, well, it put a smile on my face.

During one of several visits, I dined with Paul Somerhausen, an enthusiastic eater, polyglot and head of Sacramento Epicureans, an open-to-all-comers dining club that seeks out adventures and learning experiences through food.

Paul and I agreed Macau Cafe is a lot of things – exciting, exotic, simple, casual, potentially overwhelming, foreign and familiar. It all depends where you're coming from, where you've been and what you order.

If your idea of exotic is P.F. Chang's, Macau Cafe will seem like a blindfolded backflip into the deep end of the pool – before checking to see if there was any water.

We talked about that over lunch, shortly before the large platter of chicken arrived, head and all.

"This is not a Panda Express. You're eating food as it is being served over there," Paul said with his usual upbeat spirit. "Part of that enjoyment is if you close your eyes and listen, you would think you're there – all you hear is Cantonese and Mandarin. To me, that adds value to the experience. It gives the food an extra level of authenticity compared to some of those Americanized Chinese venues."

Yet, those not ready for that blindfolded backflip can do well here, too.

The honey barbecue chicken is as accessible as any dish in town – simple, succulent, tasty and cheap. Same with the beef short ribs with broccoli, teriyaki chicken, lemon chicken, kung pao chicken egg rolls and many others, including spaghetti and meat sauce. All cost less than $10.

More adventurous foodies might dig into the curry fish balls with pork skin ($5.50), the intensely flavored mushroom fish soup ($6.95) or the pan-fried turnip cake ($6.95).

If you embrace this way of eating, whether you're from China or McKinley Park, Macau Cafe is so good, challenging, enlightening and simple, it may soon feel like home away from home.

Macau Cafe

4406 Del Rio Road, Sacramento

(916) 457-8818

Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Full bar? Beer and wine only.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Takeout? Yes.

Overall (good)

With authentic Chinese cooking and the occasional foray to Portugal, this Land Park eatery is a destination for many Asian Americans as well as foodies seeking a lively and new food experience.

Food (good)

The huge menu is too big to comprehend. Doesn't matter. Whether you want exotic or familiar, comforting or edgy, you'll find it – complete with unusual or common flavor combinations. Newcomers could go for braised short ribs, lemon chicken or baked pork chops with spaghetti. Seasoned epicures might work the delicious edges, like barbecued eel, claypot fish chunks or salt-and-pepper tofu with frog.

Service (fair)

It's fast and friendly. If you're asking specific questions or have precise dietary needs, you may or may not get the answer you're looking for.

Ambience (good)

It's a simple room without any effort wasted on design or style. The appeal is in the energy.

Value (excellent)

We're torn when it comes to quality at a restaurant like this. You won't find any emphasis on local, organic, free-range or sustainable. That's not what this place is about. But the food is solid, honest and authentic – and the prices are outstanding.

Noteworthy: The Macau Cafe is owned by the same folks who own the much- admired New Canton Restaurant on Broadway, best known for its superb dim sum offerings.