We've been dropping by lots of new places lately, trying a wide variety of food and compiling plenty of first impressions.
This week, we're focusing on three casual eateries.
Yellowbill Cafe Bakery
1425 14th St., Sacramento
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Nestled into one of the more quiet corners of downtown, near the intersection of 14th and O streets, Yellowbill is an offshoot of Magpie Cafe. (The yellow-billed magpie is a very Sacramento bird.)
If we've learned anything about Magpie since it opened on R Street three-plus years ago, it's that the place is all about high quality – its food, its ethics, its customer service.
Magpie has become famous for a lot of things, including its fresh and thoughtfully prepared salads, its rotating seafood dishes, its amazing gnocchi with duck, a great steak dinner, delicious sandwiches and, well, a certain carrot cake cookie (filled with cream cheese frosting) that practically flies off the shelves.
We found that same cookie during a recent visit to Yellowbill, along with plenty of other baked goods, including a lemon tart with intense citrus flavor, appealing tartness and an excellent buttery crust; a chocolate tart; peanut butter sandwich cookie; a rich brownie; and a wonderful, extra-large chocolate chip cookie that stood out for its wealth of dark, pleasingly bitter chocolate chunks.
We also admired the espresso machine – a big, bold, yellow one, and spied a cute yellow tamp for compacting the coffee before a shot is pulled. The coffee is supplied by Chocolate Fish, the coffee wizards at the corner of Third and Q streets.
I'm told that before opening, the Magpie/Yellowbill folks pulled more than 1,000 espresso shots as they dialed in their new machine and honed their technique. It shows. My espresso and cappuccino during a recent visit were both nicely made.
Sure, the espresso lacked some of the nuance in flavor and body I might find at Chocolate Fish, Old Soul, Insight or Temple, but it was a nice, tight shot with well-rounded flavors. And no, my cappuccino didn't come with the standard latte art we find at the best indie shops in town, but the drink had good body and decent flavor.
We managed to snag a couple of to-go items, too, including a salad and a sandwich. This is, indeed, a different experience from the Magpie I know and love. I actually had to dress and toss my own salad at home – and fell noticeably short of what I'm used to at meticulous Magpie.
Open 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Yellowbill is a work in progress. Co-owner Ed Roehr tells me he and his crew hope to expand and elevate the baking program that emerged at Magpie, but where that journey takes them remains to be seen.
We expect that when Yellowbill establishes itself, its identity will be clear and the quality of its baked goods will be superb.
For now, it's a nice place to drop by in the morning to grab a bakery snack for work or sit and enjoy an espresso drink at a sidewalk table.
1800 Capitol Ave., Sacramento
A lot has happened in the 1800 block of Capitol in recent weeks. Java City closed the doors at its longtime flagship location. The amazing, majestic and massive camphor tree, weakened by old age, was cut down as scores of admirers looked on with heavy hearts. And a place called Mangia opened for business in the Java City space next to the ever-popular Paesanos.
It's owned by the folks who run Paesanos, so expect it to be smart, affordable and well-run.
We were impressed by the sandwiches, all under $10, made with high-quality breads and meats, and with a variety of tasty sauces or aiolis. They were of good size, too.
The bagels with eggs were decent, though supply was limited during one of my visits, and I wound up with – and survived – a jalapeño- and-cheddar bagel.
The side dishes are limited at this point. As cooler fall days settle in, it might be nice to have a soup to go with those nice sandwiches.
The small selection of desserts is supplied by Bella Bru. The cupcakes we tried – a chocolate and a red velvet – were very good. So was the chocolate chip cookie, smaller and more traditional than the Yellowbill version, but surprisingly tasty.
Mangia is using Java City coffee, which has improved in recent years to keep pace with Sacramento's elevated status as a serious coffee town. My espresso was nicely made, and my cappuccino was fair.
But if Mangia is going to be serious about its coffee, it must have real ceramic cups for enjoying the beverages at the cafe. Serving espresso in a paper cup, in this era of ultra-high-quality coffee, is a disappointment.
Mangia is open every day, and opens at 6 a.m. on weekdays.
Burgess Brothers' Burgers
2114 Sutterville Road, Sacramento
Here's a pleasant surprise. You may have heard plenty recently about the many great hamburgers available in Sacramento, especially the $10-and-up versions at some of our better restaurants.
Indeed, on Sept. 18, 15 chefs competed in the Sacramento Burger Battle at Raley Field, with chef- restaurateur David Hill of the Chef's Table in Rocklin taking top honors (and food truck Krush Burger winning the people's choice award).
Burgess Brothers' isn't trying to do gourmet, Wagyu or high-end. But this new place has found a nice quality-price balance, with burger options ranging from $2.95 for sliders to $7.95 for a loaded "Hero" burger – a beef patty covered with smoked pulled pork, cheese and grilled onions. The standard burger is $4.95. All of burgers come with fries.
The tri-tip is cooked low and slow in a smoker. The various sauces, including a hot one, are made in-house.
On the night we visited, one of the brothers stopped by our table to chat and explain the business plan.
Turns out, the brothers Jonathan and Matthew Burgess are twins – and they're a great local success story. Jonathan is a battalion chief with the Sacramento Fire Department. Matthew is an officer with the California Highway Patrol.
The brothers got the idea for the restaurant after going head to head in a friendly firefighters-vs.- police burger battle. They got such good feedback about their burgers, they decided to open a burger joint (while keeping their full-time jobs).
We were happy with all of our burgers. They are medium-sized, full of flavor and cooked to order. The tri-tip sandwich ($8.95 with fries) is very large and loaded with thick slices of beef. It's available on Tuesdays only, according to the menu.
On the night we stopped in, 20 minutes before closing, the blinds were already drawn and the place looked closed. This is a rookie mistake. A restaurant must always look open when it's open. And that means occasionally putting up with six folks wandering in five minutes before closing. It's just part of the deal.
The surprisingly large restaurant is decorated with firefighter and CHP memorabilia. If you've got outstanding warrants or a busted tail light, the décor might seem a bit daunting.
Here's a place that looks ready to establish itself as a neighborhood burger spot, especially with the built-in customer base of Sacramento City College, and the easy access from Land Park, Curtis Park and Hollywood Park.