Carla Meyer

Dining review: It's clear why Frank Fat's earned a James Beard award

For seven decades and counting, Frank Fat's has been a regular dining spot and hangout for plenty of smart, successful and benevolent folks who have devoted their lives to making California a truly great state.

Plenty of politicians eat there, too.

It's no secret that Frank Fat's, opened in 1939 by a Chinese immigrant and to this day run by the Fat family, is an old-school joint patronized by plenty of devoted cronies in a city with a new and dynamic dining scene. Its banana cream pie, for goodness sakes, is based on a recipe that's older than Patrick Mulvaney and Randall Selland.

We decided to take a new look at this practically ancient restaurant after the James Beard Foundation announced it was giving Frank Fat's a lifetime achievement award in a special category called America's Classics. Ten members of the Fat family plan to attend the ceremony May 6 at Lincoln Center in New York to accept the honor.

To mark the occasion, we wanted to see if we could zero in on the elements that have made Frank Fat's such an enduring success.

In a city with so many good and very good restaurants these days, it's tempting to wonder if the Beard Foundation was honoring a restaurant icon or a restaurant dinosaur.

During our recent visits, it didn't take long to arrive at an answer. Frank Fat's may not be as cool as a place like Hook & Ladder or Red Rabbit, as elegant as Ella, as influential as Mulvaney's or as adored as Biba.

But it continues to stand tall for a reason. The food is consistently delicious and eminently accessible, with flavors and ingredients that straddle the line between American and Chinese.

Who cares where bacon-wrapped scallops come from or whether they get the foodie stamp of approval for being authentic? At Frank Fat's, they're pretty darn amazing – tender, delicate, meaty, salty and just a tad smoky going down. And they pair nicely with a lychee martini, a nice stiff mai tai cocktail or something from the abbreviated but nicely balanced wine list.

The salt-and-pepper calamari is light and crisp and mildly delicious without being greasy or chewy. And Fat's brandy fried chicken is right up there with the best fried chicken in town – perfectly tender, golden brown, crispy, tasty – and lots of it.

Know what makes all this food taste even better? They treat you like a million bucks. Frank Fat's has been a refuge for movers and shakers practically since the day it opened on L Street. Every governor since has eaten there. Celebrities often drop by. Deals get done.

We discovered pretty quickly that whether you're a nobody from Natomas or a big shot with an entourage, you'll get the VIP treatment here.

One of our friends ordered the lychee martini. He was curious about what it would taste like. A mouthful of cotton candy or something grown-up and exotic? With a wink and a smile, our excellent server said that if he didn't like it, they'd make him something else. They don't have to check with the manager and make everything awkward – they simply make the drink go away and make a new one appear.

Frank Fat, who died in 1997, instilled the personal- service edict in his family and employees, according to son Jerry Fat, president and chief executive officer of Fat City Inc., which presides over the family's four restaurants.

"My father treated everybody the same. It didn't matter if you were the governor of California or somebody from the community coming in for dinner," he told me by phone.

Jerry remembers busing tables as a teenager in the 1970s when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's security detail arrived early in the morning to arrange for a visit. Clint Eastwood has eaten at Fat's, though we neglected to ask if he had a conversation with an empty chair. Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court justice and Sacramento native, continues to dine there when he's in town.

When you're in the hands of restaurant pros and veterans who don't need training wheels, it's easy to relax and have a good time. The biggest surprise for me was how much fun we had – and how much we enjoyed the food.

Whether you're new to Frank Fat's or rediscovering it after 30 years, we recommend you start with the assortment of appetizers called the combination platter ($16 on the dinner menu). You get the calamari, pot stickers and spring rolls, all prepared with precision. But you also get something called yu kwok, battered and deep-fried dumplings with wonderfully seasoned meat inside. There's nothing else like it in town – crisp on the outside, tender and tasty on the inside. Try them with a cold beer.

During another visit, we ordered the appetizers more randomly and, again, had great success, though we thought the baby back ribs were a little overcooked and dry. That was the only stumble, however.

I can recommend every entree with enthusiasm – and there are so many ways to dine here. You can delve into the Chinese parts of the menu and come up with winners such as General Tsaos Chicken, which is gently spicy and hot, with very tender chunks of chicken battered and deep-fried.

You can go with something called Immigrants Beef and take note of how tender and perfectly seasoned flank steak can be. The beef is marinated in a blend of brandy, soy, ginger, garlic and sesame oil, then grilled and served atop grilled asparagus. We also enjoyed the Beef Chow Fun – a pleasing noodle dish with mild but complex flavors.

There are several East-meets-West elements of the menu, including an oversized 16-ounce New York steak smothered in sautéed onions and oyster sauce. This one may not date all the way back to 1939, but it promises to endure well into the 21st century.

And those scallops? The ones wrapped with bacon? Right now, they're a contender for our favorite appetizer of 2013. While we're all for sharing when it comes to ordering food at Fat's, you might want to get an order of these for yourself, lest you inspire some ill will by eating more than your fair share.

There's no need to ask for a dessert menu. There are only two options: banana cream pie or chocolate cream pie. Sure, it would be nice if they expanded the desserts to include something with fruit, maybe something seasonal. But the banana cream pie is a classic.

Over the years, we've published the recipe multiple times in The Bee. It's a recipe that was started more than 50 years ago and updated only slightly (the lard for the crust has been replaced by butter). It's still really good. It still tastes like bananas times five, and the mild, pale crust doesn't get in the way of all that creamy, decadent goodness.

Next month, Frank Fat's will take a bow on the national stage when the family accepts the James Beard award. Now you know what the jurors at the Beard Foundation understood so clearly – that this restaurant was, is and will continue to be an American classic.

Frank Fat's

806 L St., Sacramento

(916) 442-7092

11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Beverage options Full bar

Vegetarian friendly: Limited

Noise level: Loud

Overall Three 1/2 stars

For an old-school place with plenty of history, a touch of class and polished service that will make you feel like a VIP, it doesn't get any better than this. It may have opened in 1939, with tweaks to the menu over the years, but the recipe for success hasn't changed.

Food Three stars

We loved the scallops wrapped in bacon, the yu kwok appetizer, brandy fried chicken, the spicy General Tsaos Chicken and the very tender Immigrants Beef, among many dishes we enjoyed. The mixed drinks are made by pros.

Service Three 1/2 stars

Very friendly and polished. They made us feel special and did all the little things that make dinner a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Ambience Two 1/2 stars

From the outside, it exudes that private club-speakeasy vibe. Inside, it's nicely appointed and comfortable, with a pleasant bar for relaxing with a drink. But the acoustics are surprisingly bad. It's noisy and a little jarring when it's busy.

Value Three stars

You'll get sizable portions and quality cooking for the price. Appetizers range from $9 to $13. The best deal is the $16 combination platter. Main dishes are mostly under $20, with the exception of the New York steak ($30) and the full Peking duck ($33).

Noteworthy: The Fat family is working with California State University, Sacramento, to organize its many photos, letters, menus and other historic documents into an archive that will be available for digital viewing when the project is completed. A look at a menu from the 1960s shows martinis for 50 cents, sweet-and-sour spare ribs for $1 and homemade pie (presumably banana cream) for 30 cents. Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.