Carla Meyer

Eat cheap, and well, across the Causeway

The tan tan men ramen at Zen Toro in Davis features soft udon noodles and pliant ground pork.
The tan tan men ramen at Zen Toro in Davis features soft udon noodles and pliant ground pork. cmeyer@sacbee.com

Davis is full of student-friendly and thus cheap eats. Though much of this food tastes like mere fuel for studying and pumping bicycle pedals, there are standout places and dishes.

The problem with inexpensive restaurants that cater to students, however, is that they’re so filled with students. But many Aggies are out of town this Thanksgiving weekend, and they will clear out in droves when UC Davis starts its winter break Dec. 14.

So go on, curious but post- or non-academic Sacramentans and Dixonites: Descend on Davis, where one can eat like a king or queen on a crisp $20 bill. Or at least like an engineering student with a discriminating palate.

Here are some recommendations for restaurants and specific dishes. Feel free to hop among these places, once in Davis. Three of them sit within yards of each other on E Street.

ChickPeas

640 W. Covell Blvd., Davis, 800-909-5353, www.gochickpeas.com

The place: This year-old, Middle Eastern counter-service spot in the Save Mart shopping center offers falafel, chicken shawarma and beef gyro in pita ($4.99-$7.99) or plate ($6.99-$10.99) forms.

Plates come with hummus, baba ganoush, diced tomato and cucumber, a side of pita bread and a free trip to the small salad bar, which holds marinated carrots, onions and cabbage and other accoutrements.

What to order: The plates. They’re a bargain, and come with ChickPeas’ exceptional baba ghanoush, the balanced salt and acid levels of which enhance a smoky eggplant base.

We ordered plates with tender, spicy-earthy chicken shawarma and with crunchy falafel, the latter carrying an onion flavor that was forward without being untoward.

The Dumpling House

129 E St., Davis, 530-753-7210

The place: Tucked in the same funky complex of orange-painted, bungalow-style buildings as Thai-food stalwart Sophia’s, the Dumpling House holds an unusually intimate feel.

One enters into a room affording a partial view of the kitchen and a clearer one of women sitting at tables crafting dumplings from dough and pork and vegetable mixes. We sat in a separate room, at a table near a door to the patio that opened often and came too close to my chair for comfort.

The place ultimately feels more cozy than cramped, thanks to the dumpling steam in the air. (The Dumpling House also serves fish and chips, but we came for the dumplings only, on a friend’s recommendation).

What to order: Pan-fried vegetable dumplings ($8 a dozen). Individual dumplings are substantial – they’re two-bite rather than one-bite affairs. Ginger adds kick to a filling of mushroom, rice noodles and carrot contained in a wrapper of light, almost biscuit-like consistency.

The vegetable dumplings came out piping hot. Temperature seems vital to the dumplings’ flavor, at least judging by the steamed pork-chive dumplings we ordered. They were unremarkable beyond being lukewarm. It was as if the flavors were waiting to be enlivened by heat.

Yakitori Yuchan

109 E St., Davis, yakitoriyuchan.com, 530-753-3196,

The place: Just over a year old, this restaurant specializing in yakitori – or grilled chicken skewers – and other small bites is the hippest on our list. Yakitori Yuchan’s red, ultra-modern bar stools look like they’re out of a Transformers movie.

Although prices for individual plates are low ($4 for most yakitori plates with two skewers each), servings are small-ish. But it’s easy enough to order one or two dishes, check out the scene and head to the Dumpling House to fill up.

What to order: The yakitori we tried underwhelmed. Not so the Brussel garlic sauté ($6.95) and rice cake ($5) with pork. Both are made with tare, a sweet sauce that’s in the teriyaki wheelhouse but offers greater depth of flavor.

In the Brussel sprouts dish, tare coats minced chicken and garlic that in turn top the slightly crunchy vegetables and create a textural adventure. Further textural frontiers await with the rice cake, an intriguingly chewy, sticky, stretchy, starchy treat covered in a thin layer of salty pork.

Zen Toro

132 E St., Davis, www.zentorosushi.com, 530-753-0154

The place: It’s sort of hidden, its entrance opening not to the street but to an interior courtyard several steps down from street level. Inside, the near-subterranean space, with its burgundy walls and bamboo design features, feels secluded but not stifling (the dining room holds a window that puts the diner at eye level with wheels of passing cars).

Chef Masa Nishiyama and his wife, Masako, opened this second Zen Toro – the first was on 15th and I streets, in Sacramento – in 2006. They sold the Sacramento restaurant not long after, but stuck with Davis. Earlier this year, their son, Scott, and his wife, Amy, purchased the restaurant from the elder Nishiyamas. The menu, which runs from sushi to combination plates and soups, remains as extensive as ever.

Though Zen Toro’s prices are not as bargain-basement as its location suggests, some lunch combination plates cost less than $10, and the excellent tan tan ramen comes in a big serving and costs $9.50.

What to order: The tan tan. I never understood the fuss about ramen, a culinary craze for much of the past decade. Before I tried Zen Toro’s (pork, sesame and chili) tan tan, I preferred fat udon noodles.

This tan tan starts with a broth, made from pork bones and scraps, that’s so deeply savory it warms and soothes at first sip. Zen Toro’s ramen noodles – fresh-tasting and more resistant to the teeth than soft udon noodles ever could be – seems like the only suitable textural companion for the soup’s similarly stubborn but ultimately pliant ground pork.

This soup delivers multiple flavors within each bite, some spicy or otherwise bold but all tethered to that essentially satisfying pork base. Zen Toro’s tan tan is not just the best ramen I have tasted in the Sacramento region, but one of the more remarkable soups of any kind.

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