Carla Meyer

Dining review: High prices, middling food at Land Park’s Meet & Eat

The “chicken on fire” salad at Meet & Eat is one of the more daring menu items.
The “chicken on fire” salad at Meet & Eat is one of the more daring menu items. cmeyer@sacbee.com

We met. We ate. We shrugged.

The comfort-food restaurant Meet & Eat opened three months ago in the Freeport Boulevard space where Crepe Escape caught fire in 2013. Meet & Eat offers a clean design, ample seating and an uninspired menu composed mainly of burgers and tacos.

The burgers are better at Dad’s Kitchen, and the tacos more compelling at Oscar’s, both just down the street. You can get better fries at Curtis Park’s Cafe Dantorels, which shares owners with Meet & Eat.

Yet Meet & Eat still fills a key void, as a spacious, full-service restaurant in an immediate Sacramento City College neighborhood of counter-service spots, and as a child-friendly place in larger, kid-filled Land Park. On our visits, we sat among youngsters, still clad in soccer-practice gear, who sucked down milkshakes made with Gunther’s ice cream as their dads chose among the bar’s 24 beer taps, many devoted to local breweries’ products.

Married Meet & Eat owners Rafi Rozbahani and Viola Nabizadeh spent 16 months and what Rozbahani estimates at between $700,000 and $800,000 thoroughly rehabbing the Crepe Escape building. The renovated space adheres to the concrete-floor minimalism currently in vogue in restaurant design. But plentiful wood, on the bar and elsewhere, cozies things up a bit. Floor-to-ceiling windows helped keep the main dining room, and atmosphere, light on a recent rainy morning.

When factoring in the covered patio area adjacent to the main dining room, Meet & Eat holds 110 seats – enough that we never had to wait for a table on our three visits, as we often have had to at Dad’s or Tower Cafe. Plentiful seating is an asset nearly as valuable as good food in the Land of Managed Dining Expectations, aka Land Park.

It might be the influence of the kids – those youth soccer players, along with C.K. McClatchy High School and City College students – that puts comfort first in the neighborhood’s dining scene. Though there’s culinary refinement evident at places such as Masullo Pizza and Taylor’s Kitchen, Land Park is generally more grub-oriented – whether that grub is burgers or pho – than fellow tony, midtown-adjacent neighborhood East Sacramento. Little gems like East Sacramento’s Cielito Lindo and Juno’s just don’t exist in Land Park.

Meet & Eat, freed by its location from high culinary expectations, need only to have opened its doors to draw interest. Fortunately, it aspires to more.

Just as there’s still construction occurring on the restaurant’s exterior – they’re adding open-air patio space outside the enclosed patio, Rozbahani said – Meet & Eat’s food is a work in progress. The owners plan to continually edit and/or augment a lunch/dinner menu now dominated by 14 burger and six taco selections, and a wan a.m. menu (Meet & Eat opens at 7 a.m.) top-billed by oatmeal and curiously irreflective of the owners’ breakfast background.

They are listening to diners’ feedback, Rozbahani said, and adjusting accordingly.

Here’s some from this diner: Remove the tortilla strips from the Yucatan burger. Their stiffness is a textural shock in a sandwich otherwise squishy with sour cream and melted pepper jack. And although that burger holds a Niman Ranch patty like the one in the regular cheeseburger, the latter offered more char and more taste altogether. The lamb in the lamb burger also held plenty of flavor, though it tasted slightly overcooked.

The breakfast items we tried were cooked perfectly but often under-seasoned or under-adorned. Pico de gallo was too scant on the breakfast tacos, which held a pile of fluffy organic eggs, a few skinny strips of bacon and not much else.

We arrived for breakfast at about 11:15, and decided to order lunch items as well – a decision that highlighted issues with Meet & Eat’s friendly but seemingly green servers. No one, on this visit or the previous one, asked if we wanted the many dishes we ordered to come out in any particular order. So eggs and salad arrived together. But on our third visit, we sat at the bar, where the bartender, James, inquired about staggering dishes and was a pro in general.

The salmon, spinach, avocado, onion and mushroom we added to the cheese omelet all tasted fresh. But the additions brought the cost of the omelet, which was served with bland potatoes, to a startling $19. Granted, we added a lot. But should onions cost $1?

Meet & Eat isn’t cheap. Its industrial design aesthetic and emphases on comfort food and quality ingredients invite comparisons to Broderick Midtown that do not favor Meet & Eat. Both put out a good fish-taco entree that holds three tacos. But Broderick – which draws from many neighborhoods and therefore does not have a captive audience like Meet & Eat’s – charges $9 and Meet & Eat $13.

Both use Niman beef and Village Bakery buns, but Broderick does it to consistently better effect. Yet Meet & Eat’s $11-$15 prices for its burger plates are comparable to the midtown restaurant’s. I say “plates” to encompass fries, which are crucial to the burger experience and disappoint at Meet & Eat.

At Cafe Dantorels, Rozbahani and Nabizadeh serve thick, expertly prepared crunchy/creamy fries. At Meet & Eat, they went thinner – so thin you hardly taste potato. So thin the kitchen does not seem to know what to do with them.

On one visit, they tasted slightly stale. On another, a pal picked up a fry by its end, revealing a cluster of undercooked fries clinging to the main fry’s center. It was as if the fries decided to do an impromptu re-enactment of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima.

I gave Meet & Eat’s fries many chances but only appreciated them in the context of the garlic-Parmesan fries, an appetizer that offers a heaping pile of skinny potatoes for just $4.50. This starter will please starving City College students and devoted saucers alike.

The saucers to which I refer are not plates that hold cups but people who hold ketchup, gravy and ranch dressing in high regard. Alongside the garlic-Parmesan fries, Meet & Eat serves, in individual metal cups, ketchup, chipotle and dill sauces and a nice roasted-tomato house salsa, thus rendering the fries’ taste irrelevant.

It’s encouraging to know the owners are still experimenting with recipes, because there already are signs of finesse afoot, in a vinegar slaw that adds snap to the crispy (yet not greasy) fish tacos, and in the lunch/dinner menu’s most daring items – a “chicken on fire” salad and patty-melt taco.

The salad, which holds shredded lettuce, grilled chicken, peanuts, vermicelli noodles and Sriracha sauce, offers an intriguing, if not quite complete (it cried out for lime) mix of flavors and textures. The onion rings topping the salad do not go with the rest of it, but were crisp and satisfying on their own.

The patty-melt tacos, which sounded at first like an unholy merging of cuisines, turned out to be the best thing I tried at Meet & Eat. The jalapeño, red onion and bell pepper sautéed with the beef lend it an intense flavor and spark subsequently soothed by creamy cilantro dressing.

These tacos were filling on their own but also suggested the owners’ willingness to try new things might eventually result in a more fulfilling experience overall at Meet & Eat.

Meet & Eat

3445 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento, 916-476-3082

Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

Beverage options: Two dozen beers on draft, including offerings from several local breweries. Compact wine list. Milkshakes with Gunther’s ice cream. Espresso-based drinks.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise level: Moderate

Ambiance: The owners spent a bundle to rebuild the former Crepe Escape, which caught fire in 2013. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the main dining room let in enough light to warm up the minimally designed interior. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, with lots of young families crowding into booths.

Overall

This 3-month-old restaurant clearly is still finding its way – its outdoor patio and menu both remain under construction. Though that menu currently is uninspired, some of its more daring items hint at better things to come.

Food

The burgers we tried were a mixed bag, and expensive, at $11-$15, since the fries accompanying them were undercooked or simply too thin for their flavor to register. Breakfast items were well-cooked but sometimes under-seasoned or under-adorned. But Meet & Eat’s milkshakes, made with Gunther’s ice cream, are tasty without being too sweet. The crispy-fish and patty-melt tacos both were packed with flavor, and the “chicken on fire” salad, with a few adjustments, could be a winner.

Service 1/2

Friendly but a bit green. The servers on our first two visits did not ask if we wanted dishes in our large order staggered, and brought everything out at once. But bartender James, who waited on us on our final visit, delivered dishes at appropriate increments and was a pro overall.

Value 1/2

Students from nearby Sacramento City College can feast on a heap of garlic-Parmesan fries for $4.50. But prices for some other items seemed high. Our cheese omelet, to which we added five ingredients, cost $19 – a price that seems especially absurd when factoring in the accompanying breakfast potatoes’ blandness.

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