Taco Kings

Posted on October 4, 2016

Near the new arena, a restaurant aims for the hearts of sports fans with a menu focused on Mexican street food.

An array of house-made salsas
An array of house-made salsas Photography by Rachel Valley

The transformation of K Street has begun.

In late August, local restaurateur Trevor Shults opened a bar and taqueria called El Rey on what has long been one of Sacramento’s seediest blocks. Located across the street from the entrance to Golden 1 Center, El Rey is the first of more than 30 bars and restaurants set to open in the area surrounding the new sports and entertainment complex in the coming months.

Tacos include carnitas, duck and spicy peanut shrimp

Shults teamed up with nightclub impresario Bob Simpson and former Kings player Kenny Thomas on the project, which includes an Irish pub called Malt & Mash and a third, as-yet-unnamed restaurant set to open next year. The three restaurants share a 15,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Ochsner Building next to St. Rose of Lima Park. 

El Rey (Spanish for The King) could have been designed in a lab to appeal to the sports fans who will soon be streaming into the arena. Billed as a high-energy taqueria, it’s a loud, fun, thumping place with two bars, oodles of wall-mounted TVs, a DJ booth and high-top community tables. 

Chef Bryce Palmer

The menu focuses on playful reinterpretations of Mexican street food. Heading up the kitchen is Bryce Palmer, a 32-year-old former Marine who worked in the front of the house at Shults’ nightclubs before heading to culinary school. After spending time in some of Sacramento’s top kitchens (Biba, Grange, The Golden Bear, Capital Dime), he returned to work for Shults as a sous chef at Crawdads on the River. Earlier this year, he became executive chef for all of Shults’ properties, revamping the menu at Barwest.

Before creating the menu for El Rey, Palmer and Shults went on a taco tasting tour of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. But they took a fusion-y approach to the taco, using smoked meats and nontraditional ingredients like fried yucca chips and sesame seeds. Flavors are big and bold. There’s a smoked carnitas taco with pickled pineapple salsa, a spicy peanut shrimp taco and a crispy duck taco—all served on a custom-made 5-inch tortillas from La Esperanza, a Mexican bakery and grocery store on Franklin Boulevard.

Queso fundido

A Mexican street food vibe runs throughout the menu. Appetizers include house-made chicharrones and street corn slathered in chipotle crema and cotija. Palmer, who’d spent some time in Tijuana, persuaded Shults to let him put a Tijuana-style hot dog on the menu. Wrapped in bacon, the frank is buried under a slew of garnishes: guacamole, pico de gallo, black beans, cilantro crema, cotija and cheddar cheese, and pickled onion. There’s also ceviche, made with rockfish and jicama, and a scallop-and-shrimp cocktail that gets a blast from the addition of fire-roasted tomatoes. Posole—the classic hangover soup made with fresh hominy—comes with thick slices of roasted pork belly. 

For dessert, there’s a choco taco—a house-made homage to the ice-cream truck offering, with Gunther’s ice cream tucked inside a chocolate- and peanut-covered chocolate waffle shell. The refreshing Mexican street snack fruta con chile also shows up on the menu: melon, mango and pineapple slices dusted with salt and chile powder, served in a plastic cup.

Mexican street corn

Bar manager Elliott Ames, another longtime Shults employee, created the tequila-centric drinks menu. There are nine margaritas, and some can be ordered “hot” with the addition of jalapeno. Ames also came up with several tequila-based craft cocktails. The Clean Laundry is a tequila-ized version of a White Linen, made with fresh lime juice, mint and cucumber. Mezcal, tequila’s smoky cousin, makes an appearance in a couple of drinks, including the Pina de Oro, a sweet, spicy, peaty concoction that includes pineapple juice and ancho chili liqueur. The beer list gives equal weight to Mexican cervezas and craft brews like Track 7’s Golden Guava IPA.

The city will allow Shults to hold eight big events a year outside the restaurant. He’s already planning big parties for St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. He’s also looking forward to the opening of nearby restaurants and bars, such as Sauced, a Livermore-based barbecue joint, and Punch Bowl Social, a restaurant with arcade games and a bowling alley. “The more people down here, the better,” he says. 

723 K St. (916) 400-4170 elreyonk.com

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