Over the past several years, Sacramento’s food scene has exploded. Gone are the days when our options consisted of national chains, small mom-and-pop cafes and a handful of upscale restaurants. Our city’s downtown has rapidly evolved into a vibrant culinary capital, and our once-sleepy suburbs now have their own top-notch restaurants to brag about. Here’s a look at some of the region’s best new dining destinations.
Granite Bay Thai Bistro
Granite Bay Village Shopping Center, 8657 Auburn-Folsom Road, Granite Bay; (916) 787-0636
Tucked into a quiet corner of a busy shopping center, Granite Bay Thai Bistro is spare and clean, with stunning scarlet-red walls decorated with pretty Thai wall hangings resembling oversized, jeweled brooches. The service is unfailingly friendly and hospitable, and the menu, which seems large for such a small space, offers a number of interesting selections, from deep-fried catfish, served with chili paste, basil and kaffir lime leaves, to panang curry: sliced chicken or beef in a peanut curry with coconut milk.
The hot-and-sour noodle soup is excellent, teeming with thin rice noodles, minced pork, shrimp, tiny mushrooms and onion wedges—perfect for a shivery winter afternoon. The roasted duck arrived fork-tender and fanned out over soft, sautéed Napa cabbage and rice, accompanied by a black, very intense sauce with a sharp bite of jalapeño chili and a molasseslike aftertaste, though there’s no molasses in the ingredients. The som-tum (a traditional Thai salad prepared with shredded green papaya) was juicily appealing, but lacking the hot spiciness I associate with the salad. The dish’s chunky tomato wedges and translucent strands of papaya were tossed with carrot strips and splayed green beans and sprinkled judiciously with chopped peanuts; it would make an invigorating light meal on a scorching afternoon.
Try the gentle pineapple fried rice, jumbled mildly with shredded chicken, sweet lumps of pineapple, bits of shrimp and egg, raisins and cashews, whose crunchiness was an unexpected treat.
Opened October 2006
Más Mexican Food
1563 Eureka Road, Roseville; (916) 773-3778
An inspired collaboration between restaurateurs Ernesto Jimenez (of Ernesto’s and Zócalo) and Randy Paragary, Más occupies the space previously inhabited by the Roseville branch of Cafe Bernardo. The eatery still retains the feel of Bernardo, but it now has a number of lively Latin embellishments, like colorful hand-painted pots and festive Mexican music in the background.
Many of the dishes will be familiar to Ernesto’s fans, from the creamy bean dip served up with warm corn chips to the fabulous carnitas and veggie enchiladas. However, the menu also surprises with intriguing items like the Manzanillo orange roughy fillet, pan-seared in a spicy lemon caper sauce; and the pungent, intensely flavored chile rojo beef, simmered in an ancho and pasilla chili sauce. During a recent trip to Más, the waiter brought out a complimentary “thanks for coming to visit” carnitas quesadilla that was meaty, flavorful and smothered in a tangy tomatillo sauce. We leapt upon it before stopping to consider that it might fill us up before our entrées arrived. (It did.) We managed to save enough room to relish a few bites of a robust chicken salad, piled in a huge deep-fried flour tortilla shell, and a first-rate Mexican tortilla soup, laden with shredded chicken, rice and corn and topped with diced ripe avocado and crispy strips of corn tortillas.
Kids definitely get special treatment at Más, with a nice menu of their own, lots of attention from staff members and a handful of cute plastic dinosaurs that they get to take home.
Opened August 2006
Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que
Blue Oaks Town Center, 6628 Lonetree Blvd., Rocklin; (916) 780-7427; lucillesbbq.com
I had to giggle when I spied Lucille’s from Lonetree Boulevard in Rocklin. Situated in front of a shopping center designed with the muted earth-toned Southwestern architecture seen all around the region, Lucille’s springs impudently out of the ground like the irreverent faux roadhouse that it is, its multilevel, shiny aluminum roof winking mischievously at its staid neighbors.
If you’re into barbecue, Lucille’s may well be your nirvana. They’re not fooling around when it comes to meat—you can choose from three styles of barbecued ribs (pork baby back, St. Louis pork spareribs and barbecued beef ribs), as well as smoked barbecued half chickens, beef brisket with a savory mop sauce and smoked Angus tri-tip.
All barbecue dishes come with poofy housemade biscuits and a choice of two sides. (There are 12 to choose from, including Southern sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, shoestring fries and roasted sweet corn.) Don’t miss the dense, addictive garlic mashed potatoes or the mildly sweet barbecue beans—a perfect dip for the biscuits. The cheese grits, bumpy and creamy, were surprisingly assertive, punctuated with bits of red bell pepper and green onion. The ribs glistened a deep mahogany and were so suffused with sauce that they had an almost candied character. Tender yet chewy, they were a messy and sumptuous indulgence.
The jambalaya was packed with hunks of smoked chicken, hot link sausage and black tiger shrimp. Spicy, complex and deeply satisfying, this is an excellent and hearty dish for a chilly winter day. Other house specialties include pan-blackened catfish, Southern fried chicken and New Orleans gumbo. There’s also an attractive and interesting list of salads (including South of Texas pork salad) and some fun-sounding appetizers, such as fried green tomatoes with roasted red pepper cream and buttermilk-battered onion straws.
My foray into the dessert list, however, was quite disappointing: The tepid peach cobbler was smothered with a heavy, gunky topping, and the peaches were mushy and virtually flavorless.
Opened September 2006
2502 J St., Sacramento; (916) 442-8880
J Street has a new culinary gem in Tamarind, a modest Vietnamese restaurant specializing in pho, the nation’s traditional rice-noodle soup. The kitchen also offers egg-noodle soups, and—not to disrupt the noodle theme—entrées centering around chilled vermicelli, flanked by a warm meat or tofu of your choice and served with lettuce, mint leaves, bean sprouts and fish sauce, then lightly sprinkled with chopped peanuts.
The restaurant has a stark, somber feeling, with tiled floors, dark laminated wood tables and black upholstered chairs. The lower half of the space is swathed in stainless steel, which only adds to the chilliness, making you feel as if you’re sitting in a refrigerated boxcar.
But the soups really warm the place up. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when the cheery server plunked the No. 8 pho in front of me. It was easily the biggest bowl of soup I’d ever seen. (My leftovers nourished three friends the following day.) I chose the curry chicken and coconut milk pho, piled high with gorgeous, freshly chopped herbs. Sunset orange in color, the enormous bowl of soup contained delicate noodles, crunchy shredded cabbage, chicken, ginger and lemon grass, all awash in a creamy, mildly spicy broth. The soup was a mere $5.95—perplexingly inexpensive for such a generously portioned, delicious meal.
Other pho selections include sliced beef, beef brisket, chicken and shrimp, and mixed vegetable, beautiful enough to grace the cover of a glossy food magazine. The vermicelli meals range from grilled chicken, beef or pork to the simple fried tofu and broccoli, a selection I really liked. The dish’s tofu had a rough, crusty exterior and creamy-soft interior, while the broccoli remained crunchy and vibrantly green.
Tamarind’s compact appetizer list includes shrimp spring rolls and ravishing, super-crispy fried chicken wings. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Tamarind stays in business a long, long time.
Opened October 2006
Fins Market & Grill
2610 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 488-5200; finsmarket.com
For many years, Scott’s has been the first (and last) word in seafood on Fair Oaks Boulevard. Now, a scrappy newcomer has moved in down the street, bringing with it a different vision of seafood dining. While Scott’s is all about upscale ambiance and artful dishes, Fins Market & Grill concentrates on just one thing: seafood.
The restaurant’s interior is as plain as you can get, and the fish comes similarly unadorned: a ramekin of excellent tartar sauce on the side, and that’s it. The list of fish is dizzying, and from swordfish, ahi tuna and sea bass to opah, escolar and red snapper, they all have two things in common: They’re extremely fresh, and they are grilled. No poaching, broiling or oven-roasting at Fins, although a server admitted they’ll pan-fry your fish if you ask.
However, the clams and mussels are steamed, and the oysters are fried, as are the dreamy calamari strips—the kitchen takes a calamari steak, breads it lightly and fries it, then cuts it into floppy strips. I was astounded at their tenderness and fresh, clean flavor.
The opah arrived in two moist fillets, perfectly grilled with just a hint of pink in the interior. It was delightful to enjoy the fish in such a plain, appealing guise—no butter sauce or fruit salsa to mar its simple, pure flavor. I was similarly smitten with the mahi mahi sandwich, which arrived on sourdough bread with just a smear of tartar sauce to embellish the flavor of the fish.
Dishes that fell flat, however, were the sticky, lumpy twice-baked potatoes and, sadly, the lobster, which I had excitedly spied in a tank near the door. Deciding to splurge, I ordered the crustacean, only to have it arrive chewy, dry and disappointingly flavorless. The coleslaw, limp and slightly sweet, also left me cold, but the Manhattan clam chowder, loaded with potato and tomato chunks, was a winner.
When you enter Fins, you’ll pass by a well-stocked display case, loaded with the same fish on the menu—all for sale, if you’d rather cook it yourself at home.
Opened September 2006
Center Court With C-Webb
3600 N. Freeway Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 419-4667; centercourtrestaurants.com
You have to be a sports fanatic, a social scientist or a kid to truly enjoy the frenetic, flashy circus that is Center Court With C-Webb. Moms like me are simply not in Chris Webber’s demographics. That’s OK, because there seems to be no shortage of sports fans in Sacramento who will revel in the former Sacramento Kings player’s new restaurant, erected in partnership with Dudum Sports & Entertainment.
The main dining area is fashioned after a basketball court, with hardwood floors and, hanging from the ceiling, an enormous JumboTron. If you don’t have a seat that allows you to see the screen, however, don’t fret: The dining room walls are covered with TVs, all showing different NBA games. Once you’ve settled in, you soon realize that everyone’s eyes are glued to a set—except, of course, the moms like me, the social scientists who find the whole tableau fascinating as hell and the kids, who are busily swapping sports cards (compliments of the restaurant, and an enormous hit at our table). Jerseys and posters of leaping basketball greats adorn the walls, the menus are made of orange basketball rubber, and waiters wear baseball shirts emblazoned with Webber’s jersey number (4).
The menu is large and the portions even larger—bring your appetite. There’s a lot of hearty American fare, from beer-battered onion rings and grilled flatiron steak to meatloaf and fried chicken, but the menu is punctuated with Asian-style dishes such as Vietnamese shrimp rolls and hoisin-glazed chicken lettuce wraps. You also can order pizza, burgers (including the $29.50 Fab 5 burger, with an Angus beef patty that weighs in at a jaw-dropping 44 ounces) and huge stuffed potatoes.
I enjoyed the beautifully roasted chicken, accompanied by a colorful pile of julienned red bell peppers and green beans and a mound of very heavy, unappealing mashed potatoes. The barbecue baby back ribs were extremely tender, brushed with a mild, almost indiscernible sauce, and the kids’ fried chicken dinner was so enormous that we all burst out laughing when it arrived. Don’t miss the restaurant’s excellent baked beans: Smoky, sweet and scrumptious, they’re the best thing we tried at Center Court.
Opened November 2006
900 15th St., Sacramento; (916) 446-9628
If ever a restaurant embodied the phrase hakuna matata, it’s Zen Sushi. The well-known slogan from The Lion King (it means “no worries”) appears to have been adopted by its young staff members, who sail serenely through the dining room on crowded days as if they’ve just had a massage and a big glass of wine. I don’t recall ever seeing a look of anxiety or panic cross the face of a server or sushi chef.
Recently transplanted to its new space at 15th and I streets, the restaurant formerly known as Taka’s on S Street has managed to bring with it its comfortable, unassuming atmosphere. If you’re used to the frenzied, partylike pace of Mikuni, you’ll be disappointed. There are no theatrics here, just a quiet focus on good food and relaxation.
Although sushi takes center stage, don’t disregard the other sections of the menu, which include such treasures as Secret Shrimp and the titillatingly named Better Than Sex: thick slices of tuna drizzled with chili oil, sprinkled with green onions and snuggled up to slices of jalapeño, with a wallop of an afterburn.
If you’re intrepid, you’ll relish the tonkotsu ramen soup—pork broth with sliced pork, takenoko (bamboo shoots), hard-boiled egg, fish cake and broccoli—and grilled hamachi kama: yellowtail tuna cheek with ponzu (a lemony dipping sauce) and grated daikon radish. I was captivated by the simple house salad, bathed in a sweet dressing kissed with the toasty earthiness of sesame. Our luscious Zig Zag hand roll contained panko-encrusted soft-shell crab, avocado, scallion and masago (fish roe); it was notable for the extraordinary crunchiness of the crab. I also adored the crackly Secret Shrimp, dotted with masago and reclining appealingly in a pool of sweet, thick soy sauce.
Opened September 2006