Mark Helms of Juno's: Big Talent, Tiny Kitchen


Mark Helms says he “totally misses” Ravenous Cafe, the Pocket-area restaurant he brought to great acclaim before selling the place last year. But you know the drill: It’s all about location. Which is why Helms, an East Sac guy for more than 20 years, jumped at the chance to hang his shingle at 36th and J. Juno’s Kitchen and Delicatessen is a five-minute walk from the home Helms shares with his co-owner wife, Susan Vasques, and their dog, a bull terrier/pit bull mix whose name just happens to be Juno. For obvious reasons, being in the ’hood is a huge plus. “If I’m at home and I get some crazy idea, I can just walk over” says Helms, 44 and a longtime Sacramento-area chef.

Here are a few fun facts about Helms and his new venture:

JUNO’S IS TINY. Charming, too, in a European, neighborhoody kind of way. But tiny. There are four small tables. That’s it. If you want to claim a spot, go early. Otherwise, turn to takeout. That’s the mainstay of the business, anyway.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE BREAD. No, not cash. Bread—as in sourdough. Helms makes his own at Juno’s, using it to concoct the creative sandwiches that drive the menu. “I’m really into making bread,” he says. His is pure—the Real Thing. “There is a starter, but no commercial yeast. Water, flour and salt—that’s it.” Occasionally during our interview, he jumps up to check on the plump, pillowy loaves rising in the oven.

QUALITY RULES. If there’s one thing that drives Helms, it’s quality. Whatever you eat here, you can count on top-notch products, free of garbage. Much of it is local, but the real emphasis is on quality. His grass-fed Wagyu beef, for example, comes from New Zealand. “I only like the good stuff,” says Helms. “The best thing you can get, you should grab it.”

THE PRICE IS RIGHT. This is one of the key differences between Juno’s and Ravenous. “It’s a lot less expensive than Ravenous was,” says Helms. “Our whole point here is that you can have something very good, something high end, with standards, that’s affordable.” Most sandwiches hover around the $8.50 mark, and they all come with a side of mixed greens or roasted potatoes. There also are lovely salads and a few pasta dishes. I had my eye on the pappardelle with rock shrimp, garlic, anchovy, caramelized onions and crushed red chilies.

HELMS IS HUMBLE. When asked about his illustrious history as a local chef, Helms shies away. “I’ve worked in a few really good places, but it has nothing to do with anything,” he says. “I hate to name-drop.”

HE STARTED YOUNG. Helms’ culinary career began at 15, when he worked as a dishwasher at a local pasta place, Pasta Fresca. At 17, he got his big break. “One night the chef walked out on New Year’s Eve, and I took over,” he recalls.

HE’S A BASEBALL FAN. Or at least he looks the part: He was wearing a Giants cap the day of this interview.