I’ve never been much of a card player, so I don’t find card rooms particularly compelling. But good food does compel me. That’s why I wanted to check out The Lodge, an ambitious restaurant connected to Cordova Casino in Rancho Cordova. Tucked away off Zinfandel Drive, The Lodge (which recently underwent a name change and installed a new chef) is convenient for local business folks and hotel guests—the only ones who are likely, given its out-of-the-way location, to learn of its existence.
This is a shame, because the newly rebranded restaurant serves both a lovely ambiance and an appealing menu of classic American dishes by chef Josh McLaughlin, a Sacramento native who put in time at The Firehouse and Arden Hills resort before hanging his toque in the kitchen at The Lodge.
The focal point of the restaurant is the handsome bar, slightly raised above the more remote dining space. Featuring dim lighting and an enormous stone fireplace that crackles enticingly during the wintery months, it’s easily the better choice for a dining locale than the tables below, which feel disconnected from the action and look out onto The Lodge’s parking lot.
Open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Early birds have a nice choice of classic breakfast dishes, including eggs Benedict and a buildyour- own omelet. The compact lunch/dinner menu ranges from sandwiches and beer-friendly nibbles to salads and a selection of comfortably American entrées, with a hearty spaghetti Bolognese—McLaughlin’s mother’s recipe—thrown in for good measure.
Sandwiches are a sure thing here, especially when paired with the kitchen’s outstanding onion rings. The first-rate corned beef Reuben comes on marble rye with melted Swiss cheese and just the right amounts of sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. If you like barbecue, try the intensely flavored Carolina barbecue pulled pork sandwich. The heavily sauced, fork-tender meat offers an initial blast of eye-popping sweetness that’s quickly tempered by a vinegary palate smack. Bacon-speckled macaroni and cheese is a bold version of this iconic comfort food, and I adored the Buttermilk Totties: buttermilk- battered slices of russet potato, fried to an irresistible crustiness and served with ranch dip.
For something a bit fancier, ask your waiter if the roasted chicken is available. The dish is made in limited quantities, and it was sold out three of the four times I visited the restaurant. I felt like I hit the jackpot on my fourth try when I finally had an opportunity to order it. It was worth the buildup: The lemon-scented meat, incredibly moist and succulent, was bathed in a subtle whole-grain mustard jus, and the mashed potatoes were refreshingly simple and straightforward. This may be McLaughlin’s best dish and a testament to his skills in the kitchen. Other excellent entrées include beer-battered fish ’n’ chips and braised beef short ribs served with herbed polenta and earthy sautéed rainbow chard.
I didn’t feel as lucky when I tried the cider-brined double-cut pork chop. The meat was virtually tasteless, and the cannellini bean ragout that accompanied it was dry and plain.
Desserts at The Lodge are a work in progress. The two I tasted, though made in-house, were unimpressive: A warm double-chocolate brownie, crowned with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream and zigzagged with chocolate sauce, could have appeared at any one of a handful of the region’s chain restaurants, and the lackluster cinnamon apple crumble featured unpeeled apple slices, which I found odd and unappealing.
Still, McLaughlin and his team are doing some fine work in the kitchen at The Lodge. It’s worth your while to seek out this restaurant off the beaten path in Rancho Cordova—and no card-playing skills are required.
THE LODGE: 2801 Prospect Park Drive, Rancho Cordova
BEST DISHES: Buttermilk Totties, roasted chicken, beer-battered fish ’n’ chips, braised beef short ribs, The Lodge Burger
DRINKS: Large list of seasonally rotating craft beers, compact wine list and full bar
ATMOSPHERE: Quiet, convivial and cozy
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
KID-FRIENDLINESS: Kids are welcome
HOURS: 7 a.m.–2 a.m. daily
CONTACT: (916) 293-7480; lodgecordova.com