Though it’s been devastating to the restaurant industry, the pandemic has also delivered some delightful surprises. All during this difficult year, new businesses have popped up (and old ones have revamped themselves), proof of the ability of entrepreneurs to invent new and imaginative ways to feed us.
Take Joon Market in East Sacramento. A pair of 31-year-olds—Saba Rahimian and Seth Helmly—opened the small, mostly takeout eatery late last year, while the pandemic was still in full swing. Living in Austin, Texas, the couple had come to Sacramento last March for a family wedding and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stay when COVID-19 unexpectedly shut everything down.
Rahimian (a Sacramento native) and Helmly (a Texan) met while working at Austin’s highly regarded farm-to-table restaurant, Emmer & Rye. During quarantine in California, they rented an Airbnb in Los Angeles and popped into Gjusta, a bakery/cafe with a market that sells provisions—things, like bread and charcuterie, that people can bring home and use to make a meal. They’d often talked about opening their own restaurant someday; the experience at Gjusta crystallized their vision. “When COVID happened, we got clarity,” Rahimian explains. “We can’t put things on a plate, so let’s create specialty items that can be taken away.”
Joon Market has a concise daytime menu of sandwiches, salads, dips and sides. Rahimian and Helmly place a strong emphasis on using grains, produce and meats from small, local farms, and their food is thoughtful and interesting. The crispy chicken sandwich is a schnitzel-style chicken breast served on a hoagie roll with house-made chow-chow pickles, green garlic mayo and locally grown lettuce. Persian chicken salad is made with smoked chicken and pickled radishes. The yogurt in the yogurt dip is cold-smoked, then blended with smoked carrots and harissa.
Helmly got heavily into breadmaking at Emmer & Rye, and he makes all the breads at Joon Market. Working with a local stone flour mill, he geeks out on heirloom wheat varieties, using Øland flour (made famous by Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant) for his baguettes, and whole-grain flour made from Maparcha poulard wheat (softer than durum wheat) for his focaccia. To produce steam when baking baguettes, he soaks river rocks in water, a young chef’s MacGyver move when there’s no money in the budget for a professional steam-injection deck oven.
Helmly also butchers all the meats, then cooks them on a rotisserie smoker behind the market. On Fridays and Saturdays, a smoked protein—it could be whole ducks one week, pork ribs the next—is available for dinner by preorder. Rahimian, who used to operate a Sacramento food truck called Granola Girl, makes the shop’s cookies, scones and granola. Her sweets lean toward the savory: Cardamom lends an unexpected note to her brown-butter oatmeal cookie, the snickerdoodle is made with lemon and fennel, and a peanut butter and jelly cookie is topped with a slick of mouth-puckeringly tart fruit compote. “I like a balance between salty, spicy and sweet,” she says.
As the pandemic shows signs of easing up, Rahimian and Helmly have taken baby steps toward on-site dining by opening up the restaurant’s patio and adding a few picnic tables to the front lawn. Eventually, they plan to expand the menu with more in-house offerings, along with takeaway provisions like house-made preserves, cured meats, loaves of bread and tortillas.
Although the couple got engaged last August, getting a restaurant up and running hasn’t left them much time to plan a wedding, which is set to take place in 2022. In the meantime, they’re working hard to establish Joon Market in perhaps the most challenging business climate imaginable. But if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s this: People have to eat, and there are plenty of creative people willing to feed them.
5401 H St.