Many locals never set foot in Old Sac or Old Town Folsom—too touristy. But while it can be challenging to find a rewarding meal in a tourist trap, there’s often a hidden restaurant gem or two to be found among the T-shirt and antiques shops.
Take, for instance, Hampton’s on Sutter in the heart of Folsom’s historic district. Located in a house built in 1894, the restaurant/bar has a convivial, everybody-knows-your-name atmosphere that I’m certain locals would find attractive.
When you enter, you find yourself smack-dab in the middle of a large bar that dominates the ground floor. Although tables are scattered throughout the cramped space, this part of the restaurant is essentially a casual lounge area. One downside to having a meal downstairs: Every time the front door opens on a cold day, a gush of frigid air rolls in.
If your intent is dining, not simply lounging, it’s probably best to request a table in the loftlike upstairs. This no-frills section of Hampton’s feels a bit like a slapdash camp cafeteria. Tables are crammed close together, there are no decorative touches, and other diners feel a bit too close for comfort (or privacy). Bustling and a bit impersonal, it is—on the bright side—a great place to eat with your kids: Even if the little ones are a tad disruptive and loud, no one is likely to notice.
Seating arrangements aside, I have one simple piece of advice: Go to Hampton’s for the burgers. On my several visits to this friendly establishment, it became evident that this is where the kitchen’s talent really shines. The selection is creative and enticing. Burgers include the Folsom Dam, enlivened with Thousand Island dressing and loaded with pastrami, Swiss cheese and a fried egg, and the sophisticated Beef Wellington, an untraditional composition requiring a fork and knife. The burger patty comes on a puddle of Cognac-black-peppercorn sauce, with bacon pâté, mushroom duxelles and a fanciful puff pastry lid.
I savored the hefty Taco Guac burger, served on a jalapeño aïoli-slathered bun and topped with melted cheddar and Jack cheeses. A generous addition of chunky housemade guacamole made it a fun, messy nosh on a chilly Folsom evening. Another feisty selection: the equally messy Rodeo burger, a combination of Angus beef patty, bacon strips, oodles of sharply sweet barbecue sauce, and melted cheddar and pepper Jack cheeses. Garnished with fat, greasy, beer-battered onion rings, this is not a burger for the faint of heart. But washed down with a pint of sturdy draft ale, it’s pure, unadulterated pleasure.
Other noteworthy dishes included a richly satisfying smoked salmon fettuccini, punctuated with soft bites of roasted bell pepper in a don’t-tell-me-how-many-calories-are-in-this cream sauce, and a sturdy garlic steak sandwich, featuring a beautifully cooked marinated New York strip loin and sun-dried tomato aïoli. The meaty beef chili was another hit on a shivery afternoon, and the chicken wings—about as beer-friendly as you can get—were a delightfully naughty, spicy indulgence.
A few dishes I tried fell completely flat. Both the cod (in the fish and chips) and shrimp (in the shrimp and fries) were heavily beer-battered, with tepid, grease-drenched exteriors that were decidedly unappealing. A wedge salad offered an undressed, weary-looking chunk of iceberg lettuce with hard grape tomatoes, overly pungent bits of red onion, a smidgen of bacon and dry blue cheese crumbles. And the bacon-jalapeño fried mac and cheese balls had a gooey, oddly flavored interior that left them virtually untouched by everyone at the table.
A young, enthusiastic staff adds sparkle to the restaurant, and its convenient location and accessible parking should please tourists and locals alike. The siren song of specialty clothing boutiques, art galleries and designer jewelry stores doesn’t necessarily draw me to historic Sutter Street, but a juicy Rodeo burger (and fresh, frosty pint of draft beer) certainly does. The next time I find myself in Old Town Folsom, I’ll be back to give this lively restaurant another go.