It was the summer of 2006, the year that Mulvaney’s B&L opened in a historic firehouse on 19th Street in midtown Sacramento. A local farmer was growing amazing heirloom tomatoes in a range of colors, shapes and varieties, and Patrick Mulvaney, the restaurant’s chef and owner, wanted to celebrate those spectacular tomatoes. He knew just the dish for the job.
First: tomatoes, some cut into wedges, others into slices, arranged in a circle around the plate’s perimeter. A kiss of extra-virgin olive oil. An artful swirl of aged balsamic vinegar. A few torn basil leaves. A sprinkle of sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Finally, the pièce de résistance: a knob of freshly made mozzarella, its curds just pulled from the refrigerator and dropped into warm water, then hand-pulled, twisted, knotted and deposited, still warm from its watery bath, into the center of the plate. It was simplicity itself. It blew people’s minds.
That fateful summer, plate after plate of heirloom tomatoes with freshly made mozzarella came out of B&L’s open kitchen. Nearly two decades later, Mulvaney still remembers the magic that dish created at his fledgling restaurant. Diners oohed and ahhed as they watched the cheese being made to order. Sometimes, Mulvaney invited curious customers back into the kitchen to pull their own mozzarella.
Almost two decades later, the dish—now called Uncle Ray’s Heirloom Tomatoes With Hand Pulled Mozzarella, after West Sac tomato farmer Ray Yeung—still draws crowds to the B&L. People start calling the restaurant in March to ask if it has appeared on the menu yet. Alas, they learn they will have to wait at least until the middle of July for heirloom tomato season to start in the Sacramento region.
That dish just may be the thing that started it all, cementing Sacramento’s intense love affair with the tomato. Rarely has a foodstuff become so intimately identified with a place. Georgia may have its peaches, Jersey its corn, and New York City is known as the Big Apple. But here in Sacramento, we don’t ever let anyone forget that we have the country’s—maybe even the world’s—very best tomatoes.
In the pantheon of produce that grows well here, nothing is as exalted as the tomato. With a long growing season that stretches toward Halloween and sometimes even edges into Thanksgiving territory, the tomato is emblematic of our region. We even have not one but two tomato nicknames: the Big Tomato and Sacratomato.
The tomato is the very essence of summertime in Sacramento. Which is why we love it, why we wait for it with breathless anticipation and why we just can’t stop eating it.
Sacramento’s relationship with tomatoes goes back a long way—to the 1920s, when the region was home to two of the largest canneries in the world: Calpak Plant #11 and Libby, McNeill & Libby. They and other, smaller canneries packed many farm products, but tomatoes were the best known. Those tomatoes made their way into tomato sauce, tomato soup, ketchup and other processed tomato products. To this day, processing tomatoes remain an important crop in the Sacramento Valley. As summer fades away, you’ll see those tomatoes piled into big trucks that trundle along I-5, on their way to feed America.
THE WATERBOY may be one of the region’s leading special-occasion restaurants, but that doesn’t mean its food is stuffy or highfalutin’. Owner Rick Mahan makes a mean gazpacho, a cold Spanish soup that is generally sipped from a frosted glass or tumbler like a beverage. Mahan purees a combination of heirlooms—his favorites include Brandywines and Cherokee Purples—with cucumbers, a touch of onion and some day-old bread for texture and body. Then he adds a dash of vinegar and some smoked paprika for heat. The chilled soup is served not in a glass but a bowl, where it is garnished with a big drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs and more of those delicious heirlooms. Mahan has also been known to use the soup as a cold sauce with fish or scallops. “It’s pretty simple, but it’s lovely,” he says, “and there’s nothing quite as refreshing on a hot July day.” 2000 Capitol Ave.; (916) 498-9891; waterboyrestaurant.com
In Italian, “pane” means “bread,” but don’t get it twisted: Tomatoes are just as important as the bread in the classic Tuscan bread salad served at East Sac’s ONESPEED. House made rosemary focaccia is cut into cubes, drizzled with olive oil and toasted until the squares are golden brown and crisp on the outside, delightfully chewy on the inside. Those cubes go into a big bowl along with heirloom tomato wedges, thinly sliced cucumber, pickled red onion and basil. The whole shebang gets dressed with a zingy red wine vinaigrette that soaks into the bread’s crevices and turns the tomatoes soft and pulpy. According to owner Rick Mahan, customers start clamoring for the salad in February. As if! They have to wait until tomatoes come into season sometime in July. On the plus side, the salad usually stays on the menu at least through September. 4818 Folsom Blvd.; (916) 706-1748; onespeedpizza.com
AND…Every summer, OneSpeed’s sausage pizza gets a seasonal update: Instead of tomato sauce, the kitchen tops the pie with heirloom tomato slices.
Brad Cecchi, the chef and co-owner of CANON in East Sacramento, doesn’t overthink the tomato. Every summer, he comes up with a simple preparation that pays homage to tomatoes without gussying them too much. This summer, he plans to put on the menu a dish he calls, simply, “Heirloom Tomatoes.” (Air quotes included!) First he’ll make a tomato shrub—a vinegar-based liquid that’s typically served as a beverage. Then he’ll take some heirloom tomatoes, delicately remove their skins using a blowtorch, chop them and drizzle with the shrub and a little olive oil. “Dressing tomatoes with tomatoes,” he calls it. For garnish, he’ll roast the kitchen’s vegetable trimmings over high heat, turning them into an ash that he’ll sprinkle over the tomato-squared mixture. “With the cost of food going up, it’s good not to be so wasteful,” he explains. “It’s total utilization.” 1719 34th St.; (916)469-2433; canoneastsac.com
Fried Green Tomatoes
And now, for something completely different: a tomato dish that doesn’t rely on the juiciness of a tomato picked at the exact moment of perfect ripeness. That’s right, we’re talking about fried green tomatoes. Green tomatoes are a contradiction; who could possibly want to eat an unripe tomato? Taste the ones served at East Sac’s POPPY BY MAMA KIM and you’ll be a convert. For this traditional Southern dish, chef/owner Kim Scott uses big tomatoes—usually Early Girls or Beefsteaks—that are picked while still green. She slices them, dusts them in flour, dips them in seasoned buttermilk, then coats them in panko breadcrumbs seasoned with a secret blend of herbs and spices. Then they’re fried till gold and crispy and served with a citrusy roasted pasilla remoulade sauce that’s piquant without being too spicy. At Poppy, fried green tomatoes are offered as a zesty appetizer at dinner and also accompany crab eggs Benedict at weekend brunch. 533 53rd St.; (916) 515-9971; poppysutterpark.com
King of the Tomato
If you’ve ever dined at a top restaurant in Sacramento, chances are good you’ve eaten one of Ray Yeung’s tomatoes.
Yeung owns Yeung Farms, which produces some of the most prized heirloom tomatoes in the Sacramento region. You could call him a tomato nepo baby: He was born into the business. His father, Joe Yeung, emigrated from China in the 1950s and worked as a farm laborer in the Delta. A farmer took Joe under his wing and eventually co-signed a loan allowing Joe to start growing processing tomatoes for canneries.
In the ’80s, young Ray got a degree in plant pathology pest management from UC Davis and went to work for his dad. In the late ’90s, he started a side project, growing “eating tomato” transplants for other farmers. When he had a few extra transplants, he planted them himself, even though, he says, “I had no clue what I was doing.” Yeung took some of his Marvel Stripe tomatoes to Jim Mills, then the sales manager at Produce Express, which wholesales foodstuffs to restaurants. Mills took one bite and told Yeung that he would find buyers for every single tomato Yeung could grow. Yeung planted 20 acres.
And thus a beautiful partnership was born. Mills has since retired, but Produce Express still supplies Yeung’s tomatoes to restaurants in Sacramento, Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area. (Ikeda’s in Auburn and Davis are the only markets that sell them.) In the spring, Yeung decides what varieties will end up on restaurant plates later that summer. He grows more than 20 varieties on about 45 acres of farmland near Sacramento Airport. Every year, he experiments with a new variety. One year, he grew blue tomatoes, which were a bust. This year, he’s introducing a variety called Black Beauty, which has startling blue-black skin and meaty red flesh. “Growing tomatoes is like a fashion show,” he says. “You don’t know what the fashion’s going to be this year. You always want to come up with something new.”
Yeung doesn’t believe in coddling his tomatoes. Treat ’em rough and they taste better, he says, so he cuts their water off early. He predicts this year’s heavy rains and long, cold spring could mean good news for tomato lovers. Planting was delayed by two weeks because of the weather, “but Mother Nature catches up,” he says.
Yeung takes pleasure in knowing that a tomato he picks one evening will end up on someone’s plate the next. “I like seeing people happy,” he says.
Halibut With Fresh Tomato Relish
This recipe from Oliver Ridgeway, the chef/owner of downtown’s CAMDEN SPIT & LARDER, highlights Sacramento’s heirloom tomatoes in all their glory.
Halibut 2 tablespoons olive oil 4 halibut fillets (6 ounces each) Salt and freshly ground black pepper Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon ½ bunch thyme sprigs
Fresh Tomato Relish 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped 2 shallots, finely diced 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted in a dry skillet 4 celery ribs, sliced ¼-inch thick 1 tablespoon drained, chopped capers ¼ cup dry white wine 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon 3 pounds mixed local heirloom tomatoes, cut in wedges 1 cup tightly packed, hand-torn fresh basil leaves
To make the fish, preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large ovenproof nonstick skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Season fish liberally with salt and pepper and sprinkle with lemon zest and juice. Once oil begins to shimmer, gently place fillets in the pan and let them cook, without moving them, until fillets are golden brown on one side, 45 seconds to 1 minute. Give a light push to loosen fillets from pan. Add thyme sprigs to pan. Transfer pan to oven and bake until fish flakes easily with a fork, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove fish from oven and transfer to paper towels.
To make the relish, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic, shallots and fennel seeds and cook, stirring frequently, until shallots are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add celery and capers and cook until celery has softened, about 2 minutes. Add wine to pan and cook until reduced by half, about 1 minute. Add vinegar, lemon zest and juice, tomatoes and basil and cook for 1 to 2 minutes to incorporate the flavors and heat the tomatoes through.
Serve halibut with tomato relish. Serves 4.
Peach Tomato Burrata Salad
Tomatoes at a Japanese restaurant? Yes, it’s a bit unorthodox, but this summery salad—a Japanese take on the classic tomato burrata salad—is one of the most popular dishes at BINCHOYAKI in the city’s Southside Park neighborhood. “We’re in Sacramento, where we live and breathe farm to fork, so a seasonal dish like this is normal for us,” says Craig Takehara, who owns Binchoyaki with his wife, Tokiko Sawada. To make this beautiful composed salad, Takehara cuts colorful heirloom tomatoes into wedges and fans them out on the plate, along with sliced peaches from Twin Peaks Orchards in Newcastle. (“The best peaches in the world,” says Takehara.) The tarter the tomato, the better the contrast with the sweet peach. A ball of creamy burrata cheese goes into the plate’s center. To bring it all together, the dish is drizzled with a reduction of balsamic vinegar that gets a hint of salt from the addition of soy sauce. A final sprinkling of fleur de sel and the dish is off to the table. 2226 10th St.; (916) 469-9448; binchoyaki.com
AND…Binchoyaki’s Craig Takehara also uses heirloom tomatoes to make smoked tomato vinaigrette to accompany oysters, instead of traditional mignonette sauce. He keeps the smoky condiment on hand until mandarins come into season in November, when he switches to a citrus mignonette.
Pasta With Trapanese Pesto
Jonathan Kerksieck is a tomato purist: As the chef and co-owner of CACIO Italian restaurant in the Pocket, he’ll serve them only when they’re in season and at their peak of ripeness. Last summer, he hit culinary gold with a little-known sauce known as Trapanese pesto. “Everybody thinks of pesto being basil, basil, basil,” he says. Trapanese pesto—from the Sicilian city of Trapano—uses cherry tomatoes instead of basil, and almonds instead of pine nuts. Kerksieck blends those two ingredients along with olive oil, garlic and basil to a consistency similar to gazpacho. At Cacio, he serves the sauce on busiate pasta, a twisted noodle that’s also from Trapano. The dish started out as a special, but customers were so taken with it that it ended up on the regular menu for the entire summer. “People are blown away by it,” says Kerksieck. “It’s super fresh and refreshing, and you get a great little crunch. It’s completely different and unexpected.” 7600 Greenhaven Drive; (916) 399-9309; caciosacramento.com
Sacramento Summer in a Jar
Tomatoes don’t always have to be the star of a dish; sometimes they play a supporting role. Take GINGER ELIZABETH’s tomato jam. Made from locally sourced San Marzano-style tomatoes, the jam is cooked in large batches in a copper kettle, then finished with Banyul’s French vinegar. Owner Ginger Hahn calls it “the best ketchup ever” and says it goes great on grilled cheese sandwiches as well as the usual suspects: burgers and hot dogs. Better get it fast; the seasonal jam generally sells out by the end of December. $9.75. Available at Ginger Elizabeth Patisserie. 2413 J St.; (916) 706-1738; gingerelizabeth.com
Hand-Cut Tagliarini With Heirloom Tomatoes and Basil
Molly Hawks and Mike Fagnoni, the married-couple owners of HAWKS in Granite Bay, always await tomato season with eager anticipation. “It feels like it never comes soon enough,” says Molly. “Everybody says July 4, but it’s really the end of July,” adds Mike. One of their favorite tomato preparations is this dish, which combines ribbons of egg yolk pasta with a sprightly, lightly cooked fresh tomato sauce. Using heirlooms sourced from Chili Hill Farms in Newcastle, they peel and dice the tomatoes and cook them in EVOO with sliced garlic, chili flakes and a bouquet of basil and thyme. The sauce stays on the heat for only a couple of minutes, just until the tomatoes release some of their liquid. Then they toss the pasta with the sauce, allowing the noodles to soak up some of that tomato water, and serve it up, garnished with baby opal and green basil leaves and a healthy dose of Parmesan. 5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay; (916) 791-6200; hawksrestaurant.com
AND…Molly Hawks’ favorite heirloom varieties for pasta sauce: Bull’s Heart and Tie-Dye. They’re dense, meaty and don’t have big pockets of water and seeds.
The BLT just may be the perfect summer sandwich, an ineluctable combination of salty bacon, crisp iceberg lettuce, meaty tomato slices and soft white bread. Nobody does it better than downtown’s MAGPIE CAFE. Owners Ed Roehr and Janel Inouye first started serving their iconic BLT more than two decades ago as owners of a catering company. When they started Magpie Cafe 18 years ago, they put the BLT on their opening menu. Their version features a healthy amount of thick-sliced applewood smoked bacon, watercress in lieu of iceberg (it stays crisp longer) and a generous schmear of mayo flavored with capers and fresh herbs, all contained within a fresh ciabbata roll from the Bay Area’s Acme Bread. But let’s be honest: The star of this sammie is really the tomato. Roehr and Inouye source organic heirlooms from local farms, with an emphasis on Amish cultivars like Brandywine. Some are big, some small, some oddly misshapen, but never you mind: They don’t have to be pretty; they just have to taste great. For Roehr, the perfect tomato has the rounded flavor of big, bright fruit, with a bit of natural salinity and minerality. And it can’t be too juicy, or it will run all over the place, resulting in a soggy sandwich. Magpie’s BLT has stood the test of time. “It’s the one sandwich that fits us forever,” Roehr says. 1601 16th St.; (916) 452-7594; magpiecafe.com
AND…When tomatoes aren’t in season, Magpie Cafe serves its “Winter BLT,” made with sundried tomatoes instead of fresh.