Savor Every Bite
Offering goodbyes and appreciations to city eateries
By Greg Sabin
I’m writing this piece during the heartrending events of late May/early June that have seen a tragic death in Minnesota ignite a storm of outrage that led to peaceful protests nationwide, that led to violent actions blocks from where I write these words. The circling helicopters I can hear are a constant reminder of the fractures of our society, our unmet duties to our neighbors and the love we fail to hold in our hearts for our brothers and sisters.
All that is to say, if this piece seems more fatalistic than normal, you’ll know why. And fatalistic it will be, for this piece is about those restaurants, those community gathering places we have lost. But, not to be too dour, this is also a reminder to treasure those eateries, those centers of community that are still here and make Sacramento one of the most vibrant eating cities in the country.
In May, Biba’s owners announced the restaurant was closing permanently. Within the same 12 months, founder and icon Biba Caggiano passed away, then the restaurant temporarily shuttered due to a global pandemic. It was simply the end of an era.
Biba’s had no peer in the region. Both sophisticated and approachable, serving Italian white-tablecloth fare in a building that brought to mind an English guild hall, featuring old school piano music and iconic California wines, the place did not compare to anything else.
But Biba’s wasn’t the only iconic restaurant to close recently. Several closures—Jim-Denny’s Diner, Café Rolle, Café Marika, The Press Bistro, Cielito Lindo—left us with a poorer dining scene and are difficult, nay impossible, to replace.
So what can we do to celebrate the heritage, diversity and deliciousness of Sacramento’s restaurant scene? Eat local. Eat 100 percent local, in fact. Treasure those institutions that make our city the unique dining destination it is.
Do you miss the sophistication, elegance and novelty at Biba Caggiano’s namesake restaurant? Then take the time to sup deep at Rick Mahan’s The Waterboy. Nearly 25 years after a characteristically quiet opening on a characteristically quiet corner, The Waterboy continues to deliver excellent food that stands up to the test of time. It’s simplicity on the outside, well-oiled machinery on the inside.
Or are you looking for Biba’s fine dining take on Italian cuisine? Try recent local standout Allora. Unlike the host of farm-to-table, let-the-ingredients-shine, simple-preparation, rustic-kitchen restaurants that have opened in the last decade, Allora has a definite traditional fine-dining bent. Sure, the tablecloths aren’t white (actually, there are no tablecloths), but the Italian-inspired dishes coming from Chef Deneb Williams’ kitchen are artistic and architectural in their beauty, sophisticated in their flavors and jewel-like in their proportions.
Spend a lifetime in a city and you’ll see plenty of businesses come and go. It’s always joyous, therefore, to celebrate generation-spanning institutions. And there is no more prominent culinary institution in Sacramento than Frank Fat’s. Claiming the title of “Sacramento’s oldest eating establishment,” Frank Fat’s has been serving Sacramentans since 1939. Now, 80 years later, the Fat’s enterprise shows no signs of stopping.
Coming in well behind Fat’s, but just as historically iconic in my heart, is Sam’s Hof Brau. No matter what you get, it will be a rib-sticking experience. There is no “lite fare” on the menu. There is no vegan menu. There is, however, a giant barrel of homemade pickles that my mother swears are the best in the world.
What else makes our food scene unique? According to some demographers, Sacramento is the most diverse city in the U.S. and our restaurant scene shows it. Take Sarom’s Southern Kitchen, a greasy-spoon Southern diner in the spirit of Jim-Denny’s. Owner and chef Sarom Doeuk is Cambodian, and only recently started cooking Creole and Cajun fare, which I believe makes Sarom’s Southern Kitchen a particularly excellent expression of California’s inclusive food and restaurant scene.
I’d be remiss without mentioning that most iconic American fare, barbecue. A recent find, Louisiana Heaven, is a small storefront on Valley Hi Drive that serves some of the best ribs I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. Add to that an amazing menu of Southern treats, such as turkey wings with gravy, and you’ll be a quick fan.
One more barbecue recommendation is Urban Roots Brewery and Smokehouse. Rob Archie’s fine smoked meats pair rather insanely with his partner Peter Hoey’s ridiculously fine beers.
Fine, one more. For nearly 20 years, this town has had a quiet point of excellence in MacQue’s BBQ. The house-made hotlinks are exceptional, the pulled pork phenomenal, the location invisible. A small storefront on Elder Creek Road hides some of this town’s best barbecue. Seek it out and keep it going as a small business that makes our small city what it is.
Be well. Stay safe. Love one another.
Greg Sabin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.