Still Going Strong
After 80 years, the original Fat’s continues to deliver
By Greg Sabin
Spend a lifetime in a city and you’ll see plenty of businesses come and go. Small boutiques, neighborhood grocers and local hardware stores all serve the community during their time, but rarely do they last more than a generation.
It’s always a joyous event, 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.
They do let you come in through the small, unassuming door on L Street though. And once inside, you’re transported from the hectic, partially demolished, partially rebuilt Downtown streetscape to a slick, inviting interior. Invoking 1930s Shanghai, the predominantly black and red trappings of Frank Fat’s could easily lean toward garishness, but in fact are handled with precision and deftness.
Precision and deftness are exactly what you find on the menu as well. On a recent Saturday night, my parents and in-laws joined my wife and me for a lovely and memorable evening. What we found was a solid, delicious, expert handling of Mandarin cuisine that lived up the reputation of an 80-year-old flagship restaurant.
The appetizer combination platter that included pot stickers, spring rolls and above-average calamari is a must for any large group. The one appetizer that really stood out was the Yu Kwok, a deep-fried pork- and beef-filled dumpling that had everyone asking for more.
A legendary offering, Frank’s New York Steak, did not disappoint. As one of the more popular dishes on the menu, it stood up to expectations, perhaps even exceeding them. The steak, expertly done to medium-rare, came sliced and smothered with sautéed onions and oyster sauce. This dish, for me, represents the Frank Fat’s experience, and even the Frank Fat’s story. Here on one plate you see the influences of the immigrant experience, the American experience, the Western experience.
In almost every corner of the local metro area, you’ll find an outpost of the Fat’s restaurant group. Whether it’s Fat’s Asian Bistro in Roseville and Folsom, or Fat City Bar & Cafe in Old Sacramento, you’re never too far from a Fat’s establishment.
Similarly, you need not travel very far to find someone with a Frank Fat’s story. Several months ago, I wrote a piece on Luigi’s Pizza Parlor on Stockton Boulevard. The number of stories that came from longtime locals was staggering. Fat’s holds that same type of prominence in people’s memories.
Some remember Fat’s as a place where they closed deals. Some remember it as a place where politicians hammered out compromises outside of their official chambers. Younger Sacramentans remember it as a place where they dined before a particularly memorable event or concert at the nearby Golden 1 Center.
My aunt, Mary Ellen Sabin, recalls it this way: “I can remember,” she says, “we used to leave our office on Capitol Avenue for lunch and cut down the alley, coming in through the kitchen and grabbing our table before anyone else. This was in the 60s, you understand. I don’t think they let people in through the kitchen anymore.” They don’t.
The salt and pepper shrimp and asparagus disappeared as soon as the plate hit the table. General Tsao’s chicken, a dish done poorly by more Chinese restaurants than I can count, was handled with delicacy and sophistication. The fried chicken morsels, swimming in a dark, syrupy, aromatic sauce, with hints of ginger, garlic and green onion, won over everyone.
At the end of the meal there was only one choice. If you’ve been to Frank Fat’s you know it, you love it: banana cream pie.
If you’re not familiar with the iconic dish, then you’re missing out. So many other Sacramento restaurants have tried to imitate Fat’s signature pie throughout the decades that the dish has become the unofficial-official dessert of Sacramento. And even though there are a number of imitators, none can quite match the simplicity of the Fat’s pie—the fine, flaky crust, sweet bananas and soft, silken whipped-cream topping.
I still talk to people who bemoan the loss of restaurants like the Palomino Room and Coral Reef, both gone for the better part of three decades. Thank goodness, therefore, that we can count on Frank Fat’s as it celebrates its 80th birthday with panache and looks on, undaunted, to 90 and beyond.