According to a quick Google search, there are 16 Thai restaurants within 5 miles of my house. There’s no shortage, therefore, of Thai cooking in Sacramento. This is nothing to say of the more than 50 Chinese restaurants and 30 Japanese restaurants (more than half of those just serving sushi) within that same 5-mile radius. I either live at the epicenter of Asian flavor or am just another Sacramentan who is lucky to reside in such a rich culinary landscape.
Two new restaurants have opened in East Sacramento, each putting their own spin on Asian flavors and redefining what we should expect from an Asian eatery in California. THAI – The House of Authentic Ingredients opened last November on H Street (formerly Sacramento Bagel). The vibe is decidedly not that of a traditional Thai restaurant. You won’t find the calming gilt and glittering statues of elephants and ethereal figures. Instead you’ll find a modern and inviting bar, a clever plant-filled interior and the feel of an upscale neighborhood watering hole.
Cocktails and a solid wine list make this spot already a popular destination for East Sac residents. On a recent spring evening, I passed by to hear the unmistakable tones of a live band and saw the welcoming patio filled with happy revelers. From the creative Asian-influenced cocktail recipes to more standard drinks, the place is a destination for conviviality.
The menu has some unfamiliar dishes not found at most Thai spots, but where it succeeds is in some of the more familiar offerings. The pad thai is solid and without flaw. The fried chive dumplings are crispy and delightful with a just-spicy-enough dipping sauce.
Some of the meat dishes are a little underwhelming and lack the flavor punch you might expect from a Thai restaurant. But, given the decent size of the menu, there will be a dish to the liking of every diner whether vegan, vegetarian or even spice-averse.
A few blocks away, Origami Asian Grill goes the other way with its ethos. The food is at the center of the operation with a stripped-down atmosphere meeting the bare minimum of restaurant hospitality.
Located in a culinary wonderland on Folsom Boulevard (within one block is OneSpeed, The Other Side by Track Seven, Allora and The Shack) Origami puts its best foot forward with the food on the plate. The menu is Asian-influenced without following any strict structures of traditional Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese cooking. It’s definitely California-Asian cuisine.
Some have said that Origami works on the “Chipotle model” in that it has a handful of basic dishes—ramen, rice bowl, noodle salad, mixed green, banh mi sandwich—and asks diners to make choices as to the protein, sauces and toppings they wish to add. And while there are some similarities, the menu stretches well beyond mixing and matching a steam counter worth of ingredients.
Beyond those few main dishes noted above, Origami offers some of the best fried chicken in town. The half bird is generously drizzled with an orange and Szechuan peppercorn maple syrup, then dusted with pulverized rosemary for a unique flavor and one worthy of turning into an addiction.
Beyond that, a few entrée specials are likely to be found on any given day. On a recent rainy night, friends Xavier and Dante joined my wife and me, and found the evening special of Korean glazed ribs and asparagus to be the highlight. Thank goodness there were more than enough ribs for all of us. Had there been fewer ribs, there might have been hurt feelings and a few missing fingers as we fought over them. The gorgeous bark on the meaty ribs held a ridiculous sweet/spicy flavor that hit the palate in the front, back and sides with increasing levels of pleasure.
Unlike THAI, there’s no ambience to speak of at Origami. There are a few fun Japanese beers to order at the counter, but you’d never drop by to have a drink with friends. There are, however, special chef’s dinners with changing menus that can run up to 13 courses and $150 per person. If that’s your thing, check it out, but just know that you’ll be surrounded by casual diners coming and going throughout the evening.
Taken together, both THAI and Origami present different facets of the Asian food scene in Sacramento. THAI is a place to linger, sip, snack, meet friends and neighbors, and let loose after a long day. Origami is a place to savor flavors, delight your palate, grab and go. There’s definitely room in East Sacramento for both to do what they do well and keep on doing it.