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My restaurant reviews are often planned out. In January, though, happenstance ruled the day.
When a Tahoe ski trip turned sour, an eccentric Placerville sandwich shop was there to fill the void. Hungover on a Sunday morning, I trudged to a Hawaiian brunch spot in East Sacramento. A white-tablecloth night out felt nice, so I headed to a homey Elk Grove bistro.
These are the best Sacramento-area restaurants at which I dined over the last month.
All reviews were first published in The Sacramento Bee’s free weekly food and drink newsletter. To sign up, click here.
Laos, Thailand’s neighbor in Southeast Asia, isn’t represented well in the American dining scene. Vientiane Restaurant in West Sacramento is one exception, serving prettily-plated noodles, soups and salads in a small strip mall off Jefferson Boulevard.
Named for Laos’ capital city, Vientiane’s menu gives equal space to familiar Thai classics and harder-to-find Laotian specialties. That international border can split dishes such as papaya salad ($12) or khao soi ($14), each of which have Thai and Laotian renditions that are noticeably different from one another.
Speaking of that khao soi, it’s a soup worth ordering. A little light on the minced pork and shrimp, Vientiane makes up for that by stuffing the bowl full of meatballs, noodles and a delicious beef broth that’s a bit tangy and rich without being heavy.
An entree simply called garlic pork ($13.50) bore little explanation but was our group’s favorite dish. Marinated in a secret, super-flavorful blend of ingredients — I’d guess oyster sauce was among them — the meat pieces were then pan-fried and served in a pile, side of rice optional but encouraged.
Lao sausages ($11) made for a fun, approachable appetizer. Three fat fingers of fried pork were stuffed with that familiar Southeast Asian combination of ginger, lemongrass and galangal, and served with a semi-spicy tomato relish.
Address: 1001 Jefferson Blvd., Suite 600, West Sacramento. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 12 p.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday. Phone Number: (916) 373-1556. Website: https://linktr.ee/vientianewsac. Drinks: Tea, coffee, canned soda and coconut juice. Animal-free options: Many options can be made vegetarian and some vegan, but be sure to ask if your desired dish is made with some sort of seafood paste. Accessibility: Tile floors, good parking, relatively tight corners. Noise level: Relatively quiet, though pop hits play through speakers.
Elk Grove native Brett Bohlmann opened Boulevard Bistro on Valentine’s Day in 2006, transforming a 1908 home into a romantic destination. The city grew by about 50,000 residents over the next 15 years (a 39% increase), according to census data, but Bohlmann’s dimly lit restaurant at 8941 Elk Grove Blvd. remains arguably the top fine-dining place in town.
Boulevard Bistro’s menu rotates but remains relatively traditional, guided by the classic 1903 French tome “The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery.” Wine is a strong point, and ex-employee Chris Mora started the neighboring Christopher Cellars (and married Bohlmann’s daughter Candice, the restaurant’s former general manager).
Given all that, it’s little surprise that the rich coq au vin ($32) stood out. A fall-apart chicken thigh swam in thick red wine gravy with pork lardon cubes piled atop Gorgonzola mashed potatoes. Don’t be intimidated by the last detail, as the intense cheese’s pungent smell and flavor was mostly masked by the potatoes.
Pan-seared salmon ($32) was expertly cooked as well, served over pearl farro with baby carrots and broccolini in a lovely lemon beurre blanc sauce. On both mains, though, a slightly lighter hand would have been appreciated when salting.
The roasted cauliflower ($12) appetizer was a rare deviation from French American cooking with its pine nuts, five-spiced powder and cilantro yogurt calling something more Middle Eastern to mind. And the persimmon salad ($12) was full of nice contrasts, its sweet fruit offset by lolla rossa purple lettuce and bitter endives as well as tart pomegranate seeds and a maple-tarragon vinaigrette.
Address: 8941 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove. Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. Phone Number: (916) 685-2220. Website: http://blvdbistro.com. Drinks: Full bar, with an extensive beer and wine list. Animal-free options: No main dishes at present, but some salads and appetizers. Accessibility: Long ramp leading from ample rear parking lot to front door. Noise level: Medium to medium-loud.
Sacramento restaurants and bars faced the same problems as residents from January’s storms, including power and internet outages. The Hawaiian-inspired Kau Kau’s lights were on, but the staff was scrambling to take orders and write bills by hand when I showed up to the restaurant one Sunday morning.
Opened by Amanda Bridger and Chris Tocchini in May, Kau Kau replaced Evan’s Kitchen & Catering in East Sacramento’s 57th Street Antique Mall after popping up in midtown for about a year prior.
Bridger’s grandmother grew up in Hawaii, and the couple enjoys vacationing there when possible. But Kau Kau’s food isn’t straight from the islands, exactly. It’s Hawaiian food with a good amount of contemporary California influence; coupled with Bridger’s creativity, that makes it stand out in Sacramento’s dining scene during lunch, dinner and especially brunch.
Take the Kau Kau Benedict ($16), a uniquely Hawaiian twist on a mainland brunch staple. A pair of fried, soft purple taro cakes were the base for perfectly-poached eggs, a miso hollandaise sauce and housemade “Spam,” which was a little lighter than the commercial product but still flavorful.
It’s easy enough to find chicken-and-waffles around Sacramento. Where else will you find a macadamia nut waffle with chicken katsu ($17)? Nut fragments studded the waffle with bits of crunch, and the thin sriricha-mango syrup was a delight.
Feeling the next-day effects of a neighbor’s birthday party the night prior, I ordered chicken long rice ($13), a reported hangover-busting soup with cellophane noodles, roasted chicken, garlic, ginger and shiitake mushrooms. Rich and slightly sour, it did the trick on my symptoms, though a hair-of-the-dog POG mimosa ($5/glass, $13/half carafe, $20/carafe) probably didn’t hurt either.
Address: 855 57th St., Suite C, Sacramento. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday. Phone Number: (916) 431-7043. Website: https://www.kaukau916.com. Drinks: Locally-sourced beer and wine. Animal-free options: Several dishes have vegan or vegetarian options, such as Omni Foods’ faux Spam or shiitake mushroom broth for saimin. Accessibility: Disability-designated parking spots in front, wood floors. Noise level: Moderate.
Timmy’s Brown Bag
After getting snowed off the mountain on a recent ski trip, my friends and I took refuge in Placerville. We grabbed sandwiches from Timmy’s Brown Bag’s to-go window, as there’s no indoor seating, and demolished them with a few beers inside Liars’ Bench, a wonderfully-named local dive bar just down Main Street.
Northern California — heck, maybe the entire U.S. — has no other sandwich shop like Timmy’s Brown Bag, where nearly every sandwich would be the weirdest one on a normal restaurant’s menu. Some of Timothy Swischuk’s creations are a little too out-there even for me. Corned beef with pickled blueberry slaw, gouda and popping fro-yo boba, anyone?
Several others caught my attention, and delivered.
Take the chicken satay (all sandwiches are $14.25) with harissa cucumber slaw, sweet chili sauce and masala borugulu (spiced puffed rice) on ciabatta. It was nutty, then tangy, then sugary, all in the same bite as the ingredients wonderfully wove together.
Placerville’s iconic dish is the Hangtown Fry, an omelet allegedly commissioned by a suddenly rich Gold Rush miner and served only at Buttercup Pantry diner today. Timmy’s Brown Bag did its own twist called the smoked oyster, stacking the requisite bacon and namesake shellfish alongside dill pickle chips, a Thai-inspired mignonette and mixed greens between toasted brioche slices.
Vegetarian sandwiches are harder to find, but a decent one is the towering vada pav, a thoroughly Americanized take on a a Mumbai street staple. A veggie medley including olives, pickled jalapeños, heirloom tomatoes and fried shallots encircled a hash brown-like potato patty, with Indian influence coming from masala boondi (fried gram flour puffs) and a pea mayonnaise meant to taste like pani puri.
Address: 451 Main St., Suite 10, Placerville. Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. six days a week, closed Wednesday. Phone Number: (530) 303-3203. Website: https://timmysbrownbag.com Drinks: Sodas and juices. Animal-free options: A few, including the vada pav. Accessibility: Walk-up window with no seating and few accommodations; bathroom is inside another building. Noise level: Open-air.