Head to a renowned chef’s Auburn cafe, a fried chicken hotspot in midtown Sacramento or new Filpino restaurant in Rancho Cordova for some of the region’s best bites.
These were the best meals that I, The Sacramento Bee food and drink reporter Benjy Egel, ate in May.
All reviews were first published in my free weekly newsletter. Visit https://bit.ly/bee_food_drink_newsletter to sign up.
No Sacramento-area restaurant embraces and celebrates Filipino food like Fiesta Philippines. The Rancho Cordova restaurant, in business for six months, is owned by Merben David, Alfonso Lojera Jr., Joel De Vera, Reimar Gacusan and John Carlo Javier. It covers its walls with color, faux thatched roofs and cheerful Tagalog phrases.
Spain colonized the Philippines in the 1500s and held that occupation until 1898, when the United States took control for nearly 50 more years. Filipino food has influences from both powers as a result; you’ll see items on Fiesta’s menu such as paella Española ($25 for a medium pan, $35 for a large) or sweet Filipino spaghetti ($19) with hot dog slices.
Kare-kare ($23), a bright orange peanut stew with oxtails, tripe and vegetables, was more distinctly Filipino. Typically served over rice — we chose chicken adobo rice ($12), which was delicious but a little excessive — its rich, savory flavor was cut somewhat by a side tamarind paste.
Lumpia Shanghai ($12) made for a delightfully snackable, shareable starter. Sixteen miniature rolls were stuffed with copious ground pork and vegetables (there’s an all-veggie option for $8 as well), then deep-fried to perfect crispiness and served with a sweet chili dipping sauce.
How many adjectives can one use to describe laing ($17), a black-ish mixture of shredded taro leaves cooked with fried pork, shrimp and ginger in coconut cream? It was earthy, chewy, funky, creamy, crunchy at times and even a little spicy — my favorite dish I tried at Fiesta.
Address: 11088 Olson Drive, Suite A, Rancho Cordova.
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.
Phone number: (916) 909-8880.
Drinks: Beer, wine and American and Filipino sodas, plus juices and shakes.
Animal-free options: A few, including a section of the menu dedicated to vegetable dishes. But buyer beware: even some of those have shrimp paste or pork bits.
Noise level: Medium.
South’s closure last June left a gap atop Sacramento’s fried chicken pyramid, one that Bawk is vying to fill. The R Street Corridor restaurant has slowly improved since opening in 2019, to the point where it won the inaugural Sacramento Hot Chicken Battle last year (disclaimer: I was a judge, and it earned my vote).
Bawk is owned by Rob Archie and Peter Hoey, the duo behind Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse and Cervecería at the Shack. An attached speakeasy called the Roost opened last year, creating a dark, reservation-only cocktail experience hidden behind Bawk’s graffiti-covered dining room.
You could eat in the Roost when my dining companion and I visited, a deviation from the norm brought on by a Kings watch party. The title-winning fried chicken sandwich ($16) was as good as remembered, a beautifully straightforward balance of poultry, garlic herb mayonnaise, slaw and crunchy housemade pickle slices on a fluffy bun.
Those cooling elements made me comfortable cranking the spice level up to “Nashville.” As with all Bawk sandwiches and burgers, it came with perfectly-salted shoestring fries that are crispy outside and fluffy inside.
Executive chef Greg Desmangles’ chicken game was more plainly on display in the Bawk bites ($12), deep-fried nuggets of dark meat served over a slice of white bread. I went for the maple hot sauce this time, which hit the sweet/spicy equilibrium just right but rendered the chicken a bit soggy.
Address: 1409 R St., Suite 102, Sacramento.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.
Phone number: (916) 376-7531.
Drinks: Full bar, with Urban Roots beers on tap and intriguing cocktails.
Animal-free options: Not many. Fried cauliflower bites are available as an appetizer, French toast is a brunch option and salads could be made vegetarian.
Noise level: On the louder side during busy hours.
The Pour Choice
Chris Barnum-Dann is synonymous with Localis, his Michelin-starred midtown Sacramento restaurant. But Barnum-Dann also brings elements of Localis to The Pour Choice, a much more casual Auburn cafe where he’s a partner.
Barnum-Dann writes The Pour Choice’s food and cocktail menus, trains the staff and orders all ingredients. Cookies, croissants, scones, muffins and banana bread are all baked at Localis, at least until The Pour Choice finishes expanding its kitchen to better serve its hundreds of customers per weekend day.
The Pour Choice is an all-day concept designed for Auburn locals to soak up the foothill sun with a beer or coffee on three separate patios.
Yet the influence of Barnum-Dann’s culinary expertise shines through in the details. For example, the spiciness level was perfectly varied for the pickled cucumber salad ($5), deviled eggs ($2.25 apiece) filled with a harissa-lemon mixture and Thai mule ($10), a copper-mug cocktail with soju, ginger beer and lime leaf/Thai chili syrup.
The Pour Choice’s menu turns over, but the mo betta muffaletta ($14) is a constant. Mortadella, soppressata, hot coppa and serrano jamon from San Francisco’s Molinari Delicatessen piles into airy, crackly ciabatta alongside a housemade olive tapenade, sharp cheese and Dijon aioli.
The New York toast ($12) is more of a breakfast item. Silky-smooth cream cheese from Sierra Nevada Cheese Co., pickled onions and several generous swaths of smoked salmon decorate a a dense slice of Localis-baked bread that is listed as marble rye but seems to take inspiration from Irish soda bread as well.
Address: 177 Sacramento St., Auburn.
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Phone number: (530) 820-3451.
Drinks: Beer, wine, tea, low-ABV cocktails and Remedy Supply Co. (Auburn) coffee.
Animal-free options: Several, from salads to pastries.
Noise level: Medium inside, low outside.
Tây Giang Restaurant
Sacramento had a short cold spell in early May before ramping up to the 90-degree (and beyond) temperatures of summer. It felt like a vanishing opportunity to find cozy comfort in Vietnamese noodle soups.
That usually means heading down Stockton Boulevard, and Tây Giang Restaurant is technically on that main thoroughfare. But Dai Chi Luu’s eatery is by Cosumnes River College near the Elk Grove border, far south of the phở shops lining Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood.
Bún nước lèo ($14), a rice vermicelli soup with melt-in-your-mouth catfish and crispy roast pork belly (thịt heo quay) pieces, satisfied my cravings. Don’t be scared off by the anchovy-lemongrass broth: The fishy paste adds umami rather than compromising the lemongrass flavor.
I’ll be back for a refreshing tofu salad called gỏi đậu hũ ($13) when the summer heat hits. Cabbage, carrots and onions in a lime-based dressing formed the backdrop for crispy garlic slivers, surprisingly flavorful grape tomatoes and fluffy tofu chunks hidden beneath a fried exterior.
I blanked on ordering Tây Giang’s famous bánh hỏi cá bông lau nướng ($50-$60 depending on size), an entire grilled and butterflied catfish served with rice papers, veggies and noodles to create DIY spring rolls. But five-spice chicken rolls called bánh hỏi gà nướng ($15) were nearly as tasty, and so aromatic that even my pescatarian friend cheated on her diet.
Address: 7321 W. Stockton Blvd., Suite 100, Sacramento.
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
Phone number: (916) 688-8223.
Drinks: Bottles and cans of beer, wine and soda.
Animal-free options: Several, with a vegetarian menu section. Make sure your dish doesn’t include fish sauce.
Noise level: Pretty quiet.
Mack and Charlie Thomas opened MacQue’s BBQ as a catering operation in 1986, then opened their first restaurant in southeastern Sacramento in 1991. While that barbecue joint eventually shut down, another opened in 2019 in Elk Grove Village shopping center.
The Thomas family is all over MacQue’s, from dishes named “JoJo’s sliders” or “Ms. Jaye’s bread pudding” to framed photos lining the walls. It’s better to visit for lunch than dinner, as with many barbecue joints, since you’ll find more freshly-cooked meats and most items should still be in stock.
While MacQue’s has an expansive menu compared to other barbecue spots, tried-and-true classics such as pork ribs ($13.69 with two sides and a roll) are favorites for a reason. The fall-off-the bone pork benefited greatly from Macque’s sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce; pick medium spice for a subtle, slow burn.
A plate of chopped tri-tip ($14.39 with two sides and a roll) reminded me this was indeed California barbecue. Piquant and zesty thanks to MacQue’s house rub, its vibrant pink smoke ring flexed the pitmaster’s expert cookery.
Cam’s kettle chips ($4.75-$11.50 depending on toppings) were another housemade surprise, thick and crunchy amid a dusting of that dry rub. For dessert, a slice of sweet potato pie ($4.25) had plenty of flavor without being overly sweet.
Address: 8517 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.
Phone number: (916) 714-2910.
Drinks: Beer, wine, soda and The Lemon Mob’s flavored lemonades.
Animal-free options: Very few — it’s a barbecue joint, after all. Some sides are vegetarian.
Noise level: Medium to medium-loud.