By Lisa Page, Julie Soderlund and Becky Warren
A friend of Lisa’s recently took a gourmet ghetto food tour in Berkeley that made her mouth water just hearing her describe it. Just when we started to get jealous that Sacramento didn’t have something similar, she told me something had just started up on the grid. Of course the three of us, who are devoted to food, especially good food on the grid, had to try it!
We have to admit that we were a little worried from the website description that the Local Roots Food Tour would be touristy (read “cheesy” and not in a good way), but instead we found it refreshing as we discovered a restaurant, deli, bakery and coffee shop that while new to us, had in some cases, been around for decades.
The tour’s starting point was Cesar Chavez Park where we took a minute to tell our fellow tour foodies whether we were “savory” or “sweet” or for some of us, both. Then it was off to Grange Restaurant (926 J Street), one of a growing list of snail-approved restaurants in Sacramento, recognized for planning menus around seasonal, local and organically grown foods. We had crab cakes benedict with crab from San Francisco Bay, topped with a poached egg and chipotle hollandaise sauce, and a few breakfast potatoes on the side. It was paired with a viognier from Naggiar Vineyards in Grass Valley. The sweet, crisp refreshing wine offset the fish and spiciness of the sauce perfectly. We eat at Grange frequently for work lunches but not for breakfast, so this menu item was something different and a great way to kick-off the tour.
The next stop on the tour was 524 Mexican Restaurant, which was seven blocks away, but first we detoured through some shady tree-lined streets for some Sacramento history and architecture from our tour guide and tour founder, chef and farmer Lisa Armstrong. She took us through the mid-1800s when Sacramento was named the “City of Dreams” and the wealthiest individuals, most of whom were merchants offering services to the gold miners, lived in the downtown area, to the mid-1900s when the neighborhood started to spiral downward.
Fun facts we learned for the first time:
- Sacramento’s International Hostel is also a traveling mansion and has been moved multiple times since being built in 1858, including across the street and back.
- Many residents came to California to mine gold but ended up selling goods to the miners and made more money doing that than anyone mining gold.
- F St. was the most prominent street, and the wealthiest individuals built houses out of brick.
- It was in the 1930s that the homes started to be split up into apartments and the middle class started to move in and the wealthy started moving to East Sacramento and the fab 40s. As a result, the neighborhood started to spiral downward as homes were not kept up.
- The oldest surviving home is from 1854. It features Greek revival architecture and the state’s youngest governor, 30-year-old Peter Burnett lived there at one time. Even more interesting, he belonged to the “we know nothing” party. Seriously, I don’t remember this from 4th grade California history. He only served one term. Lesson forour current politicians or maybe a suggested new name for a political party?
Forget we were talking about a food tour? We did for a minute, too, but then we finally made it to 524 Mexican Restaurant (524 12th St.) where Jose the owner served us something that has been on the menu for more than 50 years, albondigas, or meatball soup. In fact, 90 percent of the recipes are from the 50s and the head chef has been around for about 25 years. That’s like 100 in restaurant years. Jose gave us a 20 percent off coupon and I’m looking forward to going back soon and trying some other menu items.
Right across busy 12th St. we found another hidden gem, Sugar and Spice, which has been open since January and one that I’ve easily missed this bakery while driving off the 160 and into downtown. By this stop, we were ready for something sweet and we were not disappointed. After owner and pastry chef Carissa Jones told us about all of the rolls, cupcakes, cobblers, turnovers, pop tarts (yes, but in a whole different league from the store-bought varieties), cake pops, and so on, we all tried a crème puff. It hit the spot, but we still couldn’t leave without buying peanut butter sandwich cookies, sticky buns, a salted caramel chocolate tart and pop tart for later. Carissa was in the middle of making a wedding cake when we popped in, but she noted that 80 percent of the weddings she has done in the past year featured a desert bar. We’ll be back next week for a chocolate-filled brioche roll….
Walking on…we next came to a neighborhood coffee shop, Shine, tucked away on one of the quieter neighborhood streets. This was a new place for us and we loved it. Great relaxed atmosphere, excellent smoothies, cool local artwork on the walls, a nice and reasonably priced menu – basically all the makings of the perfect place to hide out with a book and a cup of Joe (or glass of wine, they just got their beer and wine license). Shine also provides free wireless Internet and features local music, poetry and even open mic nights. Definitely a place we plan on visiting again.
From there, we made our way over to F and 16th St. to Sampino’s Towne Foods where we were greeted by fire and ice gelato and the friendly and boisterous Tony. It didn’t stop with the gelato. Tony passed around a creamy (and delicious) tomato and basil soup. At the same time, he started making pasta and asked someone to help him out. Having always wanted to make homemade pasta, Lisa lent him a hand. Lisa was a little (actually a lot) slower than he was, but the result was the same – a delicious lemon, ricotta, basil, agnolotti pasta – that we tried before heading to our last stop.
Before leaving Sampino’s, we just have to give a plug for this little Italian deli that will make you feel like you’re in Boston’s North End neighborhood. They have a 45-minute wait at lunchtime for their meatball sandwich, but we think it’s their vast selection of homemade pasta (52 types) and sausages, fresh meat counter, and made-to-order traditional Italian dishes and desserts that set this place apart. Chicken marsala from Sampino’s is on the dinner menu for this week.
The tour’s last stop was Ambrosia, but that’s only for a couple more weeks when Adam Pechal’s newest restaurant, Thir13en, in the Sterling Hotel will replace it. We did wish that it was already on the tour, especially as we walked longingly by, because we’re huge Tuli Bistro fans and have been anxious to try his newest restaurant. The lemon bar from Ambrosia was tasty, but we think that a stop for one more savory item at Thir13en will make this tour, which we’d give 5 stars (out of 5), a 5.1.
The tour was three hours and an enjoyable afternoon of eating and walking around a part of Sacramento none of us spend time in. We highly recommend trying it on a Saturday afternoon. Starting in August, they will expand and offer a tour in Midtown Sacramento and in the fall they will offer a tour in Grass Valley (we will definitely be checking this one out).
Days: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays
Time: All tours start at 11:15 a.m.
Duration: 3 hours
For more information: www.localrootsfoodtours.com