“Just Like Grandma Used to Make?”

Posted on April 1, 2010 – 3:08 AM | by OldManFoster
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by Becky Grunewald    photos by Jesse Vasquez

Old Timey is good for some things, such as fashion, music, furniture, and grandpappies, and terrible for others: race relations, female orgasm frequency, space travel.  Is old timey good for food?  It depends.

On the one hand, before the advent of widespread industrial food production, everything was a locavore’s dream.  There were no Cow-shwitz meat production facilities, and people knew the provenance of their food.  In fact, they might have had a hand in growing it-in the 1940s and 50s about sixteen percent of the population was employed in agriculture, as opposed to two percent today.   On the other hand, Jello.  Savory Jello.  With, like, celery and whipped cream.

In order to solve this heated debate which I have just now made up, I surveyed some local old timey spots.  Frank Fats was already high on my list of places to try someday and it opened in 1939, so my desire to try it dovetailed perfectly with my desire to get someone else to pay for it.  Synergy!

The best thing about Frank Fat’s is the décor.  The front room looks like it shared a decorator with the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.”   There is a chandelier in the middle room that seems poised to impale some shuddering starlet a la Dario Argento’s Suspiria.  There is a back room with high-walled booths where the political fat cats get seated – the room where Willie Brown formulated his famous “Napkin Deal” in 1987.  If those walls could talk, what boring, politically wonky stories they could probably tell.

The second best thing about Frank Fat’s is the umbrella-laden mai-tais.  They are made with fresh juice – not too sweet – and strong, dark rum.  As I reveled in the kitschy setting, letting the mai-tai give me a STD (Straight To the Dome), all seemed right in the world.  And then the food arrived.

I take no pleasure in saying that the food is a distant third (or perhaps fourth, behind the fancy powder rooms) on a list of reasons to visit Frank Fat’s.  We started with the combination platter of appetizers.  The salt and pepper calamari was heavily oily and inferior to what you get at most dim sum parlors.  The pork-and-cabbage-filled potstickers were hearty and decent.  The spring rolls were deep fried and each bite sent a new rivulet of grease flowing down my chin.  The yu kwok dumplings had a sort of comedic value because when dipped in a combo of sweet red sauce and hot mustard they tasted just like tiny, deep-fried hamburgers.

My companion studied the long list of chows – both “mein” and “fun”- and wondered which to order.  “Go with your heart,” I advised, which led her to the Roma tomato beef chow mein.  Big mistake.  The thick red sauce coating the soft noodles in this dish was so sweet it should have been on the dessert menu.    I ordered the “sampan clams” from the “house specialties” section of the menu.  The clams were shriveled and fishy and were interspersed with oddly large chunks of almost-raw garlic and jalapenos.

Neither of us ate much of our entrees so we still had room for dessert and I wanted to sample Fat’s famous banana cream pie.  That too was a disappointment.  The crust is very odd – thin and almost cracker-like.  I left Frank Fat’s, somewhat dispirited, with my wallet (er, MidMo’s wallet) almost 90 dollars lighter and knowing I’d only be back for a cocktail now and then.  I had higher hopes for Espanol, which is arguably the oldest of the old timey restaurants.

I say arguably because although Espanol dates from 1923, it has had three locations over time and has been operated by its current owners, the Luigi family, since 1959.  That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not the 75 year pedigree that Frank Fat’s boasts.  Espanol is still apparently going strong, because when I first attempted to visit, on a Friday night, the front desk person looked harried and brusquely informed me that there would be at least a half-hour wait.  He then offered me the option of sitting in the bar, and when I tried to take that option, seemed to rescind it.  I left, confused, and my dining companion suggested we try Trails Restaurant instead.

There is not much chance you will encounter a crowd at Trails, sadly.  In fact, you may be the lone diner.  But don’t let this discourage you.  Trails is a real feast for the eyes, if not for the tastebuds.  It’s like a time capsule of kitschy Western decor.

Trails was opened in the early ‘40s, supposedly by the piscine film star Esther Williams, but was later owned by Myrle Nahas – hence the amazing velvet painting of a wagon that says “Myrle’s Trails…your adventure in good eating.”  It was sold to Gin Wong in 1978, and he owns it still.  He kept the recipes much the same as he found them.

I was first taken to Trails, along with Myrle – still going strong in her eighties – by Myrle’s grandson, local DJ Mike C., and he advised me to get the ribs.  The ribs are pretty darn good.  They are tender and have a tasty, sweet sauce.  The barbecued chicken, although somewhat dry, is also a reliable bet.  The popular peppery beef kabobs are also arid.  Luckily, you can wash them down with glass after glass of the excellent iced tea, served to you by your warm and spunky server.  All of these reasonably priced dinners are served with a grandma-style iceberg salad and a baked potato.  If you have even one old-timey bone in your body you must visit Trails at least once, if just to have a couple of beers and an order of fries.

On my second attempt to eat at Espanol, I was seated right away.  The dim interior of the restaurant is wood-paneled and the tables have red checked tablecloths.  Large bunches of glass grapes are perched on the windowsills and sconces bedeck the walls.  Dean Martin’s crooning sounds ten times better than usual in this setting.

Every meal at Espanol starts with a tureen of their homey minestrone and slices of fluffy white bread, followed by another iceberg salad.  In this case, their Italian dressing tastes fresh-made, although I wouldn’t swear to that.  Espanol’s chicken parmigiana is primo comfort food.  I like a thick red sauce when it comes to Italian-American fare, and the crimini-studded red sauce coating my juicy and tender chicken cutlet could hardly have been thicker.  My companion’s  ravioli was nicely stuffed with spinach and ricotta, and the accompanying meatball was also tasty.

The meal ended, Spaghetti Factory-style with chocolate-y, pistachio-rich spumoni.  In fact, Espanol reminds me a lot of the Spaghetti Factory, with better food and a much more pleasant atmosphere.  I can’t be the only one who occasionally yearns for the mindless comfort of the Spaghetti Factory, right?  Right?  From now on when that urge arises I’ll satisfy it at Espanol instead.

I know that it seems like I’m damning all these restaurants with faint praise.  It’s obvious that a meal at an old timey restaurant is not really about the food.  These restaurants and this food are a part of our history as a community and a visit to one of them is a way of honoring that.   Just like a visit to grandma, a visit to one of these restaurants warms your heart and reminds you that nothing lasts forever.

Frank Fats, 806 L Street, (916) 442-7092

Espanol, 5723 Folsom Boulevard,  (916) 457-1936

Trails Restaurant, 2530 21st Street, (916) 456-9811

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  1. 2 Responses to ““Just Like Grandma Used to Make?””

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    By Matias Bombal on Oct 28, 2010 | Reply

    Try the Pheasant Club (Club Pheasant)serving up delish Italian dinners in West Sac since 1932. Same family. Not midtown, but real close. Old timey and really yummy. Then The Broiler, although no longer in the original kitchy J st location,the meals are a religous experience, and part of Sacramento since the 50’s. Some of the waiters have been there for 20 years.

    Enjoyed your article, it made me hungry.

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