Eating with DJ RickPosted on January 1, 2010 – 10:43 PM | by OldManFoster
By Becky Grunewald
Rick Ele or “DJ Rick”, as he’s known far and wide, is Sacramento’s cultural ambassador to the world of underground music (see this month’s Musical Chairs,). When he’s not broadcasting his internationally influential KDVS radio show Art For Spastics he’s setting up killer shows and hosting the bands at his place. He’s also a dedicated gourmand and he shares his finds with visiting musicians. When he talks about food his conversation is peppered with band-related anecdotes, such as how the Irish band So Cow was so smitten with El Abuelo- home of the cabeza-sized torta- that they went back twice in one day! He is so infectiously enthusiastic that if you ask him for a food or music recommendation you can expect an article-length screed delivered via email almost instantly. I knew I must eat with this man, but I was not prepared for him to blow my mind in the way that he did.
On a recent afternoon I picked him up at his kitty-filled home in the obscure City Farms neighborhood. Our first stop was Toledo’s Mexican Market (1341 Fulton Ave), which is tucked away in an aging strip mall in the Arden Arcade area. A heavenly smell was wafting from the chickens being grilled outside when we pulled up- a very good sign. It’s a well-stocked and clean little market, with a few retro stools and an open kitchen. I got an assortment of tacos, and was happy to see that they meat to tortilla ratio made them easy to handle, with no tortilla breakage. There’s nothing I hate more than an overstuffed taco with a wet and broken tortilla. La Favorita, I’m talking to you.
Rick highly recommended the al pastor, which is served with a generous amount of pineapple chopped up and grilled with the meat. The sweet fruit contrasted wonderfully with the spicy and tender marinated pork. The chicken tacos were packed with smoky and soft shredded chicken. The cueritos (pig skin) tacos with their pale, quivering contents were less than appetizing, and they left my mouth (and pen) coated with fat. The carnitas didn’t have any crunchy bits, but the flavor was dynamite. The asada was a bit dry but also tasty. I left beaming with an entire spice-rubbed grilled chicken to go for less than five bucks.
Our next stop was Back On The Block (2440 Fulton Ave- in the same strip mall as La Flor Pupusa), a grease-coated place with comically epic ‘combo’ burgers. In the style of the genius comedian Jeff Foxworthy I’ll say that if you’ve ever eaten a hot dog on top of a hamburger…you just might be at Back On The Block. I had a burger topped with a kosher dog, hence the name: “The All American Burger With Yiddish Touch”. The burger was juicy but the dog and hamburger together confused my mouth. It’s just not natural.
Rick visited Portland for the SMMR BMMR music festival in August, so while he munched on his Italian burger (spicy Italian sausage on top), I asked him what he thought about the food cart scene there in relation to the Sacramento law that effectively bans food carts. He said that if the Sac city council believes that food carts would hurt “brick and mortar” businesses they should “see it in Portland. ‘Food cartopia’ on the east side is phenomenal… so many people out until 3 in the morning. A hundred and fifty to 200 people out. Yet the next day we still had to wait for a table. It doesn’t hurt business. It seems to help.” I nodded my head, my mouth vexingly filled with both weiner and ground sirloin.
We groaningly finished off the free fries given to us by the sweaty, unhealthy looking guy in the kitchen and shuffled off towards our next destination- a taco truck (really a charming little trailer) called Taco Fresco parked at the corner of Florin and Power Inn. We joined the crowd sitting on folding chairs in the parking lot, and I marveled as Rick spouted off trivia about every business in sight, including an ominous looking bar called “The Cinch”. It’s easy to romanticize the idea of stopping at every little quirky business with a vintage sign or an intriguing claim when you roam the Sacramento suburbs in search of grub, as I do, but Rick has actually tried all these places. I can’t even imagine how many horrible meals he has suffered through to unearth the gems he shared with me.
The ladies at Taco Fresco make all their tortillas by hand-shaping and grilling the masa as we watched-which is rare indeed. The fresh, warm tortillas were the most notable touch; the al pastor, chicken, and steak were all good but could not rival that at Toledo’s.
For our second noshing session I had a request gleaned from one of Rick’s anecdotes: spicy beef burger. He had stumbled on this dish when the line for Squeeze Inn was too long. The market two doors down, Faisal Market (7924 Fruitridge), had a sign up that says “we also serve burgers.” Rick got a kick out of their chutzpah and gave them a chance. He also liked the fact that the halal meat comes fresh from a nearby source.
On the day we visited we happily drove past the crowd waiting at the Squeeze Inn and sailed right into Faisal. It’s a small market stocked with Afghani goods-including traditional embroidered vests-and decorated with faded postcards of Afghanistan. We were immediately greeted by the genial owner, Wahid Mujaddidi, who plied us with samples of the chapli kabob.
The spicy beef burger (only $2.39!) was quite good. Wahid said that he made it with, “all good stuff-jalapeno, onion, cilantro and one secret stuff.” The chapli kabob- also a spicy beef patty-was even better because it came with pilaf and cumin-laced garbanzo salad. Topping the beef patty was a pile of soft, warm naan that became the best snack ever when I used it to soak up the garbanzo dressing. The lamb kabob came with just a few chunks of lamb, but they were perfectly chewy and strongly gamey. When I eat lamb, I want it to practically bleat with lambiness, and this kabob did. I complimented Wahid’s lamb and he said that the key to the flavor is to “marinate the perfect way” and confirmed that he gets “everything local. Everything fresh. We have lambs coming in an hour.” On my way out I snagged a mason jar of housemade qurut, an Afghani yogurt that is served with grilled tomato and eggplant.
Our last stop was back in Rick’s neighborhood, in a just-opened place formerly occupied by Taqueria Morelia (2805 12th Ave). Rick had noted their sign saying that they had Mexican pizza, and so we decided to try it, because, well, that’s the kind of thing that Rick Ele can inspire you to do. Fresh back from a trip to Mexico City, I was happy to see that they offered tamales with their traditional breakfast accompaniment of champurrado-a cinnamon and chocolate-laced hot cornmeal drink.
The champurrado and tamale suffered a bit from their time in the microwave, and truly, the street tamales in Mexico City have probably ruined me for all other tamales, but they were still a warm and satisfying second breakfast. The masa in the tamale was slightly coarse and was filled with succulent pork and piquant tomatillo.
After a suspenseful wait, the Mexican pizza emerged from the kitchen looking like a stoner’s dream come true. The “crust” was made from crisp flour tortillas blanketing the gooey interior of steak bits and melted cheese. It was an absurd and basely satisfying dish, but not one I’d order again. As we ate, Rick eyed the small stage in the corner-used for karaoke-and I could see the wheels in his head turning. Don’t be surprised if the next must-see art/noise/garage rock show in Sac is served with a side of champurrado.