North Sac Treats

Posted on August 3, 2010 – 1:20 AM | by OldManFoster
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By Becky Grunewald  photos by Scott Duncan and BG

It might not be apparent to the casual reader, but beneath the sunny surface of Sacramento’s free publications lurks an intense rivalry.  The competition between MidMo and SN&R is particularly intense.  It is rife with corporate espionage and backstabbing.  I’m pretty sure Nick Miller is tapping my phones.

This blood feud is not without its lighter side, however.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve glued Cosmo’s phone to his desk, or replaced Kel’s review book with a copy of Hustler, so I was dismayed when I first heard that they were relocating from Glitter Gulch to Del Paso Heights.  Grown fat on medical marijuana money (I’m not judgin’, I’m just sayin’…), they decided that they needed a shiny new environmentally-conscious headquarters and the price in this economically disadvantaged area was right.

After many delays (and many, many columns about it) they are finally ensconced in their bright red building, sitting at their desks made of hemp and repurposed plastic bottles, basking in the glow of their solar-generated lighting.  It has to be a little lonely out there, and no one can eat at Uptown Café every day and live tell about it, so I’d like to cheer them up by pointing out some lesser known culinary destinations in the area.

Despite its generic name, Asian Café (2827 Norwood Ave.) is an exciting place. It is owned by two Laotian sisters, and the menu features Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese dishes.  It’s the kind of place where extra pig’s blood is a dollar, and where the various kinds of larb (a chopped, seasoned meat dish that is considered the national dish of Laos) are served with a smattering of gizzards, skin, or tripe.  There are also the familiar Thai curries and noodle dishes on the menu if you are looking for something less challenging.

When I ordered the beef larb I was given the intriguing option to order it raw, but I went for slightly rare instead.  This complex and intensely salty dish (if you’re a salt hater, stay away from Laotian food) was meaty, bitter, herbal, and nicely earthy thanks to the bits of tripe.  The herbal note was struck by the two kinds of cilantro, both the regular variety and feathery Hmong cilantro.  The chicken larb was made of moist dark meat and had a beautifully charred flavor.

Asian Cafe’s version of kha poon-a spicy, creamy noodle soup not often seen on restaurant menus-is superb.  The bright orange broth is redolent of lemon grass and coconut milk and each spoonful yields a shred of tender chicken or pork.  The kao peuk sen soup contains homemade rice noodles in a glossy, chicken-y broth.  The flavor of this soup hints at the proximity of China and Laos.

The kam sua (steak salad) has chewy strips of beef, tender red and green bell pepper, and slivered red onion in a subtly sweet and spicy sauce.  The pad thai tastes strongly of sweet shrimp and is rich and addictive.  The papaya salad is Lao style, with pieces of tomato and a spicy, fishy, sauce.

Asian Café is one of my new takeout standbys – it’s cheap, quick, and delicious.  They will be offering Vietnamese sandwiches again soon, when the woman who prepares them returns from Germany.  I’ll be first in line.

In contrast to the lengthy Pan-Asian menu of Asian Café, Southeast Asian BBQ (557 Eleanor Ave.) has a simpler bill of fare.  It’s located in a desolate strip mall, and looks closed on first approach, but it is actually open 10am to 8pm seven days a week and is clean and cheerful inside.  As with Asian Café, the people at Southeast Asian BBQ are friendly and helpful.

On the 100+degree day I visited, the pho and kha poon did not sound appetizing, but I was delighted to see Lao sausage on the menu.   Their version was succulent and bursting with lemongrass flavor. The sausage and a side of sticky rice go perfectly together.

S.A.B.’s papaya salad contains tamarind (in addition to fish sauce and chile), which lends a slightly sweet flavor.  The server asked “how many pepper” when I ordered and I made the mistake of saying I wanted it hot.  It was too fiery for me.

The chicken larb was tasty but lacked the concentrated flavors of Asian Cafe’s version.  Nevertheless, I’ll be back for more Lao sausage and to sample their pho, kha poon, and an interesting-sounding beef stew with tripe, cilantro, and scallion.

Los Nopales (2885 Norwood Ave.) shares the same bleak parking lot with Asian Café.  There are bars covering every glass surface and you order through a small opening and eat on picnic tables outside.  The menu has the standard meats (pollo, asada, buche, al pastor) offered in the standard ways (tacos, burritos, tortas)-with ceviche, birria, and menudo on weekends.  I got an asada taco and an al pastor taco for $1.25 each and they reminded me of many street tacos I had in Mexico City.  Low quality meat offered for the right price that goes down easy when dowsed with tomatillo or chile de arbol salsa.  The chicken gordita took a little longer because the masa was fried fresh and again suffered from so-so meat.  It was redeemed by the tasty corn flavor of the masa and the rajas (strips of fried chile) tucked inside this cute little dish.

The view across from the tables at Los Nopales is not very cheerful, but as I sat there eating in the golden rays of the setting sun, I noted the rustling leaves of corn in the small farm behind the bustling Y&T supermarket and heard the strains of E-40 booming out of a lowered Oldsmobile, and was happy to spend time in this rough yet lively neighborhood.  I’m sure that the staff of the News and Review feels the same.

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