On a game trip to Sacramento in 2001, Lakers coach Phil Jackson called Sacramento a cow town. He also said Kings fans were “semi-civilized” and “redneck in some form or fashion.” Later that season, when Sacramento was matched against the Lakers in playoffs, Kobe was stricken with food poisoning that left a lot of LA fans crying foul play. I’m not alone in feeling like this was retribution for Phil Jackson’s dickheaded-ness.
But, we are a cow town. Or, at the very least, the heart of an agricultural belt. Sacramento is about food in a frill-free way that is often lacking in Oakland and San Francisco. It’s no secret that food serves as a fruitful medium for sketching out histories, both personal and public (isn’t it apt that Kobe fell ill to a bad burger?). For this reason, Tina Thomas' (aka my mom) pick of food and drink destinations in Sacramento are stories about our family, but also stories about Sacramento’s geography, people, and insistent change.
When Tina Thomas arrived in Sacramento, she was my age with nothing but a freshly-minted law degree from down south and a list of two names of people to meet. One was Mike Remy who was her law partner for close to 25 years before he passed away. The other was my dad. He had a girlfriend of two years. According to my mom this ex-girlfriend was a religious freak. My dad doesn’t seem to remember that. Regardless, my mom and my dad started meeting for weekly business lunches and these lunches continued until my mom told my dad he should dump his girlfriend and go out with her. He said, "Ok."
That’s a pretty accurate reflection of their relationship today. Back to those business lunches though. Apparently, early on they started meeting at Zelda’s, a Chicago deep dish pizzeria complete with plastic ivy and bleached posters of Chicago’s skyline. Zelda’s also happens to be hands down the best pizza in Sacramento. In fact, I’m going to say it right now and I don’t want to discuss it until you’ve tried Zelda’s: Zelda’s is better than Zachary’s.
Anyway, part of the charm of Zelda’s was Zelda herself, one sassy lady. Case in point: my mom and dad came in with my sister when she was just 5 days old. Zelda insisting on holding my sister and then disappeared into the kitchen for the next twenty minutes. Being a first time mother, my mom assumed at this point my sister had been baked into a pie. But Zelda re-emerged and with her my sister. We still don’t know what she did with my sister for those twenty minutes. What matters in that Zelda’s is that kind of small-town family joint where the proprietors feel a sense of pride in their community. RIP Zelda.
2. Pre-Flite Lounge
Downtown Sacramento is defined by its so-ugly-it’s-beautiful Downtown Mall. There’s not much left of the mall today. Once my middle school Friday afternoon hangout, it’s been eerily abandoned for nearly a decade now, with most shops having moved out to one of the mega-malls in Roseville. Finally, it looks like something is going to be done about the neglected eyesore: Sacramento is getting a downtown arena for the Kings! Or at least I’m hoping so. Let’s not get into the politics here, as there are plenty of politics to be discussed and they have been the reason for the many years of delays.
However, there is one good thing about all the holdups: Pre-Flite Lounge. Look for a neon martini glass on the L Street side of the mall (fact: the best bars in the world have neon martini signs). The inside looks exactly like a neglected mall bar should: fake wood paneling, Christmas lights, and definitely no windows. Back in the day, a shuttle to the airport picked up outside of Pre-Flite, hence its name and its original function: pre-flight drinks and (from what I understand was their only food offering) baloney, mayo and white bread sandwiches. Early in their marriage, my parents used to meet here after work. It’s hard for me to imagine Tina Thomas eating a baloney sandwich, but I guess she too was once broke and in her twenties. These days, the shuttle is gone, as are the baloney sandwiches. I went home last weekend to get one last drink and made the two-week-late-discovery that Pre-Flite has at last succumbed to eminent domain. There’s talk of a reincarnation. I’m not holding my breath.
Paragary’s is Sacramento original fine dining joint. Dim lighting and white table cloths. Steak and potatoes. An impeccably waxed dark wood bar. It’s the kind of place you imagine extortion goes down, if Sacramento were anything like Scandal. Also -- and I don’t think these are necessarily contradictory impressions -- it’s the kind of place you go with grandparents. But back to my mom: my sister’s birth was something of birthing disaster (think umbilical cord around throat) that ended in a C-section after 30 hours of labor. My brother and I were therefore scheduled C-sections, which is more my mom’s style anyway.
But, while my sister may have been the disaster birth, I was the disaster pregnancy. My mom claims that she was allergic to my red hair. She also likes to say that when she was pregnant with me she gained 80 pounds in water weight, most of it in her ankles. I should say here that my mom is prone to exaggeration, but it helps to complete the image that at bursting point on a Wednesday night in the 80s, my mom was at a hearing, surrounded, as she always has been in her line of work, by old white men. One of the other lawyers said, "Jesus Tina, when are you going to have that kid already?" Her response, "Tonight, if you guys will hurry the fuck up."
I doubt she used the expletive at the time, but her re-telling is always colorful. They took a hint and closed the meeting. My mom then gave herself a self-indulgent treat: dinner at Paragary’s. She doesn’t remember what she ordered, but she knows the meal was leisurely and paired with a few glasses of red wine. Baby’s coming out anyway! After dinner, she checked herself into the hospital, as ready for birth as one can be, and the miracle that is me was born. Steve was her waiter that night. He was also the waiter the night my mom checked herself in for my brother’s C-section. And he’s still a waiter there today! That’s what makes Paragary’s so solid -- its dependability.
Paragary’s is closed at the moment for renovation. I dread the hipness they’ve probably invested in the place, but I’m fairly certain your over-priced hearty American food will be served in its new rendition with familiar class and grace.
4. The Foundation (formerly 4th Street Grill)
The 4th Street Grill was the model for me of what a classy bar should smell, feel and look like. At the base of my mom’s office building, there was something so thrilling as a kid about sitting on the over-stuffed leather booths, drinking Shirley Temples, and listening to my mom and whoever she was meeting talk legal speak. It made me look forward to adulthood, a future in which I too would order dry martinis and wear a uniform of crisp black suits.
Since those early days, my mom has finally started to wear colors and 4th Street Grill has had a rebirth as The Foundation. You can still find Sacramento’s power players hitting the happy hour for stiff drinks, grilled artichokes, and garlic fries.
Other Family Favorites:
5. Gunther’s Ice Cream: Clown cones!
6. Any restaurant ending in an -O: My mom used to make it seem like she was being generous on nights out to dinner by letting us choose the restaurant, as long as it ended with the letter “O”. This rule of course left us with her favorites: Paesano’s, Zocalo, Bernardo’s, and Ernesto’s (on nights the mariachi band wasn’t playing, because that always drove my mom crazy).
7. Taylor’s Market: Best (and most attractive) butchers in town!
8. The Sunday Farmers Market under the freeway and the strangely satellite Asian farmers market two blocks over
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MOM! I LOVE YOU!
Sacramentans, chime in with any secret treasures, present or past.
And where my NBA fans at?? Who’s going to win it all this year?
UMAMI MAP: SACRAMENTO
1415 21st St, Sacramento, CA 95811
513 L St # 9, Sacramento, CA 95814
1403 28th St, Sacramento, CA 95816
400 L Street, Sacramento, CA 95814
GUNTHER'S ICE CREAM
2801 Franklin Blvd, Sacramento, CA 95818
2900 Freeport Blvd, Sacramento, CA 95818
ABOUT M.C.: At 18, M.C. hightailed it out of Sacramento to travel the world, landing in Oakland. Tina followed her to the East Bay shortly thereafter.