#97: Zocalo

Last weekend I finally made it out to Zocalo in the Fountains.  This is the 2nd location, the first being in Midtown Sacramento.  It opened not long ago, summer or late summer I think, in the location previously occupied by Tres Agaves.  I hadn’t had a chance to try them out before they went out of business but from everything I had heard I wasn’t missing much.  I had only been to Zocalo in Midtown one time, for Mothers Day dinner this year.  They had a limited menu for the holiday but they had a carnitas plate and plenty of deserts, and it was excellent.

I was joining Anne and Justin again for dinner.  We weren’t sure if it was going to be too busy to get a table in a reasonable amount of time, OpenTable wasn’t accepting reservations for the same day for whatever reason.  Anne and Justin arrived quite early though and got our name in.  They were told a 30 minute wait and I was on my way when I got the message that they had already been seated in just 10 minutes, so that worked out pretty well.  When I showed up the Fountains were packed.  Parking was looking ugly, but I lucked out and found a spot right on the main strip just a few shops down.  I headed in and found them at a booth towards the back end where the open kitchen area is.  The weather was fantastic and their outdoor seating was completely full, and from the short look I got of it while looking for Anne & Justin it seemed to be pretty big.  The interior is very nicely decorated with some interesting/bizarre lighting.

Once I sat down, our server came by to get my drink order almost immediately.  That came quickly, along with chips, bean dip and salsa, and we took advantage of a short window to order from the Happy Hour menu.  Guacamole sounded pretty good so we went with that.  The server took a moment to go over a few specials and highly recommended the cochinita pibil (Smoked shoulder of pork in an achiote rub, achiote glaze, habanero salsa and pickled red onion) which got me debating between it and my beloved carnitas.  That train of thought was put on hold for a little while when a heavy stone bowl with a ton of guacamole was delivered.  Sometimes I have a bit of hesitation when it comes to ordering $5+ guacamole at restaurants.  Often there isn’t much of it or there’s a lot of cheap filler (I’m looking sternly in your direction, El Torito) and it feels like a rip.  Yard House and another place that I can’t think of at the moment have somewhat tempered my thoughts on restaurant guac with their excellent quality good portion size.  Zocalo is another winner in this regard.  There was a TON of guacamole, and it was really good.  Heavy on the lime side, which I love.  I’ve never had so much that we stopped eating it before it was gone.  At some point we had our chips replaced by some stealth employee.  I just looked up and all of a sudden there were fresh, hot (and greasy) chips.

This brings me to the service which I thought was fantastic.  I mentioned in my last post (Mehfil Indian Restaurant) that I wished more servers would pay close attention to the table, from a distance, and anticipate the needs before they’re even asked.  This server, and some other helper staff, were dialed in and doing just that.  One sip from having to need another soda I had a new one before I realized I was even that low.  That said, the attentiveness did start to slide towards the end of our meal when a big group was seated near us and sucked up a lot of his attention.   I can’t say that the service was perfect due to that, but he did apologize later so clearly he was aware.

When we ordered I asked him what he would go with between the carnitas and the cochinita pibil.  I hadn’t even finished my sentence, without hesitation he said cochinita pibil, and that was that.  About 15 minutes later we had plates delivered by a runner.  Anne had ordered the Tacos Del Mar (Beer battered fish tacos with chipotle aioli, pico de gallo and our repollo. Served on three housemade miniature flour tortillas).  She said these were really good and made up for some so/so sangria.  I somewhat recall her mentioning that there was a lot of fish on them as well, enough that it made it difficult to pick each one up as a proper taco.  Justin ordered from the Happy Hour menu, 2 empanadas (braised brisket in pasilla chile & 2 types of cheese, crema, salsa, cotija) and a chicken quesadilla, which came rolled and looked a lot more like a burrito or an enchilada without the sauce.  He said the empanadas were good and he really liked the quesadilla and said he’d order it again.

My cochinita pibil was a very simple dish with the pork, pickled red onion and a light green dip (I didn’t realize until after dessert that all entrees came with green rice and black beans, served family style.  It was on the other side of the table and I was completely oblivious to it.).  The flavor was ridiculous.  It was quite intense, with a bit of the habenero coming through on the end.  Overall it was a very sweet glaze, which was interesting with the delicious, savory pork underneath.  The waiter had mentioned how long it was marinated for, though I can’t remember now, 2 days?  However long it was, as a result of that and the slow cooking it was mostly very, very tender and juicy.  I say mostly because a couple pieces were a bit tougher.  The others were pretty much just falling apart as soon as I started to apply pressure with my fork.  I stopped about halfway through so I would have room for dessert.  The server boxed it up for me and put the remaining rice and beans in the container for me.  I had this for lunch a couple days later and it was still very good.  The rice and beans were pretty decent too.

Any time I see tres leches (Dense vanilla cake, condensed milk syrup, whipped cream, seasonal fruit topping) on the dessert menu I pretty much have to order it.  This one was uniquely baked and served in a jar.  I think this was not only a convenient serving container, but also quite functional in that all the excess milk had nowhere else to go, allowing the sponge cake to sit mostly submerged in it instead of allowing it to slowly drain into a bowl or onto a plate.  The best one I’ve ever had was at Mas, and I think Zocalo’s is an easy tie, if not edging it out by a bit.  Justin ordered the churros (Fried-dough filled with vanilla cream and a side of vanilla ice cream), and said they tasted like…churros.  He was a little underwhelmed and was expecting some more substantial cream filling.

So overall not perfect but very close.  Great service for the most part, amazing food, good atmosphere.  I’m a fan.

Website: http://www.zocalosacramento.com/


#96: Mehfil Indian Restaurant

I attempted to do Mehfil Indian Restaurant nearly a year ago but apparently chose the one night of the week that they serve buffet only.  It was good eating but not quite what I was looking for.  Photos from the buffet visit will be towards the end.  So this week I finally made it back to do it properly, ordering from the regular menu with a server and all.  I met my mother a little after 5PM on Thursday.  One other person was supposed to join us but they couldn’t make it at the last moment, so that just meant more tasty food for us then!

There were just a couple tables seated when we went inside, and the two employees standing near the register by the door told us to sit anywhere we like.  The dining room is a large rectangular room with the buffet counters at the far back.  There isn’t much in there besides the buffet, tables and a couple little TVs on either end.  It’s always been somewhat dimly lit whenever I come, and the big red curtains that cover the front windows play a part in that.  Our server cleared the two extra place settings and came back with a pitcher of water to fill our glasses.  I ordered a mango lassi (one of my new favorites whenever I see it’s available) while we looked over the menu.  This was brought out pretty quickly.  The only ones I’ve had previously were very orange in color.  This was Yellow, but it tasted just a good as the others.

Our server was tuned in perfectly and came to take our order soon after we had figured out what we were getting (I wish more servers payed such good attention and kept watch on your table from afar).  We ordered a couple entrees, an appetizer and some naan.  Shortly after ordering we received the same thin, almost tortilla chip-like starter that I got at Tandoori House.  I don’t recall if that one had a distinct flavor of it’s own, but this one tasted like cumin.  A trio of chutneys was served with it, spicy onion (I think), Tamarin and mint.  I really liked the Tamarin, it was very sweet, with a touch of heat at the end.  As we finished these, our vegetable pakoras appetizer arrived (fresh cut vegetables deep fried in spicy chick pea batter).  The batter was really fantastic, and the crispy texture was just about my favorite part.  I thought this went well in the Tamarin chutney as well.  The veggies weren’t easily visible.  They seemed to be mashed or chopped up very finely and almost mixed into the batter itself, giving each piece a very consistent flavor, texture and appearance throughout.  The plate was big, much more than either of us needed, and could easily be split between four people comfortably.

I would have expected the naan to be next, but it came out a bit late and was a few minutes behind the entrees.  First up we had Chicken Tikka Masala (boneless white meat, tandoori cooked in a delightful, bright, tangy cream sauce).  A little metal holder with a candle was set up and a metal dish with the chicken in it’s sauce was placed atop of that.  This kept it nice and hot for the whole meal.  The chicken was cut into bite sized cubes and was extremely tender.  The sauce was incredibly rich and delicious.  These are the type of dishes I really love.  Served over rice, the excess sauce is soaked up and not one bit of it goes to waste, or you can scoop it up with naan.

Next, I picked the Tandoori Mixed Grill (a mix of chicken and lamb cooked in the tandoor).  This came out on a hot iron dish, steaming and sizzling loudly.  Two bright red pieces of chicken, a couple smaller pieces of what must have been the lamb ground into kabob-shapes, two or three shrimp (also bright red) and a handful of yellow colored cubes of chicken topped a heap of grilled onions and carrots.  The cubes of chicken were just as tender and almost as delicious as the tikka masala.  I’m not sure what spices were in it.  The tandoori chicken was a bit dry on the outside but decent just under the surface once I bit into it.  I wasn’t thrilled with the lamb, it was also on the dry side and was more spicy than flavorful (don’t get me wrong, I like some scorching heat, but not at the expense of taste).  I might order the chicken tandoori again, but probably not this mixed grill.

When our chicken naan (homemade bread stuffed with white meat chicken and herbs) arrived it was clearly right out of the tandoor, it was very hot and absolutely some of the best I’ve ever had.  Inside there were tiny little bits of chicken.  I kind of think it was the freshness of the naan rather than the chicken that had me loving it so much, I mean who doesn’t love fresh baked bread regardless what kind it is?  I didn’t really taste much chicken to be honest.

So overall, pretty great food (so/so on the tandoori mixed grill though) and top notch service.  I’ve done the buffet a couple times (served normally at lunch, and apparently once a week for dinner), and it’s great to get to try lots of different things.  I recommend checking it out.  Below are photos of most of the items they had out that time last November.  They have totally revamped the serving equipment since the last time I was here, so these look a bit different than how it is now.

Channa Saag – spinach cooked with pieces of chicken

Shaih Paneer – homemade cheese with cooked fresh ginger, garlic onions and tomato in a creamy sauce

Butter Chicken?
Chicken Curry – boneless chicken cooked with onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and fragrant spices
Chicken Tikka Masala – boneless white meat, tandoori cooked in a dekightful, bright and tangy sauce
Tandoori Chicken – tender chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and baked on skewers
Punjabi Curry – Yogurt, chick peas, flour and vegetable pakoras cooked with fresh ginger, garlic and spices

Website: http://www.mehfilindianrestaurant.net/

Scanned ToGo Menu (a little more detailed than the one on their website): Click Here


#95: Papaya Thai Cuisine


I noticed Papaya Thai Cuisine right about when it opened and looked forward to try it.  Last Friday night I finally made it out there to see what it was all about.  I arrived with my friends Anne and Justin at about 7:45PM, a little over an hour before closing.  There were just a few people in the medium sized dining room and a family showed up right as we did.  The one server working the dining room told us to sit anywhere we liked.  There were a handful of 4-seater tables in the center with booths along the left and right walls and tables with booth/bench seating on one side and chairs on the other along the front wall, which is where we sat.  There is also a counter/bar at the back with a few seats.

It is lightly decorated with little sculptures here and there and some hanging art.  A small TV up above the bar was showing some scenes from Thailand and what I assume was Thai music was playing lightly in the restaurant.  We ordered our drinks right away.  Both Justin and I ordered Cokes, but as the server started to walk away I had a sudden change of mind because I feared they might be the type of place (as many of Asian restaurants seem to be around here) that serves cans at $1.50 each, so I called out to her and changed it to a Thai iced tea, which Anne had also ordered.  Sure enough Justin’s Coke arrived in a can and he was a little annoyed, but more on this later.  The iced teas arrived un-mixed (obligatory youtube video by yours truly).  Mine was quite strong and was one of the boldest flavored Thai iced teas I’ve had for sure.

We ordered a couple appetizers, crab cheese puffs (house special cream cheese with onion and crab meat served with our sweet & sour sauce) and Thai fresh spring rolls (rice paper stuffed with cilantro, bean thread noodle, lettuce, cucumber, and carrots served with peanut sauce and sweet & sour).  Both of these came out fairly quickly.  The crab cheese puffs were quite similar to the crab cheese wontons you might find at some Chinese restaurants, but in a slightly different form.  They were served with the hot sweet & sour sauce that seems to come with so many Thai appetizers. The coloring was very bright and neon orange, I’d love to put it under a UV light to see what it looks like.  I dipped a little bit in it, and it was quite sweet with a bit of a kick.  These were really good, and I’d order them again.  The spring rolls came out as 4 large rolls, served with the same sweet & sour sauce as well as peanut sauce.  These were much bigger than spring rolls I’ve had elsewhere.  I found them to be a bit denser as well, maybe as a result of ever slightly larger sliced ingredients inside?  While they were pretty good, I think I prefer smaller rolls simply due to the ratio of rice paper to filling ingredients being better in my opinion, I just like the texture of that a lot more.

Around the time we ordered, Justin had finished his Coke and was planning on getting a water if it was going to be another 1.50 a can.  When he asked about that I was really surprised that “refills” turned out to be free, and she brought out a new can and glass of ice right away.  I had my heart set on the duck curry (spicy Thai red curry with sliced duck, coconut milk, pineapple, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower and basil leaves) as soon as I had seen they offered it.  Justin surprised me when he ordered green curry, but instead of taking more time to find something else, I just went ahead and got the duck as well even if it was a bit redundant.  Anne picked drunken noodles (stir fried wide rice noodles with wine, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, chili, garlic, and basil leaves) and subbed in tofu instead of the chicken/beef/pork options.

The food took around 15 minutes to prepare and be brought out.  The first thing that struck me was how HUGE the curries were.  They might have been about twice as big as I’ve seen at other restaurants for about the same price.  The other thing I noticed was that the color of the duck curry looked much more subdued than elsewhere.  Normally the red curry it’s in would be a bright red/orange color, but this one was more of a light orange with some pink to it.  I scooped some rice onto my plate from the very hot little bowl it came in and then did half duck, half green over it (separate, not together)  The duck was cubed, which I haven’t seen before, but the flavor of the dark and oily chunks was just as I was expecting.  To my delight many of the pieces had the skin still on.  So the duck was excellent, but the curry itself was…off I guess.  I have been having a really hard time pinning down what was different about this red curry than every other one I’ve ever had, but it was definitely different.  I had the leftovers of it today for lunch and I’m still unable to figure it out.  It wasn’t bad, I think the flavor was a bit lighter though much like the color was.  Perhaps it was diluted somehow, which may also explain the larger portion.  It definitely had a spice to it that didn’t necessarily hit you right away, but lingered for a while after a bite.  The green curry was generally good, though I think it had the same issue with being a bit lighter than elsewhere.  Chicken pieces in it were scarce.

The drunken noodles are made up of wide rice noodles, which are also used in my favorite Thai dish – Pad See Ew.  There are only a couple places that I’ve been disappointed in the preparation of these noodles, and unfortunately Papaya is now on that short list.  My biggest annoyance with them is when they are clumped together and the middle pieces are flavorless and a bit chewier, having not spent time in the wok directly mingling with the sauces.  I found the overall flavor of this dish to be ok.  The tofu was fine.  Anne had mentioned something about the flavor of the sauce not being as good as she would have liked.

Overall I was a little disappointed with Papaya.  I thought the appetizers were better than the entrees.  The service however was great.  Our server, despite being the only one, was constantly checking on us for refills, etc. and was very nice all around.  I never felt like I was waiting for her to come back because I needed something.  She prepped the curries to go and got extra rice to go with each. It’s not a bad Thai place, but I feel we definitely have better ones here in Roseville.

Website: http://www.papayathaicuisine.com