Iconic Sacramento Restaurant Dishes with a Local Cult Following
There are renowned food cities the world over — Paris, Tokyo, New York to name a few. Many argue that Sacramento should be on that list, especially with its relatively recent moniker of the Farm-to-Fork Capital of the nation. With its abundance of locally grown produce, the city’s world-class chefs have put Sacramento on the culinary map.
But the greater Sacramento area had its share of great dishes long before the farm-to-table trend. In fact, the city and its surrounds have a long culinary history, turning out classic dishes that have gained a steady following over the decades. Some of these institutions are no longer around but others are still going strong, attracting a new generation of followers. Still others are brand-new to the restaurant scene. From desserts to fast food, cocktails to tacos, following are some iconic Sacramento-area dishes with a cult following.
Lasagna Verdi alla Bolognese | Biba
Few Sacramento dishes are as revered as the lasagna served at the now-shuttered Biba. Chef and owner Biba Caggiano was Sacramento’s very own celebrity chef, helming the restaurant for nearly three decades and hosting her own cooking show. Her signature dish, Lasagna Verdi alla Bolognese, featured 10 layers of paper-thin spinach pasta topped with a Bolognese-style meat ragù and rich Béchamel. While you can’t enjoy her restaurant any longer, you can enjoy her recipes, as she has published numerous cookbooks over the years.
Banana Cream Pie | Frank Fat’s
As one of Sacramento’s oldest restaurants (opened in 1939), Frank Fat’s in downtown Sacramento has plenty of drool-worthy dishes, including brandy fried chicken, Frank’s style New York steak, and Peking duck. But hands down their most beloved dish is the banana cream pie: a towering heap of creamy sliced bananas atop a buttery crust, topped with fluffy meringue.
Spinoccoli Pizza | Zelda’s
Even die-hard pizza traditionalists have a hard time turning their nose at Zelda’s Spinoccoli pizza. The Chicago-style pan pizza has broccoli, spinach, tomato and three types of cheese, not to mention the buttery, addictive crust. It sounds strange but it’s a combo that works. The moody pizzeria in midtown Sacramento has been serving up its deep-dish pies for more than four decades and have been repeatedly voted the best pizza place in the city.
Peach Milkshake | Whitey’s Jolly Kone
Summer in West Sacramento means one thing: peach season. And peach season means peach shakes from Whitey’s Jolly Kone. Founded in 1963, the retro car hop serves American and Mexican fast food, but their seasonal, hand-blended milkshakes made from fresh peaches has a local following. Come autumn, seasonal flavors include pumpkin spice and apple pie.
Beef Taco | Jimboy’s
These days, you can get a taco filled with everything from jackfruit to pork belly, cauliflower to octopus. But sometimes, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned ground beef taco. Jimboy’s set the standard for the American-style street food nearly 70 years ago and the classic is still as popular as ever: spiced ground beef, cheese and lettuce stuffed into a parmesan-dusted corn tortilla. With locations throughout the greater Sacramento area, you’re bound to have a Jimboy’s near you.
Gold Cadillac | Poor Red’s
Leave it to an old-school barbecue joint to come up with a classic American cocktail, but Poor Red’s in El Dorado did just that. In 1952, a couple stopped at Poor Red’s and requested a special cocktail to celebrate their engagement. The bartender blended Galliano, Crème de Cacao, half-and-half and ice. The result is a creamy, frosty drink with a hint of licorice that paid homage to the couple’s new gold Cadillac parked out front.
Hangtown Fry | Placerville
Bacon and eggs are a classic breakfast combo, but throw in some breaded oysters and you’ve got a classic dish hailing from Placerville. Once known as Hangtown, Placerville was the pit stop for gold miners making their way to and from the mines during the Gold Rush. Legend has it that one miner, having struck it rich, stopped at a saloon and demanded the cook prepare him a dish with the most expensive ingredients on hand. The result was the Hangtown Fry, which made its way onto menus up and down the West Coast. You can still order one at the Buttercup Pantry in Placerville.
Squeeze with Cheese | Squeeze Inn
Never heard of a cheese skirt? Then you should get your hands on a Squeeze with Cheese pronto. Created by the no-frills burger joint Squeeze Inn, this over-the-top cheeseburger is cooked on a flat top and loaded with cheddar cheese, which melts out onto the grill to form a chewy, decadent “skirt.” Having expanded from its original teeny tiny location, there are now several locations in northern California, including one near the Colonial Village neighborhood in Sacramento.
Shave Ice | Osaka-Ya
Osaka-Ya is a tiny spot in downtown Sacramento that has been turning out Japanese confections for nearly 60 years. As popular as their mochi and manju are, come summertime, they’re known for their shave ice. It’s served out of a cash-only takeout window on the sidewalk, and the line often snakes down the block. But with flavors like tiger’s blood, root beer and blue raspberry, it’s worth the wait. You can even add sweetened condensed milk or red bean paste.
French Toast | Tower Café
When is French toast more than French toast? When it’s French toast served at Tower Café! The longstanding eclectic Land Park eatery takes the traditional breakfast dish and kicks it up a notch, soaking thick French bread in custard and topping it with whipped maple butter. The result is a soft and creamy interior and a crisp, buttery exterior.
Garlic Steak Sandwich | Club Pheasant
In operation for more than 85 years, Club Pheasant in West Sacramento has held its own despite the newer, flashier restaurants that have sprung up alongside it over the years. It’s an old-school, family-run Italian-American eatery that serves house-made pasta from recipes passed down through generations. But their garlic steak sandwich (two mini sandwiches, actually) is one of the most popular dishes on the menu, featuring tender beef layered on a garlic butter French roll. Sadly, Club Pheasant was slated to close at the end of 2022.
Nutburger | Sunflower Drive-In
Long before vegan and vegetarian were household words, Sunflower Drive In was serving an entirely meat-free menu. The Fair Oaks eatery (which, incidentally, is not a drive in at all) opened in 1978, with a focus on plant-based, handmade food. Their signature nutburger is made in-house from almonds, walnuts, cashews, veggies, spices and, of course, sunflower seeds. There’s also a nut-based taco.
Mo’ Pep Pizza | Lou’s Pizza
Sacramento restaurateur Lou Valente has no doubt made his mark on the Sacramento sushi scene, first with Lou’s Sushi, and now with Southpaw Sushi. But weekends are for pizza, and Lou’s Pizza offers Detroit-style pies for takeout on weekend nights. Ordering is done via Facebook, payment through Venmo, and you need to get on the list ahead of time. But the wait is worth it for the Mo’ Pep pizza: pillowy dough topped with salty cheese and extra pepperoni, plus a buttery, crunchy edge (corners are best).
*Featured photo courtesy Frank Fat’s