Fire & Nice

Paying homage to Sacramento’s original fire department, midtown’s new Hook & Ladder lives up to its namesake as one of the hottest spots in town.

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Bar manager (and Woodland native) Chris Tucker has a long history on the midtown cocktail scene. In 2000, he moved back to the Sacramento area from the Bay Area and began working at Centro Cocina Mexicana, which was ahead of its time in offering cocktails with fresh-squeezed juices “on a mass basis,” Tucker says. “That was my first exposure to doing a handcrafted program on a large-scale basis.” Tucker was sold on the fresh flavors, and as his tastes have evolved, he offers drinks and ingredients at Hook & Ladder that you’ll see nowhere else in town, from the West Indies Sour—a spice-tinged, red wine-based cocktail again spiked with St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram—to the Averna Shrub, which combines Averna (an herbal Sicilian digestif) with house-made blackberry shrub (a type of cordial made with fruit and vinegar, with a history stretching back to American colonial days). Oh, and those hand-hewn ice slabs? Tucker cuts them himself from a longer slab with a special Japanese saw (he used to use a chainsaw, but after research into ice carving, he learned the handsaw is more precise).

Fried chicken sandwich layered with house-made potato chips and red cabbage slaw and served with house-cut fries

As much as cocktail lovers can geek out over the behind-the-bar offerings at Hook & Ladder, the place is hardly just for drinkers. There’s a serious, and seriously appealing, menu for both lunch and dinner, thanks to a kitchen helmed by local chef Brian Mizner, a veteran of such revered area kitchens as the erstwhile El Dorado Hills spot Masque Ristorante (where he was chef de cuisine under opening chef Angelo Auriana in 2004, when Esquire named Masque one of America’s best new restaurants) and L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen.

Hook & Ladder owners Kimio Bazett (left) and Jon Modrow

Influences from his past are evident on the menu at Hook & Ladder, with a clear Italian strain that dates back to Mizner’s Masque days: think handmade pastas (“I think it’s a lost art,” he says) like cavatelli with roasted-pepper pesto and crawfish; a trio of house-made sausages of different types (an appetizer that’s so popular “we can’t keep up,” Mizner says with a smile); and thin-crust pizzas with toppings like burrata (a creamy mozzarella-like cheese) and fresh oregano, or rock shrimp and sardine bagna cauda. “The first job I had was making pizza,” Mizner says (it was at a Papa John’s in Cameron Park). “So everywhere I’ve gone I’ve tried to make it better and better.”

Mindful of Hook & Ladder’s welcoming vibe, Mizner designed everything on the inventive menu to be shareable and accessible, but made with handcrafted integrity. “I wanted to make it so you sit down at a table, you have an appetizer or salad or pizza, and you’re just able to lounge around and have fun,” he says. “But I’m still using fine ingredients.” And there are plenty of dishes that are just plain fun, like the insanely good fried chicken sandwich for which the meat is buttermilk brined, fried crispy and layered with house-made potato chips and tangy red cabbage slaw on a soft roll. “All the guys in the kitchen, that’s what they order for lunch,” Mizner says.

Near the entrance hangs a U.S. flag with 31 stars (honoring California as the 31st state) over a row of jury box seats salvaged from a Modesto courthouse.

Another hit item is the burger, which changes daily: “We not only vary the [topping] ingredients but we sometimes change up the meat as well,” says Mizner. “So we’ll have a lamb burger or pork or sausage burger. It’s been quite popular. I just had a lady call me on the phone and ask what the burger’s going to be next Tuesday. I was like, ‘Whatever you want! If you have a suggestion, throw it at me and I’ll make it.’ ”

Accommodating, friendly, easy to like: That’s Hook & Ladder in a nutshell—and, not coincidentally, it’s a pretty good description of Sacramento itself. Indeed, our city was Bazett and Modrow’s ultimate inspiration for dreaming bigger in opening Hook & Ladder. “First and foremost, we opened this place because of our love for Sacramento,” says Bazett. “We’ve made our lives here, and we strongly believe in Sacramento’s potential. This is our time.” No kidding—Hook & Ladder is clearly on fire. S