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Journey of Spicy Discovery

European adventurers once sailed into unknown seas looking for spices. We might not go quite that far, but we will venture to park downtown. Our reward? A voyage of flavor findings at The Allspicery, the 2015 winner of Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s annual “Calling All Dreamers” contest for retail start-ups, which store owner Heather Wong entered on a whim, born of her difficulty with local sourcing of seasonings that she encountered on global travels. Her brainchild, Sacramento’s first spice shop, glows with neat, enticing jars of zesty aromatics: bright yellow turmeric, salts in pastel pink, brick-red chilies (like urfa biber, a Turkish chili flake that Wong says “changed her life”), and everything from fair-trade saffron grown in Afghanistan, which Wong is particularly proud to carry, to cubeb berries. Opened last April, the specialty emporium also offers teas (mixed-in-house allergy tea has been a recent hit), flavored sugars and cocoas, plus wonderful blends like Everything Bagel mix, shichimi togarashi (a Japanese red-pepper sprinkle), an espresso spice rub with Chocolate Fish coffee, or our latest favorite, zhug, a dusky-hot Yemeni mélange of cumin, coriander, tianjin chilies, cardamom, cilantro and more, which enlivens everything from scrambled eggs to olive oil for dipping crudités. Everything is fresh, fragrant, well priced and available by the ounce in small bags, making new discoveries easy—especially since The Allspicery validates parking. 1125 11th St. 389-7828. allspicery.com

Photos by Max Whittaker

Cinderella Story

Everybody loves an underdog, right? The Bad News Bears. The Mighty Ducks. Rocky. Now you can add the Aggies to that list of scrappy, against-all-odds heroes. The UC Davis men’s basketball team made school history—and stunned the sporting world—when it entered the NCAA Division I Tournament, Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP Photoalbeit as the 16th-seeded team, for the first time ever this year. Picture our boys in blue and gold—and head coach Jim Les, a former Kings guard—exploding with excitement upon hearing their team’s name during the broadcast of Selection Sunday at The Davis Graduate sports bar. Did they care that no last seed had ever won a bracket matchup? They did not, and neither did we, because we’d fallen head over heels for this team, a love that blossomed even as Davis—cheered on by none other than actor Rob Lowe, who donned a UCD cap for the occasion—went down swinging against the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in the first round at the Big Dance, proving that nobody puts an Aggie out to pasture without a fight.

Buzzfeed-Fueled Phenom

If you’ve been stopping into BJ Cinnamon for your crumb cronut fix since the family-owned donut shop opened in Folsom in 2011, you may be mystified by the long line suddenly snaking out the door. Mystery solved: In March, BuzzFeed released its list of the “Best Bakery in Every State,” Photo by Marc Thomas Kallweitwhich declared humble BJ tops in all of California. The news spread like molten hot frosting, and soon throngs of foodie pilgrims spilled out the front door and into the parking lot, hoping to nab a maple bacon bar or chocolate coconut cake doughnut. Barbara “BJ” Pho and her family, who run the shop together, now bake into the wee hours, making over 600 of their signature cinnamon rolls every weekend to meet the feverish demand. Well, guess what? Those gooey, warm rolls, glazed to order, are totally worth the wait. But what keeps us coming back is the Pho family’s hospitality, the way they remember your name and often slip you a few doughnut holes even after you’ve paid. Fair warning, though: Just because overnight fame hasn’t gone to BJ’s head doesn’t mean that cronut isn’t going straight to your hips. 402 E. Bidwell St. Folsom. 608-8824

Supermarket Circular

When the legendary pioneer of California cuisine Alice Waters declares that local grocer Darrell Corti “knows everything about everything,” how do you know what she means? You read the newsletter he writes, that’s how. In a folded-paper missive published roughly seasonally by Corti Brothers (ask for it in the wine department if it isn’t on display, or, less fun, browse back issues on the store’s website), the gourmand writes with encyclopedic knowledge about the foods stocked at his East Sacramento market, offering up poetic paeans to specialty items like Loison Colomba bread (“made in the shape of a flying dove”), artisanal Italian artichoke hearts (“when you taste these their flavor astounds with its preciseness”) or humble Pickapeppa sauce (“bright flavor to pick up jaded appetites”). A historian, too, Corti quotes Thomas Jefferson in lauding a Piemonte wine and a Benedictine nun from the Middle Ages to describe a cookie. In addition to the depth of his expertise, the grocer’s zeal for all things zesty is always at the fore, especially when he’s sharing a discovery. “When was the last time you drank a bottle of Armenian wine? At one time this would have been cause for a stunned, perplexed look,” he wrote recently. “It is charming to be swept off one’s feet by a new wine, and I was. You will too!” Consider us charmed. 5810 Folsom Blvd. 736-3800. cortibrothers.com

Honey of a Melon Mocktail 

With all the buzz attending the rise of craft cocktails in Sacramento, it can be easy to overlook the mixological magic that goes into a great, alcohol-free mocktail. Consider Iron Horse Tavern’s watermelon fizz, as refreshing in the summer months as it is sunny in the winter—truly a drink for all seasons (and designated drivers). Don’t let the fruity name scare you off: The watermelon purée base, responsible for the drink’s rosy pinkness, is subtle. The beverage’s primary appeal comes from its marriage of lemon juice and honey—two dependable, sweet-sour lovers from way back—with the gentle kick of ginger ale. Served in the sturdy elegance of a mason jar garnished with a lime wedge, it looks as good as it tastes. And with no booze added, you don’t have to be bashful about ordering a second glass. Yes, we’ll have another (and another and another). 1800 15th St. 448-4488. ironhorsetavern.net

Little Slices of Heaven

Don’t be surprised if a chorus of cherubim trumpeting “Hallelujah” sounds off in your head when you take your first bite of the angel food cake French toast at BarnBurner. The Rocklin breakfast-lunch spot, owned by husband-wife team Gabe Harris and Tiffany York Harris, specializes in classic homey brunch foods with a unique spin, and its celestial twist on traditional French toast has been praised to the high heavens by saints and sinners alike. Chef Gabe takes thick, triangular wedges of the pillowy sponge cake (whipped egg whites give it that airy loft), quickly dips them into a bath of heavy cream, eggs, vanilla, brown sugar and cinnamon, and rests them gently on the grill, where the segments get a gossamer-thin crust. Finished with a handful of blueberries and strawberries and a swirl of whipped cream, the French toast—which Tiffany developed in honor of her dad, who counted angel food cake as his favorite dessert—is fluffy, light and (surprisingly) not overly sweet, resulting in a dulcet morning meal that is simply divine. 4800 Granite Dr. Rocklin. 259-1751

Photo by Marc Thomas Kallweit

Meditation Class for the Unenlightened 

A recent Harvard study indicates that eight weeks of daily meditation can rearrange the gray matter of the brain, a neurological reboot that can result in improved memory and mood. But what to do if you’re one of those who has just never felt the woo, if talk of crystals and chakras makes you cringe? You’ll feel right at “om” at the low-key Lion’s Roar Dharma Center, a Buddhist temple housed in a former Armenian church in midtown, where every other Monday evening there’s a refreshingly nondenominational and beginner-friendly hour called “Just Plain Sitting.” Following the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, a kindly and oh-so-chill fellow (wearing a plaid shirt, not a saffron robe) will gladly instruct you on technique, the gist of which is to sit in a relaxed yet erect posture (on a chair or floor cushion, your choice), paying attention to your breathing and letting the thoughts that intrude go by instead of diving down rabbit holes to chase them. As it turns out, sitting around is deceptively challenging, but the center’s beautiful khanga-lined space and the quiet support of like-minded strangers create a supremely serene environment that gently encourages focus and gives a whole new meaning to the term “happy hour.” 3240 B St. lionsroardharmacenter.org

Cafe with Political Intrigue 

Whether you’re a freelancer looking for an excuse to use your outside voice for a change or a cubicle dweller looking for a break from the tyranny of the beige, your new have-laptop-will-travel location of choice should be the freshly renovated Statehouse Café on the sixth floor of the State Capitol. Why is this the ne plus ultra of workaday coffeehouse hangs? Whether you prefer to perch at the bar-height communal table hewn from a redwood tree that fell in Capitol Park or lounge in a mid-mo club chair under an artichoke globe pendant lamp, you can rest assured that there will be good lighting and plenty of power outlets, as interior designer Jenn Crabbé and restaurateur Chris Jarosz of Broderick fame had busy lobbyists in mind when they revamped the former cafeteria last winter (the pair are retooling the Capitol’s entire dining program over the coming year). Other perks: Heavy building security means you can leave your gear while grabbing a refill, and you can work through lunch, thanks to a grab-and-go menu of fresh salads, sandwiches and daily specials like mushroom soup with balsamic reduction and Vietnamese vermicelli salad with carrot, daikon and mint from head chef Dan Watterson, at under $10 a plate. But the afternoon hours are our favorite (the cafe is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.), when the legislators and analysts have gone back to their digs and there’s nothing but the arboreal view and the hushed thrum of history in the making to keep you on task, whether you are writing the Great American Novel or a letter to your assemblywoman. California State Capitol. 1315 10th St. statehouserestaurant.com

Steak Charmer

We adore Cielito Lindo, the refined Mexican eatery that rose from (literal) ashes at 37th and J streets in East Sacramento. (Chef-owner Ramiro Alarcon, who opened his tiny restaurant-that-could in September 2013 to spread true Mexican gastronomy north of the border, had to close his dream business just seven months later due to a fire, but reopened with an expanded menu in June 2015.) While many of Alarcon’s creations are restrained, and all boast complex flavor profiles, there’s one that could hardly get bigger or better: the pepito de arrachera, a hearty steak sandwich that’s a modern take on a traditional Mexican torta. In it, a soft, yeasty baguette-style roll is loaded with delicious contrasts: meaty slices of grilled flank steak, fiery chipotle, a smear of earthy refried beans, refreshing pico de gallo and cool avocado. Alarcon’s genius for combining seemingly incompatible flavors (don’t miss the aguas frescas in flavors like the refreshing celery-pineapple) adds up to a lunch-only sandwich that’s elevated enough for the most refined palates, but filling enough to satisfy the largest appetites. 3672 J St. 736-2506. cielitolindo.us

Tasty Pasty

“Pasty” may rhyme with “nasty,” but the meat pie it refers to—the sole menu offering of East Sacramento’s quaint, long-running Pasty Shack—is anything but. Pasties originated hundreds of years ago in southwest England when miners, in need of a hearty, portable lunch, wrapped savory beef stew in sturdy crust. The traditional, well-browned, oblong turnovers came with them as they emigrated to U.S. during the Gold Rush, including to the Grass Valley area. The Pasty Shack, which occupies a minuscule spot on J Street near 48th (look for the smiling orange pasty stickered to the front window and painted on a wall), has been dishing up hot, savory, easy-to-love meat pies to loyal Sacramentans since 1948. While its meat and potatoes—literally—is still the classic Cornish pie (which contains, yes, a beef stew with chunks of hearty potato), the Shack includes fresh new spins on its menu: We especially love the spicy Friday special, a chile verde pasty with pork, refried beans and a chili-rich sauce. It might not be recognizable in Cornwall, but it’s the perfect California take on a uniquely British tradition. 4746 J St. 454-9630


 

Photo by Max Whittaker

Art Book Oracle

Ducking into Richard L. Press Fine & Scholarly Books on the Arts on a leafy corner in Boulevard Park is like crossing a magic threshold into Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. Once inside, you’re in a timeless world, with a calligraphed sign that reads “Occasionally rare, frequently scarce, always fine.” Then you meet Press: a smiling, spectacled gentleman sitting at a cluttered, Dickensian desk at the back of the clean, organized, yet joyfully jumbled shop. He’ll gladly give you a tour of his 7,000 titles—mid-century architecture over here, decorative arts of the 20th century there, more in the back. The shop doesn’t see a lot of foot traffic— seems the young Warehouse Artist Lofts residents haven’t discovered him yet—but his customers are loyal, like grocer Darrell Corti, for whom Press tracks down hard-to-find culinary titles. You’re welcome to dip into that rare 1987 monograph on painter Eric Fischl, have a seat in a Bertoia chair or grab a piece of candy out of a bowl designed by Finnish sculptor Tapio Wirkkala. At 85, Press, a former librarian with a PhD in anthropology, has been in business for almost 40 years, and this shop is his masterpiece. If you’re looking for a priceless edition, you won’t find one better than Press himself. 1831 F St. 447-3413. richardpressartbooks.com

Queen of Cute

The Japanese call it “kawaii”—the irresistible aesthetic of cuteness that has spawned global phenomena from Hello Kitty to Pokémon to Pusheen the Cat. Elk Grove-based illustrator Tiffany Tam has staked her own claim to the kawaii kingdom via her Mochi Bear Studio, the brand under which the 24-year-old UC Davis student designs her series of clever—and, yes, heart-tuggingly adorable—hybrids of animals and food that appear on products like plush dolls, coin pouches, earrings and enamel pins. Take for example her punny “Avocuddle” drawing (featuring the titular fruit warmly embracing its own smiling seed—a design inspired by a running joke between Tam and her 5-year-old son, Ayden), her fluffy-eared ice cream cone “Strawbunny,” or her wry plays on Japanese cuisine like “Stegosaurus Nigiri.” Tam’s work has stirred a growing interest among fans everywhere from Instagram to Kickstarter (where she has pulled off two successful Mochi Bear projects this year) to anime conventions and even area high schools, where her drawings have helped give such forbidding concepts as cell biology their own huggable, anthropomorphic spin. How kawaii. mochibearstudio.weebly.com

Courtesy of Tiffany Tam

Puur Bliss

These days, gourmet sweets seem to lurk temptingly by every upscale market’s register, but all too often they’re disappointing. Not so the sea salt caramels from Puur Chocolat, the four-year-old confectioner started by pastry chef Ramon Perez (raised in Nevada City as the scion of Citronée Bistro, he once staged at Paris’ Pierre Gagnaire and other three-starred Michelin destinations). The chocolatier, based near McClellan Airfield, is perhaps best known for his gorgeous, rainbow-hued bonbons, but we’re obsessed with his humbler caramel sticks, which offer an object lesson in quality and attention to detail: Satisfyingly toothsome, they yield tenderly to the bite, and their deep chestnut shade gives a clue to their quality. Perez starts with a dry caramel (adding neither water nor glucose to the sugar as he cooks it), a more difficult technique that leads to darker, more complex and more flavorful caramel syrup taken to the edge of the sugar’s smoke point. Next, Perez adds Clover Organic cream (skipping the sweetened condensed milk many others use for convenience) and emulsifies the caramel mixture three times to ensure the finished candies are perfectly smooth—with the exception of the crunchy burst of Jacobsen sea salt from Oregon. Available online and locally at shops like Andy’s Candy Apothecary, these rich, rod-shaped beauties are our new favorite checkout treat, bar none. 530-277-0139. puurchocolat.com

Hors D'Oeuvre Addiction 

The zucchini chips at Lucca remain as craveable and compulsively eatable as they were when they first appeared on the restaurant’s original menu in 2003 (and, later, on the menu at Lucca’s sister eatery Roxy). Their allure is undeniable, arriving on the table in a hot, fresh, decadent heap that prompts you to groan, “Oh, I can’t finish those,” just milliseconds before you plunge in like a kid jumping into a pile of crisp fall leaves and inevitably devour every last crunchy sliver. Like all genius, the secret of the chips’ success is rooted in both simplicity and consistency: Lucca’s kitchen pros thinly shave more than 40 pounds of zucchini daily on a Japanese mandoline, refrigerate the slices for a day to achieve minimal (but crucial) dehydration to avoid sticking, then dredge them in flour before frying them in rice bran oil and finishing with a flurry of kosher salt and chopped parsley. With chips this finger lickin’ good, bet you can’t eat just one. 1615 J St. 669-5300. luccarestaurant.com
 

School Lunch Meat

At the UC Davis Meat Lab, the beef, pork, lamb and chicken are butchered by students in the college’s ag program, who also staff the store—little more than a concrete closet next to the campus slaughterhouse. Photo by Marc Thomas KallweitThese fresh-faced farm scholars will gladly give you a professional agrarian’s view on grass-fed vs. grain-finished (their meat is the latter). Flats of chicken and quail eggs—whose shells are as thick as porcelain and whose yolks are the color of sunshine—share space in the chiller with dry-aged tri-tips, hanger steaks and pork chops (smoked or au naturel), and in the freezer you’ll find tubes of ground beef or pork, chorizo or zesty Italian sausage. On the grill, the hanger steak has such intensely beefy flavor that if you’ve grown up on typical supermarket meat, you might find it gamy, but if you’ve ever been to a real steakhouse in Brazil or Argentina, you’ll be misting over with nostalgia. And that chorizo—it’s like a fiesta in your mouth. The meat lab is only open Thursday and Friday afternoons (from 1-5:30 p.m., cash or check only), and may be closed during school holidays, so call ahead if you don’t want to be left asking “Where’s the beef?” 446 La Rue Rd. Davis. 530-752-7410. animalscience.ucdavis.edu/facilities

 

Dine-In Gas Station

Ask anyone in the know where to get the best Indian food in Sacramento and the answer will always be “at home.” Restaurant culture didn’t exist in India until recently, save for the traditional dhaba, or truck stop, where curries and chai are served in disposable clay cups. So it’s only fitting that one of the best new Indian buffets in town is inside a Chevron in West Sacramento. Manager Dino Anklesaria has been known to slip a few exotic khattu mithu (sweet and sour) Parsi dishes from his native Bombay into the lineup since the spot reopened as Curry Paradise last fall, alongside regular offerings like a dusky goat curry fragrant with cardamom, buttery chicken tikka masala bright with fenugreek, and chana masala tangy with amchoor (dried green mango powder). At Indian restaurants in Britain—where the “curry shop” tradition first flourished—apprentices can train for years before earning the right to bake naan, and new head chef Rajoo Phria has been at it for a decade, so it’s no surprise that the best dish at this Chevron station is a humble basket of crispy yet chewy tandoori garlic naan. Now that’s what we call cooking with gas. 705 Harbor Pointe Pl. West Sacramento. 273-6777. curryparadiseca.com

Icing on the Beefcake

Last August, Freeport Bakery owner Marlene Goetzeler innocently posted a photo to Facebook of a cake that her shop had just done on special order, with Barbie’s longtime beau Ken in full drag, sporting a buttercream ball gown, flower sash, tiara, necklace and earrings. The sight of this masculine mini mannequin frosted in female formalwear caused an uproar online. At first, detractors accused Goetzeler of exploiting her Land Park business to support the transgender community, but soon folks from countries as far afield as Ireland, New Zealand and Taiwan flocked to social media to defend the local bakery. Goetzeler decided to embrace her newfound status as an ambassador for acceptance, and the shop now sells shirts bearing the slogan “More Cake, Less Hate,” and donates $5 of each sale to a Sierra Forever Families program that helps homeless transgender, gay and lesbian children find adoptive parents. Over the past year, Freeport’s decorators Carol Clevenger and Emily Poage have created dozens of edible confections featuring the strapping studmuffin in festive gowns inspired by holidays like Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year and Bastille Day (pictured). No matter what he’s wearing, the message of inclusion that this gallant gateau conveys will always take the cake. 2966 Freeport Blvd. 442-4256. freeportbakery.com

Photo by Jeremy Sykes