As Sacramento’s first family of Chinese food celebrates its flagship restaurant’s 75th anniversary, delicious—and bittersweet—changes are in the air.
Then and now: The late Frank Fat (pictured at left) at his eponymous restaurant; his daughter-in-law Lina Fat, director of food at Fat’s Family of Restaurants, with Frank Fat’s new executive chef Mike Lim
Photo of Frank Fat courtesy of the Fat Family. Photo of Mike Lim and Lina Fat by Jeremy Sykes
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OOne summer night 50 years ago in Sacramento, a pharmacist walked into a Chinese restaurant on L Street. Behind the unassuming façade, she saw a bar and dining room thrumming with life. The city’s social animals prowled the long cave of the interior—legislators, lobbyists, lawyers, politicos, paramours and every species in between, all customarily welcomed by 60-year-old proprietor Frank Fat, a onetime dishwasher at the Sutter Club in the middle of his 25th year in business as a restaurant owner. The pharmacist, from Hong Kong by way of San Francisco, took in the surroundings with her husband, Ken.
“Let me say it this way: I was not as impressed as the local people were,” recalls Lina Fat, 76, laughing inside the Fat’s restaurant empire’s headquarters in Old Sacramento. “I didn’t know or have any association with [local politics]. I thought it was a good restaurant. That’s about it.”
A wry smile accompanies this memory, one of hundreds that Lina Fat has amassed since her first visit to Frank Fat’s, her late father-in-law’s legendary downtown institution. That “good” restaurant would come to inspire the pharmacist-turned-chef whose culinary vision has only grown and burnished Fat’s legend in the intervening half-century. Encompassing four restaurants, a catering enterprise and three generations of Fats, the family business has grown into the region’s preeminent dining dynasty.
Yet even with Fat’s eateries thriving in Roseville, Folsom and Old Sacramento, it’s the L Street flagship that continues to captivate the imagination of Capitol habitués (Gov. Brown is a regular) with its mystery, mythology and menu built over 75 years—an unbroken stretch that makes Frank Fat’s the oldest fine-dining restaurant in the city. The establishment, which was originally named Frank’s 806 for its street address, will officially celebrate the milestone this fall, at the end of an 18-month stretch that has also seen the hot spot welcome a talented new executive chef and become the first Sacramento restaurant to earn a prestigious James Beard Award. (Widely considered the Oscars of the food world, the awards in 2013 recognized Frank Fat’s as an “American Classic.”) Throughout, Fat’s has intriguingly absorbed and refined the seasonal flavors for which Sacramento is becoming internationally known.
“One phrase I always like to use is, ‘Elevate the cuisine,’ ” says Mike Lim, who joined the Frank Fat’s kitchen as executive chef last December. “Some of the subtle, important adjustments were the quality of ingredients. They’re fresher. It’s really simple: You can stir-fry a dish and just upgrade the ingredients. That’s one simple way to do it.”
A native Sacramentan who was born and raised in the Greenhaven neighborhood, Lim has reaped the benefits of the region’s agricultural bounty since launching himself into a culinary career right out of Kennedy High School. (He was referred to the Fats by Russell Okubo, a former Fat City executive chef who is now chef-owner of Aji Japanese Bistro in El Dorado Hills, for whom Lim worked as a teen.) After earning a degree at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Lim’s trajectory took him to Del Frisco’s in Manhattan and Victoria & Albert’s in Orlando (an acclaimed fine-dining outpost within the Walt Disney World Resort) before looping back to NorCal to serve as sous-chef at Martin Yan’s M.Y. China in San Francisco.
Lim says he had been looking for a professional route back to Sacramento when the Frank Fat’s opportunity arose. His regard for the restaurant’s heritage matched his eagerness for the challenge posed by the Fat family, led by Lina and her son Kevin, vice president and chief operating officer of the Fat Family Restaurant Group. (Frank Fat’s youngest son, Jerry, the company’s CEO, predominantly oversees the sizable real estate portfolio collected under the Frank Fat Properties banner.)
“We all know what Frank Fat’s was in the 1950s and the 1980s—those glorious times—and how it evolved,” Lim says. “For me, it was the menu. How did the menu change? How did the city change? How did downtown change? We spoke a lot about now. It’s very competitive. There are a lot of restaurants out there. You have to keep up with the times. They really wanted someone like myself to come in and reenergize the kitchen and the menu a little bit.”
For Lim and the Fats alike, that renaissance meant striking a tricky balance between adventurous new offerings and enduring Fat’s classics like yu kwok (a fried dumpling appetizer featuring a savory, peppery blend of minced pork and beef), the legendary honey walnut prawns dish, which stands out as a crispier, lighter alternative to the more mayonnaise-centric recipes at conventional Chinese restaurants, and the onion-smothered Frank’s Style New York Steak (which, along with the yu kwok, is a favorite dish of Gov. Brown).
“We’ve basically said [to Lim], ‘Maintain the signature items or improve them,’ ” explains Kevin Fat, 46. He bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather Frank as a young man—piercing dark eyes set in a broad face, and soft-spoken between warm smiles. “After that, we want him to show us what he can do. Let’s be creative and reinvent ourselves, in a way.”
Strange or even heretical as it might sound, keep in mind: Reinvention is practically as much a part of Fat’s heritage as its banana cream pie, the iconic dessert that Frank Fat and his original chef introduced in the 1940s. (The pie, among other dishes, emerged as the runaway hit among early Frank Fat’s acolytes who requested a few Western-style additions to the menu.) After all, this was an old Italian joint that its new owner turned into a Chinese institution in 1939. Once a penniless Cantonese immigrant scraping by in kitchens around the United States, Frank Fat (he dropped his given name, Dong Sai-Fat, in the mid-’30s) quickly became one of Sacramento’s most successful restaurateurs through mastering the arts of food and discretion for the state’s most powerful leaders. One of the few noteworthy breaches came in the 1940s, when Fat brought his young children to work with him and told them not to approach the once-curtained booths in the back of the restaurant.
“So of course we did that, right?” recalls Fat’s son Ken, 75. “I remember one time we pulled the curtains open and saw a couple floundering around. That was the old days—the legislators, and the women they brought in. We were surprised. Of course, they were surprised.”