As Sacramento’s first family of Chinese food celebrates its flagship restaurant’s 75th anniversary, delicious—and bittersweet—changes are in the air.
(page 2 of 2)
Legislators also stayed busy working with lobbyists and even with each other. The legend goes that for decades, legislative deals were as likely (if not more likely) to be cinched over drinks at Frank Fat’s as they were over desks at the Capitol. (Insiders came to regard the restaurant as the “Third House,” after the Senate and the Assembly; the lobby still boasts a framed image of a napkin on which former Assembly Speaker and avowed Frank Fat’s devotee Willie Brown engineered a new law in 1987.) That symbiosis between downtown neighbors was never more evident than on June 18, 1984, when the Fats closed down the restaurant’s block of L Street to welcome more than 4,000 guests to a party honoring the family patriarch’s 80th birthday and yet another reinvention: the full-scale remodel of Frank Fat’s by famed interior designer Anthony Machado, whose work had been featured on the cover of Architectural Digest and who, in 1990, would be named by that magazine as one of the top 100 designers in the world.
A U.S. District Judge served as the event’s emcee; the Reagans sent their best wishes. (Frank Fat’s collected correspondence, also featuring letters from Bill Clinton and former governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian, is housed at Sacramento State; every California governor since 1939 has dined at the eatery.) The electricity went out just before dark, but Lina Fat—the reinvented pharmacist who helped develop the menus at new Fat’s restaurants in the ’70s before taking classes at the Culinary Institute of America in the ’80s—swiftly saved the day with a generator. “Good thing I had a good relationship with the city manager,” she says, telling the story today with charming nonchalance. When Frank Fat passed away in 1997 at age 93, condolences poured in from the upper echelons of American power. “There was a grace and dignity and decency in the man that I sensed even as a child,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Sacramento native. “There was stability, too, coming from the confidence and humanity he used to bridge time and generations and to arch two civilizations.”
With goodwill and juice like that, there was no inherent imperative for the family to tinker with anything at Frank Fat’s, let alone bring in a dynamic young chef like Lim to punch up a 75-year-old Sacramento tradition. The restaurant has more than enough fine menu standards to thrive for at least another generation, including such less-heralded gems as the mango ginger chicken (in which chunks of fresh fruit and pickled ginger duet in spicy-sweet harmony) and the chili beef chow fun that layers bracing bolts of heat on a bed of rich, comforting noodles.
Yet there’s Lim at work on new delights like vegetable hakka noodle, which derives from a 16th-century mainland cooking style that Lim likens to the “soul food of Chinese cuisine.” The dish marries a chilled wheat noodle with Chinese pesto (which trades such traditional pesto elements as sweet basil, pine nuts and olive oil for Thai basil, peanuts and sesame oil), topped with stir-fried mushrooms and a traditional sauce fusing garlic, oyster sauce and ginger. There’s also the surprisingly light dried scallop fried rice, or the steamed Prince Edward mussels stir-fried with onions, peppers, Thai basil and decidedly untraditional black-bean butter sauce. “It’s a little more rich,” Lim says. “The Chinese don’t usually use butter, but the flavor’s there. It’s great; it’s different—a little more unique. You probably won’t find that in China.”
You won’t find banana cream pie in China, either, but so what? Fat’s is deeply Sacramento, from its Capitol connections to its farm-to-fork forerunning—the latter a part of the Fat’s ethos since the days Frank and Mary Fat raised six children among chickens, fruit trees and vegetable crops on an acre near Auburn Boulevard and Watt Avenue. “[My mother] grew all the Chinese vegetables, and it only came seasonally,” says Ken Fat. “She would be harvesting corn and bok choy and gai lan, all that. Bitter melon, squashes—which you can only serve at certain times. That’s when you have it. So this farm-to-fork [concept], it’s nice that more people are aware of it, but we had it at Frank Fat’s even way back then.”
Lim, meanwhile, draws ingredients from all over the bountiful region; he recently showcased stone fruit from Newcastle-based Twin Peaks Orchards in his sweet and sour pork dish, and plans to integrate winter squash from West Sacramento’s Del Rio Botanical across the menu. He participated in the city’s Farm-to-Fork Restaurant Weeks in September with items like stuffed quail (featuring sticky rice, Chinese pears from O’Connell Ranch in Colusa and Fuji apples from Apple Hill) and a Szechuan heirloom tomato soup deriving tomatoes from West Sacramento’s Yeung Farms and utilizing Lim’s signature ingredient—the Szechuan peppercorn. “It tingles and numbs your palate. When paired with the right ingredients—chilis, hot peppers—you get that combination of a spicy, tingly, numbing kind of sensation when you eat it,” the chef says. “That is true Szechuan flavor from the Szechuan region, as opposed to just making something spicy and saying, ‘Oh, it’s Szechuan.’ It’s more authentic.”
Inarguably the biggest change at Frank Fat’s, however, is off the menu.
“I think that it’s about time for the young people to go for it,” Lina Fat says of her forthcoming retirement from the Fat’s empire, where she has overseen kitchens in one role or another for 40 years. “Like Kevin. It’s time for the next generation to take over.”
There is no set timetable for her departure, only a gradual handing of the torch to the chain’s incoming corporate executive chef Curt Conant, a 25-year veteran of major restaurants from House of Blues in Los Angeles to Jimmy Buffett’s in Honolulu who’ll start at Fat’s restaurants this fall. “I don’t want to be too hands-on,” Lina Fat says of the succession. “Once you give up the position, you have to relinquish it. You can’t just stick around. That’s not good. I won’t be doing that. I just want to make sure that if he has any questions, to just ask.”
In the meantime, the Fat’s matriarch has developed a set of general guidelines—her working title is “The Fat Family Motto on Good Food”—that she hopes her successors will follow, a four-point kitchen mission statement about safety, technique, ingredients and flavor. “That’s what the legacy of our family and our restaurant is, right?” she says. “Food, and the food business. To define what good food is, and how to adhere to the principles.”
And whether it’s the brass “Frank Fat’s” overhang that now stands where the old neon “Frank’s 806” sign once did, or the new faces teeming around the tables, or the young woman who entered a good restaurant in 1964 only to leave a great one half a century later, the changes reflect the confidence and perennially open heart of a founder who inspired a capital city to follow his path.
“I think that’s probably the success of Frank Fat’s,” says Lina Fat. “Frank always thought that the restaurant was really like a family. He treated the customers like family. He treated the employees like family. He instilled that idea.” After 75 years, no other recipe in town has held up better. S