Saddle Rock, Sacramento’s first restaurant, rises from the ashes of history, reinvented by a new generation of culinary pioneers. It’s time to reconsider the oyster, among other delectations of Gold Rush gastronomy.
From left: An oyster on the half shell topped with steak tartare; the frog in the restaurant’s logo is a reference to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain, who frequented the original Saddle Rock
Photos by Jeremy Sykes
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BBaked oysters. Oysters on the half shell. Oyster bread. The Hangtown Fry. When Saddle Rock, Sacramento’s very first restaurant, opened in Old Sacramento in 1849, oysters were all the rage worldwide, a staple in the diets of the rich and poor alike, shipped to California on ice from as far away as Long Island and used in a dizzying array of dishes.
“Saddle Rock is actually the name of an oyster—a huge, rough oyster,” says Matt Masera, executive chef at restaurateur Chris Jarosz’s midtown reinvention of the legendary restaurant, which opened in early August near 18th and L streets in the space formerly occupied by Jarosz’s Capital Dime. Saddle Rocks, hearty and sturdy, were the ground chuck of the time; cooks of the era would chop these colossal mollusks to bits and add them to recipes like the namesake establishment’s signature oyster bread.
That oyster bread. When Masera and Jarosz were refining the concept for their reboot, Masera felt Saddle Rock wouldn’t be Saddle Rock without it, but feared modern diners might not warm to the idea.
He needn’t have worried; his 21st-century take on oyster bread is a revelatory golden popover served sliced open with a dollop of whipped, dill-infused butter melting into the airy pockets of dough. It’s chewy and crunchy, and like a soufflé, best devoured still steaming, within seconds of its appearance at your table. The oyster flavor comes from fresh oysters, ground and folded into the batter, and is but a subtle umami note, much the way anchovy informs a well-balanced Caesar salad.
The original Saddle Rock flooded, caught fire, closed, opened, and closed and opened again several times before finally shutting down for good in 1995. Jarosz stumbled across an article about the historic restaurant a few years ago, while researching Sacramento’s food history for another project and was bowled over by the elaborate menu and colorful past. Mark Twain was a regular. Charlie Chaplin dined there. Babe Ruth loved the oyster bread.
“It shaped the restaurant scene for Sacramento,” Jarosz says. He realized he had found the key to a truly regional vernacular cuisine that was ripe for exploration, and might just form the basis for the next phase of the capital city’s culinary consciousness-raising.
Still, the idea was a long time coming to fruition—Capital Dime closed in August 2015, and it was another year before Saddle Rock served its first meal. Jarosz, who started his entrepreneurial streak with a lone food truck in 2010, now has seven restaurants either open or in the works: three iterations of his popular hamburger joint, Broderick, upscale dining spots Localis and The Patriot (the latter is scheduled to launch in October at the Milagro Centre in Carmichael) and Rush, a coffee house and bike shop in partnership with Land Park institution College Cyclery to open next year. He’s also in the midst of taking charge of food services for the State Capitol. It’s no wonder Saddle Rock took a while to come together.
Not to mention, chef Kevin O’Connor, formerly of Blackbird, was originally slated to helm the Saddle Rock kitchen, but withdrew abruptly in May, just weeks before a planned June opening.
Jarosz is easygoing about the split. “Finding a chef is like dating. A lot of relationships don’t work out,” he says. He can be sanguine now, having landed Masera, who had serendipitously just departed his gig at Empress Tavern and Mother, to replace O’Connor. “I have to pinch myself and say, ‘You were a food truck guy five years ago, and now one of the best chefs in town is on your team.’ ” Jarosz says. “That’s a pretty humbling thing for me.”
Masera, a Folsom native who has also worked as executive pastry chef at James Beard-nominated Merriman’s in Hawaii and as chef de cuisine at Food Network star Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco—and once cooked for President Obama alongside Florence—immediately latched onto the Saddle Rock concept. “The world revolved around this city for a period of time; very few cities in the world can say that,” Masera says. The idea of being part of a historical tradition excited him.
“I found myself ordering books online and reading up on Old Sacramento saloons and the fare of that era,” Masera says. The old-fashioned menus with their pickled, preserved and roasted ingredients left him undaunted. Having cooked vegetarian food at Mother, Masera was used to being inventive within constraints, likening it to “cooking with one hand tied behind your back. It forces you, as a chef, to be more creative and edgy.”
As such, the new Saddle Rock is an inspired homage to the original, but the address—and the concept—have moved decidedly uptown. Masera has enlivened his Gold Rush-inspired menu with fresh ideas and ingredients, and the result is nostalgic without being anachronistic.