Courtside Cantina

An eye-catching Mexican eatery has opened across from the Golden 1 Center, boasting regionally sourced south-of-the-border dishes and a room with a view that’s perfect for hooping it up.

From left: Cochinita pibil croquettes atop a black bean salsa; the indoor-outdoor dining room is a perfect perch from which to take in the DoCo action
 

F“Feel free to wander around,” our server says, gesturing wide after setting down our smoky mescal cocktails. “I’ll keep an eye on your table.” It’s like she read our minds: Polanco Cantina—with its indoor-outdoor concept, including floor-to-ceiling garage-door-style windows overlooking the bustling Downtown Commons—beckons to be explored. As if on cue, a band of drummers breaks out into a pregame performance right in front of the Golden 1 Center’s main entrance, drawing us out onto the sweeping balcony. The tailgate-party atmosphere wafts up from the plaza—it’s only 5:30 on a Tuesday night, but Polanco is already packed with diners perusing a thoughtful menu that’s an homage to Mexico City (the restaurant is named after an affluent neighborhood in the foodie melting pot).

“The place was supposed to be convivial and high energy, so we decided that there was no better spot to open than DoCo, right in front of the arena,” says general manager Giovanni Joris, a San Francisco transplant charged with opening this buzzworthy new restaurant in October for the San Rafael-based Moana Restaurant Group, which owns dozens of upscale restaurants in the Western U.S. and Mexico, including Piatti in the Pavilions shopping center. “We thought we would mirror the [location’s] energy and bring something fun and delicious.”

An entrance mural by Mexican artist Senkoe depicts flower goddess Xochiquetzal, surrounded by her entourage of birds and insects.
The bird theme from the mural extends to the bar area, where leather barstools add a touch of luxe.

That same vibrant energy extends to Polanco’s interior design, helmed by San Rafael-based August Studio’s creative director Doug Washington, who certainly isn’t afraid of color (witness his design for Tyger Tyger in Santa Barbara, where he covered the ceiling in 500 hot-pink paper lanterns). Here he blends a mercado’s brightly hued visual chaos with bold strokes of black and white, modernist touches that bring some cool factor to the otherwise caliente scene. Facing south, one dining space is sectioned off by a pony wall constructed out of mostly white hollow cinder blocks—the clever appropriation of humble materials to create a sophisticated motif feels very right-now. Another wall, this time made of tall sansevierias—those straight-up succulents that mimic a punk rocker’s mohawk—creates a living screen between the main dining room and the bar. The tunnel-like entryway to the restrooms adopts an all-black theme, with giant, jewellike mirrors providing the bling. In the main dining room, a series of geometric chandeliers gives another nod to mod (some are festooned with upside-down bunches of dried blooms and herbs, a casual twist).

The color story further radiates out from a vivid “narrative graffiti” mural by Mexican street artist Senkoe entitled Nacimiento de las Flores (or Birth of the Flowers), which occupies the entrance, but sends birds soaring in a gleeful explosion throughout the 6,000-square-foot restaurant. The colors in the painting are picked up again in blue ombre tiles around the bar, bright orange bar tables and orange chairs on the patio. Touches of wood and leather add texture and luxe.

Polanco’s food-truck-style takeout window will have a proprietary computerized ordering system.

But Polanco isn’t just a feast for the eyes, it’s one for the taste buds too. Executive chef Adam Carpenter, a Bay Area native whom the East Bay’s Diablo magazine named “best new chef” in 2013 for his work at the Lafayette Park Hotel, began working on the menu a year ago—his research mission included a two-week tour of Mexico City, where he sampled fare from 68 different eating establishments, from street stands to white-tablecloth restaurants. “I lost count somewhere around taco three hundred,” he says, laughing. He brought that experience to Sacramento and put a farm-to-fork spin on his interpretation.

So what does a farm-to-fork approach to Mexican cuisine look—or rather, taste—like? Carpenter sources high-end California-grown ingredients, like heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo in Napa (made famous when Thomas Keller of The French Laundry discovered them in 2003) and sustainably raised beef from Brandt Farms (which counts celebrity chef Michael Mina among its customers) in Brawley, and showcases them strategically in his dishes. The flavors are individuated. For example, the ceviche, of rock cod sourced from San Francisco, evokes the taste of a salty sea breeze and instantly transports you to the Bay. Confident of the freshness of the fish, Carpenter uses a light touch on the marinade, and the fresh puréed jalapeño brings more depth than spice to the recipe. (Pro tip: The dish comes with plantain chips for scooping, but we prefer the house tortilla chips for their lighter crunch.)

 Cochinita pibil tacos, served on tortillas made from Oaxacan corn, are as colorful as they are spicy.

His roasted chicken entrée features a half Rocky Jr. chicken from Petaluma Poultry served on the bone and draped with mole manchamanteles (meaning “tablecloth stainer”) that consists of 18 ingredients and gets its sweetness from pineapples and plantains, not chocolate. The bird isn’t smothered, so the cinnamon-forward sauce complements the free-range bird’s distinctive flavor, rather than masking it.

Rock cod ceviche with gently spiced purée and plantain chips (Photo by Chantel Elder)

The taco menu showcases other tasty twosomes. For one successful union, Carpenter pairs pork belly with a drizzle of chipotle mint salsa—using mint where one’s palate expects cilantro is a clever touch. And the cochinita pibil, marinated pork cooked in toasted banana leaf (which you can also find in an appetizer of croquettes), is an early favorite, the fiery, citrusy adobo sauce cooled by pickled red onions and crisp fresh cabbage. It’s served with habañero sauce on the side if you’re a glutton for punishment, or just looking to get your adrenaline pumping prior to a Kings game. (The tacos rotate, but if they’re in the lineup when you visit, try the ones stuffed with chipotle-stewed oyster mushrooms from Sloughhouse’s Dragon Gourmet Mushrooms—whose fans include celebrated Sacramento chefs like Patrick Mulvaney and Mike Thiemann—for a hyperlocal treat.)

The real key to Polanco’s tacos, however, is the house-made blue corn tortilla. The maize is one of the few ingredients that isn’t regional, sourced from Oaxaca and ground locally into masa harina (corn flour) and pressed into tortillas that are toothsome and pliant and neatly contain your taco filling to the last bite. The tragedy of the taco menu is that the street food is only available in orders of two of a kind, while the tempting variety (duck, fish, mushroom, rajas) begs for a choose-your-own trio.

If you’re running late for a game or concert and need to grab something fast, Polanco will soon activate its taco “truck” (look for a colorful faux taco truck façade that surrounds a takeout window near the entrance), which will have an automated ordering system and its own menu.

Polanco’s velvety, caramel-based leche flan is dressed up with citrus and dragon fruit.

But why hurry? Even when the Kings are on the road, DoCo’s main plaza makes for great people-watching—you might spot a young couple lugging knee-high chess pieces around a board in quiet concentration, while a group of guy friends goof over a game of cornhole and art lovers snap selfies in front of Jeff Koons’ Coloring Book sculpture. All great neighborhood street scenes are made to be lingered over, preferably with a beverage in hand. 

Speaking of which, Polanco’s cocktail menu embraces smoky mescal, and if you’ve never tried tequila’s older brother (the brooding black sheep of the family), this is the perfect opportunity. A mezcal mule with ginger syrup, lime and soda will give you a gentle introduction to the drink’s pure flavor. An even gentler option is a piña humante, with slightly smoky Luna Azul Blanco tequila, pineapple and lime, served in a champagne cup with a pineapple leaf for garnish—a sophisticated alternative to a traditional margarita (also a great option here), made with hand-squeezed fresh lime juice sweetened with agave, and served on the rocks or as a refreshing slushie. If you feel spoiled for choice, just start at the top of those taco and cocktail menus and work your way down, sampling a new pairing on each subsequent home-game visit. This way, even if our boys in purple don’t score a win, you almost certainly will. S

414 K St. 916-536-7250. polancocantina.com