Travel

The Overlooked California City That's About to Blow Up as a Food Destination

Octavio Valencia
Octavio Valencia
Octavio Valencia

In the glamorous family that is California’s cities, Sacramento is the sister everyone forgets. She’s the gritty, grain-fed burden-bearer who still works the family farm while San Francisco and LA get famous launching tech IPOs and making movies. Meanwhile that slacker San Diego just eats fish tacos and surfs all day.

You know the least about Sacramento because it’s inland. It’s flat. It’s smaller. And most people outside California know it best for having a gold-crowned statehouse and because the Kings got screwed that one year in the playoffs.

But Sacramento’s on the cusp of making it as a must-visit town for anyone who loves food, and people are beginning to notice. It’s the hub of America’s most abundant agricultural region, has access to more ingredients than any other city, and for a number of reasons, is finally attracting talent and investment to match its gardens. While the big joke about “farm-to-table” restaurants in bigger destinations is that they all have a Sysco truck parked out front, in Sacramento, they mean it quite literally.

America’s stealthy farm-to-fork capital

The food scene in Sacramento is a throwback to the Old World, where chefs go to farmers markets and forge relationships with growers, crafting menus based on what’s in season and what fits best.

In some ways, this isn’t a huge departure from what your favorite food city does. “Cities that have big-time food culture,” says Chris Barnum, who owns Localis in downtown Sacramento, “they all order their produce from Northern California.” The difference is, here, you’re getting that produce when it’s still dripping with dew and flecked with moist soil.

Centro
Centro
Centro

“If you wanna call it farm-to-fork, go ahead,” Dave Nelson, a culinary instructor, says as he stands among farmers, restaurateurs, and chefs at a weekly farmers market under Interstate 80. “It’s really just following the philosophy of what being a chef really is.”

Amid the grandmothers sizing up carrots and the parents pushing strollers, you can see buyers from the Paragary Group, the city’s largest restaurant group, chatting up farmers whose ingredients will be in front of diners within mere hours. The Sierra Nevada jack cheese, chilies, cilantro, and avocado they find will be in quesadillas de epazote tonight at Centro, their Mexican concept. Ditto the slow-cooked lamb and sweet pepper ragu for the rigatoni at the flagship Paragary’s.”That’s the Selland group right over there,” Dan Best, the market’s coordinator, says as he points to a truck loaded up with boxes of meat and produce. “They own Ella, and a lot of fine-dining nice places. You can see Randall (Selland) over there doing the selecting himself.”

By the end of the night, Selland’s selections will top the gorgonzola dolce pizza at his casual Italian spot Obo, where prosciutto, caramelized onions, fresh rosemary, local honey, and radicchio all come from the market — a fresh, locally sourced meal for all of $16.50. Oh, that’s the other thing chefs love about Sacramento: Costs run way less than elsewhere in Cali.

The best ingredients (and cheap rent) attract ace chefs

“Chefs are able to do great things in Sac because restaurant spaces are cheaper,” says Lauren Ladoceour, the travel editor at Sunset Magazine. Ladoceour recently chose Sacramento for the magazine’s annual Best Places to Live issue, based largely on its food innovation. “So there’s this move of Bay Area chefs to Sacramento both because of the rent and proximity to great ingredients.”

Rudy Meyers Photography
Rudy Meyers Photography
Rudy Meyers Photography

It’s no secret that exorbitant rents are a huge factor in fast restaurant turnover in major cities. Barnum says his rent in Sacramento is a third what it would be in San Francisco. A quick perusal of restaurant spaces for lease in both cities backs him up: Sacramento rents come in at between $21-$30 per square foot annually near Downtown, San Francisco getting above $85 is some areas. Los Angeles isn’t much better; rents in Santa Monica approach $80. Even Seattle costs more, with rents in the $35 range.

This is why chefs like Brad Cecchi, who earned a Michelin star at Solbar in Calistoga, California, returned to his hometown to helm the kitchen at Canon in East Sac. The unassuming structure in the predominantly residential neighborhood feels like a winery ranch house, and plays with local ingredients in a way one would expect in Napa or San Francisco. It’s best expressed by the grilled Mishima Ranch bavette served with smoked onion and cabrales blue cheese. Though the red kuri squash and heirloom tomatoes with avocado and basil are good if you’re eating light.

Another example is Sam Marvin, of LA’s Bottega Louie and Las Vegas’ Echo and Rig, who’s opening a spot in Sacramento early in 2018.

“I’m going into Sac for the same reasons I went into downtown LA (in 2009),” Marvin says. “It’s ready for takeoff. It feels like Portland or Seattle did 10 years ago. There’s a craft culture here, and you see chefs starting to branch out and do their own thing. It’s a phenomenal opportunity to be in Sacramento now.”

Midtown Farmers Market Sacramento
Midtown Farmers Market Sacramento
Midtown Farmers Market Sacramento

Sacramento is already where the food at your favorite restaurant comes from

“I’ve had people from here go to Moto in Chicago or (Momofuku) Milk Bar in New York and say ‘the produce there was shit,'” says Pat Mulvaney, a New York transplant and proprietor of Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento’s Midtown. “It’s not shit. It’s the same stuff we use here. It’s just picked a week earlier.”

Exactly how much food are your favorite restaurants getting from Sacramento? The city sits in the northern end of California’s Central Valley, a swath 450 miles long and 60 miles wide packed with the greatest Class 1 soil in the world. Within a few hours drive of the city you’ll find 250 different crops, asparagus to zucchini, with a heavy dose of rice (99% of the state’s crop).

Also, that “fresh” caviar they serve at Per Se in New York? That comes from Sterling Caviar, one of the producers that helps Sacramento account for 80% of domestic US caviar. Nearly all of America’s processed tomatoes — and a third of the world’s supply — come from Sacramento. Most of those wine grapes they use in your favorite Napa wines? Grown around Sacramento. Venture a little further, and you’ll find the Central Valley producing 8% of the country’s total agricultural output, including 40% of the fruit and a third of our produce.

“In bigger cities, everything has to go a long distance,” says Localis’ Barnum. “In Sac, things are close. We’re literally surrounded by farms, so we get the best stuff.”

Frank Fat's
Frank Fat’s
Frank Fat’s

Localis captures the essence of what a creative chef can do with the ingredients around him. On a recent trip to his lively indoor/outdoor spot, he served something called a “foicho” – essentially a fresh-made chicharron topped with foie gras and local greens, atop a potato puree. This is typical of the stuff you’ll find on his rotating menu, which if you try and research online will only yield vague descriptions like “changing fish inspired by what’s fresh” and “homemade pasta made with the season’s best.”

In San Francisco, dinner for two with wine at a similar spot could top $300. At Localis, you can be out the door for half that.

“We’re not as fancy and pretentious as San Francisco and we never will be,” says Sacramento Magazine dining editor Marybeth Bizjak, after recounting a story of a visitor who once asked her if it was worth renting a car and driving to the Bay Area for a “decent meal” while he was staying in Sacramento. “But we’ve got the farms and the chefs and the people interested in food. And if you’re here from out of town, you should give us a chance.”

So why hasn’t the world been beating a path to Sacramento’s kitchen door?

Sacramento doesn’t have a Michelin-starred restaurant. Its lone James Beard Award was an “American Classics” nod to the venerable Frank Fat’s, a sort of lifetime achievement medal for food. So why, if it sits within watermelon-tossing distance of America’s produce aisle, has this big time ag town not caught up to its more renowned California neighbors?

“For a lot of us, getting national media attention isn’t our focus,” says Mulvaney. “Our focus is on feeding people.”

Octavio Valencia
Octavio Valencia
Octavio Valencia

If that sounds like a cop-out, well, consider where you’d go if you were trying to be famous: Los Angeles, or Sacramento? The overall lack of self-promotion — and, if we’re being honest, Sacramento’s enduring rep as a cow town — hasn’t overturned the presumption that Sacramento has no taste.

“Chefs will go an hour and a half away because there’s an audience in San Francisco,” says Marvin, the LA and Vegas chef setting up shop in Sac. “But what I’m seeing is that audience is coming to Sac because people who were living in the Bay Area get priced out. And the city is about to blow up. In five years you’ll be talking about it just like you do about Portland or Seattle. You watch.”

Sunset‘s Ladoceour concurs with that timeline.

“In terms of ingredients, yes, Sacramento is right up there with San Francisco or any other city,” she says. “There just aren’t big, newsworthy restaurants causing a scene on a national level yet. There aren’t enough fine dining places to nerd out over yet. But in the next five to 10 years, it will solidify itself as a major dining city.”

And it’s one that’s worth a visit as anywhere in the region. It’s close to wine country and the mountains. You can bike through orchards and pick your own fruit. There are even farmers who make their own cheese. It’s all the same stuff that draws people to Provence, yet only a scant 90 minutes from San Francisco.

It doesn’t have the accolades yet of Italy or LA — or, for that matter, of Napa. What Sac does have are ingredients on par with anywhere on the continent and young creative chefs who are building their own thing. If you’re planning a trip to Northern California, make dinner in Sacramento a stop on the way. You can still discover it before it’s cool, but not for much longer.  Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who stopped watching the NBA after Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.  Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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