Dining in Carmichael long has been a challenge. My mom moved there in 1990, and I recall one night driving around for what seemed like hours, trying to find a place where we wanted to eat. The pickings were slim then; the closest restaurant to her house was the now-vanished fast-food joint Ah Chop Chop, owned by members of the Wong family, who now have moved downtown – and gone much more upscale – with establishments such as Cafeteria 15L.
Carmichael still has plenty of fast food and chains, but these days central-city restaurateurs are moving out to the suburbs, aiming to reverse the flow of culinary talent and customers. That’s especially noticeable at the Milagro Centre, a large – make that huge – event and restaurant development near Fair Oaks and Marconi.
Ernesto Delgado’s Mesa Mercado recently celebrated its first anniversary in the center; other tenants include Insight Coffee, River City Brewing Company and now an outpost of Billy Ngo’s runaway hit Fish Face Poke Bar, the original of which is a bustling presence in R Street’s WAL building.
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The new Milagro Centre Fish Face, which opened this summer, has a full kitchen and thus expands beyond the original’s sharp focus on poke – the Hawaiian raw-fish dish that’s currently having a moment – to offer hot dishes. (Fish Face is also soon to expand out of the Sacramento area to the Emeryville Public Market.)
Ngo, best known for Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine, is a consistent and beloved presence in the Sacramento restaurant scene. I always have enjoyed his food, and the original Fish Face has been no exception. I was curious to see how successfully an expanded poke-bar concept would translate to the Milagro Centre’s environs.
The menu isn’t the only thing at the new Fish Face that is expanded. On one visit, I overheard a passing woman say to her friend, “It’s just so fricking huge.” She wasn’t wrong; the Milagro Centre has a massive scale. A pleasant patio between the center’s two buildings offers a shaded outdoor hangout, though its fountain-flanked gas fireplace has andirons so big as to give me a distinct “Alice in Wonderland” vibe.
Fish Face shares an airplane-hangar-like space with the new fine dining restaurant The Patriot, with no clear demarcation between the two. (Indeed, on my visits, the primary duty of The Patriot’s host seemed to be explaining how the space worked.)
Big event rooms inhabit the back of the shared building, as does the Carmichael Chamber of Commerce and several puzzling pianos. The mod décor on the Fish Face side, like light fixtures hanging from ropes, bright-yellow gooseneck barn lights and giant squid murals, gets a little lost in the big building.
The feeling of disorientation continues inside Fish Face proper. When you enter its building, a bar belonging to The Patriot is directly in front of you, with Fish Face’s more modest bar to the left. At first, I thought orders were taken at the bar, but instead they are taken at the register at the far end of a counter perpendicular to the bar, which was somewhat obscured behind a chest-high room divider. When the restaurant isn’t busy – and it wasn’t on any of my visits – it’s hard for novices to know where to order.
Menus at Fish Face also are perplexing and even chaotic, with hand-scrawled specials in hard-to-read neon on the glass dividers between the poke-prep stations and public space. In addition, there are paper menus for the poke, different flyers for the hot food and an overhead board with hanging planks announcing the restaurant-devised poke combos of the day as well as all the ingredient options one can add to build-your-own poke bowls. If that wasn’t enough, there also are several standing boards noting different specials.
It can take an uncomfortable while to assimilate all this information while milling around the ordering area. Happily, the servers are enthusiastic about offering information, and on my visits, were not busy enough to be impatient.
If, as it seems, crowds haven’t quite shown up yet, that’s a pity – and it unfortunately seems to have an adverse effect on the restaurant experience. Poke (pronounced poke-eh) demands utterly fresh, top-notch fish, but on one of my visits, the ahi was brownish and tasted less than fresh, with chewy, sinewy white bits marring the texture of its chunks. We had asked for very few toppings in our bowl, which left the sub-par fish all too apparent. On the same visit, a spicy tuna bowl tasted fishy rather than briny-clean and didn’t supply enough heat to warrant its spicy tuna title.
On another visit, the restaurant was out of fish steaks for the dish of grilled or fried fish over rice, which gives diners a choice of tuna, salmon, sturgeon or (oddly) tofu with either Japanese curry, sweet soy glaze or black pepper gravy. My server said they were having difficulties gauging their stock of fish to the smaller crowds.
Fish Face’s DIY poke options are legion. The restaurant offers a wide array of raw and cooked protein options (octopus, tuna, mussels and more); sauces (such as sesame soy, yuzu ponzu, miso mustard); and more than a dozen toppings at 50 cents (sliced jalapeno, rice crisps), $1 (cucumber, daikon sprouts) or $1.50 (avocado, hiyashi wakame seaweed). House-devised poke combos, which change regularly, and hand rolls round out the raw-fish offerings.
It would be impossible to try all the combinations, but I’m glad to say that aside from the few missteps, the other other poke and fish dishes I tried were ocean-fresh. The Republic poke bowl offered sweet shrimp and tuna, the crunchy pop of macadamia nuts, the sharp bite of onions and lots and lots of seaweed, although there was a bit too much of the creamy cilantro pesto sauce.
On another occasion, I tried the grilled salmon, which was perfectly cooked and smoky, over brown rice with a pungent black pepper gravy, and it was excellent.
Perhaps you are attracted to Fish Face in part because a bowl of fish, with seaweed and some optional veggies added, feels like a lean, healthy lunch or dinner. Well, yes, it is. But the new hot-food menu at the Milagro Centre outpost gives you some – how shall I put this? – heartier options, like tempura and that Hawaiian-food gut bomb, loco moco: a plate of rice (I got brown), a savory hamburger patty, two fried eggs and a lavish pour of rich gravy.
“Wanna add Spam?” the server chirped with a smile and an encouraging nod. I hesitated. Did I want Spam? I thought back through my whole life, and I couldn’t remember ever eating it before.
Reader, I ordered it, and I’m here to tell you that Spam gets a bad rap. In the context of the loco moco, at least, it was darned good – grill-marked, smoky, salty and doused with that black pepper gravy. A thick hamburger patty, peppery and a bit pink inside, lent heft; two sunny-side-up eggs added brightness; and the sweet-sour crunch of tiny pickled onions made a pleasing contrast.
Other main dishes include a “scampi,” loosely defined, of meaty shrimp in garlic butter over rice, with crunchy bits of fried garlic. A fried rice dish was on the bland side, but got a boost from bits of pink pickled cauliflower.
Once you have veered into less healthy foods, you might as well get the tempura. It’s irresistible: crunchy, light, and greaseless, with sweet shrimp or tender vegetables inside. There’s a changing seasonal tempura, and on my third visit it had switched over to kabocha squash, with miso-mustard dipping sauce. The squash was creamy perfection, and grains of flaky salt highlighted the flavor and texture contrasts.
The tempura would be an ideal snack while hanging out at the full bar, which offers a large selection of sake, beer (including rotating taps), a smaller selection of wines, liquor, and specialty soft drinks. To go with all the drinks, there’s a daily happy hour, complete with snacks. The happy-hour salmon cakes – meaty, with no noticeable filler and mahogany-hued crust – were another fried hit.
There’s more than enough going right at the new Fish Face to make it worth a stop for lunch or dinner – and the new menu means even repeat customers to the original WAL location will find reasons to branch out from their standard poke order. Over time, and with more business, some of its missteps should be corrected. Caveats aside, it’s good to see downtown restaurateurs like Ngo are taking a chance on Carmichael. Now that they’ve built it, let’s just hope Sacramento diners will come.
Email Kate Washington at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
6241 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael. 916-283-6000. fishfacepokebar.com
Hours: 11 a.m. -9 p.m. daily.
Beverage options: Full bar, including beer on tap and in bottles, wine, a large assortment of sake, liquor and a fun assortment of upscale and imported sodas. Happy hour 3-6 p.m. daily.
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat: a few vegetable and tofu dishes, but the focus is fish.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Moderate, but it may get noisier as business picks up.
Ambiance: Modern, sleek and slightly at odds with its vast, hangar-like multipurpose setting in the Milagro Centre.
Hip and easygoing, the Milagro Centre location of Fish Face Poke Bar expands on the narrow raw-fish focus of the downtown original with a strong lineup of hot dishes, thanks to a full kitchen. The setting also is expanded, almost to the point of being disorienting, but it’s good to see this new addition to Carmichael’s casual-dining scene.
Pescatarians, this is your place. The emphasis is on poke, the au courant raw fish dish from Hawaii, which is mostly very good here, despite a couple of surprising misses on with the main ingredient’s freshness. The menu also includes hot dishes, some with a similar mix-and-match vibe, like perfectly grilled salmon with black pepper gravy. Don’t miss a side of the fried seasonal tempura (right now: creamy-sweet kabocha squash with miso-mustard sauce).
Counter service was friendly, with a welcoming air, enthusiastic recommendations and prompt, accurate answers to questions. Better signage pointing to the register and a clearer centralized menu would ease confusion about traffic flow and where and how to order.
Portion sizes tend to be modest, with some bowls seeming a tad skimpy on the fish, but even smaller poke dishes are filling. Note that the cost of build-your-own poke can add up fast for diners enthusiastic about additions. A daily happy hour offers well-priced snacks.