Foxes, among other woodland creatures, are having a moment, as anyone who has browsed Etsy in the past few years knows.
I didn’t think they had made much impact on the restaurant scene (outside the R Street stalwart Fox & Goose), until I heard about Serpentine Fox Prohibition Grille, a self-styled gastropub in Arden-Arcade that opened in July. Its wall-sized logo – a crafty fox standing over a cask of booze – and a sleek wood-and-stone exterior add personality to an otherwise bland parking lot on a stretch of El Camino punctuated by car dealerships and massage joints.
Honestly, I admire the owners’ optimism in going into such a tough location, as well as the idiosyncrasy of the name they chose – even if the Serpentine Fox part sounds more promisingly esoteric than the thudding Prohibition Grille. “Prohibition,” I believe, is meant to signal an emphasis on craft cocktails, but there’s little that’s speakeasy about the bar’s glass-front space. The cocktail list, however, is solid and interesting, with an emphasis on top-shelf liquor and seasonally changing drinks as well as classics.
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Inside, a bland storefront has been converted into a welcoming, buzzy bar ringed with comfortable cerulean booths. At each table, there’s a blown-up newspaper clipping from the 1920s, mostly reporting on booze raids in Sacramento – cute, but not enough to make a strip mall feel like a secret drinkery. Twenty televisions mean there’s a good view of the game(s) from every table, but spin the mood from gastropub to sports bar.
The menu veers back to gastropub, though: The food options (strong on jazzed-up burgers) are hearty but inventive, calculated for mass appeal but with eclectic flourishes. In a high-end touch, our server delivered an amuse-bouche of housemade potato chips as soon as we sat down; on two visits they were excellent, on one a bit stale and cardboard-like.
This unevenness is characteristic of Serpentine Fox, where there’s clearly ambition and aptitude in the kitchen, but some kinks and missteps to be worked out – oddly, often in the more basic offerings.
Burgers make up a solid chunk of the menu. The best of the burgers I tried were both unusual: A towering shrimp and chorizo burger, for instance, sounded peculiar, but when it showed up was a hit. Stacked high with spiced sautéed shrimp, crisp fried onions of the shoestring variety and other veggies, it was hard to eat, and quickly became a knife-and-fork project. The brioche-style bun was griddled for a crunchy browned edge. The patty itself had an excellent balance of spicy-chorizo flavor and meaty heft.
Strangely, our server asked how I wanted it cooked (sausage meat, of course, should never be cooked rare). I asked for the kitchen to send it out how they prefer to prepare it, which led to a lengthy confab between server and chef at the semi-open kitchen and, thankfully, a medium-well but still juicy burger on my plate. Servers overall were eager to please, but sometimes seemed clueless, demonstrating an unfamiliarity with the menu and bringing dishes out at irregular times.
My other fave, the aromatically spiced lamb burger, was spot on, topped with a refreshing cucumber, dill and mint Greek yogurt. Its smoked gouda seemed unnecessary, given the perfect balance between patty and sauce flavors, but that’s a quibble.
Burgers come with a choice of fries: I liked the crunchy waffle cuts of sweet potato, sprinkled with a surprisingly sweet-salty rosemary seasoning. The regular fries – doused in beer batter that became a golden shell – were delicious too, tender inside and lacy-crisp on the exterior. Lavishly sized side salads were also an option, and I liked the effort they showed in their composition (especially with slices of watermelon radish), but the dressing I tried, cilantro lime, was insipid.
Among many burgers, from basic to creative, are a wittily named pair: the 18th Amendment and the 21st Amendment, referring respectively to the implementation and the repeal of Prohibition. I enjoyed the clever names, but both actual dishes had issues.
The 18th was fittingly abstemious, with a housemade vegetarian patty described on the menu as containing beets, barley and quinoa. My server said its recipe recently had changed to include beans rather than beets. Sacramento has a handful of stellar veggie burgers, and I had high hopes for this one, which sounded interesting and like a rare lighter choice on the menu. Alas, those hopes were dashed. Pallid in color except for a few bits of red pepper, the patty definitely lacked beets’ vibrancy. It was squashed and fell apart easily, thanks to a strange texture somewhere between gluey and slimy. While the nuttiness of barley could work well in a vegetarian patty, this one needs further work.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the 21st Amendment, its name signaling indulgence, should have been a slam dunk, with red onion marmalade and Gorgonzola. But while the patty was juicy, the whole burger was overwhelmed by the sharp, pungent cheese.
The menu departs from burgers to offer a few sandwiches. The grilled chicken featured a massive but juicy and well-cooked chicken breast. The Reuben had the flavor of the classic – though I missed the sharpness of sauerkraut – but came out of the kitchen looking oddly mangled. Thickly sliced, tough pastrami flopped out of the sandwich and all over the quarter-sheet pans on which the restaurant presents its food. (On a side note, I’m a pretty big fan of plates as a food-delivery device – for those who share this interest, check out the Twitter feed @wewantplates – but the sheet pans are both utilitarian and attractive.)
The menu also offers pizzas, which seem like a bit of an afterthought. The margherita we tried looked as manhandled as the Reuben, and tasted only fair, with overwhelming chile heat in the sauce.
Serpentine Fox leans into its sports-bar side with its appetizers, from wings to mac-and-cheese bites – the latter crunchy outside, gooey inside and delicious. The wings, however, were peculiar, fried and then doused with a “Korean barbecue sauce” most memorable for its off-putting musky scent, likely from toasted sesame oil.
The best thing I tried from the menu was also the biggest outlier: mini empanadas, which the menu surprisingly notes celebrates the restaurant’s Colombian roots – in evidence nowhere else in the establishment, unfortunately. Our region is lacking in Latin American food options other than Mexican, and I’d love to sample more dishes along the lines of these empanadas. They were a modern, delicious spin on a classic dish: mini pockets containing savory spiced shredded meat, a crunchy fried exterior of masa that quickly gave way to tenderness, and pinches of contrasting, vinegary, finely chopped pickled cabbage, reminiscent of curtido.
I found myself wishing the restaurant turned more to its Colombian roots, with less catering to the sports-bar crowd in dishes like the wings, which had a faint air of being obligatory but not what the kitchen is really interested in turning out.
The cocktails I tried were mostly well made, with one stumble. The Manhattan was a velvety rendition of the classic. The balanced Fall French was a lightly fizzy, apple-scented spin on the classic French 75. And the Fall Mash, made with and named for Dickel sour mash, had a good hit of ginger and the tartness of cranberries on its side. Working against it, however, were the gratings of cinnamon sticks that resulted in coarse, gritty shards on top of my drink and an aroma that reminded me faintly of cleanser.
Dessert here isn’t a major menu focus, but the kitchen does offer a special dessert daily and an evergreen option of coffee mousse, made with cold brew from local roaster Caffeine & Kilos. It had a delicious coffee flavor, but was loose enough in texture that it almost ran off the spoon, more reminiscent of melted coffee ice cream than mousse. (The firmest part of the dessert was actually the whipped cream.) Far be it from me to impugn melted ice cream (I’ll lick it off the side of a cone any day), but I do feel mousse should be more set up. Graham cracker crumbs at the bottom of the glass only served to distract.
Nevertheless, Serpentine Fox clearly has set its sights above the ordinary. Right now, it’s a fine place for a creative burger and fries alongside your Sunday sports. But it has the potential to be more than just another place looking to appeal to the widest audience possible with sports-bar fare and flash.
There’s obviously a talented team at work here; if they want to be crafty like a fox, maybe they can ditch their less successful offerings and steer harder into their more distinctive dishes.
Email Kate Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @washingtonkate
Serpentine Fox Prohibition Grille
2645 El Camino Ave., 916-913-1159; www.serpentinefox.com
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. -10 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar with specialty and classic cocktails and a large beer list, including many local options.
Vegetarian friendly: Some vegetarian options.
Gluten-free options: Very few.
Noise levels: Very loud, especially when sports events are blaring on the 20 televisions.
Ambiance: Bare-bones storefront converted to comfortable bar, with very 2017 reclaimed-wood siding, Jenga on high tables, diner-like booths and an overwhelming number of TVs.
There’s ambition and aptitude in the original cocktails and eclectic burgers in this spiffed-up location on a drab stretch of El Camino. Unfortunately, Serpentine Fox falters with clumsy execution on many dishes and conceptual confusion, its gastropub heart hidden under its loud sports-bar veneer.
Gastropub fare elevated by from-scratch cooking and inventive touches, as evidenced by the modern spin on empanadas and the subtly spiced lamb burger. The kitchen can be erratic, however, with misses on basics.
Service was warm but inconsistent. On one visit, the server was attentive and knowledgeable; on another, a different server was tentative and very unfamiliar with the menu.
Prices for the main focus of the menu, hefty burgers, run as low as $9 and up to $15 for specialty burgers. The cocktails, made with premium liquors, are a bit pricier (most around $10) but still won’t break the bank. Daily happy hours add further value.