The smoked carnitas nachos represent one of the best options at El Rey, reports The Bee’s Carla Meyer. Carla Meyer cmeyer@sacbee.com
The smoked carnitas nachos represent one of the best options at El Rey, reports The Bee’s Carla Meyer. Carla Meyer cmeyer@sacbee.com

Carla Meyer

The Sacramento Bee’s dining critic knows good taste

Carla Meyer

Planning to eat near the new arena? El Rey is barely OK

By Carla Meyer

cmeyer@sacbee.com

December 09, 2016 06:00 AM

UPDATED December 11, 2016 07:56 AM

There is a temptation to view El Rey, the 3-month-old cantina on K near Seventh Street, as a microcosm of its neighbor and reason for being, Golden 1 Center.

One is a shiny new arena whose luster does not keep its anchor tenant (the Sacramento Kings) from losing. The other is a shiny new restaurant and bar whose handsome burnish does not prevent its food and service from faltering.

The comparison seems stronger when factoring in former King Kenny Thomas’ stake in El Rey (“the king” in Spanish) as part of an ownership team headed by nightlife impresario Trevor Shults (BarWest).

The analogy eventually falls apart, however, because the Kings win more often than El Rey does.

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El Rey bills itself as “Sacramento’s freshest Mexican street food experience,” a description in conflict with a Caesar salad containing lettuce with brown edges and a frozen dessert that arrived with a thin layer of ice crystals – suggestive of an extended slumber in the freezer – atop it.

Elsewhere at El Rey, the food is fresh enough but flat-footed. Chef Bryce Palmer, also executive chef for Irish pub Malt & Mash – El Rey’s sister restaurant housed in the same historic Ochsner building – came over from Crawdad’s, another Shults venture. Palmer previously worked at Biba, Grange and the Golden Bear, restaurants any chef would want on his or her résumé. But Palmer’s talents are more obvious in the creative, well-seasoned bar grub at Malt & Mash than at El Rey, where the food is still in search of flavor dimension.

The fish in El Rey’s blackened-rockfish taco tasted mostly of salt, and the “spicy” element was undetectable in its spicy peanut shrimp taco.

Mole sauce can be one of the most compelling elements on a Mexican food menu, with its notes of chocolate and different spices. El Rey’s rojo mole beef taco, featuring meat slow-braised in a chipotle cinnamon sauce, shows the complexity of an Instagram supermodel.

Though El Rey’s house-made chorizo is not greasy, it tastes too fresh – more like ground pork on its own, without the spiciness or smokiness associated with chorizo. This chorizo did little to spruce up its potato companion in an El Rey specialty taco and served as dull topper to an already bland queso fundido starter.

Palmer and crew show some finesse with the Meatless Marvel taco, a lively yet soothing blend of black beans, roasted peppers and sweet potato stewed in habanero sauce. A crisp yucca-root chip atop the taco adds earthy taste and textural variance.

The pork in the smoked carnitas nachos is tender but offers little flavor beyond the smoke. Yet that smoke overabundance did little to curtail our enjoyment of the nachos, the thing to order at El Rey. They hold a wonderfully tangy cheese sauce made from browned butter, serrano peppers, cream, Oaxaca, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses and brightness-adding juice from Palmer’s house-pickled onions.

It’s hard to believe these nachos, which come in an order big enough for three, carry the same $12 price tag as the Caesar, which, brown lettuce aside, offered few hints of anchovy or other distinctive flavors in its dressing.

El Rey’s pricing is curiously inconsistent. Some prices, like $12 for that Caesar salad and $7 for overly thick, borderline-burnt chips and three so-so salsas (they are not gratis here), seem outrageous. Others, like $4-$4.95 for each street taco, merely seem too high. Yet the cocktails we tried were a reasonable $7-$8.

Those drinks outshone the food, with El Rey offering several margarita options that balance sweetness and tang (especially the “skinny margarita”). Two of our favorite El Rey cocktails are made with whiskey but evoke margarita tartness: The Black Cadillac, with Jack Daniels, blackberry jam and lemon juice, and the Border Town, with Old Forester bourbon, Campari, agave and citrus juices, taste like something Orson Welles might have sipped while making “Touch of Evil.”

There also was treasure to be found, during the dessert course, beneath the aforementioned light dusting of ice crystals, on El Rey’s choco taco. Similar conditions had never stopped me from eating ice cream out of my mom’s freezer, so I dug in. My arctic explorer’s heart soared when I tasted Palmer’s masterful use of sweetness-offsetting salt in the batter of the waffle-cone foundation and the dark chocolate sauce covering scoops of Gunther’s ice cream.

Such displays of skill suggest the food will improve at El Rey as the restaurant matures. It will need to, once the 700 block of K Street fills with other nightlife options. Right now, El Rey and Malt & Mash are the only new restaurants on the block.

On a game night, the 4,800-square-feet El Rey, which holds about 200 people at a time, can serve 4,000 tacos. And not just to bros wolfing them down alongside tequila shots.

On the nights we visited, before a CSU Sacramento vs. UC Davis/Cal vs. San Diego State doubleheader, and a Kings game, those bros, clad in NBA and college team sweatshirts, composed 15 percent of diners. But their whoops, which bounced off El Rey’s wood floors and stone and brick walls, accounted for 25-30 percent of the noise in a restaurant where everyone eventually must raise their voices to be heard by their dinner companions.

The rest of the crowd consisted primarily of middle-aged guys in pairs or with their senior fathers, and lots of couples in their 30s or early 40s, some with kids. You know: People who can afford tickets to Golden 1 Center events.

On the Kings game night, I watched people enter the restaurant from my cozy perch in one of El Rey’s raised banquettes. The colorful vinyl seating vies with the restaurant’s many TVs to be the interior’s most vibrant element.

Though the crowd was diverse, their facial expressions, as they entered the restaurant from the street and took in all the stimuli while scanning the place for a rare empty seat, showed a similar arc. Most started with a flash of anxiety (this is what we’re doing?) and ended with tight-smiled resignation.

To turn these obvious game-night first-timers into repeat visitors, El Rey might want to smooth out its service. Our server on one visit started out great but disappeared for at least 20 minutes as the place filled up. Though her absence likely is more reflective of staffing issues than her job performance, a lag is a lag.

Two people have a good shot at a pleasant dining experience at El Rey on a game night, for less than $40, if they arrive early enough to grab a good seat and order the nachos and two cocktails or beers.

But there’s also the option of eating at El Rey’s immediate neighbor, the Golden 1 Center. Though it is more expensive to eat and drink there, the food is generally better than El Rey’s. And given El Rey’s noise levels, crowds and hard, backless bar stools, the comfort level might be similar. Even in the arena seats without cupholders.

El Rey

723 K St., Sacramento. 916-400-4170, www.elreyonk.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. Hours can vary depending on events at nearby Golden 1 Center.

Beverage options: Full bar, with 35 tequilas and an array of margarita options. Eight beers on draft, including Track 7. Short list of sparkling, red and white wines.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise levels: Exceptionally high

Ambiance: Before the crowd rushes in on a game night at nearby Golden 1 Center, the place looks lovely, with its many rustic wood touches and vibrantly colored banquettes. But the bar stools are uncomfortable, as are noise levels once the place fills up.

Overall

 1/2

The 3-month-old restaurant’s food and service are not there yet.

Food

 1/2

The food is better at the nearby arena, and at El Rey’s sister restaurant, the Irish pub Malt & Mash, with which it shares an executive chef. El Rey’s food generally lacks flavor dimension, though there are highlights, like the nachos and Meatless Marvel taco.

Service

The service staff showed ingenuity and knowledge, but our server was missing for a long stretch after the place became busy just before a game at Golden 1.

Value

 1/2

The $12 Caesar salad is outrageously overpriced, and $4-$4.95 for a single street taco and $7 for chips and three so-so salsas is too much. But the $12 nachos are a deal.