Pulled pork and grits at Sauced BBQ & Spirits Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com
Pulled pork and grits at Sauced BBQ & Spirits Paul Kitagaki Jr. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Carla Meyer

The Sacramento Bee’s dining critic knows good taste

Carla Meyer

Sauced is a flawed but viable dining option for Sacramento arena-goers

By Carla Meyer

cmeyer@sacbee.com

April 06, 2017 06:00 AM

UPDATED April 06, 2017 08:02 PM

Sauced BBQ & Spirits is more complex than its ribs-and-brown-booze focus and double-entendre name suggest

The barbecue restaurant, which opened in January in Downtown Commons near Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, is part of a chain. But that chain, started in 2012 in Livermore by cousins Brenden Scanlan and Barrett Gomes, is small (four locations) and confined to Northern California. Scanlan, the chain’s pitmaster, brings the bona-fides of having grown up in Georgia and once competed in barbecue contests.

Scanlan’s expertise helped produce one of the best food items to emerge in Sacramento so far this year: “burnt ends.” Made from the fattier part of a brisket, these 1-inch-by-1-inch chunks are smoked twice, dipped in their own au jus and blasted with high heat in an oven. Sweet and salty, with a near-jerky consistency, the burnt ends taste like something you might sneak out of the bottom of the roasting pan, just after the cook has removed most of the meat to slice.

They are a reason to go to Sauced, and one of the reasons Sauced cannot be judged with the usual “for a chain” qualifiers. As in, “it’s good for a chain.” With its burnt ends, tender brisket and an unusually juicy pulled pork that is made more distinctive by a zippy vinegar mop sauce, Sauced surpasses offerings at most chain restaurants.

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Yet it gets into trouble when you try to compare it to acclaimed locally owned places. Its baby-back ribs taste good enough, leading with sweetness but grounded by a slight smokiness. But the meat tends to fall off the bone, an indication of overcooking. The ribs at midtown Sacramento’s Tank House offer more satisfyingly smoky flavor and more stick-to-it-iveness. And people looking for traditional Southern sides at Sauced will find better versions of greens and mac ’n’ cheese at South, in Sacramento’s Southside Park neighborhoods. The greens at Sauced are too vinegar-y, and the mac ’n’ cheese too solid and clumpy when there should be a string of roux accompanying the fork’s trip from plate to mouth.

The stacked “Dougie” burger at Sauced, with its half-pound beef patty, brisket slice, onion rings, bacon, cheddar and pepper-jack cheeses and barbecue sauce, holds together well, flavor-wise and in its airy bun’s ability to contain all the ingredients. But its $19 price tag is steep, considering the how ordinary the fries accompanying it tasted. For $5 less, one can get the nearly-as-loaded “Johnny Cash” burger, and superior fries, at one of the local Brodericks. The Johnny Cash does not come with brisket, but it is overkill, anyway.

Better than most chains yet not quite local, Sauced is neither fish nor fowl, although it does offer half a smoked chicken. The golden-brown skin glistens invitingly but then resists too much, as does the rest of the chicken, when you apply the only tool availed to diners, a regular dinner knife. I suppose one could ask for a steak knife, but why work so hard to saw through dinner?

But I always have loved smoke on poultry, and the flavor was there in the chicken, despite its toughness, and then more intensely in the brined, smoked and sliced turkey that comes stacked, along with tomato, lettuce, avocado and bacon, in the stellar “Jive Turkey” sandwich.

The decor at Sauced is part Southern barbecue shack, with reclaimed barn wood lining the walls and tin panels on the ceiling, and part Best Buy showroom. Televisions – most showing baseball games last week – line the walls and also appear in the middle of the room as part of a structure that resembles a mini-Jumbotron. Though the building, which once housed the Hard Rock Cafe, seems to go on forever (Sauced seats 300-plus people inside), its size does not alienate. The dining room/bar area is open and inviting, with garage-style doors that open up to a spacious patio area where one can get a good view of the most vibrant sight in today’s Sacramento – crowds that flow down K Street, past Sauced and into the arena, on game and concert nights.

Dining at Sauced is more pleasant, in nearly every way, than dining at El Rey, the smaller yet still enormous cantina that opened nearby last summer and also targets arena-goers. When Sauced is full, it is noisy, but the noise does not assault one’s ears the way it does at El Rey. This does not necessarily make sense, since Sauced has concrete floors and tin ceilings. But there it is.

Tables at Sauced are spaced far apart enough that it never seems like people are on top of you. But tables are just close enough to each other to notice that a neighboring table has received glasses of water and an appetizer before anyone has acknowledged you and your companion. It took more than 15 minutes, at about 5:15 on the night of a 7:30 Kings game, for a server to get to our table, despite the cadre of floor employees lined up near the bar, their eyes surveying the room, anticipating the rush that eventually would fill it.

Once they notice you, staff members are cheerful and get food out fast – a necessity for a place that sometimes serves 2,000 people in a day – without making you feel rushed. But there was a lack of polish evident on our visits, and you need polish at a place with $19 burgers and $12 Old-Fashioneds, even if both are tasty. Though its prices for barbecue plates ($24.50 for a two-meat combination with two sides, and $31.50 for three meats, two sides) seem high-ish yet not unreasonable, the sandwich and cocktail prices at Sauced are in the ballpark of Grange and Ella, nearby fine-dining restaurants with exquisite service.

After we were served a beer we ordered, we were approached two more times by floor employees – we could not tell if they were servers or runners because so many different people come to the table during a meal – carrying the same type of beer, apparently believing we had not yet received it. When we asked another employee what she thought of the cole slaw, she responded that she had not tried it. That felt wrong, in a barbecue place. Plus, the slaw, with its tart sour apple and crisp cabbage, is a side servers should recommend. Same with the perfectly textured, flavorful cheese grits, the only drawback to which was the raw jalapeño in the mix. Raw jalapeño – a high-risk, low-reward ingredient – shows up too often at Sauced. Or else they are undercooked, as was the case with the jalapeño poppers, in which the pepper flavor and heat overwhelmed all other flavors.

The “Bumpkins,” or egg rolls containing brisket, cheese, roasted poblano peppers and smoked corn, were far better, especially when dipped in a perfectly sweet-spicy chipotle blackberry sauce. Sauced also has a winner in its moist honey corn bread and the appetizer it makes from the reclaimed (or day-old) version of that product – cornbread fritters. The leftover cornbread is re-moistened with egg and formed into balls containing tangy cheese, smoky bacon and jalapeño (fine in this instance) and put in a fryer.

Of the four house barbecue sauces available on each table, we liked the “Georgia gold,” for its expert balance of mustard and vinegar, and the “hot tin roof,” for its depth and spark. Sauced also offers a line of house beers on tap – along with several local beers and some of the 250 whiskeys it sells. The house “Dirty Little Pig” IPA pairs well with food, its hops rising to meet spicier flavors and enlivening milder ones. Though the “bacon Old-Fashioned” cocktail at Sauced, which tastes like liquid fat laced with liquor, was – to borrow the parlance of Southern preachers – an abomination, we liked other Sauced specialty cocktails. The sweet-tart “watermelon moonshine” and “hurricane” cocktails and non-alcoholic strawberry lemonade reminded us of equally refreshing drinks at another nearby chain place with a welcoming vibe, Joe’s Crab Shack.

But Sauced clearly is its own thing, too legitimate to be judged by chain standards and too uneven to compare favorably with high-quality local places. But if you’re already going to the arena, and you order carefully, Sauced is a decent option. Order the burnt ends, and it might even be a good one.

Sauced BBQ & Spirits

1028 Seventh St., Sacramento. 916-400-4341, www.saucedbbqandspirits.com.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday

Beverages: Full bar, 250 whiskeys, nine Sauced-label beers and other beers on draft and in bottles, compact wine list.

Vegetarian friendly: There are options, but the focus is meat.

Gluten-free options: Plentiful

Noise levels: Moderate when things are not that busy. Loud yet surprisingly bearable when it is packed.

Ambiance: This restaurant in Downtown Commons, near Golden 1 Center, is huge. But the airy space invites rather than intimidates.

Overall:

Some of the food is top-notch, and there are impressive selections of whiskey and beer. But the food is uneven, some dishes are pricey and service, though usually efficient, sometimes lacks polish.

Food:

The reason to come here – other than having tickets to an event at Golden 1 Center, is the burnt ends, or cubes of brisket twice smoked and then flavored with their own au jus and finished under high heat in the oven. The sliced brisket is moist and flavorful and the pulled pork juicy, with a lively vinegar flavor. But the smoked half-chicken was too hard to handle, the greens flavored by too much vinegar and the jalapeño poppers ruined by undercooked peppers.

Service:  1/2

Friendly and highly efficient in most instances, though there were signs throughout our visits that some people could use more training.

Value:

Not outrageous, but sandwich and drink prices can run high for a restaurant at this level.