Sacramento Neighborhood Restaurants Are Struggling—And Also Seeing Huge Support From Loyal Customers

Victoria “Tori” Haggins at her restaurant, Tori’s Place. Photo by Andrew Nixon

By Steph Rodriguez

Phoebe Gutierrez recalls checking into Espanol Italian Restaurant every day after school when she was 13 years old. If she was thirsty, she’d slide behind the bar and use the soda gun. If she wanted more fries, she’d walk into the kitchen and drop a basketful into the deep fryer, listening closely as they sizzled. She even thought washing the dishes using the gigantic dishwasher was a treat.

For Gutierrez, now 33, these were some of the perks she fondly remembers as the granddaughter of Paula Serrano, who’s co-owned the East Sacramento eatery with her brother, Perry Luigi, since 1988.

Family-owned restaurants are the cultural gems of many cities. They offer teenagers and misfits alike their first jobs, nourish small staffs as well as neighborhoods, even sponsoring little league teams and hosting spirited, weekly gatherings for local bowling clubs.

But most of all, these institutions offer a sense of community, enjoyed over a home-cooked meal.

But as the coronavirus continues to spread, institutions such as Espanol continue to suffer, although some are seeing tremendous support from loyal neighbors and customers.

On August 3, the local institution served its dedicated customers one last time and closed its doors at 58th Street and Folsom Boulevard indefinitely. This ended Espanol’s unique and storied history as a place for hearty, family-style meals, dating back almost a century ago at its original location in Old Sacramento.

“I don’t see any mom-and-pop restaurant, small company being able to make it,” Gutierrez said of business during the pandemic. “I really do think we’re going to be stuck with Olive Gardens and all of the chain restaurants, because anything that is smaller — I just don’t know how they’re going to be able to sustain it.”

Espanol did receive a small loan through the Paycheck Protection Program in March, but it was only enough to help them through one payroll. Its bread and butter was hosting large parties that filled its dining room with lively chatter. But, with indoor dining prohibited, takeout orders just weren’t cutting the mustard.

On top of that, Gutierrez says the landlord raised the rent 30%. After much thought, Serrano, who’s 73, and Luigi, 62, decided it was time to hang up their aprons.

“I really think it’s the end of an era. I don’t think there’s any other restaurant, in Sacramento at least, that has that type of feel or ambiance,” Gutierrez said.

She describes Espanol as a place where you know what you’re going to get. “You knew the soup was going to be good. You knew the bread was going to be warm. You knew that you could go and get your half-carafe of wine and it was gonna cost you five bucks, because they haven’t raised the price in forever.”

Italian dinners between this Sacramento family will continue. Only this time, Gutierrez says, they will finally include her grandmother at the table.

“We can finally have Friday night dinner, which we’ve never had in my entire life,” she said, “because she always had to work.”

Fox and Goose Public House is open for outdoor dining. Photo by Andrew Nixon

The Breakfast Spot

The whiplash restaurants endured over the last four months, with ever-changing state and county regulations, will only continue to have dire impacts on an industry that heavily relies on patronage.

Fox & Goose Public House, which opened in 1975, went through three iterations of its restaurant since March, beginning with curbside pickup or takeout-only options.

“Our business was impacted quite dramatically in the fact that most of the people who actually come downtown to work were staying at home,” co-owner Jessa Berkey said. “So, a large portion of our patronage during the weekdays, who would normally be here doing business, were not here.”

Without weekend brunch crowds and Friday night live music, the oldest restaurant on the R Street block went from 46 employees to 28. Business did perk up once socially distant, indoor dining was back on the table in May, a time when Fox & Goose hired more staff to wait tables in its adjacent warehouse space.

The crew renovated that space and set up a full dining room with 33 tables 6-to-10 feet apart, allowing Fox & Goose to reach 78% of its normal table occupancy. Berkey says the expansion took two weeks to set up, and things looked promising. But by the start of July, indoor dining was banned once again.

Menus are sanitized between uses at Fox and Goose Public House. Photo by Andrew Nixon

“Our team just had to be really adaptive and flexible as we tried to process the information and see how best we could implement it,” Berkey said.

So Fox & Goose pivoted — again.

Through the city’s Farm-to-Fork Al Fresco program, which helps subsidize restaurant costs to move diners outside, the restaurant was able to expand its dining capacity by setting up additional tables on the sidewalk below its patio space.

Although its new sidewalk dining area needs to be set up and broken down at the close of each service, Berkey says it’s a great improvement to the carryout and curbside model of the past. The best part about seeing more customers, she says: hearing their individual connections to this longtime breakfast pub, which serves savory English-style platters and spicy bloody Marys.

“Everyone has their own personalized moment with Fox & Goose when you ask people. Everyone has their story,” Berkey said. “We’ve had a lot of people also reaching out to us about the fact that they had their first date here, or it’s a special moment for their relationship or their family. Being open for 45 years, it does create that relationship with the community.”

The Family Pizza Parlor

Friday nights at Luigi’s Pizza Parlor used to be filled with families dining over hot slices while their kids attacked the pinball machines in the arcade room. An Oak Park establishment since 1953, Luigi’s history with the neighborhood is vast and championed by regulars who appreciate the taste of its original family recipes and the hospitality its original owner, Celso Brida, offered them many years ago.

“Almost every day, we have someone walk in here and say, ‘I remember Celso helped me when I was younger right out of high school. I needed food, I needed a job,’” says general manager Kathryn Mast. “People come in here with so much history and love for Oak Park.”

In 2019, Luigi’s was purchased by a group of longtime customers who grew up eating its pizza and wanted to see the business stay open after Celso died in 2015. These days, the dining room remains empty as Luigi’s adjusted to takeout-only in March. The building, on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and 13th Avenue, doesn’t have the outdoor space to offer customers the option to dine “al fresco.”

Mast says Luigi’s also uses third-party delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash to reach those customers who don’t want to leave their homes, but the commission each company takes from orders cuts into their daily sales.

“We’re happy to be here, but it’s a struggle. Fortunately, pizza is a very to-go business,” Mast said. “We don’t have a delivery service in-house, so we have to use outside delivery services … but they take 30 to 45% of every order.”

To stay afloat, Luigi’s laid off half its staff, tightened the menu and is only open five days a week. Much like Espanol, rent is also a challenge. Sales are steady enough — but nothing compared to when the dining room was full.

Through it all, Mast says she’s happy Luigi’s remains open, and looks forward to a day where she can once again host families, and even the barflies.

“The social aspect is what we’re missing out on, those connections through new customers coming in who are new to Sacramento. Let me show you the bright, beautiful life of these older restaurants like Luigi’s, Gunther’s, Espanol and the list just goes on,” Mast said. “I love working here and it’s sad that we can’t serve our people.”

The Mom And Pop

Every day just before 11 a.m., the phone at Tori’s Place begins ringing nonstop, a sign that hungry customers are in the mood for Victoria “Tori” Haggins’ home cooking, especially her recipe for gumbo with a side corn cakes.

She opened Tori’s Place on Grand Avenue in North Sacramento in 2012 and quickly became a neighborhood favorite. Through a warm voice, Haggins admits its been tough operating her small business through the pandemic. But she also says the community support she’s received gives her hope that Tori’s Place will continue to be a neighborhood favorite for years to come.

“It hasn’t really impacted me too bad. I know a lot of other people aren’t doing really good, I’m not doing great, but I’m still getting steady people coming in and I thank God for that,” Haggins said.

Gumbo is a popular dish at Tori’s Place. Photo by Andrew Nixon

At Tori’s Place, everything is made to order, with her husband taking phone customers and her granddaughter and nephew helping out when needed. Haggins says she’s reaching 75% of what food sales were pre-pandemic, which tells her that people still have a taste for her comforting dishes, such as her fried chicken and pork chop combos with a long list of homemade sides.

“People mainly want comfort food and we all need to be comforted some way or another,” Haggins said. “I try to put love in all the food when I cook. I put lots of vegetables and I try to give them great portion sizes, too. I think people really appreciate it.

“And I know I appreciate just looking at a smile on someone’s face.”


Rolling Thunder

Sac’s two roller derby teams combine forces to form an all-star league


The steady rumble of roller skates on a large flat track grows louder from inside a brick-layered warehouse on the outskirts of downtown. On a Tuesday evening in November, women enter the chilly building one by one carrying pairs of weathered skates and chunky duffle bags, plopping their equipment onto an old-fashioned metal bleacher. As soon as skates are laced and helmets are tightened, each person joins the routine, zipping through lap after lap.

derby practice 2

Photo by Nicole Fowler.

Off to the side, tattered boxes chock-full of old skates, helmets, knee pads and other odds and ends seem to tell a story. More than 40 women are gathered here to practice for competition in the sport of roller derby—and tonight marks some of the last sessions before everyone goes on a short winter break for the season. This practice also marks one of the first evenings that Sacramento’s top roller derby teams, the Sacred City Derby Girls and the Sac City Rollers, are practicing together since both the players voted to join forces after 12 years of being separate entities.

The decision to combine both high-level teams, once rivals on the track, was announced in October 2017. Now, this badass all-star team of athletes has a roster that’s more than 70 women strong and collectively known as Sacramento Roller Derby, and their new season is just beginning.

Stronger together


Photo by Nicole Fowler

“Five minutes, ladies!” a toned, blue-eyed woman calls out from the center of a scuffed track inside an 11,000-square-foot warehouse. Her authoritative manner inspires laggers to quickly lace up their skates and get in a few warmup laps. It’s just before 8 p.m., and some women are skating in pairs, perhaps discussing their long workday, as James Brown’s howls echo off the walls. Others stretch their legs and arms as they cruise around the smooth surface to warm up their muscles.

Suddenly, the music stops and everyone gathers in a circle to take turns introducing themselves by the playful derby nicknames each woman has created for herself to expresses her persona and quirky spirit. The women also say what position they enjoy playing—blocker, pivot or jammer—the latter position being the one with the most glory. (See sidebar.)

Sacramento Roller Derby is a 100 percent volunteer-run nonprofit, with dedicated skaters taking on multiple roles within the league. Women sit on the board of directors or serve as treasurer, marketing director, donations coordinator, etc. Everything is governed democratically.


Photo by Serene Lusano

Annie Reksic, a 10-year veteran skater with Sac City Rollers, says the combined team has been “a long time coming.”

“Both leagues started around the same time within the same year, and we’ve always had to share sponsors and a fan base and resources throughout the Sacramento area,” Reksic says. “We both have a lot of the same attributes and goals, and we’ve had these discussions throughout the years about coming together and merging into one megateam.”

For skaters like Shock ’N’ Auburn, time spent as a pivot, blocker and jammer with the Sacred City Derby Girls gave her the experience to help others succeed by training and coaching women of all skill levels. She admits that when she first started, she made close friends with the floor because she didn’t know how to roller-skate whatsoever.

“I ran into the wall at tryouts because I didn’t know how to stop,” she recalls. “I fell a lot. But, they said, ’Well, you have gumption. If you want to come back, we’ll teach you how to skate.’ We practiced three times a week, and the days we didn’t practice, I would work on my stride and work on being comfortable turning around and work on all of the weird, little things that aren’t really the fun part of derby, but the necessary parts of derby.”

Ask any woman how she found roller derby, or how derby found her, and each will share a personal story that is as diverse as Sacramento Roller Derby’s roster. For Bobbypin Vixen, a blocker and pivot who drives more than 140 miles from Dayton, Nevada, to practice twice a week, derby is a sport her family does together.

“[My son] pushed me to lace up some skates at a time in my life when I needed change,” she says. “It took over a year to convince me to do it. After the first practice, spent mostly sitting on my butt because all I could master was falling, I knew I loved it. I needed it.”

Her 14-year-old son, whom she refers to as Peanut Butter Jammer, skates for a junior team in their hometown, and her husband, Jose CanSkateO, is also an official for Sacramento Roller Derby.

“Derby pushes me outside of my comfort zone,” she says. “Comfort zones are beautiful, but nothing grows there.”

We’re not G.L.O.W

Roller derby first experienced a wave of popularity in the 1940s, when its raised, banked-track marathons turned the game into a spectator sport in America, at a time when the bikini just started hitting the beaches and Mount Rushmore was finally completed.

It was broadcast live on television throughout the country to spur interest, but attendance and ratings started to decline throughout the ’60s and ’70s as attention shifted to a more theatrical version of the sport, where athletes donned flashy garb and adopted dramatic characters as found in men’s and women’s wrestling. Derby even staged matches: Picture the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.), with its scripted rivalries and cheesy costumes, on roller skates. It was short-lived.


Photo by Serene Lusano

Serious athletes say the biggest misconception about modern roller derby is that the sport consists of women who wear fishnets and booty shorts and purposefully elbow their opponents in the face or send them flying into cement walls.

These imaginative assumptions irk athletes like Lolz Lemon, a blocker for SRD who’s on the mend from a broken-leg injury last year. She sternly points out that elbowing is first and foremost illegal, and fishnets are highly impractical during games.

“When derby began, there was definitely a niche market that was very G.L.O.W.-like,” she says. “It was just as important to win the after-party as it was the game, like, who can drink the most or party the hardest. But now, this avant-garde sport is one of the only highly competitive women’s sports out there that women can easily join everywhere.”

While there is no elbowing allowed, roller derby is a contact sport. Two teams with five players each skate in a pack, counter-clockwise, on a flat track. As the jammer tries to break free and lap the pack, blockers try to make that difficult. There is a lot of hockey-style checking involved.

Miley Makes U Cryrus, a 43-year-old blocker for SRD and mother of two boys, says the sport of roller derby helped her get out of the 9-to-5 rut, and that her sense of self was rekindled by skating with her newfound friends on the track.

“Derby was something that made me identify as me,” she says. “I’m not just this person who just goes to work. I’m an athlete. It’s identified me as being more than my sons’ mom. This is something I do for me, but it also transitions to my kids because they are also young athletes. I think a lot of my perseverance through derby and through injury is reflecting on them and showing them the positive side to athletics at any capacity.” …

READ THE FULL COVER STORY: ROLLING THUNDER. Published in the Sacramento News & Review on February 8, 2018. 

Raise a Glass!

The edible insider’s guide to Greater Sacramento area craft brewers

raise a glass

Photo by Raoul Ortega

Jackrabbit Brewing Co. (West Sacramento)

Known for: Belgian, English, and German-style beers

What to try: Saison, Square Hare Belgian Sour Quad

With plenty of wild jackrabbits hopping around the more industrial areas of West Sacramento, Chris Powell, co-owner of Jackrabbit Brewing Co., says the brewery’s name came naturally. What didn’t was the equipment. Once a lease was secured, Powell and his three fellow brewery owners — his brother, Scott, as well as Ed Edsten and Kevin Hull — bought some old dairy equipment from Craigslist and taught themselves how to weld. Together, paycheck to paycheck, they built their own brewery system. It’s a true, built-from-the-ground-up tale.

“The whole thing was funded by the bootstraps,” Powell says. “We did everything the hard way, but I’m proud of what we built from nothing. It was just us.”

Jackrabbit sold its first kegs in 2013, and since then, the DIY brewery has been developing craft beers that find balance between full and subtle flavors. This can be tasted in its popular Saison, which uses a particular strain of Belgian yeast that’s more than 500 years old.

“It’s tart, very dry, and it’s got some noticeable wheat characteristics with a little bit of stone fruit and apple flavor to it that come from the yeast,” Powell says.

Jackrabbit’s Square Hare, a dark and malty Belgian-style quad, earned No. 1 in the Best of California Commercial Craft Brew Competition 2017 at the California State Fair. Measuring at 11.3 percent alcohol by volume, it’s the perfect winter beer to sip by a cozy fire.

“We’re really passionate about beer and all the different flavors you can create, and the science and the history of it,” he says. “It’s just a really cool thing to delve into.”


Beers from Bike Dog Brewing Co. Photo by Angel Perez

Bike Dog Brewing Co. (West Sacramento, Sacramento)

Known for: Bike- and dog-friendly taprooms

What to try: Mosaic Pale Ale, Dog Years IPA, Milk Stout

Bike Dog Brewing Co. opened its second taproom in Sacramento in September 2017, but its original location in West Sac still is where all the brewing magic happens.

Co-owner A.J. Tendick says he’s a year-round IPA drinker and noticed a huge difference in flavor and quality once he started brewing batches at home.

“With IPAs in particular, freshness matters so much,” Tendick says. “A week-old IPA is considerably different from a month-old IPA. Ten years ago, when I would buy beers at the popular beer store, they would hold them on a warm shelf, which is terrible for flavor stability. But when you brew your own, you get this new hop flavor and aroma, which I wasn’t finding on the shelves.”

Besides its variety of hop-forward IPA varieties, Tendick says another popular beer is Bike Dog’s Milk Stout.

“It’s got this really fantastic blend of coffee and chocolate notes that are just natural from the roasted grains,” he says. “It’s pretty low alcohol, and it’s got a bit of lactose for that hint of sweetness, and it’s such a nice, easy-drinking beer.”

This winter, look for Bike Dog’s Wee Heavy, a Scottish ale that will warm up any cold evening, as well as its Double Mexican Hot Chocolate Milk Stout, which is sort of like a Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon, a little bit of spice, and cocoa nibs, all at 9 percent ABV. …

The Sacramento area’s rich beer history dates back as far as the 1840s. So it’s no surprise to see the Farm-to-Fork Capital’s craft beer movement surge over the last 10 years. With more than 50 local breweries from Davis to Nevada City perfecting their award-winning recipes, some of the West’s tastiest brews are found right here. From the ever-popular India Pale Ales, with their bitter, hop-forward mouthfuls that often incorporate seasonal fruit for balance, to the darker pints of porters, stouts, and brown ales, Sacramento knows and loves beer. Here are 10 of the area’s craft breweries to visit and savor.

Sudwerk Brewing Co. (Davis)

People's Pilsner CAN Photo (1)

Photo courtesy of Sudwerk Brewing Co.

Known for: German-style craft lagers

What to try: People’s Pilsner, Fünke Hop Farm Saison

Opened in 1989 by Dean Unger and Ron Broward, Sudwerk Brewing Co. aimed to be America’s answer to imported beer, and it was, especially throughout the ’90s. Sudwerk, pronounced “sood-verk,” even managed to survive the recession. In 2013, Trenton Yackzan, grandson of Unger, bought Sudwerk to keep the family legacy alive and to reintroduce the city of Davis and beyond to German-style craft lagers.

“I was four when it opened,” Yackzan says. “My grandpa and his business partner were just two German guys who wanted access to beer as it tasted at home because, at the time, there weren’t many craft breweries.”

In 2009, Unger was going to close the brewery, but Yackzan saw an opportunity.

“We are now focused on redefining what people think about the American lager,” Yackzan says. “The market’s clearly pretty saturated with IPAs and ales and hazy beers. We want to show people a different side of beer because that’s what craft brewing is about. It’s discovery and education and finding new and innovative styles that you never knew existed.”

The University of California, Davis Master Brewers Program also is housed on site at Sudwerk. So if craft beers are your forte, check out the program and learn from one of the region’s oldest breweries. …

READ THE FULL STORY: RAISE A GLASS. Published in Edible Sacramento magaine’s Drinks Issue January 1 – February 1, 2018. 


Zero Degrees of Separation with 98 Degrees

One-fourth of the ’90s boy band opens up about meeting his heroes and his new Christmas album

98 Degrees - Let It Snow Press Photo by Elias Tahan

From left: Jeff Timmons, Nick and Drew Lachey and Justin Jeffre bring back that ’90s cheese by forgetting how to sit in chairs.
Photo courtesy of 98 Degrees

It was the golden era of boy bands, and 98 Degrees was unlike the rest. Other groups in the ’90s like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys had been assembled by major labels, but 98 Degrees formed organically: Brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, along with Justin Jeffre and Jeff Timmons, started the group with heavy R&B and soul influences. Then, 98 Degrees was discovered backstage at a Boys II Men concert when they sang a capella for a radio station. After that performance, the band signed to Motown records in 1998.

Timmons caught up with SN&R to share what followed for the group of friends: a duet with one of their biggest influences, Stevie Wonder, for the soundtrack to the Disney movie Mulan; a couple of opening gigs for Janet Jackson on her Velvet Rope tour; the platinum-selling album This Christmas. After a total of 10 million records sold, 98 Degrees went on a decade-long hiatus starting in 2003. But now, the (boy) band is back together. They’ve just recorded a new holiday album, Let It Snow—released on October 13—and launched a 31-day tour. SN&R chatted with Timmons about the group’s days on Motown, the innocence of the ’90s, and his love for hard rock music like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses.

How did it feel to get back in the studio with everyone to record Let It Snow?

We had an amazing time. This Christmas was an album that stood out in the past, and it was always a perennial success for us. We like holiday albums because we can step away from the pop-stuff and do a little bit more harmony-based music with cooler arrangements and a lot of orchestra. We really wanted Let It Snow to match the previous album, and I feel like we did it.

Boy bands were all pop in the ’90s. Was it hard to incorporate that genre into your music as an R&B group?

Our original record that we did when we were on Motown was very R&B as opposed to pop. Of course, the times changed, and then the Backstreet Boys came out and pop was more of the style as opposed to when we were originally out in the late ’90s, early 2000s. So, we sort of morphed our sound from R&B. … We were really influenced by groups like the Four Seasons, the Temptations and Boys II Men. I think doing a Christmas album reflects more of that kind of sound. And on Let It Snow, we have all of it. We have like a Beach Boys sound and even a Chuck Berry sound, so we feel like we have everything on it.

When you were first signed to Motown, who were you starstruck by?

When you think of Motown, you think of Berry Gordy, and you think of all these groups, but we were heavily influenced by Boys II Men. We wanted to be just like Boys II Men. We wanted to be on Boys II Men’s label and all that because they had that throw-back harmony. If you remember, they had a song called “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” out and it was an a capella song. We fell in love with that, and we were hoping we’d be discovered like that. And we got discovered at their concert when we were singing a capella. So, it’s a part of our history as well.

Tell me about the duet with Stevie Wonder.

It was an honor. But, not only that, it was Stevie Wonder with Disney. We got to shoot a video with him and hang out in his trailer where he had all kinds of musical equipment set up in there. And he had his harmonica with him the whole time and he couldn’t have been more gracious, and humble, and amazing. It was another dream come true. There were a lot of things that we got to do that were a real blessing to us and that’s one of them.

What’s changed in music since the ’90s for you?

I think the music in the ’90s was really great. I mean, there was a mix of R&B and pop and this kind of this explosion with 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney [Spears], Christina [Aguilera], and you had a bunch of great R&B music out there. But as far as like the innocence of the time, it was pretty cool. It was pre-9/11, and the world has changed since then. I think the most important thing about it for me is those fans that were there for us in the late ’90s have evolved with us. I carry a part of it with me in my career. I have fans that remind me of things all the time when they post stuff on Instagram with our frosted tips and our big, baggy jeans. You can’t escape it.

It’s no secret that 98 Degrees is in good shape. How many crunches do you do a day?

(Laughs.) Not enough. I was up all night working on some other music. I actually need to get back in the gym. Crunches, I’ve never been a fan of. I choose to not eat food instead. (Laughs.) It’s definitely not the healthier route.

Name a musician or band that would shock fans that you’re into.

We’re guys from the Midwest and Ohio, so we grew up with all these soulful groups. But we also grew up with Warrant and “Cherry Pie” and Quiet Riot. I think Metallica is one of my favorite bands that folks wouldn’t assume that a group like ours would like—or Guns N’ Roses. We’re, like, mad fans of those guys.

ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION WITH 98 DEGREES was originally published in the Sacramento News & Review November 16, 2017. 

Meet the Macaron

At local bakeries, these French morsels are having a moment

Photo by Rachel Valley

On a cool Saturday morning, the Midtown farmers’ market bustles with the ebb and flow of regular shoppers who browse through offerings from more than 50 local vendors selling everything from fresh-picked produce to peppery beef jerky, handmade pasta, and warm Belgian waffles.

It’s here that Tiffany Domingo, owner of the Elk Grove-based bakery Love and Macarons, began to sell her delicate, French-inspired sweet treats to this dedicated crowd more than two years ago. By the end of the afternoon, she’ll sell out.

The mother of two and self-taught baker recalls the first time she tried the bite-sized sandwich cookie in 2011; the salted-caramel macaron inspired Domingo to get in her kitchen and try her hand at the technically precise recipe.

“After lots of trial and error — and several failed batches — I finally got it down,” Domingo says. “You have to make sure that you mix the batter correctly, fold it correctly, and not just that, but the ingredients have to be measured perfectly.”

Tasty works of art

A naturally gluten-free sandwich cookie made from almond flour, egg whites, and sugar, the macaron’s ingredients are deceptively simple. Yet, the recipe is anything but, as humidity and even the number of stirs can lead to a too-watery or too-stiff batter.

But conquer the recipe, and the reward is sweet.

Often confused with the macaroon, which is similar in spelling, the macaron is different in texture and flavor. The macaroon is a moist, dense cookie mound made with dried coconut and frequently dipped in chocolate, whereas the perfect macaron is light and airy and fits in the palm of your hand. The cookie shell is smooth and crisp, and the buttercream filling adds just a touch of sweetness; it’s all enjoyed in one or two bites.


Tiffany Domingo behind her Love and Macarons cookie stand at the Midtown Farmers’ Market on select Saturdays. Photo by Rachel Valley

Domingo’s love for macarons inspired her company’s name, and over the years she’s developed 13 flavors inspired by the seasons as well as books and even cute cartoon characters. Her butterbeer macaron, for example, was inspired by the Harry Potter book series. It’s filled with a butterscotch-and-sea-salt buttercream, and the cookie is lightly dusted with edible glitter.

Her glass cookie case, on display at the Midtown market, also is filled with flavors such as pumpkin spice latte, strawberry shortcake, and a ridiculously cute, unicorn-shaped macaron that’s filled with watermelon buttercream and a chewy, watermelon-flavored Sour Patch Kids candy. Domingo also makes an adorable Pusheen the Cat-shaped macaron with passion fruit buttercream, as well as macarons shaped like emojis, cacti, and even an assortment of lovable pandas and brown bears, which come in flavor varieties that include cookie butter, s’mores, and black cherry-vanilla.

“Everyone looks forward to seeing the characters in the morning, especially the children,” Domingo says. “When they stop by the table, it makes me feel so warm inside to know that people like what I create. Macarons are definitely the new it dessert.”

Bakery staple

Across town in the Curtis Park neighborhood, Freeport Bakery owner Marlene Goetzeler and her dedicated staff of bakers and cake decorators make sure to keep macarons stocked in the dessert case. They come in such popular flavors as mocha, lemon poppy seed, and lavender, as well as seasonal varieties that include hazelnut, salted caramel, and peppermint during fall and winter.


Tiffany Domingo preps her Birthday Cake macarons from her certified home bakery. Photo by Rachel Valley

The bakery celebrated its 30th anniversary in August, and it remains a staple stop for sweets with its assortment of classic confections such as fruit basket cakes, cupcakes, and cookies, in addition to freshly baked breads.

For the bakery’s head cake decorator, Carol Clevenger, who’s been employed at Freeport since the bake shop first opened its doors, it’s important to keep up on the trends in the ever-evolving world of sweets, whether that has meant getting creative during the cupcake and cake-pop crazes or developing unique macaron flavors during the fall and winter seasons — because, at the moment, the bite-sized macaron is proving to be in demand, she says.

“It’s actually surprising how popular they’ve been, but macarons are so different and elegant,” Clevenger says. “People really like the little sweet stuff.”

MEET THE MACARON was originally published in Edible Sacramento magazine’s Winter November/December 2017 Issue. See the full story for a pumpkin spice latte macaron recipe from Love and Macarons’ owner Tiffany Domingo!

Rock & Roll: WSCXGP

The party’s on at NorCal’s biggest cyclocross event


Cruising down the American River Bike Trail behind Cal Expo in August of 2012, Matthew Hargrove and his then 8-year-old son Jack heard the distant sounds of punk rock blaring from an empty field. A small group of people was gathered there with bicycles. Intrigued, the father and son decided to check out what the group was up to out in the middle of nowhere. As they rode up to the fellow cyclists, Hargrove recalls, they were greeted with, “Hey! You’re here for cyclocross!”

Having never heard of “cyclocross,” a sport that blends road- and mountain-biking with criterium racing, Matthew and Jack decided to stick around.

“Before we even stopped our bikes, we had people who were happy that we were joining them,” Hargrove says. “That was how this all started. That small group was putting together free cyclocross races just to get people excited about it.”

The following week, Hargrove and his son were back out in the field with their new friends. Soon they were volunteering during newly organized cyclocross events, known then as GHETO races, which stood for “Go Hard Every Time Out.” As an avid record collector, Hargrove began bringing his favorite vinyl to spin for the cyclists during the dusty competitions.

Six years ago at the GHETO races, Hargrove met professional cyclocross athlete Emily Kachorek, her husband Pete Knudsen and race organizer Marty Woy. Together, the four would later form the Northern California Cyclocross Association and organize the first West Sacramento Cyclocross Grand Prix, a homegrown cycling race now in its fourth year that has developed into one the largest cyclocross races on the West Coast.

“That little core group of people are part of this huge international race we’re putting on,” says Hargrove, now WSCXGP race director. Jack occasionally takes over DJ duties.

“It was DIY,” Hargrove says. “We weren’t in a garage putting a band together, but we were out in a field putting races together. As we get to higher levels, we’re trying to figure out ways to keep that spirit alive within our race. So, we’re insistent that we have local music playing there, and that’s a nod to our DIY roots.”

Cycle culture

Heard from a distance across the Tower Bridge, echoes of upbeat punk rock music battle against the rowdy sounds of cowbells as they swell and fade to a steady stream of boisterous cheers. What sounds like an all-out party happening down by the river is actually last year’s WSCXGP.


Digging in the sand at WSCXGP III. Photo courtesy of Jeff Namba

Each year, hundreds of cyclocross athletes from across the country are invited to suit up and pedal hard on a 2-mile mixed-terrain course right along the city’s River Walk Park. As with all cyclocross tracks, this course makes use of the park’s natural features, so riders will race through the difficulties of fine sand, speed up on paved roads, adjust to the track’s many loose and hairpin turns, and overcome obstacles—a cyclocross-course component where riders hop off their bikes and carry them over barriers before hopping back onto their saddles to brave the course ahead.

Cyclocross tests the aerobic endurance of each rider throughout its course. It’s a sport for men and women, amateurs and professionals. Even kids even get in on the fun during WSCXGP.

Organized and co-hosted by the city of West Sacramento, the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates and, of course, the Northern California Cyclocross Association, the WSCXGP kicks off cyclocross season, which runs from September through January.

For the first time this year, the WSCXGP is recognized as one of 22 Union Cycliste Internationale-sanctioned races in the United States, and it’s one of few that provide an equal prize package for women and men—with the largest women’s cash prize in California. It’s also the first year it’s recognized as a USA Cycling Pro Cyclocross race.

These two official titles mean professional athletes can now earn points to improve their international ranking when competing at other UCI or USAC races around the country and abroad. As this grassroots race gears up for the weekend, professional cyclists from Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and throughout California have already registered to compete.

How she rides

On a warm Sunday evening at Squid Bikes’ headquarters located on 14th Avenue, co-owner and pro-rider Emily Kachorek sits comfortably on a gray couch inside her shop as she cracks open a cold La Croix.

Kachorek and her Squid team, which also has members in Texas and Massachusetts, just returned from competing for the Qiansen Trophy in China, where she placed third both race days out of 35 female competitors who represented countries including Belgium, Japan and Latvia. Kachorek, who’s been an active cyclocross racer since 2011, is currently ranked No. 64 in the world.


Emily Kachorek is ranked No. 64 in the world in her sport. Photo courtesy of Jason Perry

Having traveled from the East to West Coast and around the globe, Kachorek is proud to see how quickly the WSCXGP race has grown in four years.

“This is one of the top events in the country, and I’ve been to a lot of them,” she says. “In terms of it really being a celebration and a party that’s more than just a bike race, it’s one of the best in the country.”

This year, Kachorek will represent her Squid team at the WSCXGP and compete in the Women’s Elite race to scoop up some UCI points before the crew travels to compete in Boulder, Colo., and then off to Japan.

With years of training, traveling and competing on a national and international scale, Kachorek says the sport never ceases to present new challenges, such as adjusting her tactics during cold weather races (she was born and raised in sunny San Diego). For Kachorek, the ultimate reward is motivating and inspiring others to hop on a cross bike and try their best.

“It’s hard no matter what,” she says. “Just riding around the course is hard. The professionals are going to ride it faster and may look prettier when they do it, but everyone has the experience [that] cyclocross is a hard thing to be doing. Everyone’s there to cheer you on and it’s perfectly acceptable to stop and rest—and someone might even grab you a beer.”

Par for the course

Five years ago, Ashley Fruhwirth jumped right into cyclocross without any prior experience, she admits. The energetic, bright-eyed 28-year-old, who sports fuzzy cat ears on her bike helmet, loves to take any woman or child with an interest in the sport on a ride through some of her favorite trails, because that’s just how she rolls.

“Serious guys on the trail will crack a smile. The ears brighten people’s days,” Fruhwirth says. “I want people to know you can take your sport seriously and have fun, and that’s where I’m coming from. That’s what I want people to know about cyclocross.”

But Fruhwirth says she wasn’t always the motivated go-getter. She speaks openly about her darkest year, in 2015, when she fell into depression and turned to alcohol to cope. When she decided to get sober and healthy again, cyclocross was her conduit.

“It was February 2016 when I got sober and I said, ’my goal is to podium at cyclocross,’” Fruhwirth says. “I kept this goal in my head, and everyone was so supportive and really there for me through the darker times, even when I didn’t ride my bike.”

She set a couple more goals for herself that year, including a vow to ride 3,000 miles, which she surpassed by the thousands. She also accomplished her initial target to podium, or place, at a cyclocross race by tying for third place during a Sacramento cyclocross competition. Ultimately, there was a tie-breaker and Fruhwirth says she was bumped to fourth place, but it didn’t matter—she did it.

“I didn’t stand up there at the award ceremony, but I worked so hard and I was so proud, and points-wise it was a tie for third,” Fruhwirth says. “I have changed so much emotionally and as a person, and even in my weight. I was so happy. So it didn’t matter that I wasn’t standing up there—I felt like a winner.”

Throughout her years competing in cyclocross, Fruhwirth usually races in the women’s C category, where riders go hard on the multi-terrain course for 30 minutes. This year at the WSCXGP, she wants to up her game, so she registered for the women’s B category, which races for a total of 45 minutes.

As for new goals, instead of upping her mileage even further or vying for a solid podium spot, Fruhwirth, who rides for River City Velo on a bike she calls “Black Widow” because of its black and red colors, says her goal is simply to continue to have fun.

“I wish that everyone could find their own version of cyclocross because it really has changed my entire life,” she says. “I think there are people who have never even heard of it, and I want everyone to be involved if they want to be. I think a lot of people would benefit from it.”

Down by the river

High-pitched feedback fades in and out before loud and fast beats blast from behind a drum kit, drowning out the cowbells in the hands of cyclocross fans who cheer on passing competitors. The sun beats down on Sacramento hardcore band RAD as vocalist Lory Gil shouts into her microphone, at times pointing to cyclists as they whiz past a stage set directly in the middle of the course at WSCXGP.

Fans vie for shade underneath the Bike Dog Brewing Co. beer tent and listen to the music, or huddle next to one of many large outdoor fans to cool down. Toddlers run in circles during the next performance, by the band Pets. With a set filled with energetic and effects-driven guitars, Pets’ catchy beats are fit to motivate the swarms of cyclists as they start the next race.


Cyclocross athletes remount after hopping over barriers on the course. Photo courtesy of Jeff Namba

By the end of this race day, Katherine Nash, a former Olympian originally from the Czech Republic, will take No. 1 in the Women’s Elite race, followed by Kachorek. Nash is currently ranked No. 2 in the entire world, and when she’s not splitting time between living in the Bay Area and Truckee, depending on the weather, she enjoys supporting local races like WSCXGP.

“For somebody who has to pack up a bike and fly places with it, it’s nice to load it up in the car and just drive,” Nash says.

“This year, I had a choice to go to the East Coast and race in a bigger event, but I really wanted to be part of this UCI event. We only have two weekends of UCI racing on the West Coast versus every weekend on the East Coast. So this is a really big deal. I’m excited to be a part of it again.”

Nash, who placed No. 3 at the Worlds races last year, said she looks forward to scoring UCI points in the United States before trotting off to Germany, Denmark, Belgium and—if everything works in her favor—the UCI Cyclocross World Championships, hosted in the Netherlands in January. Still, riding bikes in Sacramento is just as enjoyable, she says, because of the community that follows.

“It’s something that you can relate to with a lot of friends because cycling is accessible at different ages, and people can do it their whole life,” Nash says. “It’s not some form of exercise that only some elitists get to do.

“Everybody can ride and race a bike, and that’s what’s cool about it. Another thing is that feeling of accomplishment, and that may not be winning the race every single time, but just having a nice feeling when you crossed the finish line and you did well based on your expectations.”

ROCK & ROLL: WSCXGP was the cover story of the Sacramento News & Review
September 28, 2017.

Culinary Dreams

Community kitchens support local food and drink artisans in
America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital


Top left to right: Andrea Lepore (Hot Italian/The Food Factory), Aaron Anderson (Purple Pig Eats), Gabriel Aiello (Burly Beverages), Sylvanna Mislang (The Roaming Spoon) and Allison Anderson (Purple Pig Eats). Photo by Debbie Cunningham

On a hot Saturday afternoon, ice-cold drinks and root beer floats are served inside the Burly Beverages Gift Shoppe & Tasting Room, an old-fashioned soda fountain located in the Del Paso Heights neighborhood. Rows of specialty sodas, seltzers, and cocktail essentials line the shelves, and co-owner and founder Gabriel Aiello welcomes guests from behind a sleek corner bar lined with black and chrome bar stools. The doorbell rings, and Aiello opens the door for two women so they can taste the variety of small-batch soda flavors Aiello’s seasonal menu features. For Aiello, this brick-and-motor location was once a simple dream. Still, the challenges that keep many small-batch culinary businesses from realizing their dreams are very much a reality.

With more than 11,000 small family farms in the Sacramento Valley, local culinary artisans are able to draw much inspiration from the abundance that surrounds them year round. That vast foundation allows them to create new ways to savor the region’s lush bounty of fruits and vegetables.

Whether they operate a food booth, run a pop-up supper club, or are a small-batch producer, independent culinary business owners share a passion for sourcing homegrown ingredients and highlighting the authenticity derived from their handmade goods. Still, the expense of launching a culinary dream — especially in its beginning stages — proves difficult for many small producers. So they turn to commercial kitchens and rent space as a more cost-effective approach to sharing their handcrafted goods with the masses. Yet with the growing number of culinary artisans in a booming agricultural economy, kitchen space is extremely limited, which often hampers these budding businesses with a farm-to-fork ethos. Nevertheless, the drive for homemade taste and DIY spirit persists.


Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Burly Beverages soda and shrub syrups.      Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Local support

Burly Beverages, with its all-natural take on old-fashioned soda pop, shrubs, and switchels (a fermented drink with purported health benefits), got started two years ago when a search for ginger beer without corn syrup proved challenging to find on grocery store shelves. So founder and co-owner Gabriel Aiello decided to make his own. He rented production space at Preservation & Co., his former employer and a business known for its spicy Bloody Mary mix. There he learned how to perfect his recipes and studied the ins and outs of running a successful business from Preservation’s founder Jason Poole.

“He helped us out so much, and I could not have started this business if I wasn’t working there,” Aiello says. “Learning from other food makers, that information is more valuable than anything I could find online. Having that community of makers is invaluable, and I want to provide that for other folks.”

In May, Aiello opened the Burly Beverages Gift Shoppe & Tasting Room, where he serves his flagship flavors, including Super Smooth Ginger Beer and the Real Deal Root Beer. The historic art deco building works well as an old-fashioned soda fountain, where ice cream floats paired with Aiello’s classic take on orange soda — made from oranges and carrots, the latter being the source of its bright color — also grace the menu.

With the freedom to brew his small-batch beverages in a kitchen all his own (named The Shrubbery), Aiello says he’s ready to welcome other culinary artisans into the fold.

“We have the ability here to create ultra-fresh, ultra-local, and ultra-seasonal products that other regions just don’t have the ability to do,” Aiello says. “We can all be successful together. We don’t have to be in competition with each other.”


Photo by Debbie Cunningham

The Roaming Spoon dishes fresh and seasonal vegan cuisine. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Making connections

Sylvanna Mislang, chef and owner of the vegan pop-up supper club The Roaming Spoon, noticed when she started her company in November 2013 that it was quite a struggle to find commercial kitchen space. She notes that she and other small business owners were competing for blocks of time with the growing number of the region’s food truck vendors.

By chance, Mislang met Burly Beverages’ Aiello at a Meatless Monday pop-up dinner hosted at Old Ironsides in Downtown Sacramento. Aiello uses the venue to introduce his products to new customers; eventually he welcomed Mislang to make use of The Shubbery’s kitchen space.

“It’s really hard to find a commercial kitchen that is open to your schedule,” Mislang says. “Locally owned, small commercial kitchens like I found in Burly really help me out. Knowing people in the community are willing to help you get your food out to the masses and want you to succeed is wonderful.”


Aaron Anderson is serious about California soul food. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Aaron Anderson of Purple Pig Eats chops some barbecued meat. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Bouncing kitchens

On Saturday mornings at the Oak Park Farmers’ Market, husband and wife team Aaron and Allison Anderson dish out what they describe as California soul food under the name Purple Pig Eats.

“It’s food that’s comforting and feeds your soul, but we give it that California twist,” Aaron says. “We source fresh. We source local, especially when we’re working at the farmers’ market. If it’s around, we’re grabbing it.”

The aroma of smoked meats wafts, luring customers over to a large purple menu board outside the booth that lists what’s cooking. Today, it’s fresh corn and pine nut flapjacks topped with market-sourced berries drizzled with a vanilla-corncob nage (i.e. a flavored liquid used for poaching foods) syrup. There’s also the breakfast mac ’n’ cheese and the farmers’ market hash, both topped with fried eggs.

“When I hand [customers] the food and they’re like, ‘Oh my god! It’s so pretty,’ that’s great,” Allison says. “But when they take the time to come back to the booth and tell me how it blew their mind when they have that food coma glow, that’s what makes this worthwhile.”

A common love for cooking (and each other) fuels Purple Pig Eats’ cuisine, and the Andersons have their sights on bottling and selling their homemade pickles and sauces one day, including their tomatillo ketchup and Sweet Cali mustard sauce.

The two prep for events using the commercial kitchen at the Courtyard D’Oro in Old Sacramento, where Aaron works as the director of culinary operations. But the Andersons recall stressful times before finding this kitchen space, when they would bounce from one kitchen to another in order to meet the demands of running an active business.

What’s more, Sacramento County health officials cracked down on pop-up booth restaurants last fall for the first time and informed owners that they can no longer operate inside the breweries, galleries, and cafés that regularly hosted them.

As of now, there is no specific permit designed for pop-up booths, even though these culinary vendors are required to follow the same sanitary, food and health, and safety codes as food trucks and even food carts. Yet the county allows pop-up booth restaurants to operate at community events and festivals with no qualms. So the question remains, why is one circumstance allowed and not the other? The added stress of new county restrictions is yet another layer of difficulty for those set on following their culinary dreams.

“I think the biggest issue right now with booth food and how it suffers is that there isn’t enough [kitchen] space, and the county is extra hard on us,” Aaron says. “I’ve watched our food evolve before my eyes being in the space we’re in. It just tells me that whatever we’re doing, it’s going to work.”


Photo by Debbie Cunningham

A mural on the wall of The Food Factory’s future location. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

The future looks bright

Enter co-founder of Hot Italian pizzerias Andrea Lepore, who opened her chic Midtown location in 2009 and now has sites in Davis and Emeryville. Her flagship business earned a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver certificate, an award that says a lot about Lepore’s environmentally conscious backbone.

Two years ago, Lepore earned her master’s degree from Boston Architectural College, focused on sustainable design. Her master’s thesis explored food incubators, a business model that provides large-scale commercial kitchen space, cold and dry storage, and top-of-the-line kitchen equipment for culinary producers. According to Lepore, with 200 food incubators operating nationwide, she noticed that Sacramento, with its booming agricultural and creative communities, was missing a grand opportunity.

So, she thought, why not open one in America’s farm-to-fork capital?

“I think we have a great opportunity, because of where we’re located, to create a new model for food incubators,” Lepore says. “We’re taking the best practices through the research of my thesis and my travels visiting incubators from Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and the Bay Area.”

Lepore shared her vision with Dr. Skip Rosenbloom, a former health plan medical director and businessman who also owns a 35,000-square-foot property located in the Alkali Flat neighborhood in Downtown Sacramento. As a proponent of the idea that food is a person’s best medicine, he was all in.

Together, they plan to launch Sacramento’s first food incubator, The Food Factory, a project set for completion within the next two years. She anticipates it will cost about $5 million to develop the downtown site, but she’s working on raising money and also is looking for sponsorship. One possibility is to form a nonprofit so The Food Factory could be funded through grants and foundation money.

For Lepore, The Food Factory is not only a great opportunity for artisans to increase production volume and improve their culinary skills, but also a place where they can sell their goods on site in the incubator’s retail space. Lepore says about 25 businesses could occupy the space, which solves the need for more commercial kitchen access. There also are plans for a courtyard where customers can sit and enjoy their locally purchased goods. It’s a place where small food producers and caterers alike can learn from each other and see their culinary dreams come to light.

“I think there are so many talented people who have great ideas and amazing skills. They may just lack the capital or an affordable place to work, or they don’t have the marketing background,” Lepore says. “What they all have in common is the desire to create something from scratch, and that’s inspiring. I want to be able to help them get their businesses off the ground and stay in business.”

CULINARY DREAMS was the cover story of the Fall 2017 Issue of Edible Sacramento.

Wide Open Walls: Art in the street

Mural festival turns the streets of Sacramento into an open-air fine-art museum


Okuda, whose work is beloved on four continents, will be creating a three-story mural as part of the Wide Open Walls festival. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIDE OPEN WALLS

David Sobon, the local-arts-impresario-slash-nonprofit-auctioneer, is on a quest to brighten the urban landscape—and bring cutting-edge contemporary art to everyone in Sacramento.

The Wide Open Walls mural festival, which Sobon founded and directs, will see 50 muralists, including homegrown artists and international talent, creating 40 huge pieces in every corner of the city. In sheer square footage, this will be the largest mural festival ever mounted on the West Coast.

Sobon says the festival was created to give every resident direct access to the depth of styles and unique perspectives of artists who are just as diverse as the city’s residents.

“Everybody’s not going to go walk into a museum; everybody’s not going to walk into a gallery,” Sobon says. “But anybody can walk or drive or bike down the street and look at beautiful art. My goal is to paint every single district in the city, and that will happen in due time.”

While he was working with the owners of local buildings to secure the walls, Sobon brought in Warren Brand of Branded Arts, an LA-based art company that creates large-scale installations for municipalities, corporations and nonprofits. Brand then worked with the building-owners to pair them with leading wall-artists from around the country and the world, including 23 local painters (seven of whom of whom are profiled here).

“It was exciting to learn about each owner’s vision and aesthetics, and to select artists based on that criteria,” he says.

Brand sees the WOW festival, and his company’s mission, as part of a hallowed history.

“People have been organizing to create public art for centuries,” he says. “Think of the sculptural installations and statues in cities around the world—somebody had to organize that. We’re doing the same thing, but on the cutting edge of contemporary art.”

The contemporary mural movement is rooted somewhat in the graffiti scene that erupted in New York in the early 1980s, and evolved alongside the birth of hip-hop. That scene gave the world artists including Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, both of whom later moved into the studio with huge success, and somewhat less well-known but no-less brilliant artists such as Dondi, Futura 2000 and Lady Pink.

Brand is clearly happy that the street art movement is now being recognized by the smart people in the legitimate art world, and thrilled to be part of WOW fest.

“This is a really important thing,” he says. “Some of the best muralists in the world are coming to Sacramento. I’m so proud. It’s insane.”

For Sabon, this festival, the second in what he hopes will be an ongoing event, continues an effort to make Sacramento a destination for lovers of outdoor art. Since conceiving of this idea, and before and after last year’s mural festival, Sobon and his wife, Anna, have traveled to various countries to check out outdoor art.

“We went to Mexico City and saw some of the most famous murals in the world.” he says. “We went to Los Angeles and did the same thing. Last year we took mural tours in Barcelona, Rome and Venice.”

Five years from now, will there be mural tours of Sacramento?

“There will be mural tours of Sacramento starting August 10.”

—Eric Johnson and Steph Rodriguez

Molly Devlin + S.V. Williams


Photo by Evan Duran

Through intricate details wrought with fine brush strokes, Molly Devlin and S.V. Williams aim to transfix viewers and transport passersby into another world with a mural soon to be located on 11th Street, across from Amaro Italian Bistro & Bar.

Devlin, known for her acrylic paintings of ominous masked figures and otherworldly creatures, says she was inspired to paint a giant squid. The concept developed to include animals from land and sea along with Williams’ painting of a pelican trying to escape the tentacles of the eight-armed sea creature.

“We both are attracted to organic movement, animals and nature,” Devlin says. “We both like to take things less literally than the way they’re portrayed in real life. We just want to make it fun, vivid and energetic and make you think, ’Where am I?’”

Williams’ resume includes an early background in graffiti and knack for creating magical, underwater worlds with boldly detailed sea life. Together, the two artists have created dozens of projects over the past four years, from an installation at ArtStreet to large paintings on slabs of wood at music festivals. While they enjoy painting for any occasion, the two prefer outdoor murals.

“Our piece has a lot of action and it’s very large,” Williams says. “We hope people will walk up to it and see all the different details and bursts of magic and textures. I think we just wanted to paint something really bold and detailed—something that could really draw people in.”;  Instagram: @devlinmolly; Instagram: @svwilliamsart

Molly Devlin and S.V. Williams’ mural will be located at 11th and R streets



Photo by Evan Duran

Demetris Washington will never forget his first mural. He was a high school senior living in Stockton when he received $500 to paint an image of the school’s mascot in the boy’s locker room. Since his move to Sacramento in 2009, Washington’s painted more than 20 murals throughout the city under the name BAMR, which stands for Becoming A Man Righteously. But, before he brightened many of the city’s walls with color, Washington recalls a time when blank surfaces beckoned to be painted.

“When I first came to Sacramento, I remember seeing so many bare walls everywhere,” he says. “To me, those walls looked like candy.”

Now, his list of works include a black-and-purple basketball mural for the Sacramento Kings and a 120-foot-long panorama depicting a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Now he’s got his eye on South Sacramento. It was the first neighborhood he called home, so it’s a fitting location for the mural he will create during the Wide Open Walls festival.

Although he’s kept most of the details about the mural secret, the concept is based on unity. The piece will be visible to all cars that travel along Highway 99.

“Unity is a very powerful word. There’s so much to be said about the word with people coming together and putting their heads together, specifically,” he says. “I enjoy painting as it is. I feel like it was what I was born to do, but when I can attach a purpose to it, it’s that much greater.”; Instagram: @bamr_theartist

BAMR’s mural will be Located at 6700 Mack Road

Kinetik Ideas


Photo by Evan Duran

If Anthony Padilla didn’t have to eat or sleep, he says, he would paint 24/7. Working under the name Kinetik Ideas, Padilla’s laid color on the horizons of Sacramento since the ’90s. Often times he wakes up to paint one mural and is seen finishing another in the evening. So, it’s no surprise to learn he’s taking on two walls during the WOW festival.

One mural, located at 14th and C streets and sponsored by the California Endowment, is inspired by health awareness and access to nutritious foods. The other project blends the ideas of nature and technology and will also incorporate a metal structure resembling a poppy, which Padilla built. Its leaves are made out of solar panels, and a fruit-shaped battery will store energy from the sun, allowing passersby to use it as a phone-charging station.

“It’s something that I want to put in every park and college in California,” Padilla says. “At night, it provides light, which makes it a safer place, and it also makes a statement about renewable energy because it’s all self-contained.”

A Sacramento native who’s watched the flux in graffiti and aerosol art through the years, Padilla sees murals as opportunities not only to make the city’s surroundings more colorful, but also to encourage independent thought.

“I’m all for big art outside,” he says. “I’ve been doing graffiti for 22 years and there was a time where you couldn’t paint on walls. Now, it’s just become more accepted. As time goes on, people accept things because true art doesn’t go away.”; Instagram: @kinetikideas

One of Padilla’s murals will be located at 14th and C streets; the other will be in Liestal Alley between 17th and 18th streets.

Maren Conrad


Photo by Evan Duran

On a trip to Bali, Maren Conrad witnessed a group of women admiring a koi pond inside one of the island’s temples. The women, who were all dealing with cancer, visited the temple to gather water from the koi pond that Conrad says is rumored to have healing powers.

“It was one of the most powerful things I had ever witnessed,” she says. “It was this really heavy moment in my life, and it was so visibly beautiful.”

When she returned home, Conrad began researching the history of koi and discovered the colorful fish has an even brighter story. An ancient Japanese legend holds that a school of koi tried to swim up a waterfall, but were thwarted by demons who kept raising it, slowly. One by one, each fish dropped off until there was only a single one to make it to the top of the waterfall, where the gods transformed it into a golden dragon.

“They represent prosperity through perseverance,” Conrad says. “If you fight long and hard enough you can become something much greater than you ever imagined. It’s such a wonderful symbol for artists.”

For the past decade, Conrad’s painted 30 pieces that pay homage to her spirit animal. She plans to further its legend of perseverance by painting two large koi on the 360-foot-long by 30-foot-high wall on the entire back of the MARRS Building in Midtown.

“I’m going to be on this giant scissor lift, and I have 10 days to knock this out,” Conrad says. “And I’m really looking forward to challenging myself artistically.”; Instagram: @marenconrad

Maren Conrad’s mural will be located at 20th and J streets

Lopan 4000 + Ernie Fresh


Photo by Evan Duran

These two artists met in the third grade, when teachers still referred to them as Neal Bergmann and Ernie Upton. They bonded over hip-hop and video games, and remember times when they would draw Super Mario and Ninja Turtles characters for fun. By age 15, they transitioned from illustrating on paper to painting outdoors as Lopan 4000 and Ernie Fresh.

“We would paint big walls with a large background and everyone would do their own graffiti,” Bergmann says. “That’s where I met [S.V. Williams] too, and he was probably the best in our crew artistically.”

The two will combine their childhood appreciation for giant robots and ’80s sci-fi movie posters for the Wide Open Walls festival, with a retro outer space aesthetic for their mural located at 12th and B streets.

With more than 20 years tag-teaming murals, Bergmann and Upton have bombed walls in Reno and the Bay Area, the latter being a place of inspiration given its rich mural and graffiti culture that raged throughout the ’90s.

“We don’t need to explain what we’re talking about with each other,” Upton says. “Typically when he shows me an example of something I always say yes. And when anybody else does—I don’t know, man.”

Both men hope their latest piece inspires young people with the same misfit spirit that drove them to pick up a can of spray paint.

“When I was growing up, seeing art on walls was inspirational to me and it helped shape who I am today,” Bergmann says. “I would hope to do something like that for someone else or for the younger generations to see and also feel inspired.” ; Instagram: @lopan4000

Ernie Fresh and Lopan’s mural will be located at 12th and B streets

John Horton


Photo by Evan Duran

Inspired by the neon ’80s and old-school sci-fi movies, artist John Horton takes traditional art and manipulates shapes and textures to create a more digital and futuristic experience.

Horton drew his favorite comic book characters as a child, and for him, comics and graffiti go hand in hand. For the last decade, he’s kept busy painting commissioned murals on the interiors and exteriors of Sacramento businesses, and he recalls times when clients preferred paintbrushes to rattle-cans.

“In the last five years it’s been completely acceptable to use spray paint, but I used to be expected to do everything by brush,” he says. “It’s really cool to see the flipside where murals are being well received and drawing artists from all around the world.”

His latest mural was finished in early July and features a trio of astronauts wearing vintage pressure helmets. The mural displayed on 19th and P streets combines pixelated shapes and patches of vivid color blended with both hard and soft line work.

For Wide Open Walls, Horton landed a 92-foot-wide concrete surface on 20th and I across from Maverique Style House.

“The wall is black so I’ll be using a lot of teal, purple and pink, and a lot of those vibrant, neon colors,” he says. “It’s going to be a portrait of a woman who’s abstracted with cool patterns. I think that it will open people’s eyes to a different style of futuristic artwork that we don’t really have here.”; Instagram: @hightech_lowlife

John Horton’s mural will be located at 20th and I streets

ART IN THE STREET was the cover story for the Sacramento News & Review on
July 31, 2017.

The Masked Musician: Anonymous artist El Gato shrouds his alter ego in the guise of a villainous cat

El Gato

Photo by Shoka

My instructions were: “Meet at the Pre-Flite Lounge at 8 p.m. Tell the bartender, ‘Eight lives down, one to go.’ He’ll know what to do.”

I entered the back-alley bar prepared for a rare, face-to-face interview with an elusive Sacramento musician known as El Gato, who refuses to share his real name. I recite the strange message to the bartender who lightly taps the bar in approval before he texts someone to signal that I’ve arrived.

After a few moments of silence, the bartender leads me to a back door labeled “employees only” and into a dimly lit parking garage. He departs, but I’m not alone.

Instead I’m joined by a headless mannequin that hangs by a rope and the aroma of exhaust fumes. Sitting behind a fold-out table is El Gato, his face concealed by a tight, black mask reminiscent of the alter egos embraced by luchadores. His has pointed, silver eyes and hornlike cat ears. He’s joined by Mechanical Bull Records music producer Sean Arrant, who acts as this ominous musician’s mediator. Between questions, El Gato sits silently and either nods slowly or coldly shakes his head. Serious about anonymity, he never removes his mask.

This is El Gato’s first public interview ever before this week’s performance at the Press Club, when he unleashes his debut, five-song video EP The Executive Party Box Vol. 1: Given ’Em the Boot with El Gato, a project five years in the making.

A large-scale interactive video sculpture controlled by El Gato will entertain audience members with his original compositions and eclectic stream of music videos created to “invoke feelings of fear and unease.” The underlying mystique of El Gato is influenced, he says, by artists like Salvador Dalí, villains like Marvel Comics’ Galactus and the darker eccentricities of Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka.

Despite El Gato’s enigmatic and villainous reputation, he uses his talents as a multi-instrumentalist to create sincere music that delves into just about every genre, but with a heavy emphasis on dusty rock ’n’ roll. Each song is accompanied by its own unique music video that El Gato also shoots and directs.

The opening track on Party Box, “Sam I Am,” is a bluesy, soul-driven and dysphoric anthem, with its fixed tambourine beat and somber background vocals that keep a foot-thumping pace. But, it’s the song “Shit Bananas V.2” where El Gato taps into his inner Beck.

The black-and-white music video opens with the masked musician waking up from a long cat nap before strutting the streets of downtown Sacramento. The catchy song combines acoustic and electric guitars with laid-back drum beats, and its lyrics are clever and phonetically playful.

Its chorus stays with the listener for hours—sometimes days—but its upbeat, singalong appeal is ironically the antithesis to the mastermind behind the music.

Back in the depths of the parking garage, El Gato quietly whispers his responses to my inquiries in Arrant’s ear and, at times, scribbles down his replies inside his fancy stationery adorned with an image of his signature mask.

As the video EP release draws near, El Gato expressed through a written response that he aims “not only to terrorize the ears of his victims, but also their eyes” and warns, “This EP is just the initial volley in the all-out war against humanity.”

Let’s hope so.

This article, written by Steph Rodriguez, was published in the Sacramento News & Review on July 13, 2017.

Filipino Flavor: Olla Swanson cooks up family traditions


Home cooks bring a certain finesse and authenticity to the dishes they know well. In many homes, you’ll find no recipe books sitting on the kitchen counter, no second-guessing of measurements, and often the simmering and spicing of home-cooked meals solely depend on the cook’s palate, which continuously assesses all the familiar flavors lightly bubbling on the stovetop until they’re just right.

All of these methods ring true for Olla Swanson, a seasoned home cook who was taught how to make rice properly by her mother at age 4. Her advice: Wash it three times.

Growing up in a large Filipino household, Swanson inherited the natural ability to cook traditional-style Filipino dishes from her mother, Olivia, and her Aunt Lupe.

“When I was growing up, my mom and my Aunt Lupe between them had eight children, and we all grew up together in this big house, and there would be so much food,” Swanson says. “I like how Filipino food makes me think of community and all of us eating together, especially if there’s a big party. Also, it’s hard to find. The only way you can get it is if you make it.”

Under the moniker The Olla Factory, Swanson now serves the Filipino dishes of her childhood during a rotating Monday popup dinner series at Sacramento’s Old Ironsides restaurant, to crowds she hopes will discover a love for these foods that meant so much to her and her family.


Bringing people together

For Swanson, Filipino cuisine is all about family style. So it’s no surprise that her test kitchen is located in the comforts of her home in Citrus Heights, where she cooks Filipino staples for her husband Stephen, her siblings Oliver and Christine, and, of course, her mother.

They include dishes such as chicken adobo seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar; pancit, which is fried rice noodles with sautéed vegetables and seared pork; and embutido, a Filipino-style steamed meatloaf that combines sausage, hard-boiled eggs, and raisins. All make frequent appearances in Swanson’s kitchen.

Her kare-kare dish (pronounced karay karay) holds memories of birthdays and special occasions and is a dish that family and friends quickly devour after its six-hour-long cooking process.

“When people think of Filipino food, they think of adobo and lumpia, and that’s pretty much it,” she says. “But that’s not even scratching the surface. Kare-kare is my favorite dish, and I ask for it on my birthday. Now that I make it, I make it a little different from [my mom].”

The main difference between Swanson’s dish and her mom’s is simply measured by preference of ingredients — with or without tripe, for instance, or with coconut milk added.

Swanson’s take on kare-kare is a rich and savory stew that packs great flavor. Braised oxtails, slow-roasted Chinese eggplant, sautéed long-beans, Spanish onions, and baby bok choy swim in a creamy coconut-milk-and-peanut sauce. The finished dish is served over steamed rice and topped with fried garlic chips and a dab of bagoóng (shrimp paste).

The lush mouthful sends a variety of happy signals to the palate as it cleverly dances among sweet, savory, salty, rich, and creamy … all the flavor profiles that give this dish its comfort factor. It’s abundantly clear why kare-kare is a family favorite and was a huge hit when Swanson served it to patrons during her popup dinner series.

Event organizer and longtime Old Ironsides bar manager Mark Gonzales says Swanson not only brings her unique take on Filipino cuisine to the restaurant’s regular patrons, but she also invites new diners whenever she’s in the kitchen.

“It’s cool that people can bring their culture into [the popup dinners], and you can try dishes that you might never have tried,” Gonzales says. “It’s its own thing. I’ve enjoyed everybody who comes to the Monday popups because they put their heart into the food.”

Swanson’s love for her culture’s cuisine is displayed in the time and energy she dedicates to her dishes and can be measured by her eagerness to share her food with the masses.

“When I started doing [the popup dinners], I really wanted people to try more Filipino food,” Swanson says. “Filipino food has a way of bringing people together. Lumpia, one of the most popular Filipino dishes, is eaten with crowds, and kare-kare is made better when cooked with family members. I want to bring good food to everyone and bring people together.”

Photos by Debbie Cunningham