Restaurants can stand out with well-executed creativity, or simply by sticking to their guns. In July, I got a taste of both.
In Loomis, one of the region’s few Burmese restaurants delivered an unforgettable chicken laksa and refreshing tea leaf salad. A Land Park fine dining destination’s menu got a face-lift from its new chef, and a Woodland couple’s fast-casual outpost smoothly blended Korean, Hawaiian and mainland dishes.
All of these reviews were first published in The Sacramento Bee’s free weekly food and drink newsletter, which lands in followers’ inboxes around noon each Wednesday.
Kuji Asian Grill (1801 E. Gibson Road, Woodland)
Kai and Suji Jung grew up in Davis and South Korea, met while cooking in Hawaii and opened Woodland’s Kuji Asian Grill in January 2019. The menu at 1801 E. Gibson Road merges those backgrounds as seamlessly as “Kuji” combines the owners’ names.
Half of Kuji’s menu is dedicated to takes on Hawaiian plate lunch, similar to a Southern meat-and-three. Fiery housemade kimchi, rice, Korean pickles and bacon bit-topped potato macaroni salad come with entrees such as salmon ($14), cooked beautifully in a sweet-savory sesame glaze with a crunchy layer of skin over the top.
The K-chicken sandwich ($13) is another smash hit, a riff on the trendy dish that ranks among the region’s best. Crisp chicken katsu nestles between two thin slices of toast with a funky slaw, pepper aioli and galbi sauce, with a side of fries that were firm but still fluffy inside.
The pork belly salad ($13) had nice texture contrast between its bright lettuce, garlic chips, dried mushrooms and pickled onions. While the flagship meat was slightly overcooked, it was at least masked by a domineering spicy soy pepper vinaigrette.
Taylor’s Kitchen (2924 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento)
Note: Taylor’s Kitchen announced its immediate closure on July 28, a day after this review initially ran.
Taylor’s Kitchen has been a charming Land Park destination restaurant since 2009. That relative longevity pales in comparison to the adjoined Taylor’s Market, founded in 1962, but even so, it was time for a bit of a spark after 13 years.
Enter former Ella Dining Room & Bar executive chef Rob Lind, a Yuba City native who took over Taylor’s Kitchen earlier this year. Lind’s expertise, creativity and seasonal focus have breathed new life into the refined New American date night restaurant at 2924 Freeport Blvd., as evidenced by dishes such as the fried green tomatoes ($15).
The tomato pucks were lightly fried to create a crisp exterior layer without robbing the fruit of its juices. Served atop a layer of lemon-caper aioli with none-too-fatty pork belly bricks, frisée and a smoked cherry tomato marmalade, it hit all kinds of notes — sweet, salty, acidic and smoky, with a nice crunch from the fryer.
The entrees’ most interesting aspects were normally not the base, but the flairs. Such was the case with the pappardelle ($31), where San Marzano tomatoes, chunky Mt. Shasta porcini mushrooms and braised suckling pig ragout (a little salty for my taste, admittedly) weaved around ribbons of pasta.
Lind’s lobster cioppino ($46) brought its bevy of seafood to the forefront by minimizing the amount of smoked tomato-fennel broth in the bowl. Mussels, clams, Monterey Bay squid and two enormous butter-poached, shelled Maine lobster claws rose from that shallow red sea, creating a dish as memorable for its appearance as its decadent flavors.
Green Elephant (5911 King Road, Loomis)
I’m not sure exactly how Loomis ended up with one of the Sacramento area’s two Burmese restaurants, but residents of the 7,000-person Placer County town lucked out by landing Green Elephant at 5911 King Road.
Co-owner and front-of-house manager Rachel Phyu immigrated to the U.S. from what’s now Myanmar at age 19 in 1985, and opened the strip mall restaurant in 2011 with her chef and longtime boyfriend Moe Thu. It’s normally just the two of them at Green Elephant. Phyu’s tie-dye t-shirt, denim shorts and convivial attitude lent a sense of informality to our meal.
I appreciate the contrasting textures in a good tea leaf salad ($13.75), and Green Elephant’s rendition hit those notes well, the soaked leaves and cabbage interrupted by the crunch of peanuts, garlic chips and seeds galore.
Phyu recommended crab fried rice to go with curry fish (both $15.75), but each had enough flavor to stand on its own. The fish in particular stood out, with big nuggets of tender, salty catfish with sweet potatoes, broccoli and lotus root in a turmeric-heavy curry.
My favorite dish was Green Elephant’s chicken laksa ($14.75), a golden stew with hard-boiled eggs, red onions and chewy egg noodles. Topped with fried yellow split peas that I initially mistook for Funyuns (close call there), the laksa’s creamy coconut milk base and terrific depth of flavor kept me coming back for more.