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A capital sojourn in Sacramento

Weekend Escape: Four seasons, Old West flourishes, trees and, oh, yeah, state government: Sacramento is all this and more. Cap a day of sightseeing with regional Mexican dishes and a sweet treat.

By Christopher Reynolds

8:41 PM EST, January 24, 2014

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It's good to be reminded that Sacramento isn't just a consumer of our tax dollars and a dispenser of red tape. It's also a real place with real seasons — daunting heat in summer, golden leaves in fall, chill winds in winter, rampant green renewal in spring. My family and I spent a weekend in November, when fall foliage was still draping Capitol Park (between L and N and 10th and 15th streets) with gravitas. I found J Street livelier than I remembered from a few years before. My wife and daughter liked the wooden sidewalks and Old West flourishes of Old Sacramento. And on our way to dinner, we all got a nice look at the noble facade of the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium at 15th and J.

The bed

Sheraton Grand Sacramento (1230 J St., Sacramento; [916] 447-1700, http://www.sheratonsacramento.com). Yes, it's a national chain hotel with 503 rooms. But if you're headed to the Capitol or the convention center, it's a great location. And it has some history. Part of the hotel is the city's old revamped Public Market Building, designed by Julia Morgan in 1923, converted into offices in the 1970s, then converted into the hotel's restaurant and banquet space in 2001. Rooms for two run $119 to $359 a night — and because most guests are business travelers, it's dramatically cheaper on weekends.

The meal

Centro Cocina Mexicana (2730 J St., Sacramento; [916] 442-2552, http://www.centrococina.com) has been going for close to 20 years, but it was a revelation to us. The menu celebrates Mexican regional dishes such as cochinita pibil from the Yucatán (slow-roasted pork in citrus juices) and credits cookbook author Diana Kennedy as an inspiration. The dining room is full of bold colors and dangling star lights. And the bar has more tequilas than the Legislature has reasons for giving itself a raise. Main dishes $13-$15.50. (This is one of nine venues, with widely varied menus, run by the Paragary Restaurant Group.)

The find

Rick's Dessert Diner (2322 K St., Sacramento; [916] 444-0969, http://www.ricksdessertdiner.com). This little diner, complete with checkerboard floors, jukebox and frescoes of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, drips calories. Its menu offers 285 types of cake, pie, pastry, tart and other treats, and management boasts about making everything from scratch. Persimmon spice cake ($39.95 for the whole cake). Lemon bars for $3.25. I don't understand how such a menu is possible, but we sampled several desserts and ate far more than we'd planned. And Rick's has been winning local best-dessert polls since George Deukmejian was governor. If that's all too sweet for you, grab lunch at Muntean's Soups, Salads & Sandwiches (1255 J St., Sacramento; [916] 498-9340, http://www.munteansoups.com), which routinely offers a dozen soups on a single day. (I recommend the Romanian Mulligatoni. Really.)

The lesson learned

Sacramento has many trees, the better to provide shade in summer, and immense tree-pride. In fact, roaming the city or Sacramento-related corners of the Internet, you'll find all sorts of inspiring yet unverified claims about Sacramento having more trees per capita than Paris. Whether or not that's true, it's a fact that in 2013, the Washington-based nonprofit American Forests named Sacramento among the 10 best urban forests in the United States (www.lat.ms/1befgML).

chris.reynolds@latimes.com