Early peek at El Rey food, drinks and ambiance as taqueria set to open near arena

As Golden 1 Center prepares to debut, one of the area's most significant restaurant projects will launch at 711 K St. El Rey taqueria opens on Aug. 31, with a menu of Mexican food and cocktails that are geared for crowds heading to and from the ar
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As Golden 1 Center prepares to debut, one of the area's most significant restaurant projects will launch at 711 K St. El Rey taqueria opens on Aug. 31, with a menu of Mexican food and cocktails that are geared for crowds heading to and from the ar
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Carla Meyer

The Sacramento Bee’s dining critic knows good taste

Carla Meyer

First Impressions: Malt & Mash starts stronger than downtown neighbor El Rey

By Carla Meyer

cmeyer@sacbee.com

September 21, 2016 12:01 PM

First Impressions visits dining spots that are new or have undergone transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at taste@sacbee.com.

Rarely has the idea of a neighborhood being “in transition” resonated as acutely as it does when one stands on the threshold of new downtown cantina El Rey.

Outside its door sits the 700 block of K Street, one of the more “Blade Runner”-esque stretches of downtown even before development fueled by the forthcoming Golden 1 Center hollowed out many of its buildings.

Inside the door lay a 4,800-square-foot, whistle-clean tribute to high-end tequila drinks, $4.75 “street” tacos, flat-screen TVs and noise levels high enough to obscure all sound from K Street or any awareness of an outside world in general.

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In other words, this venture from an ownership group that includes local restaurateur Trevor Shults (Barwest) and former Sacramento King Kenny Thomas offers an appropriately boisterous space for fans to gather before concerts and Kings’ games. Its noise level, shiny objects (brightly colored booths, TVs by the dozen) and sheer size can serve as a warm-up for the stimuli-packed arena experience.

There is no other place like El Rey in Sacramento. At least not since the Hard Rock Cafe closed, back when “DoCo” was still Downtown Plaza.

But whereas El Rey feels like the start of a chain, Malt & Mash – its smaller, also-new brother restaurant housed in the same late-19th-century Ochsner Building at 7th and K – feels cozy and comparatively quiet. Shults also leads the team behind this Irish pub, in which Thomas is not a partner.

El Rey and Malt & Mash are the most prominent restaurants, among the 30-plus places scheduled to open near the arena by the end of 2017, to already be open for business. We visited each a day after food service began – early September for El Rey, last week for Malt & Mash.

Menu: El Rey offers a dozen “street” tacos, some with traditional fixings (pork carnitas) and others less traditional (duck carnitas, spicy peanut shrimp), plus appetizers and salads. Malt & Mash’s early, limited menu consists of slightly elevated bar food, from poutine fries with duck confit to a Reuben with kimchi. Apart from fish and chips with Guinness beer-battered cod, the menu is not especially Irish.

Price point: El Rey charges $4.75 for chips and salsa, and $3.75-$4.75 for each small taco. But it does not seem that spendy otherwise. It likely will be cheaper to eat at El Rey or Malt & Mash than at the arena. No single food item at either costs more than $15. Craft cocktails range from $7-$11.

Ambiance: El Rey is nice to look at it, objectively, with its distressed wood floors and banquettes covered in retro, floral-patterned vinyl. But all I could see was noise. Though the NBA season is a month away, El Rey already can be crowned champion noise generator among Sacramento restaurants. Even with the restaurant half-full, the cacophony of voices reaches nervous-system-rattling levels.

The quieter, 1,900-square-feet Malt & Mash is nearly head-to-toe wood, broken up by the occasional tribute to the Emerald Isle – a soccer (sorry, football) jersey here, an Irish flag there. The restaurant opens onto a patio that faces St. Rose of Lima Park, site of the downtown holiday ice-skating rink.

Drinks: El Rey’s margarita list includes pineapple and cucumber options, along with a “Cali-Verde” with cucumber-lime jalapeño puree. Malt & Mash’s brown-liquor-focused craft cocktails include the “Ron Burgundy” with Monkey Shoulder scotch ( ... scotch, scotch), maple syrup and chocolate bitters. Its draft beer list leans Irish (Guinness, Smithwick’s) with a nod to Sacramento (Track 7).

First impressions: El Rey’s drinks impress more than its food. We liked the elegantly balanced “Clean Laundry” with Corralejo Reposado tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, mint and cucumber, and the sweet yet biting “Caddy” margarita with Herradura Reposado.

It took far more effort to enjoy the queso fundido appetizer, since the cheese was so dry it collected into a sheet-like form that came up as one piece when I dipped a chip into it. The pickled pineapple salsa, part of a three-salsas-and-chips plate, tasted as if a spoonful of vinegar was added to the small cup holding it just before it was served.

The chili verde taco contained under-seasoned meat. But the spicy peanut shrimp taco was near-perfect, with juicy, plump shrimp and sweet-tart peanut salsa.

Although Bryce Palmer is head chef for both restaurants, the food at Malt & Mash was much better. The duck confit fries delivered ample flavor – from cheese-curd saltiness to duck-fat richness. Though the kimchi on the Reuben flirted with too much sweetness, it all came out in the wash of a smooth Smithwick’s red ale.

Try it if: You’re seeking a sample of what a post-arena downtown will look like.

Skip it if: You’re a fan of nuance.

The former Sacramento Kings player is co-owner of El Rey taqueria, which is scheduled to open Aug. 11 near the Golden 1 Center. More than 30 new bars and restaurants are set to open in area in the near future.

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Malt & Mash/El Rey

715 and 723 K St., Sacramento

Hours: El Rey – 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-midnight Tuesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-midnight Sunday. Malt & Mash – 11 a.m.-midnight Wednesday, Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-midnight Sunday

Information: El Rey – 916-400-4170, www.elreyonk.com; Malt & Mash – 916-476-4403