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For Tahoe-ans, Sacramento serves as something of a gateway to the Bay Area, and for San Franciscans, Sacramento must feel like the gateway to the Sierras. In 2016, though, Sacramento feels as though it is a gateway to…Sacramento. Among many other momentum-earning endeavors around the city, as we sit on the precipice of the completion of the new downtown arena, the Golden 1 Center, Sacramentans wait to witness the impact of the behemoth project.

On a recent Thursday, the City Scout team set out to learn the story behind an even smaller gateway — the one from the arena to downtown & midtown. Walking around 7th and K Streets trying to find the soon-to-be address of El Rey — a new Mexican street food concept — confronted by the papered windows and abandoned buildings, it took some imagination to envision the transformation on its way, but once we found the front door to the restaurant, the reality started to set in. In flipping through renderings of the space on an iPad as we awaited treats from Chef Bryce Palmer, we saw for ourselves that this corridor — the very same dilapidated stretch we’d just come in from — would soon become the strait through which people would pour in and out of one of the Golden 1 Center’s three entrances. The team behind the new venture spoke proudly and excitedly about the prospect of having the opportunity to usher folks into the downtown area — both literally and figuratively. Because people will be coming to the arena from all around the region, some people might not be familiar or comfortable with “the grid,” and its style of food. El Rey would like to be there to help introduce people to just that — a lively, non-corporate, local watering hole.

Tim Harris, of Insight Public Relations, describes the goal of the restaurant concept as “fun, energetic and approachable, where people can walk around and be social.” The digital renderings highlight a high-energy space with full-service bars, a DJ setup, and multiple TVs, all of which are warmed up with reclaimed wood from the Sierras, Dia de los Muertos-like skulls, and splashes of bright color. The cocktail-centric, taco-anchored menu boasts traditional flavors with thoughtful techniques and updated twists, and we were all too happy to have the chance to sample the menu items and report back.

El Rey’s food concept is based on Palmer’s travels to various regions in Mexico, which the chef describes as “light, fresh, and clean,” and what one might describe as adventurous. A gateway to trying ingredients perhaps a bit outside one’s norm — a la octopus or yuca root —  the taco menu encourages diners to eat what they’re familiar with plus a bit more. By challenging our taste buds, Palmer stretches the edges of our comfort zone ever so slightly.

The gateway idea translates to the cocktail program as well. As Elliott Ames, the beverage and marketing director, explains: a list that is “cool, different, locally sourced, and changes often to include what people don’t always recognize so they can try a fresh spin.” The plan is to help diners “graduate” from, say, their go-to strawberry margarita, and instead order the Strawberry Serrano — one of the eight planned margaritas. Made with reposado from El Jimador, some spice from the serrano chiles, and a balanced amount of sweetness, the drink helps us to flirt with our fringes and still enjoy ourselves plenty.160218_elrey_0001160218_elrey_0016160218_elrey_0009160218_elrey_0011Siete Leguas, the original Patrón — one of many tequilas that will be featured on a tequila wall.160218_elrey_0020160218_elrey_0015Salsa sampler! We tried (in order of least to most spicy): the house salsa (fire-roasted), the cucumber pico de gallo, the fresh tomatillo, the chimichurri (made with roasted garlic), the mango habanero, and the habanero (spicy!). All salsas are made in-house, and can be ordered as a tasting!160218_elrey_0025160218_elrey_0036That Paloma drink, which is usually made with tequila and Squirt, gets an upgrade at El Rey, with house made grapefruit syrup, soda water, tequila, and a pinch of sea salt.160218_elrey_0039160218_elrey_0028House-made chicharrones — light and airy fried pig skin. The skins are salted, hung in front of a fan for a week to wick out the excess moisture and fat, deep-fried, and topped with chili, lime and salt. When you squeeze lime juice on top, if you listen closely, you’ll hear a crackle!160218_elrey_0048160218_elrey_0040160218_elrey_0042160218_elrey_0049160218_elrey_0055160218_elrey_0068There will be a seasonal chili on the menu. During our pop-up visit, we took our chances with the Fresno chili, which was blistered and topped with a lime and garlic-confit crema. Luckily, we won at chili roulette and didn’t get any that were too spicy!160218_elrey_0065160218_elrey_0076160218_elrey_0077The Fresh Leather: mezcal and Ancho Reyes liqueur (made with ancho chiles). The addition of the banana liqueur, pineapple fronds, and lime juice make for a smoky, spicy, sweet combination that spells B-A-L-A-N-C-E in Spanish.160218_elrey_0083160218_elrey_0087160218_elrey_0074Queso fundido translates to “molten cheese.” ¡Sí, por favor! A mix of chorizo and peppers awaits you once you get through the bruleéd cheese on top.160218_elrey_0093160218_elrey_0091Ceviche made with pico de gallo, chipotles, and jicama, all atop an avocado mousse swipe. Inspired by his love for making fresh salsas, Chef Palmer applied a similar approach to fresh prawns.160218_elrey_0107The Strawberry Serrano margarita.160218_elrey_0105160218_elrey_0111160218_elrey_0119160218_elrey_0100160218_elrey_0101The duck carnitas confit taco here doesn’t mess around. The duck is cooked in its own fat for 8 hours with thyme, bay leaf and orange peel, and then heated up so its edges are crispy while still keeping the duck moist inside. Served with pickled onion, micro greens, and pasilla crema, try not to waddle out from eating too many.160218_elrey_0112160218_elrey_0114See those tortillas? They’re made just for El Rey. 4″ seemed too small and 6″ was too big, so La Esperanza makes these special street-taco-sized 5-inchers. 160218_elrey_0110160218_elrey_0121Yes, that is a house made Choco Taco. House made waffles, house made chocolate sauce (using coconut oil) and Gunther’s vanilla-chocolate-swirl ice cream combine to make you go (pea)nuts for this throwback treat.160218_elrey_0123The idea behind El Rey is to both be a jumping off point for games, concerts and events at the arena, and to keep people downtown when they visit. In Spanish, “El Rey” translates to “the king,” a nod to the Sacramento Kings, of course, and a title they hope to earn someday — Taco King. What with 40% of the pedestrian inflow projected to come down K Street, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to earn your vote.

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Photo | Susan Yee

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