Words & Photos by Robert Berry | Above: The Polenta Breakfast

There’s a mysterious and wonderful consistency to Nopalitos Southwestern Café that’s hard to pin down. You’d think with as many restaurants that come and go that a place that’s only open weekdays from 6:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. wouldn’t last a year, let alone several. This East Sacramento establishment on 56th and H streets, however, has been going strong since 1992.

According to their website bio, Dave and Rose Hanke decided on the limited hours to manage their 7-year-old son’s baseball schedule.

“Aaron grew up and eventually played a couple of years in the big leagues with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Dave and Rose decided they actually enjoyed having a life beyond the café, so they never opened on the weekends or evenings,” the bio reveals.

I’ve lived just a couple blocks away for almost as long as Nopalitos has been open, and I’ve enjoyed the consistent and high-quality breakfast and lunch fare they’ve served through the years. It’s full of regulars sitting inside and out, and one of many longtime eateries in that area like Cookie’s Drive In and The Wienery that have been supported by the locals for decades.

I had a couple of breakfasts in a row there to revisit the place, and it says a lot that I still want to go back tomorrow after I’ve already written this piece. Their breakfast menu is a family of burritos, scrambled egg plates, omelets and other favorites that cover Southwest cuisine nicely, along with standards like pancakes and french toast. There’s plenty of selections for vegetarians and gluten-free folk to choose from, as well.

I started with The Polenta Breakfast, which has a moist base of cornmeal that is almost grits-like, covered either with chorizo or chili verde. It’s topped off with chile Colorado, roasted corn, two fried eggs, pico de gallo and your choice of flour or corn tortillas. Priced at $10.95, it was a divine and peaceful feast. The polenta had a subtle buttery taste to it, and the chorizo I chose was perfectly textured (not too greasy) and full of a mild spicy flavor and richness that made additional seasonings unnecessary.

The Little Cactus Special

At 7 a.m. on a Tuesday, there was a nice crowd, but the morning was temperate enough to make for a nice outside meal. I returned with my wife the next morning about a half-hour later and it was a bit more crowded, but the service was quick and the food was excellent again. This time I got their signature dish, The Little Cactus Special, which is a plate-sized egg scramble that has cactus, corn and cheese inside, topped with cheese, sour cream, salsa and your choice of red or green chili sauce. I asked for both, expecting it to be drizzled all over the top, but the sauce was on the bottom of the plate, halved like a red and green yin-yang sign.

Again, it was another wonderful meal that I still felt full from through the afternoon. My wife Linda got the Hot Corn Meal Mush. At $4.95, this soft and hot bowl of comfort came with brown sugar and cream on the side. She ordered it with bananas and raisins on top and it was a pleasing diversion from typical hot cereal fare.

The service at Nopalitos is outstanding. Earlier this year, I brought my daughter Sierra and had forgotten that they didn’t accept credit cards. Rose, who had no reason to remember me or know I was a local, told me to sit down and enjoy my meal and I can just pay them later. (By the way, if I find out anyone does this on purpose, I’ll personally find you and make you listen to my stand-up comedy for three hours as punishment.) Of course, I gave her a gigantic tip as a thank you for her courtesy.

Because of the limited hours, other folks and I have unfairly written off Nopalitos as inaccessible. I’d usually only eat there if I happened to be walking by after dropping my car off for repair. But what a dream it must be to own and run a successful business and still have nights and weekends available. Their reputation is so strong, they seem to thrive on word of mouth alone, as I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an ad for the place since I moved to the neighborhood in 1996. I looked on Yelp to see the opinions of others and was shocked to see that 11 years ago I docked them a star because of their schedule and cash-only policy. I’ve since deleted it and hope this review in Submerge will make amends.

Dave and Rose’s Nopalitos is a Sacramento treasure, and you owe it to yourself to slow up your morning and pay it a visit for breakfast or lunch. The staff is quick and thoughtful, and I’ve never waited too long to get my food. All of the items on their menu can be prepared to-go if you’d like to bring it to work instead. Don’t overlook their fresh salsa bar, either. In 23 years of eating at Nopalitos, I’ve never had a bad meal, and I don’t believe I ever will.

The parking isn’t the best, but there are street spaces with two free hours all around the joint. If you see me on your way home from there down the street, give me a bite of your leftovers, assuming you had enough self-control to save some. While you’re in the area, be sure to check out the Sacramento Antique Mall around the corner to walk off those carbs.

Hot Corn Meal Mush

**This piece first appeared in print on pages 10 – 11 of issue #289 (April 10 – 24, 2019)**

    Robert A. Berry II

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    Robert Berry is an accomplished stand-up comedian and author of "Robert Berry's Big Book of Jokes." He's been writing about music, comedy, art and film for Submerge since 2016.