Photos by Matthew Burks

Juno’s Kitchen and Delicatessen
3675 J Street – Sacramento

Some chefs do it for the love, some do it for the fame and others do it because they don’t know what else they’d be doing if they weren’t in the kitchen. The latter describes Chef Mark Helms of Juno’s Kitchen and Delicatessen.

“This is what I do with my time. I can’t think of anything else to do. I have holes in my pants and a dirty hat; that’s me,” says Helms with a smile and a Lagunitas IPA in his hand.

His ball-cap-wearing, laidback persona is the perfect juxtaposition to the thoughtfully prepared, colorful and masterfully executed food that he serves at his newly opened East Sacramento restaurant. A nondescript location–tiny and dangerously unnoticeable, from which the likes of two recent ventures have come and gone (Babycakes and Urban Dawg), this wasn’t exactly his first choice.

“This is what came up. There’s not a lot of real estate that comes up to open a business in East Sacramento that already has a kitchen ready to go,” says Helms.

But as many Sacramento chefs have proven before, a lot can be done with a little space; and the line out the door and groups patiently waiting for tables is proof. Big flavors are born at Juno’s. And what’s even more impressive is that most of the bread served is baked fresh on site, too. The baguette and burger bun (I’ll come back to this) are from Acme Bread Company in Berkley, Calif., but the rest is house-made dough that is naturally leavened, using zero commercial yeast. Sandwiches like the smoked salmon with creme fraiche vinaigrette, onion, cornichons, tomato, watermelon radish and arugula; or the Cabernet salami with aioli, tomato, red onion, lemon, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, are taken to the next level between two slices of freshly baked bread.

The process of making naturally leavened bread, a very old practice, takes much patience and attention. If Helms was using commercial yeast, versus the wild, air-born yeast used in his bread, his wait time for the dough to rise would be a lot shorter. His product takes time, love and effort and you can taste it the moment you bite into it. It’s not every day you find a baker, let alone a chef, making bread in this fashion.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone between myself and San Francisco that makes bread this way,” says Helms.

Fast food is championing some sort of product they call Angus burgers. But that ain’t no Angus burger, and the real deal is found at Juno’s. Once you taste this, you may never go back to eating burgers anywhere else. To begin, the Acme bun was an excellent choice–and as I’ve said before, is such a hugely important component in the construction of a perfect burger. The bun has a thin top layer of crunch that gives way to soft bread and is a perfect complement to the medium-rare patty that is juicy and loaded with flavor. Roasted garlic aioli, caramelized onions and Manchego cheese knock this burger entirely out of the park.

There really isn’t much that Helms doesn’t do well. Choosing what you want to eat off the menu becomes a process of elimination, and if there’s a daily special that catches your eye, you’d better enjoy it before it’s gone. His soup du jour was vegetarian minestrone on the day that Submerge paid Juno’s a visit. Minestrone can be somewhat uneventful, a comfort food that satisfies as long as it’s hot; but Helms’ version was nothing short of amazing. Tender lima beans and celery, leafy greens and a perfectly spiced and salted broth made me think differently about what minestrone can be.

If you’re ever faced with the dilemma of craving high quality fare, but your bank account is as empty as your stomach, then Juno’s is just the spot that Helms would like to welcome you to. It’s a neighborhood joint where locals walk to dine, devout customers from Helms’ first Pocket-area restaurant Ravenous travel to taste and fellow foodies and industry folk gather to feel comfortable and eat. Helms likes it to be just like it is.

“To be honest, I’ve worked in fine dining for years and years–I’m really not into it,” says Helms candidly. “I really like this, I really like what I’m doing here. I think this is down to earth, that there are all walks of life that come in here and that’s really cool.”

    Ellen Baker

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