Few things are better than red and green sauce covering something, anything.
There’s something about a friendly-looking corner café that adds to the experience, the allure of a wooden sign over a pleasantly-painted building almost an appetizer for a good meal. Such is the case for Nopalitos Café in East Sacramento, an area institution since 1992 opened and operated by husband and wife team Dave & Rose Hanke. As the name suggests, nopales are available in numerous ways across the Sacramento diner’s menu, but selections extend well beyond the nopal cactus.
Nopalitos Café is a family-run business in every way, Dave Hanke historically working the kitchen and wife Rose Hanke specializing in baking and running the business that surrounds the food. When the Sacramento restaurant was opened in 1992, hours were restricted even more than they are today, avoiding nights and weekends to spend time with family. Weekend baseball practice for son Aaron precluded opening Saturday and Sunday, an investment that turned out a wise one as Aaron went on to play minor league baseball.
Those restrictions have eased a bit, Nopalitos now open Monday through Saturday (still closed Sunday) with hours that run until 8 PM most days. The expanded availability means Saturday brunch is now on the table, a big bonus for a menu tailored perfectly to a Saturday morning pancake run. Offerings here are Mexican-inspired, ranging from breakfast staples like huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos. The Little Cactus Special is the signature morning option, an egg scramble topped with red or green sauce that incorporates the restaurant’s namesake nopales. The Sacramento diner’s pancakes in particular are so well regarded that they graced the cover of Sacramento Magazine.
Be warned that menu switchover is a hard and fast rule in our experience at Nopalitos, the breakfast menu offered exclusively until noon before switching over to the lunch & dinner offerings at that time. A host of classic Mexican dishes are offered during the latter hours of the day, some additional items like smothered burritos, fajitas and a tamale bowl (almost like a deconstructed tamale) offered only during lunch and dinner hours. Baked goods are available until sold out, muffins usually one of the first items to go.
This reviewer’s meal was delicious, a combination of eggs, potatoes chorizo and sauce. Thankfully, I was advised that I did not have to choose green or red sauce and could instead include a bit of both, easing my breakfast anxiety on that day. The doors open on a beautiful day, the mostly quiet neighborhood setting, the low murmur of morning conversation, all of it added up to the right kind of environment to enjoy a mound of protein under a river of sauce.
The space itself is small, not so much in a cramped way but in a way that adds to the feeling that this is a hole-in-the-wall, family-run corner café in a residential area of Sacramento. Nopalitos Café does have a small parking lot, a blessing among popular lunch spots in Sacramento, and when the weather cooperates, a handful of small tables are available for patio seating. Inside, the décor is Southwestern, as one might expect, more than one cactus-themed object attached to the wall. Food is ordered at a small counter up front and distributed accordingly. Having one person in your party snag a table is a pro tip here as tables fill up quickly during high traffic hours.
Nopalitos Café is cash only (they also take checks), so plan accordingly before visiting to account for multiple people, tip and the ability to splurge on a Mexican style hot chocolate. During the holidays, Nopalitos offers take-home tamales in keeping with the Christmas tradition of offering tamales for dinner that evening. All menu options are available for takeout, though Nopalitos does not officially work with any food delivery services, instead asking diners to call Nopalitos directly.
California does Mexican food in a way few other parts of the United States can replicate and that extends to Sacramento’s northern California area. Nopalitos is one of the city’s best examples of blending Mexican classics with a little southwestern flair to create the perfect no-frills neighborhood spot for great food in comforting surroundings.