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Centro Cocina Mexicana
2730 J Street
Sacramento, CA

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BurritosOne of the great things about being demi-semi-self-employed is that there is always time to go out for lunch. No 2 o'clock meeting to rush back to. No reason not to have a beer with my meal. The only problem is finding other no-account deadbeats who've also emptied their change jars and would like nothing more than to spend the cold, hard coin on a hot and spicy meal after it has been turned into bills by one of those machines in the supermarket.

Thankfully, Non-profit Liz and Craig D, a college professor, came to my rescue, even though, technically, they both have jobs.

We decided to go to Centro, which is conveniently located and also known to be tasty. It is part of the Paragary Group of restaurants that consistently dominate the Sacramento "Best of" surveys, and are owned by Randy Paragary. How I wish his first name was Gary! That would be almost as good as Nancy Ann Cianci (say it out loud!), the wife of Buddy Cianci, longtime mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, a former hometown of mine. A colorful and beloved character, that Buddy: He was mayor for 21 years, most of which came after his first felony conviction for using a fireplace log to beat the man who supposedly had an affair with his wife (not Nancy Ann, a different wife, who didn't rhyme as well). He was recently convicted of racketeering, also. At this point, is he even allowed to vote, let alone run for office? But anything is possible in Buddy's town. Mr. Paragary is not so endearingly corrupt, but he gets my vote anyway. He knows what he's doing.

Fish tacos!Centro is the kind of restaurant that actually uses high quality, fresh ingredients, instead of just basing an ad campaign on the idea. This is obvious from the very beginning: great salsas and good chips. Liz, who is not ashamed to call herself a pork lover, got carnitas in the form of twin burritos, which is certainly an ample portion size, and also makes it very convenient if you want to eat half now and half later. On the inside, they are all meat, all the time. And they happen to be jim-dandy, those carnitas, really very good indeed. But here's the thing: If you've got two 100 percent carnitas burritos, you need some equally dandy sides to go with 'em, because that's a lot of pork to wade through uncut. And as Liz pointed out, the accompanying beans were, well, not really very special. There was nothing bad about them, but neither was there anything very flavorful about them. If I had ordered that dish, I would have loved a big mound of vinegary, crunchy salad, and some truly spectacular beans, as sides. But like I said, the carnitas were first-rate.

Craig D had fish tacos. He seemed quite pleased with his food (see photo), and I tasted it and I was pleased, too. Our waiter, who was charming, handsome and helpful, graciously accommodated the request to substitute lettuce for cabbage.

Calamari SaladMy dish was the best of the pretty darn good lot, if you like a calamari salad, and boy do I. Cephalopods, you are not safe around me! Especially when you are grilled just to the point of perfect doneness, touched with the woody flavor of the grill, yet still so amazingly tender that it is possible to cut you with a fork...There is no contest: I've never had better. I shared, but grudgingly. Grilling in general seems to be an almost miraculous cooking process, imbuing all things with a big, round, outdoor flavor. Take zucchini: nutritious, but bland. Grilled, it becomes something way more interesting. Can someone explain this?

Centro is a thoroughly pleasant place to eat, drink, or otherwise spend time. It has a dedicated bar area, with many delish specialty drinks, including tequilas infused with the juices of fresh fruits, and an intriguing decor, with lots of bright color balanced out by a few vintage motorcycles. Our waiter, charming, handsome and helpful, said that it's quite the scene there on a weekend night, but that despite this, he's still single. I find this hard to believe: No one with posture this good could remain unattached for long.

Centro was headed for the 4 dog zone, but I had to knock it down to 3 in deference to Liz's troublesome beans. Beans are important. Beans are basic. Beans are serious. Viva el frijol!


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