It was early February 2006. I know this because Action!, the satirical, raunchy Hollywood comedy series starring Jay Mohr was being released on DVD by Sony late that month. I was still reviewing DVDs then, and while my dad and I were driving to Sacramento, Mom told me on the phone from Santa Clarita that it had arrived, amidst other talk, such as telling her about the open-air truck loaded down with carrots that had passed us in the right lane.
We were going to Sacramento because Dad was a member of the California Business Education Association (CBEA, which he's rejoined ahead of us moving back to California), and the organization was hosting a day for its members at the state capitol, to tour the building, and meet their representatives, to emphasize to them the importance of business education, especially in such a competitive economy as California has. This was the time of Governor Schwarzenegger, and in fact, as we walked past his offices, the door to the outer office was open and I saw straight through there to him in his office, briefly, before we moved on.
While it was impressive to me to see the state capitol, which I had never done in Tallahassee, in my native Florida, I was taken with Sacramento. We were staying at La Quinta Inn, part of Hotel Row near the skyline of downtown Sacramento. Across the way was Restaurant Row, convenient for the weary traveler who doesn't want to venture far on the first night.
Now, I don't remember if this was after what I'm about to tell you, but Dad decided to stay in that night at La Quinta Inn, flipping through the channels, and he had stopped at Crumbs, that Fred Savage sitcom on ABC that centered around the family restaurant, with Savage a Hollywood screenwriter who returns home. I decided to walk the grounds near our room and soon climbed up to the second floor landing, then the third floor landing.
When I reached the third floor landing, I was stopped short by complete peace, which I'd never known in Santa Clarita, and, to me, Los Angeles doesn't have it either.
My view was of the Sacramento skyline towards 10 p.m. And to this day, it's the only city I've been in at that hour that gently encouraged me to relax, to not worry about anything. It seemed to say that whatever you needed to do could wait until morning. Just have tonight all for yourself. I'm not sure I'd want to live in Sacramento, unless it has a strong, sturdy library system (and even then, it gets expensive in that region), but I do want to see it again, even though the Rusty Duck, the wood-paneled, fireplace-crackling restaurant where CBEA members met has long since closed. But I do wonder, idly, if the diner is still there.
So maybe it was the night before the capitol tour and the visit to our state representatives. Dad had learned from a fellow CBEA member about a barbecue joint on the outskirts of Sacramento that was worth it. He likes barbecue, I like barbecue. So let's go.
That night, we set out to find it. We drove over railroad tracks, past sprawling electrical substations, and to an area we circled, drove away from, and drove back to twice, as if we couldn't believe it, and weren't sure.
In an industrial cul-de-sac, past boat parts outside one business on the right, and what may have been a chop shop on the left, or at least a slightly illegitimate car repair business (not a euphemism. It looked somewhat ok), there was the barbecue joint.
Swinging by it and parking for a moment, we could see inside through the door. It was open, but empty, with wooden picnic tables running the length of the room. And there were the white, wide menu boards against the wall above the kitchen. Should we try it? Would it be ok even if no one was eating there?
Dad nixed the idea. And just like any brief Sacramento visitor staying at La Quinta or any other place in Hotel Row, we drove back to Restaurant Row, to what, in memory, has become a nondescript diner.
I had a cheeseburger, which has become lost in the sea of cheeseburgers I've had since then. I don't remember what Dad had. Maybe a salad? That would have been rare. But just like Casa de Fruta in Hollister, the tents of fruits and vegetables and pies and its own small restaurant that we stopped at to pick up a pie, and Hearst Castle, where we toured some of the legendary hilltop property on the way back to Santa Clarita, I still think about that missed-out-on barbecue.
We should have taken a chance. We should have tried it. With that joint being located in such an out-of-the-way place, perhaps the owners were freakishly devoted to barbecue, and that would have made it a religious experience. Or maybe not, but at least we would have tried it.
Maybe it's still there, maybe not. Many an idle moment at work, I've Googled "Sacramento" and "barbecue," hoping to find it, or at least a Yelp page. But that was 2006, before Yelp. Could that joint have even survived in such a location? CJ's Barbecue in Ventura does, because it's part of a cluster of shopping centers down Victoria Avenue. That's easy. It has the social infrastructure.
But this joint, this Sacramento or near-Sacramento joint, 11 years later? A part of me hopes so, so that I can have my chance in years to come.
But it's likely that I'll always be sitting in that car, looking in, and then we drive away again. Again and again. In my imagination, I could proclaim it the very best barbecue I never had. But it will always remain a possibility. What could have been. I wish we had.