Stand outside Sandra Dee’s long enough on a Sunday, and you’ll see groups of hungry guests walk up and squawk at the realization that the famed soul food restaurant is closed.
Once a month on a Sunday, restaurant owner Sandra Dee and her husband, Jeffrey, drive to “Moemoe’s” house in Palo Alto, where Dee’s 91-year-old grandmother hosts a traditional post-church feast that includes more food and family than Dee can count.
How big is Dee’s family? Her eyes grow wide at the question. Her mother is the oldest of 13 children, and they all now have families of their own. “A table couldn’t fit them,” she says. “There’s people and kids hanging out everywhere. Sometimes people come in and they happy and I just can’t accommodate them.”
This lively atmosphere is the soil that grew Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood restaurant on F and 15 streets in downtown Sacramento. Dee grew up in the kitchen watching her Louisiana-born mother cook a storm of traditional Southern fare. Dee now puts her own spin on many of those generational Creole recipes, including gator po-boys, gumbo and deep-fried chicken and waffles.
On an average night, the lighting is low and patrons have to speak up to be heard above the chatter. The walls are lined with brick wallpaper and at the front are a collection of autographed celebrity portraits.
A word of caution: If you plan to eat at Sandra Dee’s before dancing or a movie, do so in moderation — if that’s even possible. It’s easy to over-do it. The government should consider laying quarantine over the place as an official site of food coma. Still, hours after eating at Sandra Dee’s, you’ll likely disgust yourself by sneaking over to your box of leftovers and polishing off the mac and cheese before your partner can grab it. Not that I’m speaking from experience.
Sandra Dee met her husband 25 years ago when he was a carwash owner and she a young telemarketer. At a friend’s suggestion, the two seized on Sandra’s culinary gifts and started a catering service out of their garage. They were living in Clear Lake at the time.
The couple moved to Sacramento in 1996 and opened their first restaurant at Florin and Power Inn roads. Two years later, they opened the downtown restaurant. Jeffrey heads the management and accounting, and the couple employs their two daughters, two sons and a nephew. Dee’s daughter Tatiana has worked at the restaurant since she was eight.
“She’s like a model,” Dee says of Tatiana, who is training to become a nurse. “It’s all about her. But she cannot cook. She says, ‘I’ll let you do the cooking.’”
As conversation turns to Dee’s role in her family, she says, “I’m the black sheep. I’m always doing crazy stuff like opening my own restaurant. When I said I was gonna do that, my family was all like, ‘mm mm. No she won’t.’ My daddy loves his black sheep of the family.”
About half of the recipes at Sandra Dee’s began as family traditions, and the other half were created from a mash of cookbooks and general experimentation. A large part of the business is still catering. During the holiday season, Dee sells takeout, deep-fried or smoked turkeys and spiral-cut hams.
The flagship meal is probably the juicy fried chicken coated with a peppery seasoning that could make a vegetarian lose religion. Each entree comes with two sides, which can include smoky barbeque baked beans, collared greens or a sweet-and-spicy corn with stir-fried onions and peppers.
For dessert, Dee offers a triple-layer red velvet cake and a sweet potato pie spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.
The entire family used to hold cooking wars at Moemoe’s house on Sundays, and Dee credits her mother as reigning champion. Dee is now at work on a cookbook and eventually would like to open her own full-service catering facility with kitchen, musicians and a limousine service — “a one-stop shop,” she says.
“If that don’t work, I’ll do a bed and breakfast, and then I’m out,” she laughs. “Who doesn’t like breakfast in bed?”
If it’s Dee and her family in the kitchen, we’ll take our meals in bed all day.
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