Listen to the latest episode of the Mid Pacific podcast to hear host Sarah Mizes-Tan explore how food, identity and Asian American culture intersect in California
Kevin Fat stands outside his family’s 80 year old restaurant just a few blocks from the state Capitol and points to the awning over the entrance. On one side, it says a name many will recognize — Frank Fat’s — and on the other, it says Frank’s 806, a nod to the restaurant’s original name back when his grandfather opened it in 1939.
“This is the original entry way, definitely looks different than what it did back in 1939 and through the ‘80s,” said Fat, who is Frank Fat’s grandson and now also the CEO of the Fat Family Restaurant Group. “We’ve updated it since then, but this is the exact same spot.”
Most Sacramentans probably know Frank Fat’s in downtown for two things: its banana cream pie, an unexpected treat at a Chinese American restaurant, and its proximity to the Capitol. But this restaurant is also a stronghold of Asian American history in California.
Frank Fat immigrated from China and settled in Sacramento, after working in restaurants across the United States. Eventually, he decided to open his own, a diner-style restaurant, where he hoped to share flavors from his home country and also serve customers food they felt comfortable eating, like meatloaf and steak.
“My grandfather had already fallen in love with the restaurant industry, the hospitality portion of it,” Kevin Fat said. “And he wanted to open his own restaurant and wanted to share his culture and be successful. That was the California Dream.”
The restaurant opened on L Street, just a few blocks from where lawmakers work, a location many people warned Fat against at the time. It remains there to this day.
Kevin Fat said it was this proximity to state government, coupled with his grandfather’s friendly demeanor, that made it a favorite among politicians and legislators.
Alex Eng is president of the Chinese American Council, an organization founded by Frank Fat. He remembers Fat as someone who greeted every customer with respect, even if his English skills weren’t the best.
“Frank was always of the philosophy to try to be an ambassador between the community at-large and the Chinese community,” Eng said. “And his philosophy basically was to be nice to people, and to try to educate them in terms of the Chinese culture and Chinese food.”
Over the years, the restaurant has played host to some of the state’s biggest political powerhouses. There’s been “napkin deals” where legislators came to an agreement over a meal at Frank Fat’s. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan ate at Frank Fat’s often and was known to sit in one of the booths, and former Governor Jerry Brown was said to have favored the restaurant, as well.
“All the governors have dined here during their time as either lieutenant governor or legislator or even as a governor,” Fat said. “Probably the most recent governor that sat here was Jerry Brown, and he befriended our family and a lot of legislators used to come to the kitchen, too.”
Frank Fat's Restaurant on L Street in Sacramento, Calif. on Wednesday, April 19, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Some say Frank Fat may have even been able to hold some sway with the legislators, giving them the perspective of the local Chinese community, which otherwise wasn’t heard.
“The restaurant provided a bridge between the community and the Chinese community. Frank himself was the instrument that actually built the bridges. Frank was very much in touch with the legislators and he pretty much had their ear,” Eng said.
Aside from its role in state politics, the restaurant remains a testament to Asian American food in the region. Their specialty, a banana cream pie, is actually a dessert Frank Fat created inspired by traditional Chinese egg custard tarts that can be ordered at dim sum restaurants, but tweaked for the American palette with a thick layer of whipped cream on top. The steak served there also retains an umami flavor inspired by Chinese dishes.
Today, the restaurant’s role is changing. Kevin Fat has said that with the pandemic, legislators are at the Capitol less and are dining indoors less often, as well. The restaurant has scaled back its hours and no longer serves lunch, which used to be a prime time for lawmakers to come in.
Kevin Fat said he hopes he can carry on his family’s legacy of serving Asian-inspired food with an eye towards the Sacramento community’s general tastes.
“In many ways, perhaps it's a little symbolic that deals were made affecting state policy, where an Asian-American was the host to the place where the deal was happening but was not participating in the deal itself,” former state senator Dr. Richard Pan, who has dined many times at the restaurant said. “In many ways, I think that reflects our previous position as a community where we were oftentimes the people watching what was happening and not having a voice to participate.”
He said the restaurant is a testament to Asian American history in Sacramento, because of the unique mixture of Asian and American that its food represents.
“We do need to distinguish there are things that are Asian and things that are Asian American,” Pan said. “They're not the same. Sometimes, people talk about Asian-American, and they're really talking about Asian. And sometimes there are things that are uniquely Asian-American.”
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