Sunset Café, 42 Front St., Ballston Spa, 885-8550, sunsetcafe.org. Serving 11:30-9 Mon-Thu, 11:30-10 Fri-Sat, AE, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $8 (chicken quesadilla) to $24 (full rack of ribs)
Ambiance: neighborhood hangout
Has it been that long? The ever-reliable lack of time and money means I can’t return to favored restaurants as often as I’d like, yet when I walked into Sunset Café recently, it felt as if I’d last been there a month or two ago. It was nearly 13 years.
This was just after the place opened, succeeding Auguste Café (and a string of other eateries, dating back decades) at that address. The chef-owner then was Jim Koines, who’d grown up in the town and worked for a number of area restaurants before opening his own place. He developed the menu of Southwestern-inspired fare, and ran the Sunset for four years before selling it to current owners Tim and Annelise Kavanaugh, who also brought chef Dan Skawinski on board. “They asked me to stay on for a couple of weeks to help them get acclimated,” he told me recently. “That was nine years ago. I’m still coming in part-time to tend bar.” (And it’s worth noting you’ll find an excellent selection of affordable wine and beer here, with several good brews, including selections from Davidson Bros., where Koines once worked, on tap.)
The restaurant is larger than a first glance suggests, with a trio of dining rooms that includes the bar area, each room separated from its neighbor with enough architectural demarcation to give an illusion of intimacy. And is intimacy ever anything but that? Decor is nicely muted, the pumpkin-colored walls of the room where I sat hung with appropriately southwestern gewgaws and the gentle illumination of rope lights complementing the pretty wall sconces. (I’m a big fan of no overhead fixtures.)
Cold night. Coffee. A cheerful server urging us to take our time with the menu. Good. The pages are varied and many, with a few different pricing levels on offer. I was with a friend who judged the entrées too expensive, which is a judgment call that says much about the person making the judgment. Too expensive? Meatloaf is $18, flatiron steak is $20, tenderloin starts at $23. I don’t think so. There also are barbecued chicken thighs with grilled vegetables for $14, fish and chips for $14 and a half-rack of smoked ribs for $14.50.
So if you’re looking for a full and fancy meal, you’ll also consider the $19 chimichurri pork tenderloin, the seafood Fra Diavolo ($20), the baked salmon ($19.50) or their twist on chicken Cordon Bleu in which the bird is stuffed with ham, chorizo and peppered cheddar ($19).
There’s a difference between being cheap and feeling cheap, I like to think, and I had no wish to dine or spend lavishly. That’s where another aspect of the menu comes to the rescue. A cup or bowl of smoked chicken corn chowder ($3.59/$6) or chili ($4/$6.50) always is available, and I can testify that the chowder truly is smoky, deliciously, mouth-warpingly smoky with all the creamy support a good chowder should provide. The $8.50 Caesar salad can be topped with meat or salmon for an extra five bucks; the $7.50 salad of grilled marinated vegetables is a unique alternative to the garden ($8) and Cobb ($11.50). If we don’t think in the appetizers-must-lead-to-entrées paradigm, then the small-plate alternatives include calamari with tequila lime sauce ($8), southwestern mac & cheese with chipotle parmesan cream ($7) and PEI mussels in a collision of Corona, lime juice and herb butter ($8)
The creamy belly-filler called spinach and artichoke dip long ago fell victim to mass production, so I figured I could fill my belly while determining where Sunset stands on this $9 item. For starters (a good way to put it), the ingredients are more roughly chopped than you’re used to seeing, the artichoke hearts are cooked in Guinness, and there’s an untypical spread of cheese flavors.
Some of the Sunset’s most popular items—pulled pork, smoked brisket—are showcased in the sandwiches, where the pork gets an apple chutney topping and the brisket is paired with coleslaw ($8.50 each) and others include smoked turkey ($8), chicken Caesar ($8) and roast beef ($8.50). The half-pound burger is $9; add other ingredients (Cajun seasoning, cheese, bacon) for 50 cents per item. The sandwiches are served with fries, chips or potato salad.
But we went to the last page of the menu for our meals. That’s where the quesadillas and fajitas hang out, and the prospect of a quesadilla with homemade chorizo and andouille ($9) was too much to resist. Can there be a more savory combo than spicy sausage smoothed by melted cheddar, its fried tortilla wrapper making it a statin-seeking paradise? I think not. And it was large enough that I made it only halfway through. Other quesadillas include roasted corn and black bean, roasted veggie, shrimp and pulled pork, all in the $9 range.
Fajitas are the do-it-yourself sandwiches, a sizzle-platter of meat and onions and peppers served with stack of tortillas in which you construct a wrap with the added lettuce, tomato, guacamole, salsa and sour cream. The steak fajitas is $18 and my friend, who’d never encountered this item before, proved instantly adept at portioning out entirety of the ingredients to fill all of the wraps. Good food invites such accomplishment.
As early arrivals, we watched the restaurant fill with more customers than I’d expect on a cold early-in-the-week night. Service slowed as we finished, unnecessarily prolonging the check-getting process, but it was the only flaw in an otherwise satisfying visit. “I have customers sitting right here who’ve been coming in since I opened,” Koines told me when I later phoned the place. “I’m surprised at how far some people come to get here. They even cross-country ski.” The Saratoga proximity has seen a number of more pretentious places come and go during the Sunset’s years, which only reinforces how firmly it’s become a neighborhood favorite.