For the second time in 2019, my former life as a restaurant critic came racing back to me when I woke to the jolting news that Lina Fat, the revered matriarch of the Fat Family Restaurant Group and the landmark Frank Fat’s restaurant and watering hole on L Street, had died. She was 81 and her family said she had been in failing health for many months.
In August, I was saddened to learn that Biba Caggiono, one of Sacramento’s most influential restaurateurs and the force behind the 10 layers of authentic Italian deliciousness that was her famous lasagna Bolognese, had died at 82 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
And now it was the woman who helped keep Frank Fat’s a vital component of Sacramento political life for some 80 years while expanding the brand and solidifying the Fat family as one of the most prominent names in the Sacramento hospitality scene.
The list at the upper echelon of restaurant longevity is a short one — Patrick Mulvaney (Muvaney’s B&L), Randall Selland (The Kitchen, Ella, Selland’s, OBO’ Italian Table & Bar), Randy Paragary and Kurt Spataro (Paragary’s, Café Bernardo, Centro) and Mai Pham (Lemongrass and Star Ginger, which she sold in 2017) — and Lina Fat, the chef and visionary, was the force behind a family that emphasized customer service, hospitality, respect for tradition, quality and consistency, whether it was a deftly mixed cocktail or the iconic banana cream pie that is the same essential taste of Sacramento today as it was when Ronald Reagan was governor of California.
When I was the restaurant critic at The Sacramento Bee, I was reluctant to review Frank Fat’s because I knew how beloved it was, how important it has been to the fabric and character of Sacramento political life, and because I feared it was a restaurant whose best days were in the past.
In 2013, after the James Beard Foundation announced Frank Fat’s would receive a legacy restaurant award, I decided this terrific bit of national exposure for the Fat family and for the newly flourishing Sacramento restaurant landscape was the right time to take a critical look at this local legend through a contemporary lens.
I was not disappointed. Yes, Frank Fat’s felt dated and out of step with the hipster foodies, but in all the right ways. The drinks at the bar were classics and mixed with precision. The service was polished and personable and the food, though not necessarily authentic Chinese fare from the old country, was accessible to a range of New World palates. Bacon-wrapped scallops may not have their origins in Beijing or Macau, but as I noted in 2013, they were amazing — tender, meaty, salty, smoky, delicious.
Frank Fat died in 1997 and 22 years later we are saying goodbye to the woman who has been such a vital part of the business for so long. I didn’t get to know Lina Fat the way I knew Biba Caggiano, but it was obvious that practically everything I reviewed six years ago, every element of the restaurant I admired, all the little touches that added up to an American classic, were the result of her sense of family pride, hard word and exactitude. That is the legacy she leaves behind as we mourn her passing.
Lina Fat had seemed so full of vigor for so long that it came as a shock to me that time and health woes had caught up with her, that in her early 80s she knew her time was running short.
Over the years, The Bee has published the recipe for Frank Fat’s banana cream pie numerous times, updated ever so slightly by replacing lard with butter in the crust. It was about keeping up with the times without losing a sense of the past.
In many ways, that sums up Lina Fat’s greatness. She brought Frank Fat’s into the modern era, tended to all the little things as the restaurant landscape around her shifted and grew much more competitive, and made it look as if Frank Fat’s was, indeed, dated — but in all the right ways.
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