As a community newspaper reporter, it is my ongoing quest to continuously gain a more thorough knowledge and understanding of the past and present businesses of local communities. And it was just last week, for instance, that this quest led me to Three Sisters Mexican Kitchen and Cantina.
The three sisters of Three Sisters restaurant in East Sacramento also own Tres Hermanas Restaurant in midtown Sacramento. They are, left to right, Norma, Dora and Sonia Saenz. / Valley Community Newspapers photo by Lance Armstrong
Three years ago, while covering a Cinco de Mayo story at Tres Hermanas Restaurant at 2416 K St., I learned from this midtown Sacramento business’s co-owner, Sergio Saenz, that there really were “tres hermanas” or “three sisters” behind the naming of the restaurant.
Sergio explained to me that the midtown restaurant, which opened its doors for the first time on Oct. 18, 1996, had been named after his sisters.
And it certainly came as no surprise to me when Sergio revealed to me how many sisters were in his family.
After telling me that his “tres hermanas” were Norma, Dora and Sonia, he also informed me that Three Sisters restaurant at 5100 Folsom Blvd. was also part of his family’s restaurant endeavors.
In an attempt to enhance my Cinco de Mayo story, I asked Sergio if I could arrange a meeting with all three sisters.
Sergio informed me that it would be best to leave such a meeting to another time, since Norma and Dora were operating the East Sacramento restaurant and Sonia was working with him at the midtown restaurant.
Although my Cinco de Mayo Tres Hermanas story was successfully completed without the presence of all three sisters, the idea of one day gathering these sisters together for one interview continued to intrigue me.
Undoubtedly, there were many people in Sacramento who were familiar with Tres Hermanas and Three Sisters restaurants, yet had no idea why these restaurants received these names.
Being that my travels often take me past Three Sisters restaurant, it recently occurred to me that it was about time to make an effort to obtain my desired interview with all three sisters.
In my attempt to secure an interview with all three sisters, Dora informed me that I would have to wait until the following week in order to conduct my “tres hermanas” interview.
Considering that in a way, I had already waited 181 weeks for this interview, I figured that it would not be too much trouble on my part to wait just another week.
When the day of my interview finally arrived, it was nice to see not una hermana or dos hermanas, but actually tres hermanas.
After confirming that these women were the three sisters that I had arrived to meet and not just three unsuspecting women at the restaurant who I suddenly sat down with – that could be an awkward moment – I began to learn about these local business women.
Born in the northern Mexico state of Chihuahua and raised in the town of Cuahtemoc – a place of about 80,000 people that is comparable to Stockton, with a downtown, suburbs and orchards – the three sisters are among the seven children of Guadalupe Saenz and her late husband, Simon Saenz.
After arriving in the United States with their family in 1988, Norma, Dora and Sonia worked in different restaurants in Sacramento for eight years prior to making the decision to open their own restaurant.
The sisters’ search for a restaurant ended when local real estate broker Angelo Tsorakis of Elk Grove offered them the K Street restaurant site that had formerly housed Food for Thought.
After the three sisters acquired their midtown business location, Tsorakis presented the idea of naming the restaurant, Tres Hermanas.
Norma admits that the name was initially rejected, but was later reevaluated and accepted.
Dora, who often enjoys telling young visitors of Three Sisters restaurant that she is the real life character from the animated children’s television series, Dora the Explorer, recalled how challenging it was to operate a new restaurant for the first time.
“We thought we knew everything, but we’re still learning, actually,” Dora said. “It was funny. Everybody thought, ‘I’m going start my own business and I’m going to be the boss.’ It is not exactly that way.”
The sisters quickly learned that owning the business also meant performing just about every duty that was necessary to operate a successful restaurant.
As the sisters’ midtown business progressed, Tsorakis approached Norma about the possibility of moving the restaurant to East Sacramento.
After Norma told Tsorakis that she was happy with the midtown site, the topic arose about the sisters acquiring a second restaurant location.
Norma related the humorous scenario in which the sisters purchased the East Sacramento restaurant site, which formerly housed the Irish pub, Gallagher’s Bar and Grill.
“Angelo said to me, ‘I think you need a second restaurant,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, Angelo,’” Norma recalled. “I told him I didn’t want to see it, but he didn’t take no for an answer. It was only about five minutes away, so I finally went and looked at it. The building already looked Mexican with the arched windows. I later called Angelo and said, ‘Nice, but no.’”
Since Tsorakis remained persistent about the sisters acquiring the second site, Norma offered $30,000 on the location, which was being offered for $65,000.
Norma said that it was her way of easing out of the situation with Tsorakis.
“I offered him $30,000, because I knew they were not going to take it,” Norma said. “(Tsorakis) came back like two days later and said, ‘Norma, they think the offer is too low.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to offer any more, Angelo.’ He later came back and told me they took the offer. Instead of being happy, I was like, ‘Oh no, don’t tell me this, Angelo.’ And here we are and thank God, because we’ve been very, very successful.”
With the notoriety of Tres Hermanas, Three Sisters was more easily able to establish itself as a popular restaurant.
In addition to having similarities to the midtown restaurant, Three Sisters was established with different characteristics, including a few different food items, a distinct décor and a full bar, including many tequilas, as opposed to the midtown site’s small, beer and wine bar.
But one undeniably similar aspect about both locations is the Saenz family’s concentration on presenting a friendly atmosphere.
“We’re doing what we love and we love to entertain people,” Norma said. “This is our life. The customers become our friends. The greatest friends we have, we found in here at the restaurant.”
Sonia added, “I like to see people happy. It’s so nice just to see people when they’re eating and on their faces they look happy.”
But certainly, a great aid in having people look happy when they’re eating is presenting quality food, which is something that both restaurants understand quite well.
Already having high expectations for Three Sisters’ food, since I have great memories of enjoying the carnitas entrée at Tres Hermanas, I decided to try out the Chicken Mole Poblano ($13.99).
And what a wise choice this was, as with my first bite, the many wonderful flavors of the mole sauce instantly danced upon my taste buds.
The sauce, which takes almost a whole day to prepare and includes about 35 ingredients, is undoubtedly one of the best mole sauces that I have ever tasted.
Furthermore, the chicken, which was topped off with thin strips of onions and sesame seeds, was extremely tender and the entrée was complimented with homemade beans and rice, fresh tortillas, chips and salsa.
But the quality of both restaurants’ food should come as no surprise for those who have heard the passion in which the business’s owners speak about their love for using high quality, fresh ingredients and creating all their dishes from scratch.
New guests of these excellent Sacramento restaurants will discover that these eating establishments offer different tasting, more spicier foods, since these restaurants are inspired by the northern Mexico cooking of Guadalupe, her mother and her nine sisters.
Norma said that these notable differences in tastes are due to the fact that most of the Mexican restaurants in the Sacramento area present food derived from recipes from Jalisco and Michoacan in the south part of Mexico.
Other popular dinner entrées at both restaurants include: Camarones (shrimp) a la Three Sisters/Tres Hermanas ($14.99), Carne Asada ($13.99), Beef Chimichanga with Chipotle Sauce ($13.99), Vegetarian Tamales ($12.99) and Navajo Chicken Salad ($11.99) with house creamy cilantro dressing.
Welcoming the community to visit Three Sisters Mexican Kitchen and Cantina and Tres Hermanas Restaurant, as well as the family’s other restaurants, Sabores Mexican Cuisine at 10341 Fairway Drive in Rocklin and Tres Hermanas Restaurant at 805 2nd St. in Davis, which opens this month, Dora said, “Everybody should come and try our restaurants. If you give us one chance, you’ll be coming back.”
And based on my visits to the Saenz family’s Sacramento restaurants, I couldn’t agree more.
Three Sisters and Tres Hermanas restaurants, which serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, are open Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
For additional information about these restaurants, call (916) 452-7442.