Located on a wickedly busy corner next to a tire shop, Pitts Stop — informally known as “the Pitts” — is a true neighborhood institution. From the outside, it’s a simple wooden structure that could be just about anything. Up until a few years ago, it didn’t even have a sign. Some probably confused it for an overflow waiting room for the tire shop. As the kids say, “If you know, you know.”
It’s also the only restaurant within a half-mile radius, in a stretch of South Sacramento that’s considered a food desert. (The only other eateries in the surrounding area are a half mile down the road: a taco truck and a tamaleria.) The surrounding neighborhood is mostly immigrant and working class — the kind of place that smells like charred tortillas, roasted chiles, and toasted spices in the evenings. The neighborhood also shares a lot in common with any underrepresented, socioeconomically distressed area: It’s in need of tender loving care.
The Pitts serves as a respite from all the drama outside — a safe space where food is affordable. As soon as you walk in, you face a tiled coffee counter and the back of owner Denise Shelton (formerly Pitts) as she works the line under the warm glow of the kitchen. It’s instantaneously comforting and familiar.
Shelton, who opened Pitts Stop on October 15, 1979, is eternally youthful — a swift mover with a wide smile and blonde hair. She’s a one-woman kitchen army, cranking out scratch-made biscuits, chicken-fried steak, crispy hash browns, grits and eggs, and a modified version of SOS, or “shit on shingles” (listed on the menu as “a hamburger patty with cream gravy on toast”).
Shelton grew up in Lubbock, Texas, got married, and found herself in Sacramento. For 40 years she has been rising at dawn to tumble into the Pitts Stop kitchen and start the process for making biscuits. Her movements quick, her hands on autopilot. Five dozen biscuits made in the blink of an eye. Because she works the line on her own, regulars often wander behind the counter to refill their own coffee or, in a pinch, offer refills to adjacent tables. For hours Shelton cranks out tall stacks of pancakes, biscuits and gravy, grits, omelettes, hamburgers, and, it seems, whatever else a customer’s heart desires.
Shelton recently had two knee surgeries. The restaurant hired an interim cook to fill in, but the cook couldn’t handle the demands of the job and tapped out two weeks into the temporary position. Shelton came back and soldiered on, swollen knee and all.
That’s not to say that Shelton is the only one who has contributed to the success of the Pitts. If you’re there on the right weekend, Shelton makes a chile verde plate that comes with Spanish rice, pinto beans, eggs, and tortillas. She learned all of her Mexican recipes from Rosario, a former cook at the restaurant. (“She taught me how to make my Mexican specials, with ingredients I was unfamiliar with and with lots of love,” Shelton says.) The slow-roasted pork in the chile verde is so tender that it arrives shredded, soaked in its spiky, army-green braising sauce. By all rights, the dish ought to be listed on the menu as Rosario’s Chile Verde.
Another employee, Kathryn Goings, has helped bring Pitts Stop into the current century. Goings is responsible for creating the Pitts Stop Instagram account to showcase Shelton’s cooking, creating a business sign (you want to talk about nondescript, try locating a restaurant with no sign out front), and working with the Franklin Boulevard Business Association to create a banner that celebrates Pitts Stop’s long success.
South Sacramento is the kind of place where, during the Christmas season, it’s not uncommon for neighbors to exchange tamales, buñuelos, pierogies, and jalebi (a type of Indian sweet). The front counter at Pitts Stop is one of the few places in the neighborhood where you really see that diversity in action — where you might be sandwiched between someone in cowboy boots and a Stetson hat and someone in a pair of Air Jordans. “I am very proud of the fact that the Pitts is known as the ‘United Nations of South Sacramento,’” Shelton says. “The Pitts has always been diverse. We made it work because it was, and continues to be, our community.”
As cities across the country face rising rents and displacement, there are fewer and fewer small diners like the Pitts left. In a way, helping the ones that are left survive has become America’s duty. Sacramento, in particular, has been hit hard by these changing tides. June’s Cafe, another longstanding local institution in the Southside Park neighborhood, has been closed, at least temporarily, since July. And Original Perry’s, another South Sacramento mainstay, served its last plate of chicken and waffles just this past weekend, closing its doors after 51 years of business.
And so it goes. Life happens. And when it does, it could be the end of an era. So I don’t want to wait for a business’s death to write the in memoriam. I want to pay homage now, while it’s filled with life. In the meantime, this little wood-structured diner next to a tire shop still exists. It’s carved out a place of its own to make it — to make us — feel at home. You walk through the doors and it’s like none of this “progress” is even happening.