Wednesday, December 26, 2012
BEST BURGER JOINT ANYWHERE?
The reason God created the side of beef was so that David Alioto and his crew could hand form seven-ounce patties and grill them to the exacting demand of each customer at the Healdsburger. On the very next day, God created the russet potato.
I checked the odometer. My beautiful grandchildren live just an eyelash under 140 miles from my home on the outskirts of Sacramento. But the second-most reason for visiting this region of Sonoma County is not the plethora of world-class wineries. No. It is the Healdsburger.
High on the list of Church of the Open Road ethics is trade with the small independent businessperson – places where you know the profit you allow goes into the pocket of someone not associated with Wall Street. Local restaurants are an excellent place to engage in this practice; local burger stands even better.
The Church defines a local burger stand as a stand-alone building with parking in the front, and perhaps on the side and in the back. There is always outdoor seating and, occasionally seating indoors. The folks working there may wear a t-shirt commissioned by the owner, but they may just wear what they put on prior to attending morning classes at the local high school. The menu is posted, but generally, it is a signboard made up of those individually moved letters slid along groves in a backlit plastic. When something changes, the letters may not always match. That’s okay. Because what really matters in the fare. The food. The burger itself.
At the Healdsburger, the fries came out early. Fresh cut from real potatoes – I saw them do this – seasoned to perfection, a young man delivered them to my table from behind the counter.
“Is this comin’ with the burger I ordered?” I asked.
“Burger’s comin’,” he said. “Couple o’ minutes. Wanted you to have these now.”
The fries were – just as I would find out about my sandwich – what that same God intended when (S)he created the russet potato. They were crisp on the outside, steamy and soft on the inside and not swimming in “Task” or some other such vegetable oil. Served with the large fountain Coke I’d ordered, not a Pepsi, thank you very much, these tuber delights proved to be a noon-time “hors-duerve” to be relished at a time when fries as a prelude might not be the first thing one imagines when lunching to a burger joint.
I’d nearly polished ‘em off when the entrée arrived: a seven-ounce hand formed – I saw them do this as well – burger patty grilled to my medium-rare specification placed on a fresh bun and garnished with a slab of cheddar, red onion, iceberg lettuce and dollops of perfetto condimenti. I craftily folded the waxed paper wrap to channel juices onto the tray rather than the lap of my riding togs. Once I grasped the sandwich, it never made it back to that tray.
The Healdsburger is at off the beaten track the far south end of the main drag through this quaint Dry Creek (California) Valley wine community – off US 101 14 miles north of Santa Rosa. David and his crew hustled to keep a 1:00 PM crowd fed with efficiency and a personal touch. Each crewmember wore a company shirt with the tag line: “So good, the locals keep it secret.” I suspect they do. This is certainly a place I return to time and time again – when I can sneak away from the grandkids who, at less than three years of age, might be overwhelmed by the fare. Besides, I want to bring ‘em up eatin’ healthy. You know, Vegan?
A burger joint runner-up would have to be located on the historic Highway 40 (parallel to I-80) in Loomis (Placer County) California. Taylors Drive-In serves burgers, fries and about 150 different varieties of milkshakes. The only black mark in my book is that their fountain cola is Pepsi, not Coke – but that’s because, in my younger days, I worked for a restaurant supply wholesaler who pedaled Coca Cola product. (“If you want to let ‘em know you sell a quality burger, you gotta sell ‘em a quality drink,” my boss said more than once.) Taylors is one of those stand-alone stands that probably used that be called “the Jolly Cone.” The sandwiches are as wholesome as a hamburger can be; the fries well seasoned and delicious. A large dispenser of catsup is available with a nice stack of those pleated portion control cups available to the customer. And the young person who grilled the repast, carries it out on a tray, greeting the customer and inviting said customer to ask should there be a need for anything else. I don’t seem to remember that ever happening at my most-local Taco Bell.
Another runner up is found in Dunsmuir, (Siskiyou Co.) CA on business route I-5. The Burger Barn is staffed by the owner and by several handsome area high schoolers just learning the ins and out of working for pay. The fare is most excellent and, if traveling north from Sacramento, just the perfect distance from home for the lunch stop. (Downtown Dunsmuir is a delightfully historic berg. I-5 laces across the top a couple of times and it is easy to whiz past never knowing the old place exists. Travelers’ loss. If the town is tiny, always take the business route.) The proprietress at the Burger Barn graciously not only served a classic burger and fries – I ordered a Dr. Pepper because their cola choice was Pepsi and I am not of that generation – but she also coached her young crew about presentation, punctuality and chipperness. On my rocket trip north to Portland, this was a place I was glad I found, one I will now revisit any time I find myself entering the Siskiyous.
Not corporate, the Healdsburger in Healdsburg, Taylors in Loomis, the Burger Barn in Dunsmuir and a thousand other places dotted along the byways of our travel – like the Jamestown Frosty off CA 108 in Jamestown, CA, or the Pine Shack Frosty on CA 36 in Chester, CA – offer prices that compare quite favorably with Mac and Jack and food that didn’t spend a week and a half in the back of a reefer big-rig travelling from some place half way across the continent. And the money spent at these small town independents more than likely goes to the folks that own the joint.
There’s a degree of satisfaction that goes along with such a lunch.
Church of the Open Road Press