Growing up in Montana, the word "barbecue" meant to me backyard grilling over open flames, charcoal embers, or just electric heating elements. My father was an electrician, so I cut grass with an electric mower on an extension cord, and we ate burgers cooked outside on an electric grill.
There was nothing about that sort of barbecue that appealed to me, since it just seemed to be regular cooking with more carcinogens. And all I knew of what I now recognize as real barbecue was that barbecued ribs were common, and I didn't like ribs--too much fat and bone and mess from the barbecue sauce for so little meat.
But then I saw a lot of television shows on barbecue on Food Network, the History Channel, and the Travel Channel. They still didn't persuade me that barbecue was delicious, but I was intrigued by the tradition related to this form of cooking and the passion many people had for it.
I set out to visit, taste, and photograph the barbecue joints in the Sacramento area. I know there are a lot of people who are very knowledgeable about barbecue, and passionate about it. I, on the other hand, am just getting to know it. So I won't try and offer any comprehensive culinary critiques of the food. Instead, I'll just give my general impressions of the places.
Ludy's Main Street BBQ
667 Main St.
This is a restaurant I visited frequently when I lived in Davis, although I usually got something other than the traditional barbecue options on the menu. The restaurant is housed in a historic stone building, and is wonderfully decorated in an Old West theme. Adding to the ambiance is a large patio area in back, with a fountain and small stream and a large fireplace.
I always enjoyed the French fries at Ludy's, which are served with a barbecue dry rub sprinkled on them. You can also fill up a little metal pot with your choice of barbecue sauce and dip the fries in that.
Texas West Bar-B-Que
1600 Fulton Ave.
1950 Douglas Blvd.
2776 E. Bidwell St.
On their menu, Texas West claims to be continually voted "Best BBQ" in both Sacramento Magazine and the Sacramento News and Review. The first Texas West, and I'm not sure which of the three locations that would be, opened in 1991. I visited the one on Fulton Avenue, which has a tiny area in which to dine in, as well as an adjoining patio area that was closed off and was dark when I was there. I had the beef brisket platter for $10.99, which comes with two sides, Texas toast, and sauce on the side. The beans were the most notable element of this meal--served in a thin sauce with onions and tomatoes.
8101 Elder Creek Rd.
Tucked into a small storefront in a large building on the northwest corner of Power Inn Rd. and Elder Creek Rd. (on the Power Inn side, despite the address), this restaurant is not just one you stumble upon--you have to be looking for it. But it's also worth looking for. It's not much for a dine-in place--just a few tables, and the food is served up on paper plates. They mainly seem to do a big take-out business. The food is excellent and quite reasonable in comparison to other barbecue restaurants. My pork ribs dinner with green beans, macaroni and cheese, and a roll came to $8.95.
They were all very friendly there. I got caught taking a picture of my food and was asked about it, so I came clean and told them, and they wanted the URL for my blog and looked over the list of restaurants I was planning to visit and commented on a few.
Sandra Dee's Bar-B-Que & Seafod
601 15th Street
I've long intended to eat at Sandra Dee's, mainly because of their advertised all-you-can-eat catfish nuggets special. Finally this barbecue overview gave me the impetus to finally go.
The atmosphere wasn't what I was expecting inside--everything was a little newer and more modern than I was expecting. I had the $9.99 all beef links entree, choosing the hot links with hot barbecue sauce. The sides were a bit disappointing, especially the dry cornbread muffin served without any butter or honey. But the links didn't disappoint. They had a rich flavor and packed quite a bit of heat in conjunction with the sauce. I had to wipe away quite a bit of sweat.
J.R.'s Texas Bar-B-Que
180 Otto Circle
When I mentioned my intention to visit as many barbecue restaurants in the Sacramento area as possible to friends at work, this is the restaurant they asked me about first. It was a challenge to find--really tucked away in an obscure location. But I guess that isn't hurting business any.
They have received the "Best Bar-B-Que" award from the California Restaurant Association for three years running and took first place in the September of 2006 Rhythm and Ribs national competition.
They only have a couple of parking spaces, although there is plenty of parking on the street. I wasn't even sure they had dine-in facilities, so I was surprised to find a cavernous interior with rows of picnic tables, a pool table (free play), a stage coach, and a big screen television. You could certainly have a great time here with a load of friends.
The barbecue is pretty much exactly what I would expect from a quality barbecue place. My $11 pork shoulder plate came with way more meat than a person should eat at a single setting. It was tender and had a pronounced smokiness (they cook over mesquite). There were three options for sauce: original, sweet, and spicy. I chose spicy, and found it had a mild kick. The beans were pretty standard--I didn't enjoy them as much as those at Texas West. The small corn on the cob was fine too. There was no bread served with the meal.
Pit Stop Bar-B-Que
3515 McClellan Dr.
I'm not sure if this place was connected with the Pit Stop on Folsom Blvd. in Rancho Cordova, but apparently that restaurant is now closed.
This Pit Stop offers a moderately sized interior, with additional tables out front. I had the $11.95 hot links dinner, with potato salad, coleslaw, and apparently two toasted and buttered rolls. The potato salad was very good--better than what I had at Sandra Dee's.
Unlike other places, I was not given a choice as to the barbecue sauce. The combination of hot links and sauce packed nowhere near the heat as what I ate at Sandra Dee's, and didn't match them for flavor either, although I still enjoyed them.
Back Forty Texas BBQ
1201 Orlando Ave
My grandmother has taken me to eat many times at the flagship restaurant of the regional Back Forty chain, in Pleasant Hill, although I think I got turkey most times, in an attempt to order something healthy. The location in Roseville, just off of Auburn Blvd, just south of where it crosses Interstate 80 and becomes Riverside ?? , is most notable for the exterior--it looks like an Old West town, and there's a stagecoach out front. There is rustic wood in the interior too, and an attentive staff.
It's much classier than the kinds of restaurants I usually eat at, and that is reflected in the prices. It was $14.49 for my sliced lean beef dinner, which came with two sides and an enormous piece of moist cornbread. I wish I had had the room to finish that cornbread.
D'Miller's Famous BBQ
7305 Fair Oaks Blvd
I had some trouble getting to eat at this place. First off, it's not that easy to find. It's a very small location tucked on the side of a strip mall, along the Sutter Avenue side (across the street from Big Lots), not the Fair Oaks side. When I found it, just after Memorial Day, I found a sign in the door saying "Happy holidays. See you June 3." I didn't know anyone took that long of a vacation for Memorial Day. I didn't check the hours, or else I wouldn't have returned there on a Monday, when they are closed.
But I finally found the place open one day. They have just enough room for a couple tables inside, in a mostly purple interior, and there are a couple of tables out front, but they are metal, and really heat up in the sun. I got the hot links dinner, which was a real bargain in comparison to other barbecue places, at only $6.79. It was okay. I think my favorite was the potato salad, which was reddish, probably from lots of paprika. At those prices, I'm sure I'll be back.
Armadillo Willy's Flying Pig BBQ on a Bun
3620 North Freeway Blvd
Usually I avoid areas like Natomas: contemporary sprawl centering daily life around driving and filled with big box stores and national chains. But I liked the name of this restaurant.
The area it is in is even worse than I imagined, where developers saw fields filled with wildflowers, mice, and rabbits, with hawks circling overhead, and envisioned Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Target, Starbucks, TGI Friday's, and, of course, acres and acres of parking. But the restaurant itself is pleasant enough, and hopefully will take on some character when it is no longer so new. They have some outdoor seating near a fountain, and a nice neon sign.
I wasn't all that hungry, and since the name of the restaurant has "on a bun" in it, I went for the lunch special rather than a full dinner plate: chopped brisket sandwich, potato salad, and lemonade for $7.99. It was decent. I thought they skimped a bit on the meat, and there was no choice on the barbecue sauce, which was sweet and had no kick to it. But if I happened to be in the area, which is unlikely to be the case anytime soon, I wouldn't be averse to stopping in there again.
This is by no means a complete account, and I will keep adding on as I try more. Two that I found listed online I could not eat at, though. When I arrived at Rubs Ribs on Howe Avenue, I found a note indicating it had permanently closed two weeks earlier. And the address I had for Jeff's Mesquite Barbeque in Orangevale just took me to a house in a residential block.
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(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)
(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Historic diners, vintage drive-ins, old hamburger stands, and newer small, unique local burger, fries, and shakes restaurants are where I usually choose to eat. The food is not good for me--I'm aware of that. But they are usually cheap, always tasty, and always have a lot of character.
I used to just go to nearby ones for convenience, but now I search out new ones, and occasionally receive tips from people who see my photos on Flickr about places I should, or "must," visit. I have conversations at work about old restaurants and the best of what they have to offer, and sometimes I'm just out driving a different way and spot a place I'd never noticed before.
Here's an inventory of the Sacramento area burger joints I know of, in a very rough west-to-east pattern. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey--I'm always looking to add to more, and appreciate suggestions.
978 Olive Dr.
It started as Murder Burger in 1985, but was changed due to a legal dispute over the name with the former owners and complaints on the opening of a new location in Rocklin. I used to live right down the street on Olive Drive, the old US Route 40, and bicycled near here every day. Naturally I ate there quite a bit, despite the fact that it is high priced for a burger joint.
The place certainly looks much older than 1985, with the classic styling of the interior, and the tiny counter with stools--now the counter is just used to hold condiments and forks and such, rather than for dining. I haven't been able to determine if it was another restaurant before 1985, though.
Run-N-Tell Drive In
1208 Sacramento Ave.
I see this place on my way out to Ikea in West Sacramento via the road of the continually changing names I St., C St., 6th St., Sacramento Ave., and then past Run-N-Tell, Reed Ave. They serve burgers, fries, and shakes, but also Chinese food.
Old Ad for Nito's Fruit Flavored Bars
Whitey's Jolly Kone
1300 Jefferson Blvd.
This was a place I was tipped off about by someone who saw my photos on Flickr. It's a thriving former drive-in, although it has never been open when I checked it on weekends (I see now that they are open 10-2 on Saturday), which makes it inconvenient for me. Too bad, the food is just as I like it, cheap and tasty.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the restaurant opened in 1963, and their specialty is fresh-fruit shakes, particularly peach ones, offered only for a few weeks in the summer. I'll be sure to try and get one this year.
Fanny Ann's Saloon
1023 2nd St.
This place can't be that old, but it is still a classic. It is decorated all over with antiques and just plain junk. You order at ground level, where there is a bar, but to sit at a table, go upstairs or down. It's usually quiet in the booths downstairs in the afternoons.
The other fun thing about the place is the Jiffy burger--a hamburger with peanut butter on it. I had to try it, and all I can say is that it tasted like a great bacon cheeseburger that some idiot slopped peanut butter on. I can also report that I saw a jar of peanut butter in the cooking area, and it was not Jiffy.
Owner Mac McCulloch describes the origin of the restaurant in a 2004 Sacramento Bee article: "It originally started in Santa Monica in the 1960s, when five airline pilots opened a bar called the Oar House on Main Street near the beach. That place had kind of the same scene as this one and really took off. Later, we were the seventh in the chain, the only one in Sacramento. About 15 years ago, there were 31 saloons altogether. Since then, a lot of them were sold off. There are about 20 still going (under various ownerships), but they have different names. We're the only Fanny Ann's ."
816 12th St.
Jim Denny's is a vintage diner that used to be open 24 hours to serve people near the bus station. The tiny little building with its lunch counter, and no tables, has survived while skyscrapers have been built around it. It's expensive, and after experimenting with extended hours, they've returned to closing at 3 p.m., but it's a real thrill for me to eat in a place like this where history is so palpable. Everything I've eaten there has been excellent too.
From what I can glean from Sacramento Bee articles, Jim Van Nort and Dennis McFall opened the first Jim-Denny's on 16th St. in 1934, and opened the present location as Jim-Denny's No. in 1940. Jim Van Nort cooked at the restaurant until 1988, when he retired and underwent coronary surgery. The restaurant only stayed closed a few months before opening under new ownership. I know it has been closed for at least one stretch since then, after another ownership change. Jim Van Nort died in 2001.
More photos of Jim Denny's.
Earl of Sandwich
631 16th St.
This was a place I always enjoyed, along the old US Route 40. I went there once and found they were closed, due to a recent fire. They did reopen, but not long afterwards they went out of business. It's a story I've found repeated many times in my research of old businesses--people expect their business to recover after a fire, and sometimes they do reopen for a little while, but most often it ends up killing the business.
A 1999 Sacramento Bee article says that the Earl of Sandwich as that point had been around "some 30 years," suggesting that it opened in the late 1960s, but my own research in city directories suggests that it more likely opened in the late 1970s, as there used to be a gas station at this corner.
Geneva's Big Burgers
863 Arden Way
This former Ben's Big Burger seems to do a steady business. They have a wide menu with a lot of good food. Most people get their food to go, but there are two picnic tables on the east side, and a scary little room on the west side. There are some metal pieces on top that I assume are from an old sign. I'd love to see what it looked like.
Rib Eye Steak Sandwich & Onion Rings
Big T's Drive In
2300 Del Paso Blvd.
It was Erwin's Frostie in the earliest listing I can find for it, from 1964, then Palmer's Frostie in 1965 before becoming Ben's Big Burger, like the burger joint above, in 1966, and staying under that name until at least 1996. It was Big T's, and still serving up burgers and shakes, when I found the place in 2000. Since then it has been Big D's BBQ and La Piedad Mexican Restaurant, but mostly it has been closed, as it is now.
4010 Marysville Blvd.
Del Paso Heights
I found this on a search for drive-ins. A lot of places I've found listed online this way are no longer there, but this one was still in business, right near the on-ramp for I-80. In the early 1970s it was Coffelt's Jolly Kone.
Hot Link with Mustard and Onion
Nation-Wide Freezer Meats
1930 H St.
This is not the original location for Nation-Wide Freezer Meats--there is a mural inside showing that, and the old sign that used to hang above it is now on the floor propped up against a window. The food is quite expensive for a burger joint. The hamburgers, called French ground steak burgers, are excellent, but I don't care for the enormous fries.
2530 21st St.
Like Jim Denny's, this restaurant will make it in both my classic burger joints and vintage diner surveys. It's a real beauty, with a great vintage neon sign, wheel wagon chandeliers, and general western theme.
Rumor has it that America's Mermaid, Esther Williams, was once owner or part owner of the restaurant, but I have not been able to confirm this. She did buy a restaurant called Trails in Los Angeles around 1950, and changed the name to Esther & Ben Gage's Trails. According to a waitress at the Sacramento Trails, a customer reported that their decor was just like the Trails in Los Angeles.
This restaurant opened around 1953, and was actually Trails No. 2, with another Trails Restaurant being listed on Fulton Avenue. What makes me doubt a connection with the restaurant in Los Angeles is that this is a small, homey restaurant, whereas the Los Angeles Trails had monkeys, birds, and fish on display, Howard Hughes and Howard Hughes. A photo in the April 16, 1951 issue of Life shows Esther Williams in the kitchen of Trails, surrounded by tuxedoed waiters. I will continue to investigate.
Ford's Real Hamburgers
1948 Sutterville Rd.
Formerly a Mr. Taco Drive In, they've closed in the old outdoor seating area. I think Ford's opened up in 1988, and it used to win the reader's choice in the Bee for best hamburger every year, until In-N-Out took over. A blogger on Sac Rag declared it the best burger in Sacramento. I've found it to be average in quality, and more expensive than average.
2820 P St.
This place is less than 6 months old, but it has all the makings of a classic joint for years to come. The key is the great job they've done renovating the old Phillip's 66 gas station, which was a Tuneup Masters for most of its life. Not only is the setting stylish, but they've tried to recreate the Suzie Burger from a former restaurant that I never ate at, and serve it up with a little sandwich bag filled with pickles and carrots. It's different, anyhow.
Scott's Burger Shack
4127 Franklin Blvd.
It has been a Burger Shack since at least 1971, but not always Scott's. It was C&E Burger Shack, Emmy's Burger Shack, and just the Burger Shack. Before any of those it was Helen's Drive-In, but I believe it started life as a Tastee Freeze, and one was from at least 1956-1967. They have some ridiculously huge burgers here, but I've only sampled the more usual fare.
5640 H St.
Cookie's was opened in 1965 by Walter and Doris Price, who sold the business in 1980. So far I've only eaten there once, but I enjoyed my ostrich burger.
Village Drive In
3810 60th St.
I went for a long time without discovering this classic hamburger stand, and so has the Sacramento Bee, apparently. There is no mention of it in their database, which goes back to 1984. From my research in the city directories, I would estimate that it was built around 1966, and has always been the Village Drive In. It seems to be popular with kids after school.
6727 Folsom Blvd.
On the old US Route 50, Will's Burgers still has the sign up from its previous incarnation, Burger Chief, but the distinctive shape of the sign lets you know that originally it was a Dairy Queen.
The Flaming Grill
2319 El Camino
This is an old Tastee Freeze that has seen a succession of restaurants since the 1960s. It was the Deli Bean, a drive-thru coffee shop and deli, when I moved to the area, and then was Sha's, serving Thai food. I really meant to try it out, but didn't make it before Sha's closed down.
The new owners have done an awful lot of work on the place. Its main problem was lack of seating, so they created outdoor seating areas protected from weather in the winter with big heaters, and shaded but open to the breeze in the summer.
I'm guessing it's a chef that runs the place, because even though it's a burger and sandwich place, they do it up in style. You can get a burger and your choice of fries, potato salad, or fresh fruit for $4.99, or spend a little more to get a seared ahi tuna sandwich. They feature burgers made from lean bison and ostrich meat. Much to the detriment of my health, they now offer 1/2 price 1/2 pound sirloin burgers from 3-6 p.m.
I hope the word gets out about this place quickly enough that it survives, because it really deserves to.
J&R's Drive In
8200 Florin Rd.
A long ways from where I live, in the southern suburbs, this place is a relatively recent discovery of mine. It seems to be run by an older couple who do their burgers right.
7918 Fruitridge Rd.
The Squeeze Inn is famous for the cheese skirt on their cheeseburgers--a big slice of delicious cheddar melted long enough that it extends well beyond the burger. The restaurant was covered on a show on Food Network.
It's an easy place to drive pass without noticing it. I should know, I couldn't find it the first time I tried to go there. Then there is very little parking space and very little space to sit inside at the counter, but there are outdoor tables out back as well.
Lou's Drive In
6229 Watt Ave.
A lot of people still eat in their cars here, despite the tables out front. But you do have to go up and order your food.
Tom's Burgers & Frosty
6115 Watt Ave.
Originally a Dairy Queen, this place is decorated with an Air Force theme, since it used to serve the people stationed on nearby McClellan AFB.
Hagen's Orange Freeze
2520 Walnut Ave.
A very popular place with suburban families.
2830 Walnut Ave.
This was a Foster's Freeze from at least 1968-1982. Now it serves Korean barbecue and burgers--the barbecue is better than the burgers, but best of all is the peach coffee shake.
Willie's Burgers & Chiliburgers
5050 Arden Way
2415 16th St.
The location on 16th St. is the original, opened in 1991, but the one in Carmichael is right across the street from my gym, and I eat there frequently. The food is styled after the famous Tommy's in Los Angeles. The interior is chic industrial. While I've sampled a couple of the monster burgers here, my usual fare is the chili cheese fries.
7442 Auburn Blvd.
On the old US Route 40. Sam's Classic looked familiar to me, and that's because it is a former Sno-white Drive In. There used to be well over a hundred of these burger stands in California, most in the Central Valley. A few survive. This one was a Sno-white up until at least 1970, but had changed names by 1975.
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- Tom Spaulding
- I love to learn about, visit, photograph, research, and write about everything that is interesting, unique, and historical about Northern California, and wherever else I should be fortunate enough to find myself. I've spent many years scouring the roadside in my little car for interesting subjects and walking down hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada and along the coast to get to know the wonder that is Northern California. I share most of this via photos on Flickr, and as much as time permits me to on my blog, the NorCal Explorer. Fine art prints of my photos are for sale on Imagekind.