The Squeeze Inn – Roseville, California

Tried to amend my carnivorous habits
Made it nearly seventy days
Losin’ weight without speed, eatin’ sunflower seeds
Drinkin’ lots of carrot juice and soakin’ up rays

But at night I’d had these wonderful dreams
Some kind of sensuous treat
Not zucchini, fettucini or Bulgar wheat
But a big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat

Cheeseburger in paradise (paradise)
Heaven on earth with an onion slice (paradise)
Not too particular not too precise (paradise)
I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise

~Jimmy Buffett

The interior of the Squeeze Inn in Roseville, California

Just what is a cheeseburger in paradise?  In his top 40 song Cheeseburger in Paradise, Jimmy Buffett seems to infer that a cheeseburger in paradise can be any cheeseburger you consume after depriving yourself, or as he put it, “after trying to amend your carnivorous habits.”  There’s much truth in this.  Every dieter with whom I’ve spoken admits that what they dream about most after any period of deliciousness deprivation are cheeseburgers.  Cheeseburgers are, after all, America’s most popular, arguably most delicious, fast food offering.

In Buffett’s case, the cheeseburger in paradise was inspired by a boating excursion on the azure waters of the Caribbean.  While sustaining himself on peanut butter and canned foods, he fantasized about devouring a “piping hot cheeseburger.”  His fantasy cam true…sort of, when he landed in the British Virgin Islands where he found a restaurant offering American cheeseburgers.  Despite the specificity of his instructions to the waiter on how he wanted the burgers prepared, what he got was an overdone beef patty on a burned, toasted bun.  No matter. To Buffett, this was a cheeseburger in paradise.  It fulfilled his fantasy and “tasted like manna from heaven.”

Buffett likes his cheeseburgers “with lettuce and tomato, Heinz Fifty-Seven and French-fried potatoes.”  For New Mexicans, there is nothing as thoroughly soul-satisfying and utterly delicious as our ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger.  We have a fierce pride in that most simplistic, but explosive, flavor-blessed union of a thick, juicy beef patty grilled over an open flame or sizzled on a griddle then blanketed in cheese and topped with taste bud awakening, tongue tingling, olfactory arousing green chile.  To New Mexicans, it isn’t a cheeseburger in paradise without green chile.

The Squeeze Burger with Cheese: The famous 1/3 lb. 100% Beef Burger with all the fixins. Mayo, Mustard, Tomato, Lettuce, Pickles, Onions on a Sesame Seed Bun With a “Skirt” of Cheese (1/3 pound of cheese)

Americans have been adding cheese to their burgers since the mid-1920s though, as with the hamburger itself, culinary historians can’t seem to agree as to when the molten marriage of cheese and beef patty first happened.  Most credit Lionel Sternberger with having “invented” the cheeseburger while working as a fry cook at his father’s Pasadena, California sandwich shop.  Legend has it that Sternberger experimentally dropped a slab of American cheese on a sizzling hamburger.  The rest, as the proverbial “they” say, is history.

Though the “inventor” of the cheeseburger is much in dispute, there is absolutely no disputing its impact on the American culture.  Wall Street Journal writer Raymond Sokolove called the cheeseburger “America’s contribution to world cuisine.  Does it stand to reason, therefore, that the more cheese you add to a cheeseburger, the better and more delicious the end-product will be?  The Squeeze Inn in the Sacramento, California area seems to think so.

For many people in the Sacramento area, the Squeeze Inn offers the cheeseburger in paradise.  That’s been validated in their having voted it the “best burger” winner from 2007 through 2010.  The original Squeeze Inn, a Lilliputian burger joint has also been voted “best dive” in Sacramento five years running.  It’s called the Squeeze Inn because of the original restaurant’s size; you literally got squeezed in to get your food.  The original was so small –only twelve bars tools–that customers would line up literally around the block to get in its doors then wait for hours to eat.  It would have to be a cheeseburger in paradise to inspire such loyalty.

French fries

In 2009, Sacramento area resident and Food Network luminary Guy Fieri introduced The Squeeze Inn to the rest of the world on his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program.  The effusive Fieri also included the burger on the second book he wrote about his “Triple D” program.  In an episode of the Jay Leno Show, the host asked Fieri who serves the best hamburger in America.  Without hesitation, Fieri mentioned the Squeeze Inn in Sacramento.

What makes the Squeeze Inn’s “squeeze with cheese burger” unique and famous is the way it’s prepared.  It starts with a third-pound of 100-percent beef topped with mayo, mustard, tomato lettuce, pickles, cheese and onions served on a sesame seed bun, pretty traditional stuff.  A crispy “cheese skirt” is created after the beef patty is cooked on a flat top grill.  The skirt is created when an entire third-pound of cheese and the top bun are placed atop the patty.  The cook then throws a handful of ice chips on the flat top and covers the burger with a “hood” to create a steamy effect.  The result is a rectangular, crispy cheese skirt which extends about an inch beyond the burger on all sides.

That’s one-third pound of beef and one-third pound of cheese plus high-quality, fresh ingredients.  What’s not to like?  As Fieri might say, “it’s a California thing.”  While I found the burger interesting and unique, it wasn’t necessarily memorable by virtue of its flavor profile alone.  Though I cherish cheese, the fried cheese skirt itself can be a bit off-putting–both texturally and in terms of flavor.  Sure, it’s crispy and maybe by itself would be a nice snack, but it makes the burger difficult to eat (the cheese becomes a bit “rubbery”) and actually detracts from the flavor of the beef.  This is one marriage of beef and cheese I didn’t like much, but there are thousands of Sacramento area residents who say otherwise.

Nick Sardo, Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver and Jesse Housholder enjoy the Squeeze Inn’s cheesy burger

The Squeeze Inn prepares everything to order and to your exacting specifications.  In addition to their famous “squeeze with cheese,” the restaurant serves other menu items including tacos, hot dogs, sandwiches and more.  Even a vegetarian burger is available for non-carnivores.

The Squeeze Inn is certainly not everybody’s version of a cheeseburger in paradise, but from an experiential point of view, it’s one of those legendary restaurants you’ve got to try just to say you’ve  been there and done that.  You may even like it more than I did….and who knows, had the squeeze with cheese had some New Mexico green chile, it might have been closer to being a cheeseburger in paradise for me, too.

The Squeeze Inn
106 North Sunrise Avenue
Roseville, California
(916) 783-2874
LATEST VISIT: 14 June 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: French Fries, Squeeze with Cheese

Chuck’s Restaurant – Placerville, California

Chuck's Restaurant in Placerville, California

In 2009, James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern published a terrific tome entitled 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late. Despite the ominous (some might say fatalistic) name, the book is actually a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to this country. The Sterns, who have been focusing on quirky All-American food haunts since 1977, describe in delicious detail, the best dishes proffered at roadside stands, cafes, street carts throughout the fruited plain.  It’s a marvelous tribute to those dishes that are uniquely American.

As encompassing as the book is, it could not possibly have included every single culinary rarity and singularly distinctive dish.  Leave it to my friend Barbara Trembath to lead me to a uniquely American dish that the Sterns did not mention.  When she found out about my business trip to the Sacramento area, Barbara encouraged me to stray from the well-beaten, well-eaten paths to the local favorites and to drive nearly one-hundred miles east to experience culinary history.  She urged me to try what she described as potentially the “dodo bird of food,” a “rare American original that’s in danger of becoming extinct.”  She had me at “hello.”

The quintessential American diner

The dish Barbara recommended I try has a name as quirky as its composition.  It’s called the “Hangtown Fry” and it has nothing to do with French fries and other than bacon has no other fried ingredients. In fact, it’s really an omelet engorged with nothing but bacon and oysters, a weird barnyard meets seafood combination that goes surprisingly well together.   I drove directly from the Sacramento airport to Placerville in time to beat the dinner rush for…an omelet. Barbara reminded me that “yeah, it’s breakfast food, but like any omelet is great any time of day.”

History records that during the California Gold Rush, the boomtown of Placerville was given the sobriquet “Hangtown” in recognition of its frontier justice inspired “necktie parties.”  A grimy prospector who had struck it rich in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada came in to town, staggered into the first restaurant he found and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.  At that day and age, eggs cost a dollar each, bacon had to be shipped from the East Coast and oysters were a rare delicacy.  The three were combined into a California specialty that has survived more than a century and a half.  Nowadays, the Tadich Grill in San Francisco is more renown for the Hangtown Fry than any restaurant in Placerville, but it was in Hangtown that this dish originated so one might figure that no one does it better than the original.

The Hangtown Fry with fried potatoes and sourdough toast

The restaurant Barbara recommended is called Chuck’s Restaurant, a rather ordinary name for an eatery specializing in an American culinary rarity.  In every way possible, it has the appearance and charm of a 1950s or 1960s diner, replete with leatherette booths, counter stools, faux wood paneling and a menu with a staggering number of entrees, including as many or more Chinese entrees than American entrees.  The Hangtown Fry does not occupy a special place in the menu, nothing that calls attention to this famous dish.  In fact, I had to ask my waitress where it was on the menu.

The Hangtown Fry is an exceptional omelet with almost as many oysters and as much cut bacon on top of the folded eggs as there were inside.  Both the bacon and the oysters are somewhat salty, a perfect foil for the eggs. Frankly, the only thing which could possibly have improved this dish would have been the use of fresh oysters instead of canned smoked oysters.  The Hangtown Fry is accompanied by fried potatoes and sourdough toast, both good but hardly necessary considering the main entree was the dodo bird of food.

Chuck’s Restaurant
1318 Broadway
Placerville, California
(530) 622-2858
LATEST VISIT: 13 June 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hangtown Fry

Chuck's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

RedBrick Pizza – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Red Brick Pizza for Fire-Roasted Gourmet Pizza

The American culture of instant gratification may be precipitating the decline of the independent neighborhood pizzeria. In recent years, this traditional bastion of pizza preparation has been largely supplanted by ubiquitous pizza delivery companies with their gratuitous gimmicks, copious coupons and promises of breakneck deliveries.

Pizzaiolis, the artisans who deftly toss and craft prandial perfection in the form of circular, precisely seasoned and superbly sauced oven-baked flat-bread have been unseated by pimply teenagers slathering ketchup on cardboard spheres then setting land speed records to ensure the day’s special of five for the price of one reaches its intended destination within seconds after an order is placed.

The American consumer seemingly prefers quick and cheap pizza of inferior quality and taste that he or she can devour in front of the 500-channel living room altar to the greater expenditure of time spent with family or friends at a pizzeria in which sensory titillation includes the imbibing of incomparable aromas you just can’t get by opening a cardboard box.

The bustling interior at Red Brick Pizza

RedBrick Pizza purports to address the gap between the delivery-oriented market and the more traditional sit-down restaurant approach with a revolutionary “fast casual” concept, ostensibly giving the American consumer a product far superior to delivery pizza without the “inordinately long wait times” at traditional pizzerias.

Founded in 2000, this burgeoning franchise has ambitions of being one of the largest pizza chains in the world with an eye toward 12,000 units and possible expansion into Europe and Asia. In 2004, RedBrick Pizza’s 750 percent growth helped it earn a spot on Entrepreneur magazine’s list of top 50 new franchises. Albuquerque’s first two RedBrick franchises opened in the fall of 2005, one in the Sedona Row shopping center and a second one in the Brick Light District by UNM.

The centerpiece of each franchise appears to be a 1,000-degree brick oven capable of turning out three-minute, fire-roasted gourmet pizzas. The menu promises fresh, all-natural dough and cheeses and premium gourmet ingredients with no MSG, fillers or substitutes. You can craft your own pie by selecting your favorites from an extensive list of ingredients or you can opt for one of the menu’s fifteen gourmet pizzas. If you’re not in the mood for pizza, RedBrick offers several fresh tossed chopped salads, all of which can be had with fire-roasted croutons. Another fire-roasted specialty are Fhazani sandwiches crafted on the restaurant’s signature dough.

Two flavors of wonderful Italian Gelato: pumpkin pie and pistachio

Many of the tables have their own small flat-screen televisions while several overhead large-screen TVs are strategically positioned for maximum viewability. The restaurant’s artificially friendly staff (called “pizza ambassadors” in the company’s lexicon) make frequent visits to your table to ensure all is well with your RedBrick experience.

True to the menu’s promise, our pizzas did have a crisp, golden brown crust, but truth be told, they weren’t delivered much more quickly than at some of the city’s traditional pizzerias, many of which serve a much better product.

  • A “Greek” pizza with an olive oil and garlic sauce base featured mozzarella, ham, red onions, whole Kalamata olives, Feta cheese and Pepperonici. The Feta was barely discernable while the Pepperonici was wonderfully tangy and somewhat piquant. Our favorite ingredient was the ham (which looked like what some pizzerias call Canadian bacon).
  • The most prominent tastes on a roasted garlic chicken pizza (white sauce, mozzarella, garlic, chicken, mushrooms, onions, red peppers, bacon, garlic, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese) were neither the roasted garlic (a chintzy portion) or the chicken, but the Parmesan cheese. This pizza did little to distinguish itself as a memorable pie.

The highlight of our meal was the restaurant’s fresh Italian Gelato dessert. More than just “Italian ice cream,” true Gelato is much more dense, icy and usually more flavorful than American ice cream. RedBrick’s version was wonderfully gritty and extremely flavorful, exceeding other Gelato we’ve found in the Albuquerque area. It’s worth a trip to RedBrick just for this cold confection. It’s also worth a trip to your favorite neighborhood pizzeria for a better pizza.

RedBrick Pizza
8101 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

1st VISIT: 17 December 2005
LATEST VISIT: 12 June 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gelato

Red Brick Pizza on Urbanspoon

1 2