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 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 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.
LATEST VISIT: 13 June 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Hangtown Fry