California Indie Burger Road Trippin’
On the road to burgers, BLTs, and beyond
I didn’t set out to survey burgers in the Golden State, but when we’re road trippin’, burgers seem to find us. Sometimes they present themselves as the least of the available evils, and then go straight into actually really good. That’s part of the magic of road trippin’, isn’t it. And there’s always the chance of adjacent non-burger favorites like breakfast and BLTs, too.
Several road-trip burgers have slotted themselves into the SO-would-eat-again category, two each in the southern and northern halves of California. If only the fondly-remembered Fresno-adjacent Kenny’s Burgers, home of the mustard-and-lettuce-only Kenny Burger, was still extant, I’d have one near the middle, too. More research needed, clearly. And so. Let us proceed, from south to north:
Emma Jean’s Holland Burger, Victorville
After I saw a friend’s Instagram post about Emma Jean’s Holland Burger in Victorville, and realizing the location was perfect for the direction an upcoming excursion in the Great Southwest would take us, there was no question where we’d be stopping for breakfast.
Holland Burger (as aficionados call it) has so much going for it it’s hard to know what to say first. Well, not really: The food is great. Proprietorially-named menu items always get extra bonus points, and here there’s the Brian Burger (the owner-cook is the eponym), a hand-formed patty on thick toast encrusted on the outside with Parmesan. Another good name: the Trucker Special, a super-tender tri-tip san enhanced by the classic right-out-of-the-can Ortega chile. BLTs are sort of a hobby horse of mine, restaurant-testing wise, and Holland Burger’s is excellent. The bacon itself is so good you notice, a nice lagniappe all by itself. Not least in this pantheon is breakfast, with absolutely perfect poached eggs that are SO worth their 50-cent upcharge. I don’t mind a grill man charging a little extra for having to turn away from the flat top and futz around with eggs in a pan of water, especially when the result is so good.
I mustn’t neglect to mention that Holland Burger is on Route 66, AND that it played a strong supporting role in Kill Bill, my favorite film of all time. It’s the café where Uma Thurman asks for a glass of water after Pai Mei-ing her way out of being buried alive. Look for the Quentin Tarantino-signed artifact t-shirt framed on the back wall.
On the Alley, Santa Barbara
My next burger joint is decidedly more upscale, but not off-puttingly so. Welcoming unpretentiousness can occur all across the real-estate spectrum, even near the top end. On the Alley, at the marina in Santa Barbara, has a good motto: Simple, Honest Food, and a great waterfront location. Owned by the same people who run Brophy’s, the appealing seafood house next door and upstairs, literally-On the Alley is adamantly hardcore, but relaxed at the same time.
I firmly believe that if there is a proprietary special of the house listed one ought try it — not necessarily me, but somebody. So it was fortunate that my husband wanted the On the Alley burger, because I had immediately zeroed in on my lunch prey: Fish sandwich. Is there anything better? Maybe BLTs. The OTA burger was stellar, I must say. Quite a litany of ingredients, enough to give slight pause upon reading, even as it tempts: Caramelized onion, fried jalapeños, avocado, bacon, jack cheese, and a fried egg. Any hesitation evaporates after the first bite, however. The fried jalapeños, especially, are an inspired addition. Both sans come on nice puffy brioche rolls. And I haven’t even mentioned the house-made potato chips that accompany. They are the only potato chips that are better than Rusty’s, the Orange County brand that beats all others, packaged or in a restaurant — or did until we went to On the Alley. Breakfast items, too, and seafood in a Brophy’s section of the menu.
Bartels Giant Burger, Corning
Staging for a cruise through Redwood National Park, we stopped in Corning, an I-5 town that I think you’d have to be born in, work in, or spend the night in to even know about. I turned up Bartel’s Giant Burger and the differing constituencies of Yelp and TripAdvisor both advocated strongly for it, which as you may or may not know, is an uncommon occurrence. Sounded good, suited our casual intentions, was close to the hotel. Check, check, check. What we didn’t expect was excellently good. Fresh 1/3-pound patties available as single or double burgers cooked right before your eyes by cheerful yet no-nonsense women in a tiny former gas station, with — YESSSS — Ortega chile as a topping option.
Bonus: Shakes and malts. Double bonus: Old guys sitting around in BYO lawn chairs showing off their souped-up classic cars in the parking lot. I can’t remember the last time I heard an honest-to-God aaah-ooo-ga horn. Even better, while we were waiting, one of the old guys came out with a Styrofoam cup of something, with something on top, a spoon sticking out. We understood all at the onct that that was obviously the Frosty Cup we’d seen on the menu. We had to get one, of course, with chocolate sauce. Truly the best soft-serve EVER, with zero none nada of the bitterness that piped-out ice creams often have. I’d given up on the guilty pleasure of soft serve years ago because that inescapable aftertaste made it easy to put on the Not Worth the Calories list. Now, it’s off that list, at least at Bartels. Other Bartels locations are semi-nearby in Anderson and Redding, increasing the chances of being able to engineer another visit.
DJ’s Burger Bar, Rio Dell
Conveniently located just about 7 miles north of the north entrance of the Avenue of the Giants, DJ’s Burger Bar in Rio Dell is an unbelievable find for road trippers, though I daresay locals must love it even more. Two cheerful, no-nonsense women— I’m getting the idea that ladies like this are the secret ingredient that makes NorCal burgers so good — cook everything in a kitchen space the size of a suburban master bedroom closet. And it’s all so good — cheeseburgers, malts and shakes, fries, rings, yes.
Vitally more important though: One of the very finest BLTs I’ve ever had, on maybe the most perfectly toasted wheat toast, with the most careful distribution of ingredients, and, crucially, absolutely unstinting in the mayonnaise department. The perfect fortification before being awestruck by the tallest trees on earth.
Bonus BLT: Cook’s Corner, Trabuco Canyon
Before DJ’s, my previous BLT benchmark is the one from Cook’s Corner, the historic biker bar in Trabuco Canyon that on weekends is a Mecca for modern motorcyclists. But regular people like me are welcome too, and since Cook’s is my local, it’ll have to do until such time as I return to DJ’s. It’s also worth noting that Cook’s has been serving Ortega chile cheeseburgers since time immemorial. Worth a stop, even if you aren’t on a $28,000 motorcycle.