Wild and Crazy Burgers of Northern California


Yes, this is a burger, or maybe you’d say a pair of them.

Though hamburgers as we know them were probably invented in New York City at the Lower West Side docks, where they were sold to German sailors in the early 19th century, the most evolved hamburger culture in the country is not in New York, but in California.

Jim-Denny’s in downtown Sacramento

While New Yorkers were still munching on pizza during much of the 20th century, Californians were perfecting the well-dressed ground-beef patty. One of their greatest accomplishments is sometimes known as the garden burger: a grilled patty deposited on a good-size bun heaped with ingredients more properly found in a salad, including lettuce, tomatoes, raw or sautéed onions, dill pickles, a mayo-base sauce, and, in extreme cases, slivers of ripe avocado, an ingredient practically unknown here at the time, but readily available there.

The garden burger probably appeared in the 1940s, but by the next decade it had become almost commonplace in the rest of the country — minus the avocado, of course. Greek diners incorporated a version into their menus as “burger deluxe,” and highway-side snack parlors called dairy bars sold them as part of a supposed health-food regimen, along with thick milkshakes, while Burger King created an even larger version known as the Whopper.

Though New York has long since come to dominate high-end hamburger culture, California still eats more of the — if we can judge by sheer number of outlets — and the state’s burger-innovation bent didn’t stop with the garden burger. Here are some examples of the state’s oddball burgers that Fork in the Road stumbled on during a week of burger-eating in the northern reaches of the Golden State.

Founded in 1934, and moving to its present location just after World War II, Jim-Denny’s looks out of place in modern downtown Sacramento. The premises is almost unbelievably tiny, with only 10 or so stools inside, though in good weather a gravel lot on one side of the building holds three round backyard tables, with umbrellas. The exterior is starkly painted in red and white, and a prominent neon sign burns into night, even though most days the place closes at 3 p.m.

The menu revolves around breakfast items and a series of burgers, including — most unbelievably — an open-face pair of patties smothered in beans-only chili, grated cheese, and chopped purple onions. Among many standard burger configurations, the Megaburger stands out: four superimposed quarter-pound patties, a couple of slices of cheese, and a few strips of bacon with mayo and mustard on a single unremarkable bun. (Mustard and mayo, with no ketchup, are the standard burger toppings, though folks often use ketchup on their fries and eggs.)

The Megaburger, in all its grease-oozing glory

No one seems offended by the name, Al the Wops.

South of Sacramento is a river delta, with wetlands and a gently winding river, that will remind you of Louisiana. The road runs along the top of the levy, first past golf courses and marinas, but eventually through tiny ramshackle towns filled with migrant-worker housing and broken-down warehouses and mills of one sort or another.

About 30 miles south of the capital you’ll find Locke, one of the state’s most remarkable towns, said to be the only rural Chinatown remaining in America. It was settled in the early 20th century by Asian field hands — almost all men — who moved from the next town over when its Chinatown caught fire.

The architecture looks like that of New Orleans — Creole porches on the second floors of buildings are narrow and extend way back on the lot. The whole town is certainly below the level of the river, and on its five or six streets lie many modest frame houses, painted in pastels, and former Chinese businesses. Only 10 people of Chinese extraction are said to still live in the houses, where once the population topped 2,000.

The burger at Al the Wops is served on slices of griddle-toasted Italian bread, with the condiments shown below.

Smack dab in the middle is Al’s Place, also known as Al the Wop’s. A honky-tonk barroom features posters and animal heads scattered on the walls, dollar bills dangling from the ceiling (how they got there is a matter of some controversy), and a long bar, with a tiny dining annex just off it, both rooms dark at midday with no windows. The place looks to be well over 100 years old (it was first established in 1916), and country-western plays on the jukebox.

Planted on slices of griddle-toasted Italian bread, the hamburger comes with sweet pickles, pitted black olives, lettuce, and potato chips, with the usual mayo and mustard, and your choice of condiments. Somewhat strangely, the popular favorites are peanut butter and jelly, which are applied to the bun. Something called Stinky Fries can be ordered on the side; it consists of good fries drenched in crushed garlic, parmesan (the kind you shake out of a can), and parsley. They’re damn good, and so is the burger.

You can also get a so-called steak sandwich, which is an entire sirloin with toasted bread on the side. Minestrone is also available, and a handful of other choices. The food is way more carefully prepared than you’d expect in a dive like this.

The Stinky Fries are gobbed with crushed garlic, parmesan, and parsley.

A pressed and toasted bun cradles the split patty, avocado, bacon, and other goodies in the Whiz Burger.

Real estate in San Francisco and Oakland turns over slowly enough that ancient hamburger drive-ins with the futuristic design characteristica of the ’50s are allowed to exist and even prosper. In the Mission District of San Francisco find Whiz Burgers, which has a towering neon sign, a peaked roof, giant windows that allow you to see the food being prepared inside, and a stainless-steel counter that runs along the front of the place, lined with swiveling stools in a poor state of repairs. A couple of picnic tables deeply stained with grease also invite picnicking.

The Whiz Burger comes on a distended French roll. The patty has been cut in half, so the meat can fit in the narrow bun. The standard formula includes bacon, avocado, tomato, raw onion, and lettuce with both mayo and mustard generously applied. As with Al the Wop’s, the joint offers some very strong garlic fries. They are the Whiz Burger’s most perfect accompaniment. Yelpers tend to detest Whiz Burger, but I found it to be one of the foremost purveyors of San Francisco’s evolved garden burgers. Long may it wave.

The alpine architecture is typical of the ’50s.

Stools built into the facade along a stainless-steel counter constitute the original seating.