Monday, June 22, 2009

Squeeze Inn: Do Believe the Hype

I'm not one to blindly buy into hype. Most of the time, when something is presented as The Next Big Thing - be it an up and coming singer, the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or some high-tech gadget that promises to revolutionize the way or other - I react with a healthy dose of skepticism and demand proof that the sensation in question is more than just clever marketing.

Food is no exception. While I tend to be pretty easy to please when it comes to food, I usually seek out restaurants that don't rely on hype or even advertisement, don't have a nationwide presence or corporate ownership, don't utilize gimmicks to lure children and with them their entire families for the purpose of selling an inferior product. Generally-speaking, a restaurant chain that focuses on such extras as cartoonish mascots, colorfully-packaged kids' meals and ball pits is not focusing on the food it is selling. It doesn't have to.

Though relatively obscure, Sacramento mainstay The Squeeze Inn is a restaurant worthy of every bit of the hype it enjoys. Featured on such nationally-broadcast television series as Good Morning America and The Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, as well as a host of local media outlets, The Squeeze inn is regularly recognized in various "Best of Sacramento" lists and may well be - nay, IS - the best burger joint in Sacramento.

Upon pulling into the parking lot - if it's not so overly packed that you are actually able to pull in - you will immediately notice the building's facade, originally the lobby of a restaurant in Downtown Sacramento before being transported to the current location. The unbelievably loud shade of orange is no deterrent to hungry diners, as the second thing you will notice is the line of people waiting to get in and place their orders. The restaurant opens at ten o'clock, and if it's 10:30 or later, this line undoubtedly stretches well into the parking lot.

The parking lot is small, able to accommodate just a few cars. Though the lot is roughly proportionate to the restaurant itself - the dining room has just eleven stools, though there is additional outdoor seating available - it is surely insufficient considering the overwhelming demand for the restaurant's signature "Squeezeburger", usually served with cheese; again, the line is proof of this. In fact, a sign posted on the restaurant's front wall warns patrons against parking in front of any of the neighboring businesses.

Though I have lived in the Sacramento area since 2001, this past Thursday I paid my first visit to The Squeeze Inn. The reasons for this oversight are many, but the dearth of parking, especially in the early afternoon, has derailed more than one visit. This time, however, Katie and I accompanied MrManuel and Miss Sassy Pants, who suggested that we arrive before ten. In fact, we arrived at 9:43 AM, and ours was the first car in the parking lot. Our wait until The Squeeze Inn's ten o'clock opening time was nearly interminable, as we all - if I'm any indication, at least - had thoughts of burgers dancing in our heads.

At ten o'clock we took our seats at the restaurant's counter. My excitement over finally being able to try the fabled Squeezeburger with cheese was tempered by my enthusiasm for my surroundings: The Squeeze Inn is about as eclectically-decorated as any restaurant is likely to be, and manages to pack in twice as much to look at as a restaurant three times its size. The walls and even the ceiling are lined with all manner of kitschy memorabilia, from faded photos of Old Western personalities to a pair of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots mounted on one wall. Four framed tickets to a taping of The Price is Right hung over my head as we ate; we were later regaled with the story of The Squeeze Inn crew's trip to said taping, while the iconic game show happened to be playing on a nearby television.

The sense of wonder over the restaurant's decor soon faded; we ordered our food and, given our front-row seats, we got to watch as our Squeezeburgers were being created. Despite the mystique surrounding the restaurant, and the amazing taste of the burger, it seems to be a relatively straightforward process: The burger is placed on the grill and hidden beneath a sizable mound of shredded cheddar cheese,

then covered and left to steam:

As the burger cooks, the cheese is fried, forming a golden, bubbling "skirt" (to use The Squeeze Inn's own vernacular), which is as exquisitely delicious as it is unusual.

Adjacent to the grill is a topping station where the burgers are dressed. By default, Squeezeburgers are topped with mayo, mustard, lettuce, onions, and tomatoes, though extras such as mushrooms, bacon and avocado are available.

I ordered my own Squeezeburger with everything but mustard and tomatoes, as I would almost anywhere. Despite the fact that I do enjoy a well-topped burger, the next time I visit The Squeeze Inn I am considering holding everything but the mayo, as the produce was almost distracting; the cheese skirt might be the only topping you need, and in fact it's hardly a topping. In my opinion the skirt is an integral part of the Squeezeburger, rendering the phrase "Squeezeburger with cheese" nearly redundant.

We were advised by our dining companions to share a small order of fries. This turned out to be very sound advice. This is the small order:

This is where Katie and I ran out of room.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this small order of fries costs a mere $2.25.

As we finished our food, we enjoyed lighthearted conversation with the gentleman who'd cooked our burgers, talking about subjects as diverse as the current crop of summer movies to the exact process involved in making a Squeezeburger. Soda refills continued to flow until the moment we left. In fact, throughout the meal our cups were consistently refilled before they were completely empty, and the thought of asking for a refill never crossed my mind. I never had the chance. Although we were the first ones in the door, by the time we left - close to eleven o'clock - every stool was occupied, and the parking lot was packed.

All told, The Squeeze Inn makes for a challenging experience, from trying to find a parking space to the daunting task of finishing a very hearty burger and an unusually large small order of fries. However, it's a mouth-watering challenge, one that I look forward to accepting as frequently as my ticker will allow.

The Squeeze Inn is located at 7916 Fruitridge Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95820. There is a newer location at 545 Industrial Way, Galt, CA 95632. Their website is

Edited 6/23/09: Website link fixed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taqueria Los Toros: They Sell Burritos, and That's No Bull

Sorry. I can't resist a pun.

Hunger pangs hit me yesterday afternoon as I drove home alone from the Bay Area. I had missed out on the usual Sunday morning breakfast with Katie and her family and, having eaten an early dinner Saturday night, it was apparent that I couldn't drive another hour without stopping for food. Excitement mixed with trepidation - whenever I exit the freeway in an unfamiliar place I always prepare myself for the best- and worst-case scenarios, and in spite of this I usually encounter neither.

I was quickly approaching the Benecia Bridge when I saw a sign for Downtown Martinez. This seemed promising; downtown areas usually have decent restaurants, and although I had never been to Downtown Martinez I was optimistic that there would be something there other than fast food, and that I'd be able to have a quick and delicious lunch - one I could write about, perhaps - before resuming my drive.

Downtown Martinez was a couple miles from the exit, well off of the proverbial beaten path. Though the majority of this drive took me through a quiet industrial park, I was surprised to see a deer standing brazenly by the side of the road. Before long I found myself on Main Street, in the heart of a charming downtown full of antique shops and, yes, small restaurants, most of which were open despite the fact that it was Sunday. Taking a walk down Main Street I came to a farmer's market and briefly considered buying some produce before being distracted by Bulldog BBQ and Catering. I took a look at a take-out menu, and likely would have eaten there had the place not been packed. Still, with pork ribs, brisket, and hot links on the menu, it might have been worth the wait.

By now I was craving Mexican food, despite the fact that the previous night's dinner consisted of twenty-seven pounds of barbecued carne asada (spread out amongst fifty-plus people; it wasn't all for me). I noticed a couple suitable restaurants on my walk, and decided on Taqueria Los Toros. A sign out front proclaimed the restaurant's grand opening, and feeling quite famished - as well as a bit daring - I decided to give these upstarts a shot.

Los Toros wasn't packed; despite its sizable dining area there were at most six people at three tables when I walked in. However, the sound of sizzling from behind the counter and the smell of grilling peppers only whet my appetite further. There appeared to be one employee, serving double duty as counterman and cook. Although I anticipated slow service (and in fact did wait about five minutes before my order was taken), it was actually quicker than I expected. At any rate this one employee was eventually joined by another, so I will assume that there is usually more than one person there at any given time.

I ordered the Los Toros Special Burrito, which consists of meat, beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, guacamole and salsa. Though not as creative with their meat choices as Pancho Villa, Los Toros offers carne asada, pollo asado, carnitas, al pastor, chicken in red sauce, chile verde, beef tongue, chorizo, chile colorado and simple ground beef. I ordered al pastor, which for the uninitiated is barbecued pork, not to be confused with carnitas which usually refers to fried or roasted pork. They also sell fajitas burritos (chicken, steak and shrimp), chimichangas, tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and everything else you would expect from a taqueria.

While I waited, I helped myself to some salsa from the salsa bar. Tortilla chips were doled out by the counterman, though in very generous portions. As I opened my bottle of Coke I was pleased to see the words "Hecho En Mexico" printed on the glass; Mexican Coke contains sugar, unlike the domestic version which sadly contains high-fructose corn syrup. I'm a fan of sugar, not sugar substitutes, and it was tempting to drink the whole bottle before my food arrived.

Despite the restaurant being understaffed, the wait for my burrito was not significant. The Los Toros Special Burrito was quite hefty, not as long as some I've eaten but heavier and bulkier without being misshapen. When I peeled back the foil, that familiar burrito smell filled the air, and although it wasn't as steamy as I was expecting, I knew I was about to have a good lunch.

I should point out that, unless I am eating on the go, I prefer to eat my burrito naked. That is to say, I prefer that the burrito be naked, not myself. Therefore, I take the foil all the way off. Although this usually leads to some spillage as the contents of the tortilla make their way to the exit, I have no problem scooping it all up with tortilla chips. However, I was quite unprepared for just how much spillage there was. Within the first two or three bites, the majority of the pork, rice, salsa and other ingredients burst through the tortilla and came to rest in the basket.

Undaunted by this development, I trudged ahead, enjoying what was left of my burrito. The tortilla was crispy in random places and seemed to have been lightly grilled, much like a quesadilla is grilled. The pork was hot and very flavorful, and prominent in every bite. The salsa, though a bit milder than I prefer, was tasty and nicely complemented the spicy pork. Once the burrito itself was finished I made short work of its leavings before washing it all down with the last few sips of my deliciously-sugary Coke. Then I continued on my way.

Taqueria Los Toros is a restaurant I would probably return to, should I ever again find myself in Downtown Martinez. However, I made it to my thirties without ever finding myself there, and I don't foresee many return trips. Whether or not the Amazing Exploding Burrito I ate there was an anomaly, or whether restaurant policy is to overfill their burritos and assemble them poorly so that two bites send the contents spilling forth like a newly-ruptured dam, it was a very good burrito, and worth a stop.

Taqueria Los Toros is located at 802 Main Street, Martinez, CA 94553.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Week in Food

I was planning to do another Wordless Wednesday entry this week. I brainstormed a little, then took a few pictures that seemed to speak for themselves, and decided on the best one to upload. As I woke up yesterday I looked forward to posting it, until I realized that it was Thursday. Then I felt supremely foolish. So it looks like Wordless Wednesday is going to have to wait. In the meantime, here's what I've been enjoying.

Homemade bratwursts. (No, they were not made by me, though they were so good I wish I could take the credit.)

A chicken super burrito from Jalisco Grill. Rather than including both "before" and "after" shots, this time I decided to include a "two bites in" shot.

A small Mary's Combination pizza from Mary's Pizza Shack.

Katie's famous English toffee. Although I wanted to, I didn't eat the entire batch.

An exquisite dessert expertly crafted by Katie's cousin Roya: Angel food cake topped with fresh whipped cream, sliced strawberries, blueberries and lavender.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Taqueria Pancho Villa: Building a Better Burrito

I know that I come off as a lover of all things food. There's a good reason for that, of course - I am a lover of all things food. But as much as I claim to love all food equally, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, few things on the culinary spectrum wow me as much as the humble (or not so humble) burrito.

One of my favorite places in the Bay Area to get a really satisfying burrito - possibly my favorite, actually - is Taqueria Pancho Villa, located on South B Street (Burrito Alley) in Downtown San Mateo. Although there is a Pancho Villa location in San Francisco's Mission District (and until recently, one in the Embarcadero), I've eaten at the San Mateo location much more frequently. And although, of the many standout taquerias along this several-block stretch, Pancho Villa is likely my favorite, I didn't always feel this way.

When Pancho Villa opened in 1997, I was completely unprepared for the tremendous selection of choices on the menu. Forget about tacos, tortas, fajitas and platos de carnitas and pollo asado - I'm just talking about the burritos! From different types of tortillas to different types of beans, salsas and hot sauces of varying intensities and, of course, a wide selection of meats (fourteen at last count!), Pancho Villa was hardly the ideal restaurant for twenty-one year-old me, a constantly on-the-go kind of guy who liked to walk up to a taqueria counter, order a super burrito with carne asada, sit down and eat it (or more frequently, take it to go). There was simply too much to process.

One thing, however, was certain: Pancho Villa made a damn fine burrito, and it didn't take long for them to win my heart. A couple visits in, I had decided on a standard order: A super burrito on a flour tortilla (although their red chile tortilla has always intrigued me - perhaps next time), with refried pinto beans, hot salsa, and as for meat, well, I allowed myself to get a bit creative there, though if I strayed from my usual carne asada, it was usually for their chile verde chicken.

Pancho Villa is in many ways a typical taqueria. Customers stand along a broad counter, watching employees assembling burritos and other dishes. The mouth-watering scents of cilantro and grilling meat permeate the air. It's usually packed; the tables are small and diners sit on backless stools or at a counter. There is no soda fountain; available beverages include canned or bottled sodas, horchata, Arizona iced tea and the like. A very impressive and well-stocked salsa bar stands in the rear of the restaurant, although chips are cheerfully handed out by employees on request.

One thing that makes Pancho Villa an atypical taqueria, however, is the food. Although I am pretty easy to please when it comes to taquerias - all I ask is that they be able to serve a tasty Mission-style burrito - I do know the difference between an average taqueria and one that is stellar; I can honestly say that I have never eaten a bad burrito at Pancho Villa. Even on that overwhelming first visit almost twelve years ago, I was served a very delicious burrito - shrimp, I believe.

On a warm Saturday afternoon this past April, Katie and I went to Pancho Villa with a friend of ours. I had my standard order, as detailed above, and was promptly served a very familiar tinfoil torpedo, nearly identical to the one I have been served at virtually every taqueria I've ever patronized.

Anyone who enjoys a Mission-style burrito as much as I do is aware of the excitement that comes with freeing it from its tinfoil. Whether you are sitting in an unfamiliar establishment in a city you're just visiting, or you are eating at the same taqueria you've eaten at weekly for many years, that anticipation is always there. The feel of the aluminum, hot beneath your fingers. The steam escaping from within as you unwrap it. Perhaps the aroma of what lies within the tortilla. If you can't relate to this, you either don't like burritos, or you have no soul.

Although the exterior resembled every other foil-wrapped burrito I've ever eaten, what lay beneath was, at the risk of resorting to hyperbole, a work of art. As you can see, said artwork was delicious.

The reasons why Taqueria Pancho Villa gets my highest recommendation should be apparent: Quick and pleasant service, festive atmosphere, and above all, delicious food send Taqueria Pancho Villa to the proverbial top of the list. When in the Bay Area, pay them a visit on an empty stomach.

Pancho Villa is located at 365 B Street, San Mateo, CA 94401, and 3071 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.