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 we...do...something 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 www.thesqueezeinn.com.
Edited 6/23/09: Website link fixed.
5 hours ago