“CHEESEBURGER… CHEESEBURGER… CHEESBURGER…”
… “Pepsi… Pepsi… Pepsi.” So yelled Greek immigrant Pete Dionasopoulos (played by John Belushi on “SNL”) to the short-order cook in TV’s fictional greasy spoon, The Olympia Café. Only three things were really on the menu at Olympia – “cheeburger” (as Pete pronounced it), Pepsi and chips. Heaven forbid you ordered a Coke, never mind French fries. I related! Doesn’t matter to me, Pepsi or Coke – you can hold the fries… the only thing I want is the cheeseburger.
I was about seven when I ate my first cheeseburger. It was summer. My family and I were vacationing at my Great
Auntie Fanny’s camp (what New Englanders often call their summer houses) on
Lake Boone in Massachusetts when, as the sun went down, my dad packed us into
our Ford sedan and drove us to a popular burger shack for dinner. He ordered cheeseburgers all around and, as I
sat on an outdoor picnic bench and took my first bite, a glorious church-like choir
sang rapturously in my head. A taste
revelation! I was in food heaven, enhanced by the fireflies lighting up the night
sky like votives in a darkened church.
Whoever dreamed up the combo of melted American cheese on top of grilled
ground beef stuffed into a white bun was a food god. To recreate that magical
culinary moment, I’ve been searching the world for that perfect cheeseburger ever
since. (Fast food cheeseburgers don’t cut it.
Not even In-N-Out.)
My quest didn’t end when I moved to Ojai – and though I still have not
recreated that nirvana cheeseburger experience of my youth, here are a few of
my favorites in our valley in no particular order.
The Deer Lodge on Maricopa Highway started as a gas station/grocery in 1932 serving weary travelers, but eventually morphed into the iconic Ojai tavern it is today. Try the Lodge Burger made with 6 ounces of ground beef, homemade bacon jam, cheddar cheese, golden garlic aioli, and greens on a whole wheat bun (we’ve come a long way from ketchup, mustard, relish or mayo accoutrements). Then there’s the delicious Buffalo Burger – 6 ounces of ground buffalo meat, the homemade bacon jam, muenster cheese, chipotle aioli and greens on a pretzel bun.
For a great cheeseburger with a view to match, you can’t beat Jimmy’s Pub overlooking a rolling golf green at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. Made with Angus beef, it’s topped with melty Marin brie, bacon-onion marmalade and arugula, served on a brioche bun. Because the beef and cheese are the “thing,” I often have the “sauces” and greens served separately so the tastes don’t conflict with the actual “cheeseburger” part. But, the Deer Lodge’s bacon jam and Jimmy’s bacon-onion marmalade are delish improvements over ketchup. Really, it’s got bacon!!!
The Ojai Beverage Company (OBC to its friends) on E. Ojai Ave, offers cheeseburgers from the classic to the exotic. The Classic is topped with melty cheddar, spring mix greens, tomato with 1000 island dressing on a brioche. One of its more exotic choices is Cow On Stilts, a burger smothered in blue cheese, fried jalapenos, bourbon bacon jam (another twist on the popular bacon jam) and mixed greens on a waypoint bun. For the non-beef eaters, OBC offers a free-range white turkey cheeseburger on a waypoint bun with pepper jack cheese, greens, tomato, onion, avocado, brown mustard and a pesto aioli. What’s a waypoint bun? I had to look it up. It’s a celery root-and-sesame seed bun that sounds healthy, and perhaps it is, but, seriously, we’re talking cheeseburgers here.
Ojai Pub, also on E. Ojai Ave., is the new “burger kid” on the block featuring “California comfort” food. Comfort food + a pub = cheeseburgers, starting with a Classic Burger made of beef or an “impossible patty” (translation: vegan patty), the house’s secret sauce, cheddar cheese (or vegan cheese), lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion on a brioche bun. Also, on the menu is the Rancho Burger with either patty, salsa macha (peanut butter salsa), cheddar (or vegan cheese), crispy onions, tomato, roasted bell peppers, jalapenos, and chipotle aioli on a brioche bun.
The closest cheeseburger experience to the one I had as a child is at the Summit Drive-In, a burger stand in Upper Ojai on Hwy 150 where you order at the window as my dad had done all those years ago. Take a seat at an outside picnic table and just enjoy the flavors of the Summit’s Classic Burger with melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and secret sauce on a sesame seed bun. For a non-classic culinary experience try the Western Burger covered with melting cheddar cheese, bacon, BBQ sauce, and an onion ring. Or bite into the juicy Red, White & Blue with grilled onions, blue cheese, lettuce, tomato, and secret sauce. Also on the menu is the Firehouse #20 melty pepper jack cheeseburger, with chipotle mayo, jalepenos, bacon, lettuce and tomato. And, yes, this burger shack even has a Vegetarian Summit Burger which includes lettuce, tomato, pickles, secret sauce, and cheese! served on a sesame bun. The only thing missing were the fireflies in a night sky.
Cheeseburgers – manna from heaven.