DIY burgers

Chico is a haven for build-your-own burger bars

That’s one Big Chico Burger.

That’s one Big Chico Burger.

Photo By matt siracusa

Fast food, tract housing and $20 oil changes are killing America. For far too long we’ve sacrificed our independent spirit and self-reliance in the name of convenience and economy. This complacency is apparent in what passes today for a hamburger. While many a cholesterol-blooded Yankee is eager to wax passionately on what makes the perfect burger, they’re more likely to run out and grab a Big Mac than make their own.

For this reason, I urge my countrymen to drive past the drive-thru and visit an establishment with a build-your-own burger bar. Not only do you get a freshly made burger, but you also can build your own unique culinary creation at no extra cost.

Though these bars are surprisingly rare in some towns, our burg is blessed to have at least four—Burger Hut, The Graduate, Big Chico Burger and CJ’s Last Chance Diner—all of which serve an exceptionally delicious piece of meat. I visited each recently, ordering similarly unadorned plain cheeseburgers, then customizing them with DIY ingredients. I didn’t go to judge the burgers, but rather to assess what the burger bars had to offer in the way of add-ons.

Burger Hut’s Nord Avenue location dates back to the late-’70s. Two more locations (Forest Avenue and Cohasset Road) have opened in the subsequent decades. It’s not just age and convenience of location that make The Hut a Chico institution; it cooks up a mean flame-broiled burger.

Like all good burger bars, Burger Hut’s supplies the basics—mayo, mustard, ketchup, special and BBQ sauce, sweet and dill pickles, tomatoes and red onions—with a few extras. Of special note is a selection of Sierra Nevada mustards and a bevy of brand-name hot sauces topping the bar.

While Burger Hut may have set the standard, Big Chico Burger at East and Marigold has won over many a burger lover. Big Chico’s eastside location is off the beaten path for many, giving it the feel of a smaller, more intimate neighborhood joint, though its weekly presence at the Thursday Night Market is letting the rest of town in on the secret.

A seductive selection of extras including sautéed garlic mushrooms, grilled onions, guacamole and peanut butter tempted me to stray from a plain burger, but I held fast. A good decision, as the condiment bar supplied all the staples and a few surprises.

Big Chico’s house sauce—called “Paco Sauce”—is a delightful derivation from the typical ketchup-and-mayo-based concoction found other places, and includes sun-dried tomatoes and a touch of pesto. I sampled some to my great satisfaction, but was even more moved by the chipotle sauce. The condiment bar features jalapeños and sliced pepperoncinis, so my plain burger was fast transformed into a five-alarm-fire mess of peppers, sauce and beef.

Even farther removed is CJ’s Last Chance Diner, located just north of town on Highway 99. Familiar to most locals for its commercials featuring, among other things, a chicken-fried steak sandwich that likely warrants its own full review, CJ’s is proof that the search for good eats sometimes requires some extra legwork.

Once again, the allure of deviating from a plain burger was strong: CJ’s offers nearly a dozen gourmet burgers, like the Mediterranean (with Kalamata olives and feta cheese) and an Italian-ish creation with pesto chutney. While such foundations could make for interesting constructions, a plain third-pounder (known here as a Cowboy Special) dressed at the bar was more than sufficient. Distinguishing features are the choice of shredded or leaf lettuce, ranch dressing and delectable garlic dills that stand a cut above the competitors’ pickles.

I’ll doubtless be revisiting The Graduate on West 8th Street in the near future under less stringent guidelines, as I’m dying to try one of its Gradburgers garnished with some enticing additions like Ortega chilies, Chicago-style onions or teriyaki and pineapple.

There’s more going on inside The Graduate—which is even a couple of years older than Burger Hut—than your typical burger place. The cavernous restaurant is also a sports bar, live-music venue and all-around adult playground. The condiment bar is many times the length of the others mentioned here, but size doesn’t always matter—though adequate, it packs no real surprises, so get your extras from the kitchen instead.

Overall, the extra kick at Big Chico’s burger bar makes it my personal favorite, barely edging out the pickles and ranch at the CJ’s. Burger Hut ranks next, losing a few points for its dependence on pre-packaged, after-market mustard. Next is The Graduate, whose no-nonsense bar is far better than no bar at all. All four are paradise for build-yer-own burger-bar lovers, with regular visits guaranteed to make you a bigger and better American.