Food freakshow

Chico restaurants get weird in the kitchen

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Tackle Box Bar & Grill
379 E. Park Ave.
Open daily, 7 a.m.-2 a.m.

The Foodie Cafe
999 Marauder St.
Hours: Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Kentucky Fried Chicken: “How about fried chicken between two donuts?!”

Chico chefs: “Hold my beer …”

Even though the colonel’s new monstrosity is probably greasy-finger-lickin’ good, local gourmands don’t need to go corporate to expand their comfort-food palates—or their waistlines. Plenty of Chico cooks are busy inventing imaginative, Instagram-worthy dishes in their food labs, and some have brought into being creations that would impress Dr. Frankenstein.

On the south side of town, for example, things are getting real—real big—at the Tackle Box Bar & Grill, and this past weekend I visited to see if I had the gastrointestinal fortitude for the most macho sandwich in town: the Man Burger.

The stats: 1/4 pound hot dog wrapped in a pound of ground beef wrapped in a half-pound of bacon, with eight slices of cheddar cheese, plus mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions on a sourdough roll as big as a big man’s forearm.

It takes about 45 minutes for the meat log to cook in the wood-fired oven, so it was a leisurely 1 1/2 pints of beer before the glorious platter was served. By chance, the inventor of the Man Burger, Nate Boswell, was sitting at the table next to me when it arrived. He doesn’t work at the Tackle Box, but he did “consult” on the menu. The Man Burger was the result of a series of experiments in making something that could fill up a “big guy” like Boswell. “I’m hungry all the time,” he said, adding that for his version, he skips the lettuce—“That’s for looks for everyone else.”

The employees I talked to said it’s not a popular menu item, but that there is one regular who orders it once a week. I got nowhere close to finishing the behemoth. My gut gave out about one-third of the way through (I took the rest for leftovers at home), but the combo of flavors was perfect. The bacon was crispy, the hot dog was amazing, and the best bites included a slice of pickle and a mayo-slathered hunk of the soft roll.

Served with a side of fries or onion rings, the Man Burger will put you back $25, but considering the amount of meat product and the cooking time involved, and the fact that it’s enough food to overstuff two very hungry people, it’s a reasonable price.

For dessert (yes, dessert), I drove out near the airport and visited the king of wacky culinary creations, Boyd Atkin, owner and chef of The Foodie Cafe.

“Everything here is over the top,” Atkin said as he surveyed the dining room at the end of the lunch rush. “We try to make sure every single item on the menu is unique and different and special. People take pictures of it and send to their friends. It gets pictures of our food all over the place.”

Those pictures often are accompanied by diners’ awestruck expressions of amazement—and possibly a tiny bit of fear—as they gaze at the creations. Take, for example, the Smoked Mac & Cheese, a mighty “side” that comes with the option of an equal amount of meat from the barbecue (burnt ends, pulled pork, grilled chicken or tri-tip) plus onion rings on top. Then there’s the formidable looking Breakfast Beast, a biscuit with country potatoes, cherrywood smoked bacon and carved ham with a fried egg and smoked gouda—and topped with sausage gravy and a drizzle of maple gastrique.

I was there for a comparatively tame item: a Chocolate Peanut Butter milkshake. Of course, tame for Atkin means there is a ton of gooey sauce and whipped cream pouring down the side of the glass and, purched on top, a brownie, peanut butter cup or doughnut (from the Donut Nook—where he picks up a fresh batch every day). That makes it worth the price tag: $7.

Atkin says the shakes are “crazy popular,” and I can confirm that, even without the extra sugary flair, the chocolate-peanut butter shake at the core of my dessert was perfect—rich ice cream, deep chocolate flavor, chunks of nuts and just the right amount of saltiness. The doughnut? I just couldn’t, but the wide-eyed kids sitting on the patio had no such inhibition and were happy to take it off my hands.