Last Chance, first stop
CJ’s is a quick and tasty way to get out of town
CJ’s Last Chance Diner4365 Ocean Dr.
Chico, CA 95973
There are instances in everyone’s life when getting away is in order. Sometimes the town you live in—even if it’s Chico—is best seen from the perspective offered in a rearview mirror.
CJ’s Last Chance Diner is aptly named. It stands alone at the north end of town alongside Highway 99, near where lots selling acres of pre-fabricated homes and earth-toned corrugated metal warehouses give way to open expanses of farmland, meadows and the not-too-distant Sierra foothills. Though less than 10 minutes from the city center, CJ’s down-home ambience feels far removed from the hubbub of other restaurants, making it an excellent destination for a brief respite from typical Chico life or a perfect spot to fuel the body for a longer trip.
As an individual afflicted with a touch of wanderlust and near-constant craving for well-cooked meat, I’ve found myself seated at one of the Last Chance’s ruggedly handsome wood tables—facing down an even more ruggedly handsome hamburger—many times. CJ’s offers a variety of these creations, topped with anything from green chiles and pepper jack (South of the Border Burger) to pesto chutney and provolone (Pesto Burger). Burgers start at $3.75 for the modest CJ’s Favorite, with the option to “Cowboy Up” to quarter- or third-pound patties. The various Gourmet burgers are $5.35 and pair perfectly with beer-battered onion rings ($1.95/$3.75 for half/whole orders) or scrumptious sweet potato fries for $3.50.
My first visit to CJ’s was to evaluate its burger bar almost two years ago: “Distinguishing features are the choice of shredded or leaf lettuce, ranch dressing and delectable garlic dills that stand a cut above the competitors’ pickles,” an assessment I wrote then and stand by today.
Even more spectacular is a section of the menu titled “Ike’s Smokin’ BBQ.” The pulled-pork sandwich ($6.99)—brined, smoked and slow-cooked in the oven—is a personal favorite of mine, and I’ve yet to try the promising tri-tip (available in sandwich form for $7.29).
On my most recent visit, I decided to give my beleaguered body a break from my admittedly excessive red-meat intake and try something else. At the suggestion of the friendly woman at the register (you order and pay first, then seat yourself at CJ’s), I opted for a barbecued chicken sandwich, which she described as a whole chicken’s worth of delectably smoked and seasoned meat garnished with coleslaw. I took mine on a whole wheat roll with melted pepper jack, and was so happy with the choice I barely missed not getting a beef or pork fix.
I paired my sandwich with a side salad and was thrilled at the plate full of crisp vegetables placed in front of me. Salads at CJ’s come stock with garbanzo and kidney beans, as well as crisp, delicious bacon (vegetarians beware, all others rejoice).
I have yet to sample breakfast at the diner, though I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s exceptional. The breakfast menu leans toward the hardy and traditional, and the Last Chance is the kind of earthy establishment that does hardy and traditional right. The Chicken Fried Steak ($6.75)—served open faced on a slice of bread with over-medium eggs and plenty of gravy—sounds particularly enticing. For those who crave sweet over savory to kick off the day, they offer dishes like Chocolate Zucchini or Apple Cinnamon Pancakes ($4.99).
CJ’s Last Chance Diner also functions as a small country market (as well as housing the office for the adjacent AB Self Storage that is run by owner Celeste Anderson and her son and daughter-in-law, Isaac and Krystin Anderson) with a cooler full of select beverages, including several Sierra Nevada beers in multi-pack form. It’s the perfect place to fortify oneself and stock up for the river or any other adventure waiting just beyond the city limits.