Puttin’ food on the table

Two of CN&R’s original advertisers still cranking out cheap grub

The hot dog special at Zot’s.

The hot dog special at Zot’s.

Zot’s Hot Dogs & Deli
225 Main St., Ste. A (inside Garden Walk Mall)
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; closed Sun.
La Comida
954 Mangrove Ave.
Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Sun.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Chico News & Review would not exist if it weren’t for local businesses. Especially in the early days, advertisements for locally owned music stores, stereo shops (a 12-page Sounds by Dave ad!) and restaurants were the paper’s bread and butter. And, over the years, many of the advertisers have remained, becoming as recognizable as (and outlasting many of) the bylines they’ve run alongside.

The very first ad that readers turned to in the very first issue of the CN&R (Aug. 30, 1977) was for a local restaurant: Kramore Inn. It was a half-page featuring the full menu and a 2-for-1 “Welcome back!” coupon for students. I loved Kramore Inn. So did most of Chico. But the creperie and one-time brunch mainstay closed its doors a decade ago, after 31 years in business.

Actually, none of the restaurants with ads in that maiden issue are with us anymore. The Orange Julius on Broadway (I would kill for an Orange Julius downtown!) is gone. Canal Street, the once popular downtown restaurant/night spot—serving whole wheat-crust pizzas and “Some Great Wine Coolers!”—on Main Street (where The Bookstore now resides) is long gone. Of course, The Graduate—which, in 1977, boasted 99-cent-pitcher happy hours (and “Disco!”)—left us just last year. And the names Moby Dick’s, Mr. Munchy’s and The Omelette Phantasy (they “make the morning special”) have faded into the archives.

A handful of issues later (Oct. 11, 1977), however, we can find an ad for a local restaurant that is still in business: La Comida. And, over the following few weeks, more of Chico’s current establishments would join: Madison Bear Garden, Round Table Pizza on Mangrove and Zot’s (“World famous steamed dogs”).

A lot can change in 40 years, unless you’re talking about restaurant menus. Most customers abhor change. And many restaurants endure by making something that at least some people like and doing it the same way every single time.

Photos by Jason Cassidy

When I set out recently to eat at a couple of those early advertisers’ establishments (La Comida and Zot’s) to suss out how they’ve lasted so long, it was immediately obvious that consistency was a key part of the equation. In fact, at first look, it appears like nothing has changed at either place in 40 years … or longer—La Comida has been in business since 1968; Zot’s since 1972.

I visited both places on the same Thursday, starting at Zot’s for lunch. I stuck with the basics and ordered the Zot hot dog special, $4.95 (includes medium drink and a bag of chips).

Zot’s is about as no-fuss of a lunch counter as there is in Chico—a couple booths, a few tables and a trash can in the middle of the room, all illuminated by a bank of exposed fluorescent lights. A large dry-erase menu board spells out the various hot dog and sandwich specials, and just beneath it is a respectable salad and taco/nacho bar.

The specialty is, of course, the “steamed” hot dog, and it is really good. A foot-long frank with a mild flavor and good snap, topped with your choice of mustard, onion, relish and, best of all, fresh-sliced tomatoes—a great, cheap lunch just across the parking lot from where I’m typing this.

I hit up La Comida for dinner, and the place was packed. It is always packed. Despite naysayers who bemoan its no-nonsense Americanized Mexican fare, Chico loves La Comida.

Tucked in the middle of what must be one of Chico’s oldest strip malls, the place is a family-feeding machine, with an assembly line cranking out a short menu of basics—tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. The 1977 ad promises “complete Mexican dinners” at “prices you can afford,” and with dinners ranging from $5.99 to $8.79, the promise is still being kept.

After my hot-dog lunch, I tried for a “healthy” dinner by ordering the Fiesta Salad ($6.59), which comes with lettuce and tomatoes, plus a mound of refried beans and seasoned ground beef, topped with cheddar cheese, all served in a deep-fried flour tortilla bowl. If I’d ordered a burrito, it probably would’ve been less of a gut bomb. But with the amazing house oil-and-vinegar added, I couldn’t stop myself from eating it all.

It was an uncomfortable amount of comfort food for a ridiculous price. And that’s the rest of the equation for why Zot’s and La Comida—and many other enduring local eateries in this college town—have stuck around: They offer consistent comfort for a cheap price.