Yes, to the good life

Giving in to grilled burgers and vintage Chico

ON DECK<br>Server Shane Gorman calls for a pickup of two classic Grad Burgers.

Server Shane Gorman calls for a pickup of two classic Grad Burgers.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

The Graduate
344 W. Eighth St.
Opens daily at 11 a.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.; bar closes by 2 a.m.)

The Graduate

344 W. Eighth St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 343-2790

I love meat. When I pick out a steak, I find the most marbleized, fat-framed cut in the case. My chicken gets fried, baked or barbecued—and eaten—with the skin on. Given the choice, I zero in on the most fat-drenched, salt-encrusted portion of cooked flesh available.

Despite this devotion to what I call “choosing flavor over function,” I am acutely aware that I am very nearly a 40-year-old man, and I know ensuring that the good life continues now requires saying “no” as often as saying “yes.”

So, I do what a lot of us do: I eat way smaller portions. I include many salads in the rotation. I eat more seafood. I exercise. And, a couple times a month, I do a this-is-my-one-meal-of-the-day feast, and I eat exactly what I want.

One of my standby destinations for these food parties is one shared by many Chicoans: that cavernous shrine to hamburgers, draft beer and televised sporting events: the three-decades-plus-old Chico institution, The Graduate.

What exactly is the big deal? Why would I leave my only meal for the day in the hands of a giant sports bar?

I think we can answer this one in unison: the Grad Burger.

On any Chico weekend, when the Grad Burger (with fries or salad) is always the $5.25 special (regularly $6.50), there is a line at the kitchen window all day.

There are some fine burgers in Chico, but the Grad’s consistent flavor and dimensions have won me over.

The biggest selling point for this meat-eater is the perfect fat content of their 100 percent ground chuck patties (if I’m paying for a burger, it has to be chuck—no ground sirloin). They’re grilled over an open flame by well-trained cooks who flip once and always serve a medium-cooked piece of meat. It’s miraculous that, no matter how many different college-aged cooks I see on the line, each of them turns out the same succulent, expertly grilled hamburger.

I swear by the perfection of the standard half-pound Grad Burger, but there are also Junior (quarter-pound, $5.25) and Super (one-pound, $8.50) versions available.

On a recent Sunday afternoon—with NASCAR, college basketball, motorcycle racing, SportsCenter, half-pipe skateboarding, and the Los Angeles Lakers flashing simultaneously on a dozen or so flat screens and giant projection screens—I was more than happy to wait in line. The wife and I each ordered the day’s special, with the curly fries.

The burgers are served on a modest, tasty, lightly toasted white bun, with the basic condiments plus lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles available at a self-serve bar. Special toppings can be added for $1 each and range from a selection of cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack, etc.) to items like bacon, grilled mushrooms and guacamole.

I put as little between me and good meat as possible: just mustard, mayo, lettuce and tomato. I added to my basket a little Thousand Island in which to dip the curly fries, and we sidled up to a round wooden table near the cacophonous bank of video games.

The verdict? Almost perfect.

The curly fries were perfect—a nice combo of crispy and chewy texture, with an oiliness and mild spiciness that mixed well with what tasted like a vinegar-enhanced Thousand Island dressing.

The burger was nearly as flavorful as I remembered, with the grilled smoky crust giving way to a fairly juicy splash of fattiness. I say fairly, because on this one occasion, out of dozens of visits to The Grad, my burger was for the first time a little overcooked—close to well-done. To the cook’s credit, it didn’t lose much flavor as a result, but it did lose a little of that melt-in-your-mouth, buttery quality that I had come for.

Of course, this meant I had to come back and take another run at it a few days later (which I wasn’t complaining about). And, as I expected, my second burger in a week was exactly what I was accustomed to: perfectly grilled, juicy, lightly pink in the center and offering no resistance to my eager teeth.

There is more on The Grad’s menu, including steaks, salads and a variety of sandwiches. On a Wednesday lunch visit, I opted for the day’s Reuben sandwich special with regular fries ($6).

A generous pile of pastrami was smothered in Thousand Island and gloriously stacked atop sauerkraut and melted Swiss on toasted light-rye bread. It was a flavorful, well-composed combo of classic flavors. My only very slight complaint was that, even with the dressing, it was a tad dry. Not surprisingly, I would have preferred pastrami with a little more fat.