Follow the green light

Greg Lucas will return next week.

Gatsby’s Diner

2598 Alta Arden
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 977-0102

I was first drawn to Gatsby’s Diner not because I’m on that classic American quest for the pursuit of a perfect hamburger, but rather because I’m a Fitzgerald junkie. Also, by some good fortune, whenever I go to the corner of Fulton Avenue and Alta Arden, I always hit a green light, so I can easily slide into the diner’s tight parking lot. (Literary symbolism and alimentative fate come together here.)

Once inside, you’ll notice the two griddles located in the middle of the restaurant. Gatsby’s flesh was built on the bones of an old teppanyaki restaurant, but instead of tearing the griddles out, the owner ingeniously kept them in place. Now, diners are privy to meals from their inception to the arrival at the table.

That’s not to say Gatsby fails to entertain once you finally take a bite; the food is both jaunty and fresh. The housemade pickles are not to be passed over, even if you’re one of those incomprehensible people who don’t like pickles. These are crispy-sweet cucumber pickles with a fine balance of sour and salt. Dusted with a verdant flurry of dill, they tantalize.

Gatsby’s menu is short but classic for an old-school diner; expect meatloaf and pork-chop fare. The Salisbury steak—when was the last time you had a real Salisbury steak that wasn’t frozen in a plastic tray?—is tender and rich, slathered in a savory mushroom sauce, buried in caramelized onions and seated atop a small mountain of home-style fries.

The fries are made in house and fried fresh to order in staggering quantities. Piping hot sticks that taste of potato and salt, you won’t find these limp with oil or tasting as such. Should fries not be your thing, Gatsby’s makes potato chips fresh to order as well. They’re crisp and delicate, like fried pieces of potato crepe paper. You can have them served barbecue or Ranch style, but ask for them plain to better appreciate the flavor and snappy texture.

Vegetarians may choose to try the Italian eggplant sandwich: a spiced, ground eggplant patty, slathered with tapenade and served with various veggies on a rosemary bun. It’s a thoughtful vegetarian offering, but somehow all these strong, independent flavors fall into each other and left me and my dining companions underwhelmed.

Gatsby’s strength, however, lies in its burgers. The patties are heroic in size. And once placed on a bun and stacked high with their accouterments, you may be puzzled on just how, exactly, you’re supposed to eat it. You will make a mess, and there’s a fine chance the bottom bun will fall apart from your fumbled attempt to eat the burger in some well-mannered way. Accept and enjoy it; that’s what you’re there for.

The Gatsby Burger is a classic 8-ounce burger with all the trimmings and is exceptional. The Patty Melt is my personal favorite, a burger on rye served with melted Swiss cheese and a glistening mound of caramelized onions. The Fire Burger is the epic masterpiece of the place. Bacon, avocado, cheddar, roasted onions, chipotle mayo and seared jalapeños construct this tower of molten fury. The taste is rich and incendiary, not a slow burn but a crackling sear on your lips and tongue.

This is all the more reason to order one of the shakes that are both rich and nostalgic. Creative flavors outside the normal Neapolitan spectrum, such as chocolate mint and strawberry banana, are endearing.

It’s not all perfect. The grease from the grills sometimes splatters onto the floor, and if you walk by without a ginger step there’s a chance you’ll lose traction. Furthermore, the bathroom is a bit frightening; it’s only a short ways away from freeway rest stop in regards to cleanliness. Lastly, service can be slow, even when the place is empty.

Still, Gatsby’s accomplishes what any diner sets out to do: The servers are entertaining and professional, and the burgers more than meet expectations. It’s a green light that doesn’t fade, and encourages you to come in and reach for a menu.