Long live the burger king

Vegans and the kind of foodie snobs who treasure artfully arranged hors d’oeuvres masquerading as entrees may not take notice, but those of us who savor a good hamburger lost a true friend last week. His name was Frank Gonzales. And if that name doesn’t mean anything to you, perhaps his Midtown restaurant—Nationwide Freezer Meats—will.

For years, Frank did business out of a tiny joint behind Relles Florist, at 24th and J streets. Sometime back in the 1980s, local designer Steve Jones—whose wife Beth co-runs the excellent East Sacramento gallery JayJay—kept talking about this great hole-in-the-wall burger joint in Midtown. “Even better than Jim Denny’s,” he’d say, referring to the 12th Street luncheonette once owned and run by the late Jim Van Nort.

One bite of Frank’s steak Frenchburger with cheese, washed down with a fresh strawberry shake—and with an artery-clogging order of potatoes, quartered lengthwise and deep-fried, served on the side—was enough to smite this proletarian gastronome for life. At one point, I even lived half a block from Nationwide, which was pretty dangerous for my waistline.

Stepping into Nationwide was like stepping into another world. Suddenly, it was 1964 again: a time before fast-food chains ruined the hamburger experience, when you could still hear good pop music on the radio, like Percy Faith and Perry Como. And Frank always had those cool pre-rock ’n’ roll tunes playing to serenade you.

But it wasn’t the ambience that drew people in; a meat locker in the middle of your restaurant doesn’t exactly spell Copacabana to most diners. People squeezed into Nationwide for those exquisite hamburgers. Frank’s formula was simple: As he told us in August 2002, the steak Frenchburger consisted of ground sirloin tips and rounds—all cuts of steak—from Harris Ranch, and he’d found the perfect bun at Muzio Bakery on which to serve the patty. Keep it simple.

A few years ago, Nationwide moved into new and much larger digs at the corner of 19th and H streets, and Frank’s son John took over the business. Some of us Frenchburger fans were nervous that the move might wreck the magic, but those fears proved to be unfounded.

Now, we each have our own criteria for measuring a person’s life achievement: a classic book, movie or album; a body of artwork; a bunch of ugly buildings; or brokering world peace. Creating this town’s greatest hamburger would rank pretty high on my list. So, thank you, Frank. And long live Nationwide Freezer Meats.