Restaurant News & Reviews

February 22, 2013

Counter culture: Burgers go wild at Cookie's Drive-In

Long before fast-food chains came to dominate the American landscape, drive-in restaurants were the cool places to grab a basket of onion rings and a burger and hang out with your friends – no texting required (or possible).

Long before fast-food chains came to dominate the American landscape, drive-in restaurants were the cool places to grab a basket of onion rings and a burger and hang out with your friends – no texting required (or possible).

Drive-ins catered to the vibrant new car culture riding the wave of prosperity that emerged after World War II. They often employed female carhops in semi-racy costumes who rolled around the parking lot on skates. They would deliver heavy trays of grub to your car and hook them to the doors.

Drive-ins also made space for hot-rod clubs that gathered weekly for show 'n' shines.

Though most drive-ins are now memories, tiny Cookie's in east Sacramento keeps on keepin' on, and taking risks you wouldn't expect.

For example: Daring diner Tom Negrete mentioned the other day that Cookie's had recently added camel to its lineup of unusual burgers, so we drove over for a taste test. He's the Sacramento Bee's director of innovation and news operations.

Cookie's has been family-owned-and-run for 28 years. Staffing the kitchen last Friday were owner Paul Chuk and his adult children, Joyce and Jesse.

The menu board shows the usual suspects – chili dog, Philly cheesesteak, fried shrimp and fish, fried mushrooms. But we were there for the low-fat, high-protein camel, buffalo, kangaroo and ostrich burgers, with a traditional hamburger as the control in our "science test."

The burgers arrived at the service window on perfect buns from wholesaler Bennett's Bakery. We asked for condiments on the side, as we wanted to taste only the purity of meat and bread.

These are our tasting notes:

Beef ($4.55): "Standard patty thin OK burger flavor."

Buffalo ($8.85): "Dry and lean slightly gamey aftertaste ... meaty and rich dense more flavor than the beef burger."

Ostrich: ($7.75): "Way lean less flavor than the beef and buffalo burgers a little bitter."

Kangaroo: ($5.50): "Dry and not a lot of flavor sour chewier than the others."

Camel ($8.50): "Patty is thicker and moister than the others more flavor pretty tasty sweeter than the beef."

We ranked them in order of our preference: camel, buffalo, beef, kangaroo and ostrich.

Paul Chuk obtains the exotics from Sierra Meat Co. in Reno, which calls itself "one of the largest distributors of game and specialty products in the United States." Among its other offerings are antelope, iguana, llama, rattlesnake and python, turtle and yak.

"If you don't mind, I'll finish the camel," Tom said at meal's end.

You want fries with that?

Cookie's Drive-In, 5640 H St., Sacramento; (916) 457-8353. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays.

The whole enchilada at Garcia's restaurant

We stopped by Garcia's the other day, a three-dining-room Mexican restaurant in Carmichael that's part of a 12-store chain, mostly in Arizona. This is the only California location, said manager Lisa Coleman.

"They tore down a movie theater that showed 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and built us (on the site) in 1990. Everything is made fresh right here," said Coleman, who has been in place since 1991.

The condensed story: Using family recipes, Olivia and Julio Garcia opened their first restaurant in Phoenix. Things took off.

The place is strikingly well-decorated, if you look past the corporate-template feel – adobe-looking plastered walls, chandeliers (turn down the brightness, please), potted plants, tile trim, booths covered in colorful fabric, exposed wood-beam ceilings, and dramatic statuary referencing the glories of the Aztec empire that thrived in 15th century central Mexico.

As we cruised the laminated menus (what's a cheeseburger doing there?), jumpy mariachi music played over hidden speakers and gleeful voices sang "Happy Birthday" from another room. Speedy servers weaved through the dining rooms, hefting trays full of heaped hot plates.

We started with guacamole (chunky and fresh-tasting) and chicken tortilla soup (flavorful broth, lots of chicken, but served lukewarm).

Next were a pair of succulent chiles rellenos (poblano peppers stuffed with oozing cheese, coated in a light batter) and a luscious cheese enchilada covered in "red sauce."

"This is what an enchilada sauce is supposed to taste like," said the lunch pal, taking a bite.

"I need to taste that," I said.

"Over my dead body," she said, and didn't laugh.

Too many Mexican restaurants treat the traditional beans and rice accompaniments as afterthoughts, but not Garcia's. For once, the Spanish-style rice was moist and flavorful. We knocked off firm whole pinto beans in a mild tomato-based sauce improved with shots of Cholula hot sauce (options are black or refried beans).

Garcia's menu is lengthy, not only because of the multiple dishes but because of the tedious descriptions of them ($2.50 to $17.50).

Will we be back? Yes, but we'll focus on the watermelon-orange margaritas and not the fine print.

Garcia's Mexican restaurant, 6049 Madison Ave., Carmichael; (916) 344-3177, Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

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