First Impressions: Giant Orange dishes up retro theme, burgers

08/02/2013 12:00 AM

08/02/2013 6:53 AM

First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at brobertson@sacbee.com.

GIANT ORANGE

1407 Howe Ave., Sacramento; (916) 564-6300, www.giantorange.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Someone with a sense of humor got carried away with movie- and song-title-oriented puns on the somewhat overwrought menu at the new burgers-dogs-fries-shakes restaurant Giant Orange.

Such as "Chili-Chili Bang-Bang" for the open-face chili-smothered burger. "My Bleu Heaven" for the blue cheese burger. "Don't Go Bacon My Heart" for the bacon-topped burger.

There's a lot of fun going on, but would you really say (out loud and in public) to the server standing at your table, order pad in hand, "I'll have the 'Yippee-I-O-Ki-Yay' burger?"

Neither would a lunch pal sitting next to me on a banquette in the impressively slick, retro-plush dining room, the walls decorated with kitsch.

Why the throwback theme and emphasis on America's iconic sandwich, the hamburger? Because Giant Orange is largely an homage to the Giant Orange juice-shake-burger stands that served travelers along California State Route 99 from 1926 through 1973.

"It was the first franchise chain that served (long- distance) motorists and pioneered the (fast-burger) concept," said Giant Orange co-owner and veteran restaurateur Rick Ameil, with business partner Dean Talbott.

The coming of federally mandated multilane interstate freeways (think Interstate 5) eventually juiced the Giant Orange chain, as they did to so many other small businesses that thrived because of their proximity to America's aging highway system. Route 66 is a classic example.

How did Ameil connect with the Giant Orange stands?

"I've always loved California history," said the eighth-generation Californian. "I read (the out-of-print book) 'Those Unforgettable Giant Oranges' by Patricia Buckley and thought, 'What a great idea back then.' "

Ameil tracked down one of the few existing original Giant Orange kiosks, in Williams, off Highway 5 in Colusa County.

"I'm trying to bring it here and restore it," he said. "Ultimately, I want to offer this part of our past to the California History Museum."

Menu: It's long, laminated, physically large and full of puns. "I Yam What I Yam" for sweet potato fries, "Lord of the Rings" for onion rings, "Lettuce Entertain You" for salads. Deep-fried side dishes, 16 burgers, 11 hot dogs and ice cream-based drinks dominate.

Price point: A bit pricey, but the space is cool and the portions are big.

Ambiance: One of the cleanest restaurants we've visited. The past is reflected in the glass bricks, custom-made vinyl-covered booths, and top-grade galvanized metal wall trim. But where are the golden oldies over the sound system?

"I call (the decor) 'industrial diner,' " Ameil said. "We're trying for a 1930s feel, when the Giant Oranges were in their heyday."

Drinks: Freshly squeezed orange juice, of course, but the big hit was the Orange Blossom Creamsicle milkshake, so thick that the straw was useless; go with the long-handled spoon.

Beer is in bottles, glasses and pitchers, with some impressive choices: Stella Artois, Sierra Nevada, Firestone Union Jack. "House" red wine.

Service: We expected a wall-mounted menu above an order counter. Instead, the table service is fast, courteous and concerned.

First impressions: The Yippee-I-O-Ki-Yay burger was hefty with thick-cut bacon, grilled onions, cheddar cheese and barbecue sauce, and lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickle chips.

The tasty "burger of the month" had a Southwestern accent, topped with a really big and really good green chili and gobs of melted Swiss and cheddar. The Chicago dog (all-beef Evergood brand) was lost beneath a landslide of relish, tomato, diced onion, mustard and sport peppers.

We added Frickles, rather dense and salty battered-and-fried pickle spears ($5); curiously neutral but conceptually interesting "avocado fries," which are panko- coated-and-fried avocado strips with sides of chipotle-ranch and lime-sour cream dipping sauces); a pile of very good sweet potato fries; and a Fifty/Fifty plate of excellent skin-on Parmesan-dusted french fries and so-so onion rings.

Try it if: You want to rub shoulders with an echo of the roadside-diner era.

Forget it if: You're on a perpetual diet.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

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