Seems like a lifetime ago.  Other times, it’s yesterday.  I was 24 when this picture was taken.  I was the proud owner of “Jimmie’s Chicken Shack”,  a chicken take-out/cafe/diner/food place, where I had been working for about 7 years under various owners before taking over myself.

We served some great food, and I really miss it sometimes, because nobody in town comes close!  We had fried chicken, fish and chips, BBQ spare ribs that were absolutely incredible, some ‘mexican’ food, and hamburgers.  Oh, those hamburgers.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, then or since, has come close.  In fact, it was the best in town.  And that’s not just me bragging.  It was in the paper!

Monday, July 4, 1983  Visalia Times Delta

The headline:  The Search Is On For Visalia’s ‘Fantasy Cheeseburger’

Stalking the fantasy cheeseburger in Visalia is hard to stomach.

Because it doesn’t exist.

What, you may ask, is a fantasy cheeseburger?  It’s more than the limp buns and wimpy pieces of meat we sometimes came across in Visalia’s non-chain fast food joints.

It is a grilled sesame seed bun (fresh please), a huge hunk of hand-sculpted real American beef (char-broiled if possible) with a touch of seasoning and lots of fresh veggies.  Proper veggies were open to debate among our five panelists, but there was general agreement on thick, bun-width vine-ripe slices of tomato and fresh, crisp, non-shredded lettuce leaves.

Depending on your taste (or lack of), pickles can add bulk and bite to a cheeseburger.  In some cases, it was the only thing between the buns with any flavor or texture.

And onions may be the most personal part of the fantasy.  While 60 percent wanted a wide wedge of fancy purple (Bermuda) onions on their fantasy burger, 40 percent lusted after the old yellow kind.  The diced dehydrated specimens were 100 percent yucky.

This non-scientific burger expedition included basic cheeseburgers from 10 Visalia restaurants:  Burger Baron, Chicken Shack, Grub Stake Drive In, Hen’s Nest, Houston Hut, Kay’s Kafe, Mearle’s, Picnic Shop, Searcy’s, and Uncle Vic’s.

What we found was not always pretty.

No Naugahyde or trailing plant-decor creeped into our judgment, since each burger was ordered to go – – with everything on it that didn’t cost extra.  The burgers, carefully transported to the test kitchen, were denuded of identifying wrappers, sliced into six pieces and placed on a numbered plate by an uninterested bystander.

The burgers were all zapped for under 30 seconds in a microwave oven – – because, after all, who wants to eat a cold cheeseburger.  We equated this experience to what a lot of people do, anyway.

Some random comments from the panelists:

*Recommended for vegetarians… made a much better salad.

*Boring, but fresh buns.

*Special sauce is annoying.

*Burned taste dominates.

*An adult burger… they trust you to make you own.

*Real all-grilled bun, not just painted on.

*I like mine red.

*So much stuff it’s hard to pick up.

*Different flavor – – different from a hamburger.

*Lots of lettuce, onions, etc… spicy meat.

The burgers are rated on a zero to five burger scale, with five being the perfect fantasy burger.

The top burger, with 60 percent of the first place votes, was from, of all places, the Chicken Shack buried in the Colonial Shopping Center.  Panelists liked the full, round slices of raw onions, clearly charbroiled, spiced meat and non-plastic cheese.  It was down rated for having a non-grilled bun, and an average sized piece of hamburger.  Price: $2.14

Nine other paragraphs followed, with reports on each burger.  The ranking was Chicken Shack 1st,  Houston Hut 2nd, Kay’s Kafe 3rd, Hen’s Nest 4th, Mearle’s 5th, Picnic Sandwich Shop 6th, Uncle Vic’s 7th, Searcy’s 8th, The Burger Baron 9th, and the Grubstake came in at 10th.  (I thought the Grubstake coming in last was weird, as I often ate there, and thought the burger was a good one!)

On July 4th, I was at home, in my bedroom when I heard my mother screaming for me.  From the tone of her voice, calling for me to come “right now”, I thought the house was on fire.  I ran into the living room, and found her holding the newspaper.  She handed me the paper, and said “read this!”

The next few weeks were crazy.  Hamburger sales shot through the roof.  The bread man was raiding grocery stores throughout Tulare County to keep me in buns, and the meat supplier was filling my freezers with hamburger patties.  After the initial surge, my hamburger sales leveled off at double what they had been before.

Jim at the grill.

I wish I could find a decent burger, but they are few and far between.  I suppose it will have to remain a fond memory.