Since In-n-Out invaded Northern California a few years ago, we hardly hear about our local burger chains. But in Vallejo, the long-established giant hamburger joints still have a loyal contingency who claim theirs is the best. Recently I tried the local branches of Nations and Buds.
NATIONS GIANT HAMBURGERS AND PIES (2525 Sonoma Blvd., 707-554-8888) in Vallejo isnt 24-hours, but it does stay open until 1AM, a beacon of fluorescent light and late night eats on the corner of Sonoma and Tennessee. Whens the last time Id had a Nations burger? High school, probably. The pies in the case didnt look any better than I remembered them, but no matter, I was here for a burger.
At 10pm, the young woman, Yolanda, behind the register was friendly and perky. When I asked for my order to be cooked medium rare, she smiled and said they were required to make them well-done, but she would ask. The grill cook then came over to help me. I explained that Id like my burger medium rare, then he asked what that meant to me. I said that it would still be juicy and a little pink inside.
The giant cheeseburger ($3.75) actually looked like the one in the poster photo. Statuesque with a couple slabs of ripe juicy tomato, a thick stack of many leaves of very fresh and crisp iceberg lettuce, and rings of sweet white onion resting on a thick swathe of mayo on the bottom half of the bun, then topped by a big hamburger patty oozing melted Velveeta-like cheese, this was a carefully architected burger. It appeared to be too big to fit in the mouth for a bite, but the toasted balloon bread bun compacted down, deflating for easy eating. The patty was moist and pink in the middle; the grill man had hit perfection. The meat was leaner than I expected and not greasy. The freshness and quantity of the garnishes was impressive, and the flavors stayed distinct rather than melding into the meat. While Id ding this one for the bread, anything sturdier would have been impossible to tackle, but it does get soggy in the last bites. The signature gloppy, wet and juicy style of a Nations burger was very satisfying at this hour.
The French fries ($1.20) were decent, only lightly colored as Id not ordered them well-done. But they were crisp on the outside and the inside was creamy and not pasty or grainy. A good showing, all in all, for a total tab of $6.60.
BUDS BURGERS (3849 Sonoma Blvd., 707-642-3252) had first caught my eye not only because of the faded retro Giant Burger street sign, but for the folks waiting outside before the doors open at 10:30AM - pretty impressive considering Carls Jr. is on the same block. Then I noticed it was included as a classic on the Cheeseburger in Paradise site (linked below), which sealed the deal. Stepping inside and reading the notices posted prominently saying that all burgers are cooked medium unless specified otherwise, I immediately had a good feeling about the place.
Photos of the late founder with this stores staff (some of whom are still working here) and his obit are displayed. The original Buds was in Sacramento. There is another Vallejo location at 1339 Springs Road, 707-642-1012.
A number of combo specials are offered, including one with an apple turnover which Im told is Pepperidge Farms. My first time here I went with the Giant cheeseburger special, $3.79, which is a cheeseburger, fries and fountain soda.
The cheeseburger here was less giant than Nations, but lower priced too. While not showing much pink in the middle, the patty was moist and greasy with richer beef flavor. Cooking it a bit harder might have been better. Shredded lettuce was used which melted into the hot patty and the tomatoes were somewhat mealy. The onions were cut thickly and some had to be removed to not dominate the burger. The bread was more substantial in texture and toasted darker to contain the burger and its juices, but was too big a component of the whole. This was a good burger, but not that distinctive.
On a return visit, I went for the Giant cheeseburger special #1, $4.79, which is a double cheeseburger, fries and soda. My rationale was that I should try something that was closer to the price range of the Nations burger to make a fair comparison. Im glad I did because the double size rang my chimes. This is the burger to order here. The bun is meant to have a bigger serving of meat, the amount of onions is right, and all the other proportions snap into step. It was too much for me to finish, but was much more impressive for an inexpensive production-line burger.
The other reason I came back is that the fries are awesome. Regular cut with skins on, theyre served upright in a Styrofoam cup. These fries are so greasy, it would be impossible to contain them in anything made of mere paper. With an added dash of salt, theyre great as is and even taste good cold. They are golden brown and blistered with tiny bubbles that make a crackly crunch. The interior texture feels firm and smooth. They have a deep, deep flavor that tastes very bad for you and leaves an animal fat film on the inside of your mouth. I asked and found out that theyre fried in a combination of beef fat and cottonseed oil. Well worth a try for your next saturated fat and calorie splurge.