- Strawberry shakes made with real strawberries
- Wild salmon sandwich
- Veggie burger
- Breakfasts, especially the strawberry pancakes
- Pies (mmm lemon meringue)
- well, everything.
For $3.40 the fresh strawberry pancakes are a major deal. Add a cup of unlimited coffee and for under $5 (no tip, it is fast food), that is good eats.
Two pancakes come with lightly sweetened fresh strawberries and lots of whipped cream. The strawberries and whipped cream dont run out before the pancakes do.
A few weeks ago, a fresh strawberry tart was the second thing I ever bought at Nations. The first was a burger about fifteen years ago.
There have been some changes since then and now Im impressed.
I tried most of the menu and my current opinion is that Nations is one of the best fast food restaurants in the Bay Area. I like it better than In-N-Out Burger. The Pinole Red Onion is the only competition with a larger selection. I havent tried as much on the Red Onion menu though.
Nations started in El Cerrito in 1952 as a hot dog stand and now has 24 locations and all within the geography of the SF board. Ok Nations!
Headquarters is still in El Cerrito on San Pablo Avenue.
Perhaps being a local company accounts for some of extra care that goes into the restaurants. The four Nations visited all had vases of fresh flowers on the tables which is a nice touch when stopping by for a hunk of pie ($1.90) and unlimited and good coffee ($1.15).
McDonalds with all its hype should serve coffee this good. Three dollars and a nickel hardly buys a piece of pie anywhere else sometimes it only covers coffee.
As the menu says, all burgers and sandwiches are 3/4 pound with fixings figured into the weight. The salmon is the most expensive sandwich at $4.85. A grilled cheese sandwich is a hefty hunk of eating for $2.70.
The nice thing about Nations is that you can order things as healthy as you would like in any configuration you would like. Except for mayo, all the condiments are added personally.
The grilled cheese (or ham & cheese) and the BLT are the only sandwiches that dont come on a bun. There is a choice of white, wheat or sourdough bread for these sandwiches. The sourdough is a lot better than the white bread.
Everything else is served on a lightly grilled white or whole wheat sesame bun. The hamburger comes on a white bun and all other sandwiches come on whole wheat as a default. Substitutions can be made.
All sandwiches come with thick slices of tomato and white onion and an impressive piece of crispy fresh iceberg. No shredded lettuce here. On request the onions can be grilled (recommended). Razor-thin slices of pickle, sliced length-wise are available on request. .
After a while I decided to start ordering the sandwiches with a light spread of mayo. For my tastes, the standard sandwich has too much mayo.
The sandwiches can be ordered with a lettuce wrap instead of a bun or as a diet plate with the meat and lettuce, tomato and onion on a plate. Diet jelly and syrup is available on request for breakfast. There is even a no sugar added apple pie apples thats it not weird artificial sweetener.
Here are the sandwiches in the order of preference:
- Chicken breast. Unlike McDonalds and the other fast food joints, this is a REAL chicken breast just grilled chicken, no strange additives or mystery parts. It is a large chicken breast too.
- Wild Salmon burger. So superior to the usual spongy ground-up patty. This has pieces of salmon formed into a patty. The patty is a little peppery. It is nice with BBQ sauce on it.
- Harvester (veggie burger). This is almost like a nice meat loaf that has lots of filler.
- Grilled cheese. I ordered he basic version on two large slices of sourdough bread. The bread is buttered and grilled. Slices of cheese are put on one slice until they melt. Remove from grill. Add mayo lettuce, onion and tomato. An excellent version of this would be cheese, grilled onions and tomato, hold the lettuce and mayo.
- Hot dog A Millers hot dog, split down the middle, grilled and placed on a grilled bun. Condiments added personally. Almost a perfect bun to dog ration, but the bun is just a bit larger than I would like. Dont forget that tomatoes, grilled onions and pickle can be added on request. Theres a chili dog too.
- Burger. It is ok and larger than most. My favorite configuration would be grilled onions, tomato, pickle, light mayo and skip the lettuce. OK, put it on the side as salad dressed with honey Dijon dressihg.
One of the reasons I didnt like the Nations burger the first time was that I suspected there was too much grease and it gave me heart burn. Turned out it wasnt that at all. It was the thick fresh onion pieces. Grilled onion solved the problem.
BLT Large sandwich, good basic version, and is better on sourdough. After years of hobbs bacon on artisan bread, and organic tomatoes, it is hard to go back to the basics.
The fries are thick cut and good. The chili fries come in a large Styrofoam carton topped with two large scoops of chili. Forty cents extra for cheese or peppers. If it is to your taste, I think grilled onions can put on anything except the pie.
If ordering the chili separately, it comes in a 12 oz coffee cup with packets of saltines. It is a saucy chili with a fifty/fifty mix of beans and ground beef. It is a little salty, but for $1.80, it makes a filling lunch.
Different Nations have different condiments on the counter. The University Avenue Nations in Berkeley has the most mustard, catsup, BBQ sauce, Tabasco, honey Dijon dressing (very good), hot dog relish, chopped onions and chopped tomatoes. If the condiment isnt on the counter, ask for it.
Breakfast is inexpensive and basic. Flats of real eggs sit on the counter waiting to be scrambled or made into omelets. Instead of hash browns and toast, for no extra charge pancakes or French toast can be substituted.
I enjoyed a ham and cheese omelet with two soft, eggy slices of French toast made with Texas toast. It had a nice note of cinnamon. The three-egg omelet was the thin type and I asked for free grilled onions and tomatoes to be added to the ham and cheese.
A warning that while many Nations serve breakfast all day, a few dont. The 24-hour Nations seem to always serve breakfast.
Another difference in the various Nations is that some carry more variety of pies than others. Two sizes of slice are available small (1/6 pie) or regular (1/4 pie)
Pies I liked in order of preference
- Lemon meringue Deeply lemony, tart and tangy with a light, frothy meringue that is nicely browned on top.
- Fresh strawberry As someone else said, the whole is better than the part. Huge strawberries piled on the tart shell with a not too sweet glop and marshmallow-y whipped cream on request.
- Banana crème generous pieces of banana in a banana pudding base and lots of whipped cream
- Cream cheese the type that is similar to those jello cheesecakes. Nice touch of lemon and especially good if it is fresh strawberry time and topped with strawberries. Graham cracker crust.
- Custard - Eggy, basic and, no frills with a light dusting of cinnamon for visual appeal. I dont like the crust with this pie.
- Sweet potato tart real sweet potato with little pieces of not totally pureed potato here and there. Sweet but not too sweet with just a suggestion of spice
- Pumpkin The sweet potato is just so much better. Ok, but not enough pumpkin flavor for me, the texture isnt dense enough and a little sweet.
- Sugar-free apple tart apples and not bad. A little too much crust to filling but a nice enough if sugar is to be avoided.
- Peaches and cream a few canned peaches in a light peach colored whipped cream. Very little peach flavor Blueberries and cream is coming soon.
The strawberry sundae is a deal at $1.10. Twice the size of McDonalds, with better ice cream and tastier strawberries.
A few nits. The cream for the coffee is of the liquid creamer type. One Nations let me have real milk on request, another didnt. For $1.90 a bowl of fresh strawberries can be ordered. There are twelve of the huge strawberries used in the pies. While generous and healthy, these are the type of strawberries that need some sweetening.
Also, for some odd reason when ordering a diet plate, they chop up the lettuce, tomato and pickle (I passed on the onion). I guess you can request for the veggies not to be chopped. Actually I should have ordered the grilled onions with the salmon patty. A nice feature is that since the diet place comes without the bun, they subtract the price of the bun.
The restaurants all have the same set-up, a mix of orange booths and tables with chairs. Large sunny windows and the tables with fresh flowers make the restaurant a pleasant stop. Place the order at the counter and wait for your number to be called. Eat-in orders are on trays.
There is a wait because everything is made to order. Phone orders are accepted and they do a lot of business with call-in orders.
Dont get me wrong. It is still fast food, but it is the best of its class.
With Nations, there is evidence of the original ingredients a little piece of unmashed sweet potato, pieces of strawberry in the shake, identifiable salmon, eggs in shell on the counter and an actual chicken breast.
The reason it is called Nations is that the founders thought it was the best burger in the nation. In the category of fast food, that could very well be true.