Posted: 28 Jul 2010 12:37 PM PDT
[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]
The Harris Ranch Restaurant
24505 West Dorris Avenue, Coalinga CA 93210 (map); 800-942-2333; harrisranch.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A quality ranch turns the roadside inn into a vacation and burger destination
Want Fries with That? Yes— the skinny fries have great flavor, but send them back if they come out cold
Prices: Ranch Burger w/fries, $11.95
Notes: If you've got a cooler with you, load up on some excellent and inexpensive beef
So one of my closest friends was celebrating a birthday this past weekend and that meant a trip to San Francisco. San Francisco is only an hour plane ride north, but being that I'm both a fan of road trips and an inveterate cheapskate, I filled up the Saab and Google Mapped my route.
There are basically two options when heading to San Francisco from Los Angeles. The 101 (and its sister roadway, US 1) is the proverbial scenic route. It's an attractive roadway that takes you along the coast and then winds its way through wine country. The 5 freeway is a trucking route that plows through the Central California agricultural landscape that has all of the charms you'd imagine our contemporary industrial farming landscape proffers; that is to say, few. That said, it is the fast way, and, being that the trip was really about seeing my great friends, I opted for speed.
I actually had imagined I'd wind up testing some new fast food burger somewhere along the way, but as my eyes began crossing with fatigue I saw a vision in the distance that made me think that my frugality was part of a larger plan. Towering overhead I saw the "Harris Ranch" sign inviting me for a few moments of rest, and, more importantly, a proper burger lunch. I've been eating Harris Ranch beef for years as one Los Angeles's most revered purveyors, Huntington Meats, sources much of their beef from the decades-old ranch, but this roadtrip lunch would be my first burger from the source.
The Harris family began farming the San Joaquin Valley in 1937 and has managed to maintain its family ownership through all these years. John Harris currently oversees what is now described as a "vertically integrated" agribusiness, which, from what I can glean, means they not only raise their cattle, but also grow all of their own feed. Their beef, which is distributed all over the country and sold online, has developed a reputation for quality.
I put that reputation to the test in the form of their 1/3-pound Black Angus burger in their restaurant. For about thirty years, they've run an inn and restaurant in Coalinga that is a surprisingly upscale vacation destination that, to an Angeleno, seems right between nowhere and who-knows-where, but when I walked in on a late Saturday afternoon, the Western-themed dining room and gift shop were buzzing with activity.
There are a number of burger creations on the menu, but the Ranch Burger, with a choice of cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and special sauce seemed the option most suited to a high quality patty.
Mine came out looking beautiful save the pre-cutting the burger receives before it comes out of the kitchen (I recommend asking them to leave it whole.) The potato bun was spongy and delicate and measured perfectly against the 1/3-pound beef patty. The local veggies were vibrant and fresh. They seem to embrace this the height of the tomato season. My tomato was the best I've been served on a burger in a very long time. The special sauce was, as you'd guess, a Thousand Island spread that fits the California aesthetic. The grilled beef was just as I'd hoped—fantastic. Rich with fat and salt, it offered a clean beef taste that was deeply satisfying.
The quality ingredients made me happy to spend the extra money ($11.95 in this case) for a higher quality burger, but there were a few missteps that seemed out of sync with the attentive service. My burger came out a bit overcooked and, more than that, my meal seemed a bit sloppily handled generally. The cheddar cheese, which was portioned properly, didn't get any heat other than the patty so it was just sweaty, rather than nicely melted. My skinny fries had a great flavor, but were clearly not fried to order. I'd hoped that these problems were a the result of say a cook who was a bit tired, but when I stopped in again on my way back to Los Angeles, I found similar problems with my burger.
In the end, these mistakes weren't enough to make the burger anything less than very good, but considering the quality beef and other delicious high quality ingredients it seemed like a missed opportunity. A little more attention in the kitchen and I might have said it's worth a special trip to the home of one of California's historic ranches. As it stands, I'd say make it a point to stop if, like me, you happen to be driving by.