By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Imagine the casual culinary scene in 1946, when grabbing a “fast” cheeseburger pretty much meant plopping down inside a local diner and going through the rigmarole of full wait service.
McDonald’s and In-N-Out Burger hadn’t hit the scene yet, and a then-fledgling White Castle didn’t expand outside its Wichita, Kansas roots until many years later.
Although if you were a West Coaster on the hunt for soft serve ice cream and wanted to precede it with a griddled burger with crinkle-cut french fries on the side, Fosters Freeze was the quick way to go.
Founded 74 years ago by George Foster in Inglewood, California, the company touts itself as “California’s first fast-food chain.” There are about 80 locations throughout the state, with one of them firmly residing in Allied Gardens for the past 60 years.
For anyone seeking refuge from today’s quinoa-wielding food police, Fosters Freeze is where you come to commit culinary sins.
Aside from a slew of soft serve treats like sundaes, banana splits, parfaits, shakes and cones, the menu board tempts you with illuminated photographs of burgers, chili dogs and the like. The calorie counts for both the sweet and savory offerings are obligingly listed, although you can bet they weren’t only a couple generations ago.
Nothing is made from scratch, not even the chili. There are no salads, unless they exist on some secret menu. And local farms play no role in supplying the produce garnishing your “old fashion” quarter-pound burger — available also in double or triple form, and with or without partially melted American cheese.
But I didn’t care where the veggies came from because the iceberg lettuce was cool and crisp, the tomatoes were juicy, and the slices of raw onions were sweetish and fresh. Adding to the burger were a few coins of dill pickles and a smear of Thousand Island dressing, all sitting neatly inside a sesame bun. Decades ago, this qualified as a gourmet burger. Today, it’s rather nostalgically delicious.
A “burrito” appears on the menu without description.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
The young, friendly employee paused before saying with scant conviction that it’s filled with chili and beef. His co-worker standing nearby listened on with childlike curiosity.
After chomping through the crispy deep-fried casing, I understood why.
Was it beef chili or beef chili with added beef? Or was it beef chili blended with pureed beans? I couldn’t tell. Yet despite its mulched texture — similar to the beef-soy mixture that attracts junk-food junkies to the tacos at Jack in the Box — the burrito offered a mild thrill in terms of flavor and easy handling.
My lunch companion, who came along with skeptical enthusiasm, wolfed down a classic patty melt on rye bread with no complaints. He also put a sizable dent in my paper basket of crinkle-cut fries topped with similar chili, shredded cheddar and diced onions.
As for the grilled pastrami sandwich flashing a well-endowed picture of itself from a lighted promo panel, it came with less meat than expected and verged on the chewy side. Layered within were copious pickles and yellow mustard, thus making for a tart outcome.
We concluded our visit with cold blasts of sugar. And who doesn’t when they come here?
A chocolate malt milkshake proved extra-malty in the most lovable sense. And a swirl of chocolate and vanilla soft serve extruded into a small-size cone and dipped in chocolate was no less exciting than the dipped cones I devoured in New York State as a kid from my local Dairy Queen. It had been a long time.
The only difference was back then I didn’t care about the dribbled mess left on my shirt. Here, an astute employee saw me clumsily battling the soft serve oozing from a couple cracks in the hardened dip. Within seconds he ran over with a cardboard container and extra napkins.
It was a super-thoughtful and highly appreciated gesture that seemed more old-fashioned to me than the burgers and shakes. Though next time, I’ll opt for a spoon-friendly sundae or banana split.
5129 Waring Road (Allied Gardens)
Prices: Burgers and hot dogs, $2.49 to $7.99;
sandwiches, burritos and fish-n-chips, $2.59 to $6.69;
combo meals (with medium fries and medium drink), $6.59 to $11.99;
soft serve ice cream cones, $1.89 to $3.49;
milk shakes and root beer floats, $3.05 to $5.99;
sundaes and parfaits, $3.39 to $5.99; banana splits, $6.69
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.