I'm not too proud to admit I've burned more than one tank of gas to get to the small Southern California burger chain called Slater's, which when the history of Western civilization is written, will undoubtedly be credited with inventing the 50/50 burger, as in 50 percent ground chuck, 50 percent ground bacon.
I have gone out of my way during forays to Orange County to get that magnificent creation. And so it was with great satisfaction that I discovered that I no longer need to drive so far again: The Old River Grill has added the beef-meets-bacon creation to the menu ($8.99), and it's just as good here.
For those who've not yet enjoyed it, this version has a really pink color inside when cooked medium, but it was not in the least undercooked.
The patty was moist, not greasy, crunchy on the outside undoubtedly from all that wonderful pork fat in the mix, and with a nice smoky beef taste. If you profess to be a bacon lover, it is a must try.
It's so different, it doesn't even seem like a burger. In fact, calling it that seems to diminish it deeply. The Slater's product is thicker, but the Old River Grill patty has enough charm to inspire repeat visits.
On that same lunch outing we got to sample the grilled cheese with bacon ($7.99), made with three great cheeses: gorgonzola, Swiss and cheddar, with crisp bacon strips dangling out of the sides of perfectly grilled sourdough. Yes, they do have a decent bacon supplier.
Old River Grill is located in what used to be The Riverwalk Cafe and has been turned into a full-service breakfast and lunch spot by Roger Coughenour and David Nickell. Coughenour used to work at 24th Street Cafe and is trying to turn this place into a variation of that always-popular downtown institution. I think he's off to a good start, and not just because of that spectacular burger. There were so many other things we wanted to order on the menu, including the harvest salad ($6.99), made with caramelized walnuts, dried cranberries, gorgonzola cheese, spring greens, raspberry vinaigrette and, for $2 extra, chicken breast or roast turkey breast. How I resisted the grilled turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich ($8.49) I'll never know. There's also a grilled veggie sandwich with six different vegetables on grilled squaw bread.
On a breakfast visit we sampled the chunky-munky (how they spell it) French toast ($7.99) and the chile verde omelet ($9.99). The French toast is made with those thick, fried slices that people often call Texas toast, though I've been to Texas and never really saw that there.
The bananas sauteed with butter and brown sugar were perfectly done and, believe me, it needed no additional syrup. I used the presence of the bananas to rationalize it in my mind as a healthy breakfast. My only disappointment was the scanty portion of walnuts. One chunk, a few pebbles and not much more. More of that protein source would've made this perfect.
The omelet was made with a very large-chunk chili verde, and the fresh avocado slices on top with sour cream were a perfect touch. It's comparable to 24th Street Cafe, which is high praise indeed. The menu itself is more tightly focused than its downtown rival. For example there are only six omelets besides the build-your-own version.
On our weekend breakfast visit, the place was jammed with folks wearing bike jerseys and eye glasses that had tiny rear view mirrors to the side; one of those clever things you wonder why you haven't bought yet. It's a quiet but friendly group, so you can conduct conversations and not struggle to be heard.
The interior has been transformed, with nature pictures, oars and fishing gear on the walls, comfortable booths along the wall, and tables with wood-frame chairs in the center. The red-beige-green color scheme is a nice fit with the river pictures, the poppies and other nature shots on the wall.
The service was mixed. We asked for no mayo on the burger, but the message didn't get back to the kitchen at lunch. At breakfast there was an unreasonable delay for our choices, but one entree was comped as a way of making amends for the inconvenience. Customer service like that goes a long way to build loyalty.
Old River Cafe can be recommended for a fine dining experience. Especially for bacon lovers.