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January 4-10, 2006

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First Bite

Carmen's Burger Bar

By Jonah Raskin

Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.

Nothing on a menu seems more American or more popular these days than a burger. Beware the restaurant that turns up its nose at the ubiquitous burger, and blessed be the restaurant that romances it.

Enter Carmen's Burger Bar. The new, sassy restaurant in Santa Rosa offers burgers for both carnivores and vegetarians. It serves up burgers made of ground turkey, lamb or beef, and there's a full-service bar that's clean and well lighted. Andy Warhol's classic portrait of Marilyn Monroe graces one wall, and there are chalkboards with daily specials, from soup to steak sandwiches. And there's spunky Carmen Garcia, the restaurant's namesake, with a warm smile and tons of experience in the burger business.

I arrived late on a glorious Saturday afternoon, my heart set on hamburgers. I started with crisp, deep-fried onion rings, ranch dressing on the side ($5), and a frothy strawberry shake in a curvaceous glass, inspired no doubt by Marilyn herself, with a cherry atop the whipped cream ($5). The shakes also come in chocolate and vanilla.

I ordered a Carmen's Burger with grilled onions, mushrooms, bacon and Jack cheese ($8.50); a vegetarian burger with Fontina cheese, onions and mushrooms ($8); and the burger with barbecue sauce, bacon and cheddar ($8.50). No, I wasn't eating alone. In the nick of time, two Sonoma State University students, famished after finals, joined me. We divided the burgers, ate every morsel and finished all the fries on every plate. The vegetarian burger passed the taste test, but the mix of beef, cheese, bacon and grilled onions on the Carmen's Burger seemed the winning combination. There are bunless burgers for dieters, double burgers for folks with King Kong appetites, naked burgers, seafood burgers—and everything can be prepared to go.

Open without fanfare since the middle of September, Carmen's already has fans ages eight to 80. "Everyone likes a burger, and lots of our customers want a drink with it," Carmen says. If you're in the mood, you can drink beer and eat fish tacos ($9) or fajitas ($9.50).

Carmen, who comes from Zacatecas, decided against a restaurant serving just Mexican dishes. "There are too many Mexican restaurants in Sonoma County," she says. "And before we opened, there weren't enough good burger places." Now there's at least one place devoted to the royal American burger—with a Mexican flair.

Carmen's cousin Maria Garcia, who also comes from Zacatecas, cooks every burger the way you want it. The beef, which arrives fresh daily from Pacific Market next door, is lean and tasty.

Saturday and Sunday, you can get almost anything you want for breakfast from 8am to 1pm: huevos rancheros, biscuits with gravy, bagels with smoked salmon and lots more. Getting to Carmen's, especially if you take the approach down McDonald's Avenue, is a treat, too. Driving past the stately homes feels like going down Memory Lane, and the shakes, burgers and fries at Carmen's might bring back fond memories, too.

Carmen's Burger Bar, 1612 Terrace, Santa Rosa. Open Monday-Friday, 11am to 9pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am to 9pm. 707.579.FOOD.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.