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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Blue-collar burgers: Chef/owner Ray Pesce is carrying on the working-class tradition at the Hamburger Ranch and Pasta Farm in Cloverdale, which has served local ranchers, loggers, and travelers for more than 50 years.

On the Road

A rustic haven for hungry travelers

By Paula Harris

THE HOGS ARE packing the parking lot of this old roadside barbecue and burger joint--motorcycles, that is. Gleaming Harleys are lined wheel-to-wheel, three and four abreast, while cars and trucks clumsily vie for space in the dusty parking lot under the trees in Oat Valley.

We pull our car into the last remaining spot--and it's a tight squeeze. I gingerly open the door, careful not to send a nearby cluster of motorbikes sprawling dominolike across the gravelly ground.

Seems everyone's here at Cloverdale's Hamburger Ranch and Pasta Farm this Saturday lunchtime for the same reason: to grab a burger and a cold beer before heading back onto the freeway. The place is swarming with scores of men (and a few women) wearing leathers and black shades and jabbering loudly.

The bikers crowd the outdoor seating areas, sprawling on plastic chairs beneath the green-and-white striped umbrellas, tossing back lagers. A big ol' barbecue pit is smoking merrily; a pile of logs is stacked to one side ready for the evening barbecue (summer weekends between 5 and 9 p.m.)

The building that's now the Hamburger Ranch and Pasta Farm restaurant started out more than 50 years ago as the Top o' the Hill Texaco Gas Station and segued into a popular watering hole and eatery for local ranchers, loggers, and travelers.

It's an old-style mom-'n'-pop place, with clunky, rustic wooden chairs and barstools, plastic squeezy color-coded ketchup and mustard bottles on the tables, and oldies on the sound system. It's the kind of place you'd still expect to find 25-cent hamburgers and 10-cent coffee--of course the prices are a bit steeper than that these days, but still a deal.

The scarred wooden wall panels are plastered with postcards. "Your place takes me back to the 1950s and family vacation time," reads one dog-eared card in a cheerful scrawl. "It's a real blast from the past." Another describes how the smoky-sweet smell of the barbecue lured a carload of motorists headed for Elk off the road and into the restaurant.

We manage to find a small booth near the cash register. There follows a long wait with a lot of noisy activity. With every jarringly loud door slam accompanied by a jangly bell, more bikers come inside to pay for their lunches at the counter.

The line forms for the cash register right by our table, and since they're at our eye level, we're condemned to watch a constant parade of leather-clad biker butts awaiting their turn. Shiny black. Shiny black. Shiny peacock green with black drawstrings. Shiny black. Shiny black almost resting on our tabletop.

The "entertainment" wears pretty thin after about 35 minutes.

THE WAITRESS, an overwhelmed young woman edgily snapping gum, finally gets to us. "Is it usually like this?" we yell above the din. "No, today we've been ambushed by a biker club," she hollers with a shrug and a gum pop.

We order a hearty, stomach-filling fettuccine with homemade marinara sauce ($5.75/half order). The half order is generous enough. The sauce is crammed with mushrooms and tomatoes. It's good, tasty roadside fare--a dish that could keep you going till way past Elk.

The award-winning "World Famous Hamburger" ($3.20) sounds promising. But we're disappointed by the burger, served in a plastic basket on a sheet of greaseproof paper. The textureless meat is woefully thin, dry, and badly burned (we'd requested medium-well and this is, well, well). It doesn't look or taste homemade. The only saving grace is a golden heap of excellent French fries--wedge-cut russets with the skins left on and deep-fried in canola oil.

The grilled garden burger ($3.95) is even worse than the hamburger--and rock-hard around the edges to boot--but the accompanying scallion-flecked potato salad is very good.

The food is far better when we return on a Thursday evening. There are still plenty of diners, but the atmosphere is calmer. Tiny lights illuminate the trees outside, and Louis Armstrong plays on the sound system.

A half order of cheese-filled ravioli ($5.75) in delicate pesto cream sauce is a luscious treat (the same dish would cost double in an upscale Italian trattoria). A turkey burger ($4.25) is a succulent oval flecked with herbs and black pepper. The texture of the patty is good--almost shredded rather than ground. Very tasty.

We order the half-pound burger called "International Connection" ($6.95), and this time everything's as it should be. Ordered "medium," the juicy meat is cooked perfectly, with a homemade taste and texture. It's a trucker's dinner--a thick half-pound patty on top of two hunks of garlic bread wrapped in melted jack and heaped with jalapeños, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and grilled onions. Good stuff.

A bottle of Fetzer 1997 Home Ranch Zinfandel ($18), selected from the small wine list, is the perfect inexpensive burger wine. Although most folks here drink beer.

One quibble (apart from the slow service) is that this time no fries come with the burgers and we have to order them separately (ranch fries, $1.55). Unfortunately, they finally arrive only after we've eaten our burgers.

The only homemade dessert offered is a little gem: a pumpkin pudding cake ($2.25) that offers a smooth pumpkin-cinnamon custard and a comforting slice of nostalgia. All at once it's Thanksgiving in the middle of June.

There are a few glitches, but for price and funky atmosphere, Hamburger Ranch and Pasta Farm is well worth a detour.


Hamburger Ranch and Pasta Farm
Top of the Hill--Cloverdale, 31195 N. Redwood Hwy., Cloverdale; 894-5616
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Food: The name says it all, plus barbecued items on summer weekend evenings
Service: Either overwhelmed or just slow
Ambiance: Old-fashioned mom-'n'-pop roadhouse; loud, intense, and crowded on weekends; more comfortable outside
Price: Inexpensive
Wine list: Small selection of inexpensive wines
Overall: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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