Long ago, when Femme de Joie was a young and innocent child at Shasta College, an older-but-wiser man said to her, “Man, the burgers at Damburger are just like the burgers they had back in the ’30s. They’re salty and greasy and crispy.” There was a certain lascivious tone to his words salty and greasy and crispy. He paused for reflection, then continued sadly, “But then just when you’re about to bite into one, some old fart at the end of the counter lights up a cigarette and blows smoke in your face.” It took Femme de Joie a few years to realize the older-but-wiser man was born in 1945, so how would he know what burgers were like in the ’30s? He did have a point about the smoke, though; that stuck with M. de Joie for years and kept her out of Damburger until she realized no one was likely to light up in there any more.
If you never get into downtown Redding except for the rodeo parade or to pay a traffic fine at the courthouse, you might not even know about the existence of Damburger in its modest little spot on Placer Street. The bright blue awning might be your only clue that this humble little cinder-block building really is a living, breathing relic from Redding’s past.
There are a few tables with umbrellas outside on the patio; inside are tables as well as counter seating. Sit down anywhere, inside or out, and someone will come take your order, or order at the takeout window. The menu is modest; it won’t take you long to decide. This place hasn’t diversified with French dips and fishwiches and taco salads: it’s burgers, dogs, chips, and fries.
Double Dam cheeseburger, $5.65, small fries, $2, with fry sauce, .25 (Damburger is one of the only places M. de Joie has come across that charges extra for fry sauce). What’s different about a Damburger is that the burger is cooked until it’s actually crisp and crunchy on the exterior and thoroughly well-done throughout. This can’t be done with frozen patties: too much moisture will keep the meat from browning properly. These fries were perfect: golden, crisp, cooked all the way through.
On Femme de Joie’s next visit, she went inside to order and got to watch the line cooks at work. One cook mans the grill, cooking thin patties and pressing them down to extract all moisture – a practice that makes M. de Joie cringe a little. Burgers are passed off to another employee who preps each bun individually, checking the order tag for no onions or extra ketchup. Finally, a third person bags the burgers, adds fries or chips and a drink, and brings it to the customer. There was no frenetic hurry and no buzzers going off to tell when things were ready, unlike in chain fast-food restaurants. It takes practice to do this right.
The Helen Burger is a thicker patty (1/3 pound) and it’s cooked less well-done than the standard Damburger. That means it doesn’t get the crunchy exterior; without that, it’s perfectly tasty but there’s nothing much to distinguish the Helen from a decent burger at any other independently-owned drive-in.
Double Dam Dog, $3.75. It’s two hot dogs split in half, grilled, and slapped on a hamburger bun with cheese and trimmings, like if your dad was grilling hot dogs and ran out of hot dog buns. It wasn’t bad, but there was nothing really special about it that would entice M. de Joie to have another one. Like Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, there’s no there, there.
Interestingly, vegetarians and even vegans are served at Damburger: you can get a Garden Burger (vegetarian) or a Boca or chipotle-black-bean vegan burger. However, since they’d be cooked on the same grill with the beef burgers, individuals will have to decide for themselves if that cancels out the vegetarian aspect.
About that institution stuff. It’s one of M. de Joie’s many pet peeves to hear the phrase “a Redding institution since 19–” thrown around loosely, usually on radio commercials. Merriam-Webster defines institution as … “a significant practice, relationship, or organization in a society or culture … something or someone firmly associated with a place or thing …. an established organization or corporation…” Saying Barney’s Drive-Thru Coffee, Duck Calls & Glass Packs, a Redding institution since 2003 doesn’t make it so. Damburger is doing something right: they’ve been around since 1938 (to the best of Femme de Joie’s knowledge, only Lim’s Café outdates it for being the longest running area restaurant). Give this institution a try.
Damburger, 1320 Placer Street (between Market and Pine), Redding, 530-241-0136. Open Monday-Friday, 9 AM – 5 PM, Saturday 10 AM – 3 PM, Sunday 11 AM – 3 PM. Street parking only. Cash, cards. No alcohol. Vegetarian and vegan options.
Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more.