An Ode to California’s Landmark Drive-Ins
Some of my earliest restaurant memories come from Vicky’s Burritos. Vicky’s is a Mexican-American eatery in my hometown of Sacramento that only had a walk-up window, and it specialized in first generation Mexican American classics like Hot Pork Chicana. The deep, crimson, hellfire broth was so spicy I could hear my teenage tastebuds sizzling. But, the tender papas and large chunks of pork wrapped up in a charred tortilla beckoned me for more punishment.
That walk-up window was my savior most mornings as the only food option in what would eventually be coined a “food desert” two decades later. And I don’t remember ever seeing a face; just a salty voice and a foil-wrapped burrito at the end of a phantom arm extended out of the walk-up window.
Landmark drive-ins, especially those with walk-up windows, have always been my preference when dining out. I’d much rather sit under a shady tree and eat off the hood of my car than sit inside, and I’ve always wondered why so many of our landmark drive-ins were going the way of the dinosaur, and 2020 just heightened that inquiry because they were built for a pandemic that placed emphasis on social distancing.
Like so many Americans during the pandemic, I set out on the road to clear my head. It was also to keep my mother from going to her so-called “dark place” after the pandemic put the kibosh on all of her social activities.
Our day trips became a weekly thing where we’d visit farms, farm stands, and the few remaining NorCal landmark drive-ins that offered a walk-up window or drive-thru. Starting with a historic local landmark a mile down the road from our home, the Village Drive-In.
Built in 1958, the mid-century modern building at 3810 60th Street was originally Eat & Run and owned by a woman named Mary Rodriguez, who operated the business for three decades.
In 1989 it was purchased by Sam Yum, a South Korean immigrant that left Seoul in 1979 at the age of 25 and made his way to Las Vegas. The name changed to the Village Drive-In, after the neighborhood, Tallac Village.
All of the Village Drive-In employees are family — including Sam’s wife Hui and their two children — or friends of the family. And they need everyone on hand because at any time of the day, the drive-thru (which was added later) is multiple cars deep.
Eat & Run was billed as the “Home of the Deluxe Burger,” and boasted a “bar-b-q beef” sandwich on a French roll. Both legacies live on at the Village Drive-In, which still lists a Deluxe Burger (homemade dressing, pickles, lettuce, onion, tomato on a sesame seed bun) and a bulgogi beef sandwich that comes on a French roll. It’s the bulgogi sandwich that is my absolute go-to: Thinly sliced meat is marinated in a Korean-inspired mixture of soy sauce, Asian pear, garlic, ginger, black pepper, and sesame oil, and then grilled and then stacked with sautéed onions and iceberg lettuce on a soft roll that’s toasted on the flat top so that the exterior gives a slightly crispy resilience.
The Deluxe Burgers (you’ll want to add bacon), are mountainous and served with their secret “homemade sauce.” According to Sam’s niece, Wendy Cho, the burgers are Angus beef and ground fresh every morning. They also offer banana splits, soft serve ice cream and non-alcoholic “rickeys” made with the crushed ice of the skating rink days gone by. Off menu pro-tip: Adding soft serve to a cherry rickey during those sweltering summer days in the Valley.
The car drive-thru is only for the especially patient, the especially frequent, and the especially don’t-want-to-show-everyone-you’re-in-your-pajamas. That’s because the drive-thru is often a mixture of those who ordered at the voicebox, those who called in their order ahead of time, and the undecided. Orders are cooked à la minute, so the car at the window, holding all the power, isn’t going to move until its inhabitants have secured the bag. The good news is that you can always order your burger through the walk-up window if your anxiety levels are being affected by the carbon monoxide seeping from your hooptie. You can continue this contactless adventure by waiting and consuming your food at one of the outdoor dining tables, or take your food to Tahoe Park a mere stone’s throw away.
Somehow, it’s all worth it. This is an easy way to support an independent business during the pandemic, especially a genre that is disappearing from California. And don’t worry about your diet. If the French can send out a PSA to consume more cheese because sales have plummeted during the pandemic, let me say to you — and to the lazy local news bobbleheads who will no doubt mine this article — it is your duty to consume more burgers.
But, only in moderation and at landmark drive-ins.
Many thanks to Sam Yum’s niece Wendy Cho and Gretchen Steinberg of SacMod Preservation Association.