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  • HOME
    • LOCAL EATS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL VALLEY

    • LOCAL LIBATIONS INCLUDING BEER, WINE, MILK & COFFEE

    • FOOD FOR THOUGHT

    • GARDENING. EVENTS. TRAVEL. SHOPPING. MEET YOUR MAKERS.

    • FIND STORIES ABOUT LOCAL FOOD, FARMS, CHEFS, ARTISANS AND MORE IN OUR PAST ISSUE ARCHIVE.

    • FRESH, LOCAL, SEASONAL RECIPES AND KITCHEN INSPIRATION.

    • SUBSCRIBE TO THE MAGAZINE AND NEVER MISS AN ISSUE.

    • WHO WE ARE – HOW TO ADVERTISE – CONTACT US

THE SECRET IS IN THE SAUCE

PHOTOS BY MICHAELA WARTHEN

A chef stirs Italian Cottage’s original meat sauce.

Americans love sauce. According to Statista, a consumer survey leader, in 2019 we Americans will spend almost $43 billion on sauce, an average of $130 per person, in pursuit of wonderfully flavored meals. Globally, we consume five times more than the second ranked sauce loving country of Japan, which is followed by China, Great Britain, and India. Zoom in to Chico, and several long-standing restaurants seem to have found the recipe for success, the secret truly in their sauce. Sustaining a successful restaurant and creating a following seem to go hand in hand with having the right sauce.

Chico has literally hundreds of dining options. In downtown alone, there are fifty-five restaurants. Since we relished the idea of investigating sauce of iconic Chico restaurants, we made a plan. We would only consider restaurants that have been in town for thirty or more years; this would assure a proven track record and a loyal batch of sauce lovers. We conducted an informal survey on Facebook’s Foodies of Chico page with its 5,000 followers, asking the community about their go-to sauces when they dine out. With these criteria, we created a list of several contenders. We will dip into the story of a few and top the story off with some honorable mentions.

La Comida salsa wows chips

LA COMIDA SALSA

La Comida owner Mike Pavis started our interview by saying “secret sauces build loyalty.” It’s not surprising that he believes this since La Comida has been serving food since 1968, fifty-one total years so far in town. His deceased father, Michael Pavis Senior, started the restaurant by buying out a failing Mexican restaurant. He kept the counter service and numbers issued for orders and created original recipes. La Comida grew in popularity, and at one time, there were twenty-three different locations in California, Oregon, and Washington. Customers love La Comida’s food, quick service, low prices, homemade chips—and, especially, their salsa.

“We’ve been making the salsa the same way as long as I can remember,” said Pavis. He chuckled saying most of their recipes, salsa included, are really very basic. “We use fresh tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, onions, tomato sauce, salt, garlic, and parsley,” he revealed. Many salsa recipes call for cilantro, but Pavis was willing to share one of La Comida’s secrets, which is using parsley instead.

Chico literally eats this sauce by the gallon. La Comida makes 150 to 200 gallons of salsa per week. Pavis estimated that about thirty percent of this is purchased in large containers for home use. “I have someone coming by today to pick up seven gallons,” he said. “This happens all the time.”. Several bars in town purchase and serve chips and salsa from La Comida as well. Pavis said they have very consistent business and extremely loyal customers. He joked that he can tell what day of the week it is by looking around the dining room at certain times of day. He said the same customers come on the same days each week and even sit at the same tables. Without a doubt, they are having chips and La Comida salsa with their meal.

Burger Hut’s spacial sauce shows it’s not just for burgers

BURGER HUT SPECIAL SAUCE

Burger Hut has been serving up quality lunches and dinners in Chico since opening on Nord Avenue in 1978. Owners Priscilla and Jim Williams bought the establishment from an owner who offered breaded and fried steak strips on the menu. After taking over, they continued to offer the strips, but ultimately, the Williamses decided they really wanted to feature burgers so discontinued this menu item. They made a wise decision to continue using the steak strip dipping sauce that had been served alongside. This dipping sauce morphed into the now famous special sauce loved by Burger Hut patrons for more than forty years.

Made three times weekly by the kitchen crew and used at three Burger Hut locations, two owned by the Williams’ daughter and son-in-law, the recipe is known just to employees. BBQ sauce is the only ingredient the Williams dared to share. About ten years ago, they created their own BBQ sauce recipe as well, which they now use in the special sauce rather than a commercial product. Each location goes through approximately fifteen gallons per week of the special sauce. Priscilla said people use the sauce on their burgers, sandwiches, and fries and onion rings. “It’s the only thing I’ve been putting on my burgers for forty years,” she said.

Jim attributes the success of the sauce to the flavor: “It’s so popular due to the fact that it combines a lot of unique tastes appealing to all kinds of customers. Many say they love it.”

The Williamses both expressed heartfelt gratitude for the community of Chico that has made their business a success. Sales show the community clearly reciprocates the feeling, thankful for that special sauce.

A salad wears La Hacienda’s house dressing

LA HACIENDA HOUSE DRESSING

Chico’s oldest restaurant is La Hacienda, which opened in 1948. The legend is that Nate and Tomasa Ibanez moved to Chico from Fresno with a station wagon, three kids, several suitcases and twenty-five dollars. Tomasa was an excellent cook and had always dreamed of opening a restaurant. They found a location on Nord Avenue, and the family moved in to the back of the building. By 1955, La Hacienda had firmly established itself as a local favorite and outgrew its original space. The family purchased land on The Esplanade and built a larger restaurant, which is where it continues to operate today. Eventually, the Ibanez’ daughter Betty and her husband Ed Kimball took ownership of La Hacienda and the business flourished. In 2011, a trio of longtime employees bought the business when Kimball retired. “We have a unique position in the marketplace because we’ve been around so long and have established relationships over time,” said one of the current owners, Margarita Vega. She shared story after story of families that have been dining at La Hacienda for generations.

In one instance, a customer said that he had eaten there from the time he was a small child, then proposed to his fiancée at the restaurant, had their rehearsal dinner there, brought their own children to dine, and now enjoy meals with their grandkids. It’s a restaurant legacy created by the Ibanez family, and part of that legacy is the legendary original house dressing recipe first made in 1948 by Tomasa.

La Hacienda’s house dressing recipe is seriously top secret. According to Vega, only two people know the ingredients, Javier Partida, who is one of the three owners, and their kitchen supervisor for the past 30 years, Efrain Partida. The dressing is made in the early morning before employees arrive, under the veil of total secrecy. For years, Ed Kimball was the only one who knew the recipe. He was traveling out of the country at one point when the restaurant ran out of house dressing. The kitchen called in a panic, but he refused to give out the details. They made due without the dressing until he returned.

Vega said they make about eighty to a hundred gallons each week for use in the restaurant and also sell it in bottles to eager customers. “It’s $6.00 for a new bottle or $3.00 for a refill,” said Vega. People get creative with the dressing, using it not only for salad, according to Vega, also for crab, eggs, and even pancakes. Bill and Rhonda Bragdon had their first date at La Hacienda in 1964 and have been loyal customers ever since. “I use the dressing every opportunity I get,” said Bill. “Our son lives 180 miles away and we always bring him a bottle whenever we visit.” The Bragdons are just one of the families with generations of loyal fans.

Clockwise from top left: La Comida owner Mike Pavis wields the salsa knife, La Hacienda’s top secret sauce funnels into bottles, staff at Burger Hut stirs its BBQ sauce, a key ingredient in the restaurant’s dipping sauce, and Italian Cottage’s meat sauce dresses up meat balls.

ITALIAN COTTAGE PASTA SAUCE

It’s no wonder why the Italian Cottage restaurant’s motto is “Good Times for a Long Time!” After fifty-three years of serving Chicoans and holding many Best Italian Food and Best Breakfast titles, Italian Cottage is clearly a Chico favorite. Bert and Judy Katz were newlyweds when they visited Chico in 1964 and noticed there wasn’t what they considered an authentic Italian restaurant. They moved to Chico, got to work, and a year later opened the doors of their first location. Italian Cottage became known for its red-andwhite checkered tablecloths, low-lit ambiance, and sawdustcovered floors. It’s also known for its pasta sauce, which is the backbone of any good Italian restaurant.

Brian Katz, Bert and Judy’s son, along with his wife Robyn, now manages the two locations of Italian Cottage in Chico. Robyn said all of their sauces are popular but the original meat sauce, developed by her in-laws, keeps people coming back year after year. She describes it as like an Italian Bolognese sauce but even richer, heartier, with delicious chunks of fresh ingredients and just the right spice. “They started Italian Cottage with pizza, beer, and spaghetti with our meat sauce,” she recalled. Today, two cooks make this sauce, and the recipe is for their eyes only. They make 140 gallons of meat sauce weekly, which serves both Italian Cottage locations. The sauce is used for pasta as well as many of their signature dishes, including lasagna and the meatball sandwich. Some people even request it in lieu of pizza sauce or take home a quart for home use. “It’s a tradition,” said Robyn. “People have been coming here forever for the things they love on our menu.”

We understand that these recipes are closely guarded, as they are clearly one element in the enduring success of these longtime Chico eateries. We can’t bring you the recipes, but it’s good to know most sauces can be bought to use at home. In all cases, they’re more than just gravy.

Chico is fortunate to have many restaurants that have stood the test of time. Our crowdsourcing revealed more longtime favorites with notable sauces.

  • Basque Norte (1975): Original Basque Norte and Carne Asada marinades
  • Madison Bear Garden (1977): BBQ sauce
  • Sicilian Café (1984): pasta sauce
  • Tres Hombres (1986): spicy bean dip
  • Hula’s Chinese Bar-B-Q (1990): Hula’s Famous Teriyaki
  • Rice Bowl (1958): wing sauce
  • Tong Fong Low (1912 Oroville/2009 Chico): sweet and sour sauce
  • Franky’s (1992): Caesar dressing

Michaela Warthen is a freelance graphic designer and photographer based in Chico. She loves hiking, cats, and eating sushi. michaelawarthen.com