As a former Philadelphian, eating a cheesesteak is an almost religious experience for me. It’s an iconic Philadelphia sandwich, or a staple of the city where I grew up. And as a Philadelphia native, I’m obliged to tell you that cheesesteaks nearly anywhere else in the world are terrible.
The traditional Philly cheesesteak is simple. It’s a high-quality Italian hoagie roll with sliced steak and melted cheese – cheese whiz or provolone are the only acceptable options – and fried onions. Most Philadelphians feel that even New Jersey can’t possibly get the cheesesteak right. The West Coast has no hope. People put abominations like peppers, ketchup, and more into their cheesesteaks out here.
A Surprising Discovery in Northern California
That’s why I was shocked when I was driving through Northern California towards the Oregon border several years ago, and got off the highway to eat at a restaurant in a tiny town. I discovered the most authentic Philly cheesesteak on the West Coast.
That’s right; the West Coast’s best cheesesteak isn’t in the culinary Mecca of San Francisco, Berkeley, or even in SoCal. The West Coast’s best cheesesteak comes from Burger Barn, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the tiny town of Dunsmuir California.
Dunsmuir’s Hidden Gem: The Burger Barn
Dunsmuir is a town of less than 2000 residents. It’s in the far north of California, located on the upper Sacramento River. Although some people come to Dunsmuir for outdoor activities, most people probably know it as a stop along the I-5 on the way to Oregon. That’s how I originally encountered it, while driving to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Just off the main street in Dunsmuir, to the extent that the town of 1700 souls can have a main street, is Burger Barn. The local restaurant has been serving up burgers, ice cream, and other American fare since the 1970s.
It’s the kind of restaurant where you dine outside with your dog, and see locals stopping by for a sandwich. There’s a giant American flag and the message We Support Our Troops on the menu. The inside is nothing fancy; it has a 1950s diner aesthetic without trying to have that aesthetic, with walls covered in tchotchkes and local photos.
A Taste of Philadelphia in California
When I visited, I was just expecting to get a bite to eat on the road. I saw on the menu, though, that Burger Barn listed a Philly cheesesteak as one of the dishes. Even though I know most West Coast cheesesteaks are awful, I have the same weird compulsion as many Philadelphian natives to order them, primarily to try them and offer some ridicule. I figured I’d give this one a shot.
When it arrived, I was shocked. Somehow, in the middle of the woods in Northern California, here was a sandwich with a perfect Italian-style hoagie roll, thinly cut steak that has clearly been fried on a flat top the correct way, cheese, and nothing else.
Biting into it, I immediately knew that this was the best cheesesteak I’ve had west of the Rockies. It had the gooey unctuousness of a true Philly cheesesteak, with cheese and meat blending together into an artery-clogging, absolutely delicious mush.
A Philadelphia Connection
It turns out that the owner of Burger Barn also originally hails from Philadelphia. In addition to shakes and other staples of a roadside diner, this tiny restaurant has been quietly doing cheesesteaks right for over 50 years.
Burger Barn’s menu says “We truly believe we created something special with this restaurant.” After trying the cheesesteak, I’m inclined to agree.
A Tribute to California’s Diverse Food Scene
Overall, the restaurant is a testament to the diversity of California’s food scene. Most restaurants on a major interstate would offer boring fare that is standardized and homogeneous. Not here!
In California, you can pull off the road and find amazing local food, farm-to-table cuisine – or even a sandwich that perfectly, and improbably, transports you 3,000 miles away in a single bite.