March 12 2003

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Cheap Eats
by Dan Leone

Cattle call

I WAS GOING around Sonoma County looking for 55-gallon steel barrels, I won't say why. But I found a couple, finally, at my new favorite place to shop, Bataeff Salvage in Santa Rosa. Now all I needed was the perfect thing to hit them with, but nobody, not even Bataeff Salvage in Santa Rosa, has cannonballs. My search for a suitable sledgehammer bounced me around the county some more.

Beautiful county, Sonoma County. Especially this time of year, after the rain and before the scorch. The hills are green and pleasant and rolling, like 55-gallon steel barrels in the back of a van, only not so clangy. They say that Sonoma County, what with all the budding vineyards and wineries and tourist attractions, actually has a pretty impressive restaurant scene too. I never knew what they were talking about until today, when I stumbled onto the Petaluma Livestock Auction Yard, home of Mike's at the Yard, a little hole-in-the-wall lunch counter that burgers up the local ranchers and chicken farmers and other riffraff Monday to Saturday between eleven and three.

This is probably the first place I've been to up here that I would say warrants a special trip up from the city – if not for the burgers themselves, for the sheer sport of eating at a livestock auction yard. And if you come on a Monday (and you're not careful), you could wind up with a cow – and then won't you be the envy of your apartment building.

In any case, you'll wind up with at least part of a cow. There are a couple things on the menu that aren't burgers, but I was sitting at the counter, right in front of the griddle, and the only things I saw on it that weren't burgers were buns.

There are four tables with business cards and pictures and stuff under the glass, and then there's the counter, which is painted in a cow-spot pattern. Low ceiling, fluorescent lights, New York Jets paraphernalia everywhere. Mike's a big fan, and explains why on the back of the menu. Seems he was conceived on the night they beat the Colts in the Super Bowl.

No explanation for the rubber duckies. There's a whole shelf of them behind the counter, though, and a tub of them afloat just outside the door. But best of all, atmospheric touch-wise: on the edge of the counter where I sat down, where one might normally expect to find a folded-up sports section with ketchup stains on it, was the old classic Mattel electronic football game. Remember that? With the blinking red lines and three lanes to run in, blinking red defenders. Back when games were games, instead of movies.

Flooded with nostalgia, I held the worn, old gizmo in my hand and flipped it on. It worked. I lost a yard, and then I gained two yards ... but I'm not a sports writer. Let me tell you about the burgers.

They're big – about a half a pound, I'd say – and they all come with cheese. Most places charge extra for cheese, Mike notes on the menu; he charges five cents to take it off. Burgers and cheese belong together, period. I liked that attitude, especially once I found, to my relief, that it did not extend to the mayonnaise. The burgers normally come with mayo and relish, tomato, lettuce, onion, blah, blah, blah.

Macaroni salad or potato chips. No fries, but not because Mike's mean; because he's lazy. He counts down on the menu 11 reasons for not serving fries, and I think that was the number-one reason. Laziness. Which would also explain, I suppose, why he doesn't work there. At least I didn't see no Mikes.

There was the waitressperson, and there was the cooker, this dreamy woman with this dreamy look in her eyes. She might have had a couple of 55-gallon steel barrels and something good to hit them with in the back of her van, too ... except that it wasn't at all a smiley sort of dreaminess. I watched her work, and I watched her not work. I watched her stare off into space. My point being that never once did she crack a smile, or say anything to anyone.

I tried to engage her, using my number-one Cheap Eats icebreaker. "Do you have a rest room?" I said.

She reached under the counter for the key.

"Outside," she said, "behind the outhouse."

Cool. I hoped that that meant the weeds, but there was an actual rest room outside behind the outhouse.

Win some, lose some. The burger? It was good. Not by any means the best burger west of the Pecos, as Mike claims, but it was a good solid good damn burger in a great, great place. And if you think $6.50 is too much to pay for a cheeseburger, you can always get a double one for $8.50.

Mike's at the Yard. 84 Corona Rd., Petaluma. (707) 769-1082. Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Takeout available. No alcohol. Credit cards not accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Dan Leone is the author of Eat This, San Francisco (Sasquatch Books), a collection of Cheap Eats restaurant reviews, and The Meaning of Lunch (Mammoth Books).