Three years ago, when Bev Scheftz bragged that the burger at Blueberry Hill, her new Irvine Entertainment Center food stall, would be the best in Orange County, I was skeptical. Then I ate one, and I've been a believer since.
Now Scheftz, who has a chain of Blueberry Hill burger joints in Ontario, Canada, has opened her first sit-down restaurant, also named Blueberry Hill, this in Long Beach.
It doesn't look much different from many another late-'90s casual restaurants, but it is. The food is several steps above what you get in the usual family restaurant, and some of it is just plain terrific.
This is a cheerful, airy place, furnished with robin's-egg blue booths, cobalt blue light fixtures and a long counter. The main dining area is dominated by a colorful, '50s-style mural emblazoned with some of the lyrics to the Fats Domino song that's the restaurant's namesake. The servers, most students at nearby Cal State Long Beach, sport denim uniforms, which I can imagine them wearing to class as well.
There's a big, diverse American menu, but the best thing here is a hamburger. The Grand Thrill burger has the trademark Scheftz heft (it's a half-pounder), and it's topped with lettuce, tomato, a pickle spear and the Blueberry Hill chain's special sauce.
In Irvine, the Grand Thrill (also an 8-ounce model) is embellished with a whopping 10 toppings: alfalfa sprouts, hot peppers, special sauce, relish, tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle, Dijon mustard and barbecue sauce. I'm told that the Long Beach kitchen has all the ingredients to make a proper Grand Thrill a la Irvine; if you prefer, ask for it Irvine-style.
There are several other topping options. The Kitchen Sink--an 8-ounce patty with jack and cheddar cheeses, spicy grilled onions, bacon, sauteed mushrooms, salsa and guacamole--was good and juicy, made (like all the burgers here) with fresh, flavorful meat. If you're up for a Kitchen Sink, you'll love it . . . as long as you use both hands to pick it up.
For sides, look to the menu's Fries, Rings and Things section. Gravy fries is a Quebecois specialty known as poutine, and a side order is de rigueur. These good, greaseless fries are topped with a rich brown gravy--and melted cheddar. Whew. It gets cold in Quebec, and I guess you need a dish like this to keep warm.
Another great side is "foot o' rings": crusty hoop-sized onion rings stacked on a wooden ring-toss stake. These are first-rate, as light as Japanese tempura.
Even before you get to that burger, you may fill up on appetizers or soup. The spinach artichoke dip is flat-out the best I've tasted. It's heavy on the sour cream, topped with melted cheese and chopped tomatoes, and it's delicious with the warm corn chips.
A nice, meaty chili is made with kidney beans, carrots, lots of beef and relatively little spice; it's topped with shredded cheese, red onions and big scoop of sour cream. The chicken tortilla soup has a nice whiff of cilantro in every spoonful. Best of all is a matzo-ball chicken soup that beats any O.C. deli's, a chicken-rich broth with ultralight matzo balls from a recipe developed by Scheftz's mother.
Not everything here works so well. I'm not impressed with the eccentric take on two American classics, turkey potpie and beef stew. The potpie is more like shredded turkey and vegetables in a thick gravy, though it comes in a properly flaky crust. But instead of the diced potatoes in the pie, you get mashed potatoes (and corn on the cob) on the side.
The beef stew is a weirdly spiced pile of beef, gravy, string beans and corn, surrounded by a moat of mashed potatoes. On the side are buttermilk biscuits--served at room temperature. How is the butter going to melt?
Items from the grill are nothing to write home about. (It's a gas grill, not charcoal.) The baby-back ribs are standard issue, basted with a sweet sauce. A bland roasted chicken is seasoned with trace amounts of garlic and herbs.
No problem with the Greek salad, though. It's loaded with feta cheese and Kalamata olives and comes with any entree. If you're having a sandwich, add a Greek salad for $1.69.
Save room for Blueberry Hill's sumptuous desserts, on display by the front register. Kenny's Key lime pie is a subtle, pale yellow custard fragrant with the flavor of real Key limes, on a thick graham crust; it's terrific.
Innovative desserts that Scheftz calls "commotions" are made from condensed milk, whipped cream and various fillings and served in plastic parfait glasses. The Oreo cookie commotion is my favorite; the caramel banana commotion is another good one. All the commotions are filling enough for two.
I don't know about you, but I've definitely found my thrill.
Blueberry Hill is moderately priced. Appetizers and soups are $2.97 to $9.75. Burgers and sandwiches are $5.75 to $7.95. Entrees are $6.95 to $12.95.
Blueberry Hill, 5735 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. (562) 986-4455. Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. MasterCard and Visa accepted.