The stand-alone structure at 723 Elk Valley Road in Crescent City saw one tenant move out this spring and another take its place, catching attention as ever.
The building is an old chuck wagon, added onto three times, its ceilings hovering six and a half feet off the floor. It houses three booths, one two-person table, a kitchen and a service counter. It's a veritable county landmark at the intersection of Elk Valley Road and Howland Hill Road.
Tina Mattz, proprietor of the Burger Hut restaurant that opened up there in June, has picked up bits and pieces of the old chuck wagon's significance to Del Norte County residents.
"People have said, 'I had my first date in that booth,' and they're 65 years old," Mattz says with a laugh.
"It's a really good location. Everyone always looks forward, when someone goes out of this place - 'Oh, what's going to be in the little place next?'"
The chuck wagon has been a fixture of the area for around 60 years, according to Larry Childs, the building's current owner. (Childs also owns the neighboring Park City Superette convenience store and Park City Trailer Park.) It was a popular haunt for farm laborers in the area, and then for residents in neighborhoods such as Bertsch-Oceanside.
"As the economy has declined, people have been trying different things," Childs says. "A lot of people have had success there, but it's short-term."
Childs estimates that, over the last 20 years, Burger Hut is the eighth business to open up in the chuck wagon - and not the first burger joint.
"We're strategically located," he says. "We probably have upwards of 3,000 cars (passing by) a day."
Gordi Bros, owned by Jorge Gonzalez, was the chuck wagon's tenant as of May 31, when Gonzalez moved the Mexican restaurant to 4301 Lake Earl Drive in Crescent City.
Mattz opened her first restaurant, the now-defunct Buck Board in Lakeside, Ore., at age 17. She has cooked at Elk Valley Casino, Lucky Seven Casino and at Pelican Bay State Prison.
With Burger Hut, Mattz's motivations were geared in part toward her family. Her twin sons Hunter and Hawk, both 18, and twin daughters Courtney and Nicole, both 16, work in the restaurant with her and assist in every phase.
"I wanted to teach them how to do things," Mattz says. "They can learn everything I know. Not everybody's going to take the time to teach somebody."
Burger Hut's menu is simple and self-explanatory. Burgers cost from $5.90 to $9.90 and are made with half a pound of beef from Redwood Meat Company of Eureka and cheese (as specified) from Rumiano Cheese in Crescent City. French fries are separately apportioned (from $1.95 to $4.50) and cut on site. A reporter ordered a large portion of fries that filled a fast-food basket to its brim.
"You're not going to walk away hungry from whatever I do," Mattz says.
Specialty burgers like the hangover (with a beef hot dog and a fried egg) and the NorCal (bacon, grilled onions, garlic and barbecue sauce) come with preselected toppings, but for lettuce, onions, pickles and the like, Burger Hut has a small do-it-yourself toppings bar.
"I'm particular with burgers," Mattz says. "If you put something on it you don't want, it's your own fault."
As customers visit the chuck wagon for lunch or dinner, Park City Superette reaps rewards as well. Childs notes that customers would purchase food from Gordi Bros, walk across the parking lot and buy two-liter bottles of soda from the Superette.
"There definitely have been a lot of folks saying, 'I was coming for Gordi Bros. I'll try this,'" Childs says, referring to Burger Hut.
And the customers are still coming to 723 Elk Valley. Mattz says that Burger Hut "has paid for itself and pays the bills."
"We do have, it appears to me, people who do appreciate that type of food," Childs says of his new tenant. "A couple of guys tell me they come and eat there twice a week because it's a burger that you would build at home."
The chuck wagon, painted white with green trim, has picked up right where it left off in Del Norte County lore as a culinary destination.
"Some of the better places are little hole-in-the-walls, (an) off-the-beaten-path place that doesn't look special," Mattz says. "You may have to work harder but the profits will be there."
Reach Robert Husseman at firstname.lastname@example.org.