Cheese toast time machine

Down the highway, an iconic American buffet is still sizzlin’

Is that really…? Cheese toast! (Photo by Ken Smith)

Every time I pass through Yuba City on Highway 99, I am struck by two sights that never fail to excite and bewilder me. The first is the wild chickens roaming and roosting along the roadside. The second is the Sizzler.

Free-range poultry living next to a fast-moving suburban thoroughfare is strange for obvious reasons. Urban legends abound about their origin, but there seems to be no consensus regarding where they came from, why they stay there and how they (mostly) manage to avoid becoming roadkill, considering a chicken’s legendary compulsion to cross roads.

Though more mundane, the presence of an open and operating Sizzler has been no less baffling to me. Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, the chain was ubiquitous, as were its commercials. (The way “Sizzzzler” was whispered Ying Yang Twins-style at the end of many of these ads is burned into the collective Gen X psyche.)

But the chain started declining in the mid-’90s, and mostly disappeared. It has lingered on with its share of ups and downs the last two decades, and filed for bankruptcy in 2020 as another casualty of the COVID-19 era. Still, some Sizzlers soldier on.

Until recently, I hadn’t stepped inside a Sizzler in more than 15 years, and that was a sad last tango at a run-down restaurant in the desert that left me with haunting memories of threadbare Sizzler-green carpeting, defeated-looking employees and a gnarly case of taco bar poisoning. That’s unfortunate because I have mostly happy memories of the place. Steaks and seafood weren’t the norm in my household and Sizzler’s dedication to delivering these delicacies to the masses at affordable prices was admirable and appreciated by this meat-loving little chubster. For this, Sizzler founders Del and Helen Johnson are culinary saints, like the late Momofuku Ando, who invented instant ramen.

So, on my way home from a recent visit to Sacramento, nostalgia conspired with curiosity and hunger, compelling me to stop in. And, oh boy, am I glad I did.

Sizzler is open in Yuba City. (Photo by Ken Smith)

The décor has been updated, with the Yuba City location being brighter and airier than the Sizzlers of my childhood. Pictures of smiling people, white water rafters, cowboys, American flags, etc., are scattered about in clusters, creating an atmosphere something like an Applebee’s, but less obnoxious. A blown-up menu, with pictures, hangs on one side of the entryway, depicting tasty plates of steak and shrimp and shrimp and steak in different arrangements. The prices are also still fairly reasonable, falling safely somewhere between Denny’s and Black Bear Diner.

Some scientists say smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory, and this was proven the second I stepped inside. No place on Earth smells quite like like Sizzler, an aromatic blend of meat, A.1. Sauce, freedom and something completely fantastic … Sizzler’s secret weapon, the grilled cheese toast. I was immediately transported to another time. Suddenly, it was like a Thursday night in 1986 and I’m out on the town with my grandparents, who are rearing to get down with a couple of senior specials and some all-you-can-eat shrimp.

One of the managers rang me up, and I have to say he was one of the warmest, friendliest food service folks I’ve met in awhile. He laughed at my jokes about Sizzler still being a thing, and was very accommodating. He stopped by our table later, asked where my companion and I came from and talked about his own Sizzler memories.

I passed on all the stock meals, tempting as they were, to hit the buffet. Deep into the pandemic, I remember lamenting all the things that were gone and contemplating how some might never return. I feared that buffet-style dining would certainly go the way of the dodo in our strange new world, but luckily that apocalyptic prophecy never came to pass. This visit was my triumphant return to a buffet, and I meant to make the most of it.

As we sat down, a friendly waiter greeted us to take our drink orders and asked, “Will you and the lady be having our grilled cheese toast tonight, sir?”

“Yessir. Hell yes. We will definitely be having the cheese toast.” Two plates were waiting for us by the time we returned with our salads. The first bite was next-level-nostalgically delicious. This stuff is legendary. There are many recipes and how-to videos online for people trying to make DIY Sizzler toast.

Tacos and spaghetti and meatballs, like God intended. (Photo by Ken Smith)

The Yuba City Sizzler has a clean and exemplary smorgasbord-style spread. I started with the salad, piling my plate with mixed greens and topping that from bottomless dishes of black olives and three types of grated cheese. The main course was a couple of custom-built tacos smothered in nacho cheese sauce and sour cream alongside some spaghetti with lots of meatballs. Then the sweet plate, with a foundation made of equal parts peach cobbler and bread pudding with little dollops of chocolate and key lime cheesecake puddings. And, of course, I had a small side bowl of vanilla soft-serve topped with a little bit of chocolate and strawberry sauces. And sprinkles. And tiny chocolate chips.

All-in-all, I went in expecting either something like my last visit, or a little blast from the past and some laughs. I was surprised to find a seriously tasty meal with some exceptional service. I couldn’t stop smiling and regaling my dining companion with Sizzler stories and memories through the whole meal. The restaurant has something for everyone, but I feel like it’s an especially worthwhile adventure for people of a certain age looking for a momentary escape from this particular timeline.

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