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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist
A few years ago when I was on a quest looking for the best hamburgers in Bakersfield, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse and Red Robin were not exactly top contenders.
Things have changed. BJ's is undergoing a serious menu revamp and one of the first things they've done is to actively promote their gourmet burgers.
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We recently sampled one of the new additions, the Double Deluxe burger ($9.50), and I have to say it's a lot more tempting than the pizzas and sandwiches on the regular menu. You can get the burger in the bar or the dining room; the Double Deluxe is made with two 5-ounce Angus beef patties, Applewood smoked bacon, grilled onions AND crispy onion strings, cheddar and Swiss cheeses, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles and BJ's signature burger sauce. It's definitely for the hungry soul or those willing to save some for lunch the next day. They also have new bacon cheeseburgers and another topped with bleu cheese.
Red Robin is temporarily offering a more expensive burger, the Smoke & Pepper, priced at $13.49. It's an amazing creation for a chain restaurant. It was created by Chef Laurent Tourondel, who won Miami's 2013 South Beach Wine & Food FestivalÂ® Best of the Bash burger competition with his Smashed Smoked Burger.
Red Robin's version features a half-pound Angus beef patty seasoned with smoked sea salt and topped with black-pepper bacon and extra-sharp Cheddar on a ciabatta bun with the house-made Smoke & Pepper ketchup and leaf lettuce.
It's been a long time since I got passionate about a ketchup, but this is amazing -- chunky and as interesting as a good salsa. At the Bakersfield restaurant they let you order it "some pink" or "no pink" (some please!) and it was presented medium.
The extra sharp cheddar had such a pronounced flavor, which was necessary to stand up to the smokiness of everything else.
The Olive Garden is even getting in on the burger wave, adding one to its lunch menu for the first time in the chain's history. The Italiano Burger has a six-ounce beef patty topped with prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, arugula, tomatoes marinated in basil, garlic and Italian spices, with a garlic aioli spread for $9.99. The chain also has added two new items to the "Lighter Italian Fare" section of its menu, which features entrees with fewer than 575 calories: a baked tilapia and shrimp in white wine sauce with garlic broccoli ($15.99) and grilled chicken breast topped with rosemary and caramelized garlic cloves served with garlic parmesan-mashed potatoes and spinach ($13.99).
New and different
Jack in the Box is offering a fajita ranch melt for $3.99 for a limited time, made with chicken, roasted red and green peppers and onions, pepper jack cheese and everyone's favorite dressing on toasted sourdough bread ... Chick-fil-A has brought back its wonderful chicken tortilla soup for the winter. The chain also made news by announcing all foods would be made without high fructose corn syrup or artificial dyes ... Panera Bread is offering K-cups of its coffee at grocery stores in four varieties: dark roast, light roast, Colombia and Hazelnut CrÃ¨me. ... Valentien Restaurant & Wine Bar will have one seating at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and two on New Year's Eve. They are closed on Christmas Day, and are already taking Valentine's Day reservations. Call 864-0397 ... Subway is offering $2 subs all month (meatball marina or cold cut combo, both 6 inches) ...
New Orleans on the way back
Great story in the New York Times about the restaurant recovery going on in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina severely cut the population of the The Big Easy. The number of restaurants per capita is now up to No. 14 in the nation (San Francisco is No. 1 -- apparently no one there cooks at home!) and the industry makes up 10 percent of all the jobs in the city. Established restaurants are being bought and revamped, such as Galatoire's . In March, a group of brothers who got their start with frozen daiquiri bars acquired the 93-year-old Broussard's and spent more than $1 million refurbishing it.
All-you-can-eat Whoppers at Burger King
In Japan last month, the chain was offering all-you-can-eat Whoppers. There were rules. The eating binge was limited to half an hour. You needed to finish a sandwich before ordering the next one. It was also limited to the hours of 2 to 11 p.m. Of course, no sharing is allowed, but the price brings unlimited drinks, fries and onion rings with the feast. Cost was only 1,000 yen ($10 American). The offer ended Dec. 1, but this is the second year in a row for the very American promotion.