I won't pretend to know much about Nipomo, a small town off of the 101 Freeway, about 25 miles south of San Luis Obispo. The unincorporated area, which has a population of roughly 16,000, was originally intended to be a stop on the first regular mail route up the coast of California. There's a Chinese restaurant, a Subway, and a luffa farm, where you can check out how luffas (or loofahs) grow. Most famously, Nipomo is the setting of one of the most famous photographs of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother.
This is all germane to Nipomoans, but perhaps not enough for an outsider, your average Joe or Jane Los Angeles, to stop and take a detour on the way up to Hearst Castle or the Madonna Inn, or up to Deetjen's in Big Sur to frolic with the spirit of Henry Miller. Let this persuade you, then: you can get an outstanding cheeseburger. I don't like using superlatives like "best," especially in the hyper-competitive world of burgers where the bar for excellence is set impossibly high — but the cheeseburger at Jocko's Restaurant is truly great. And worth your time.
That said, planning ahead is necessary: when I strolled in one early evening without a reservation, the hostess seemed positively shocked. "You don't have a reservation?" she asked, looking around for someone to share her confusion with. She frowned and said, "Well then, I don't know... it'll probably be a two or three hour wait." Lesson learned. The place is extremely popular with locals (always a good sign), and tables book far in advance. That said, take-out is always possible, and it gave me ample time to poke around the restaurant.
The décor is somewhere between rec room and Elks Lodge — not particularly inspired, but homey. The large Jocko's sign on the brown and white tiled exterior says, "this is a place I can safely take my parents." The somewhat perplexing phrase "Come In An Monkey Round" beckons in large white letters from one side of the building; it's a reference to one of the original owners, Ralph "Jocko" Knotts, and the fact that the word "jocko" means monkey. The Knotts family, which still owns Jocko's, has owned some version of a restaurant or saloon in Nipomo since the late 1800s. The restaurant's current incarnation has existed since the 1950s.
Behind the main dining area, there's a small hallway that leads to the kitchen. That's where you wait for your take-out orders. I struck up conversations with waiting patrons, including an elegant older woman who said she usually calls ahead but didn't get around to it this time. She would now and then poke her head into the kitchen to talk to the cooks and ask how her (and my) order was coming along. A side door off of the hallway leads to an outdoor area with a huge wood-fired grill that cooks ribs, chicken, and the restaurant's signature Spencer steaks.
The cheeseburger ($9.25) was ready in about 15 minutes — certainly an improvement over three hours. It was, upon first impression, a portrait in perfect simplicity: 1/3 pound patty, American cheese, sesame seed bun, pickles, lettuce and thick cuts of fresh tomato and red onion. In an era of excess and one-upmanship — cramming every random, imaginable thing inside a bun and calling it a burger — this was a welcome relief.
My first thought upon biting into the burger was, "Wait. Wait. Why does this taste so good? Did someone sprinkle some magical fairy crack on this? Because this shouldn't taste as good as it does." The patty was juicy and loosely packed; the first bite sent a messy stream of clear liquid down my arm.
A dizzying combination of smoke, liquid, and fat
The burger had a salty, rich char from the grill, all nearly ensconced in the blanket of melted cheese. The beef taste was potent — a good cut of meat, like a steak. The bun, soft and yielding, was the perfect vehicle. The overall effect was a dizzying combination of smoke, liquid, and fat, all complemented by generous cuts of fresh vegetables.
Go through Nipomo and stop by Jocko's the next time you're driving up the coast. It'll be worth your while. Or take a special trip; you won't regret it. Just call ahead.
Jocko's Steak House
125 N Thompson Ave
Nipomo, CA 93444