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Big plans for Petaluma’s Rustic Burgers

Oddly enough, even with so many great burgers available to us here in Petaluma, our enthusiasm never seems to wane at the news of another fresh choice. So, it was with great excitement when word of mouth reached me that a guy from Louisiana named “Gator” had just opened a new burger joint in Petaluma.

Born in California, Glen “Gator” Thompson spent his first eight years in Louisiana’s Bayou Pigeon, before his family returned to Oakland. Gator’s love of cooking started when he was eight years old and has not ebbed since.

Gator earned his nickname in the Army.

“After about 16 shots, I got talked into wrestling an alligator at a farm down in Florida,” he said with a grin and a chuckle. Everyone was chanting “gator” and after winning the match, the nickname seemed to stick.

A passion for food

Gator continued to follow his passion for food after leaving the Army. He started out with the Holiday Inn Corp, then the Beverly on Wilshire, before moving back to the Bay Area where he would train at Café la Salle in Sacramento and then under Chez Panisse’s former chef, Paul Bertolli, at Oliveto in Oakland.

Gator’s popularity grew and eventually he opened the highly acclaimed Alcatraces in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Serving California Cajun with Southern hospitality and a Mardi Gras atmosphere, the restaurant was well liked by San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer.

Gator would go on to open several other restaurants, including Gator’s Neo Soul Café in San Mateo and Bayonne Southern Dining in San Jose. However, the crash of 2008 would see these restaurants close, but Gator remained in the restaurant industry working as a chef/consultant before landing at Fenix in San Rafael. This is when Gator discovered Petaluma.

“Our family moved to Petaluma while I was working at Fenix,” he said. “We fell in love with how friendly everyone was. We loved the vibe. I knew I wanted to base Gator’s Rustic Burger out of Petaluma.”

While running the kitchen at Fenix, Gator was invited to compete on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” hosted by local culinary legend Guy Fieri. His wife encouraged him to compete. He would end up winning the show twice before being invited back for Guy’s Grocery Games Masters, where he placed in the top four.

First food truck

All this notoriety and cash winnings made it the perfect time for Gator to launch into his long-time goal of offering healthy, delicious and affordable burgers, first through a food truck, and then eventually at a brick and mortar location that he hopes will span a franchise.

“Years and years ago, I started working on my take on the burger,” Gator said. “Nobody was offering a good handcrafted bun, with great beef, at an affordable price, so I saw a niche.”

Gator first found affordable grass-fed, free range beef from a 30,000-acre ranch in Montana.

“It took eight years to develop the bun,” said Gator of his custom rosemary garlic bun, which is baked daily at his commercial kitchen on Lakeville Street. “And because no two are alike and rarely are they perfectly round, I call them ‘rustic’, which is where the ‘rustic’ part of our name comes from.”

Launched on May 1st of this year, Gator’s Rustic Burgers were an instant success. Initially, Gator’s was parked at the Casa Grande Shopping Center, where I immediately heard rave reviews from the folks at Sarah’s Eats & Sweets. They have since relocated to The Block, Petaluma’s food truck beer garden, where they are currently a mainstay. But, order early, and often, because it is not usual for Gator’s to run out of food with so many patrons flocking to The Block.

The burgers

We rolled in late to our first visit of Gator’s at The Block, and so were only able to try the regular Rustic Cheese Burger and the Rustic Chicken Breast. The following weekend, we arrived early and ordered one of everything on the menu, minus the non-cheesed burger, because quite frankly, if a burger is good enough to eat without cheese, it is going to be even better with.

The Rustic Burger ($6.80) and Rustic Cheese Burger ($7.50) come with lettuce, tomato, and a house-made creole mustard aioli. I can appreciate the value of onions in cooking, but am not a fan of raw onions because I feel they override other more subtle flavors, so I was excited to see that Gator covers these two burgers with sweet caramelized onions.

The Rustic Blue Cowboy Burger ($8.50) and Rustic Chicken Breast ($7.75) are the two best sellers, and for good reason. The Blue Cowboy replaces the caramelized onions with fried onion straws, and is topped with Black Forest bacon, blue cheese, creole mustard aioli, and pineapple BBQ sauce. The Rustic Chicken starts with chicken breast lightly dusted with special seasonings, and is finished with house pickles and rosemary aioli.

Although not yet as popular as the Cowboy or Chicken Breast, we were enthralled with the Rustic Italian Burger ($7.95), which starts out the same as the regular Rustic, with lettuce, tomato and caramelized onions, but takes a Mediterranean twist with the addition of grilled zucchini, roasted red bell peppers, mozzarella cheese and pesto aioli.

The extras

Burgers are customizable with the addition of an extra patty ($1.50), Swiss, cheddar, blue, or pepper jack cheese ($1.50), Bourbon Glazed ‘Shrooms ($1.25), an over easy egg ($1.25), and/or Black Forrest bacon ($2).

Fries are available in standard French ($2.75), Garlic Herb ($3) and Chipotle Parmesan ($3.25.) Personally, I’d like them a bit crispier, the Garlic Herb with a bit less minced garlic burn, and the Chipotle Parmesan flavoring to be a bit more baked in, but having just opened less than two months ago, I am sure Gator is still dialing things in.

Surprisingly good in its own right, the Rustic Meatless Burger ($6.95) will keep the veggies in your group content. Yes, even Gator’s meatless burger is worth a taste. Made by hand, Gator creates his meatless patty with seasoned black-eyed peas, flax seed, carrots, pumpkin seeds, celery and onions. This is laid on a foundation of lettuce, tomato and cucumbers, and then dressed with a house-made creole mustard vinaigrette.

Gator also offers several salads, including the Little Rustic Salad ($3.25), the Rustic Romaine ($6.50; $8.50 w/chicken), and the Rustic Farro ($6.95; $8.95 w/chicken), which consists of roasted farro, dried cherries, toasted pecans, feta cheese, green beans and tomatoes, tossed in a wildflower honey and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Last, but certainly not least, Gator’s offers milkshakes made from Clover Sonoma products, fresh seasonal lemonades, unsweetened ice tea and a selection of Petaluma’s own Three Twins Ice Cream.

A family business

Gator has spent enough time in kitchens in order to know how to move things along efficiently, and warned me his burgers cook up quickly in just three minutes, and are ready to serve in four. Even ordering five burgers at once, we heard Gator’s son Giovanni announcing our number within about five minutes, which makes the wait almost non-existent compared to most food trucks.

Gator’s Rustic Burgers is a true family affair, with Gator’s wife and kids helping regularly on the rig. Gator’s step-daughter takes all the photos for the website, and sons Miles, Diaunte and Giovanni help out with food and service.

Giovanni, who cannot be more than five years old, is following his Chef dad’s footsteps, so do not be surprised if while devouring your Rustic Burger, this Chef Gator mini-me walks up and asks you if you like your food.

“He’s my right hand man,” Gator said. “He started helping in the kitchen at home as soon as he could walk, and now helps me serve and check on tables.”

Bright future

Even though barely opened, Gator is always thinking ahead, always wanting to offer his customers a unique dining experience. I have been promised a first taste when Gator introduces his newest burger, which will be topped with smoked Yellowstone brisket. Gator took home top honors for his brisket at the Great American Blues & Barbeque Festival, beating out nationally known competitors. He is also talking with long-time customers Lorraine and Mike Barber about possibly offering a regular Creole dinner pop-up at their Barber Cellars tasting room at the Hotel Petaluma.

Gator’s plans for the future including his first brick and mortar restaurant location early next year, with the end goal to offer Gator’s Rustic Burgers as a franchise opportunity.

In the meantime, Gator’s will be available at The Block, rolling up at 4 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Friday for the near future. Gator’s Rustic Burgers is also available for private catering. From burgers for the kids to blackened salmon, because of Gator’s culinary background, he is available to cater anything from fancy weddings to company parties.

Gator’s Rustic Burger looks to build a niche business between highly popular chains like Habit Burger and In-n-Out, and the high-end restaurant burgers that run upwards of $20. With burgers available in fast-food time, but made with healthy ingredients, and at a fraction of the cost of fancy restaurant burgers, I believe Gator’s Rustic Burger has done just that.