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Scowley’s Burgers an affordable, tasty option for families

Robert Gaustad knew he had a tough row to hoe when he signed the lease for Scowley’s Burgers last spring. The prior tenant had abandoned the location, on the southern edge of the Plaza North Shopping Center, leaving a greasy mess unlike anything Gaustad had ever seen. What no one could have predicted was that within weeks of taking over the space, the pandemic lockdown would hit.

Scowley’s Burgers

address: 229 N McDowell Blvd, Petaluma, CA 94954

website: scowleys.com

phone: 981-7746

deliveries: Petaluma Food Taxi.

hours: Tuesday to Sunday 11a.m. 8:30 p.m.

Online ordering is encouraged as current staffing restrictions can sometimes lead to long phone wait times.

Not wanting to walk out on his lease, and with no idea how soon indoor dining would reopen, Gaustad immediately started the back-breaking work to clean the former Wingstop.

“That was the hardest job I have ever done,” he said. “The cookers were greased over beyond belief, but they were still worth something, so I wanted to clean them up. However, the pandemic had just hit, and I couldn’t get anyone to come out and do it.”

Gaustad took the clean-up as an opportunity to introduce himself to the Petaluma food scene through his numerous social media updates, which also served to help keep Scowley’s at the top of everyone’s list of new places to try.

Petaluma’s dinning public are supportive, especially when we feel engaged. The secrecy and surprise that may get other towns whipped into a frenzy is particularly short-lived here, often spelling disaster before a Petaluma restaurant really has a chance to present itself. Our locals are just as interested in the people behind the restaurant as the food itself.

To this end, Gaustad gained immediate fans by openly sharing his vision and responding publicly to questions, even reaching out to his new followers to find out their opinion on proposed menu items. He even got help from the local dining scene to find the best local suppliers.

By the time Gaustad opened in October 2020, Scowley’s already had a following of diners eager to try the burgers, dogs, salads and sandwiches. Gaustad’s prior restaurant was a neighborhood hangout and his initial interaction with Petaluma’s curious foodies certainly showed his interest in wanting to be involved in the community more than simply to sell burgers. And sure enough, Scowley’s has already been involved in community events, including a recent evening when Gaustad delivered free dinners to the volunteers of nonprofit Una-Vida to enjoy as they coordinate the weekly food pick-up for families in need.

Adding to the local feel, one of the first orders of business in prepping the new restaurant for its eventual opening was Gaustad’s commissioning of legendary muralist Maxfield Bala to garnish Scowley’s wall with a piece titled “Farm to Table.”

Gaustad was born Sacramento, lived in England for a short while and eventually movied back to the family’s hometown of Berkeley where he started kindergarten. Although his family has historically attended Cal Berkeley for college (since 1919), Gaustad was the black sheep and picked San Francisco State University for the film program.

After graduation, he moved to New York City to produce commercials. He eventually moved back to California, relocating to Los Angeles for the film business. In 1984 he got into computers and found the work both interesting and lucrative. Throughout his career he got to work with many innovative companies and got to see the development of the internet from the inside looking out.

After 9/11, Gaustad moved home to the Bay Area. “I was never a SoCal guy,” he said.

He got into food and had his first job as a chef at Red Grape, just off the square in Sonoma. He would continue to go back forth between hi-tech and food before a girlfriend from Santa Monica told him about a place for sale on University and Shattuck, right in the heart of Berkeley.

“The restaurant was serving Indian food and pizza,” Gaustad remembered. “We had it rebranded and reopened in two months, however we almost went under because it took the city six months to approve our liquor license.”

The restaurant, Bobby G’s, opened in 2006, survived the recession, and would end up being a neighborhood hangout for the next decade.

“We showed all the local games and always had live music,” said Gaustad, who is an accomplished blues harmonica player. However, by 2016, Gaustad had enough of seven-day work weeks and decided to sell his restaurant.

"It was a great experience, but as I was saying my goodbyes that last day, I thought I was being serious when I said I would never open a restaurant again,” he said. “My plan was to write a book about my experience in the restaurant industry.”

After a stint in Petaluma, he moved to Santa Rosa and ended up traveling quite a lot. He also watched a lot of shows like Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

“I saw the passion that those small restaurant owners had. They were making great food. I had always wanted to open a burger joint so when this location became available in 2019, I made the deal,” he said.

The name Scowley’s is a tribute to the café that used to be in Bolinas. The year Gaustad was born, his grandfather bought a house in Bolinas that his family visited regularly during his childhood. (Scowley’s was next to Snarlie’s deli, which was across the street from Smiley’s Saloon, which claims to be the oldest continually operating saloon on the West Coast, having been founded in 1851.)

Back in Petaluma, at the new Scowley’s, we were impressed that instead of trying to wow guests with huge yet bland portion sizes, Gaustad places an emphasis on quality ingredients in affordable packages. Although diners can add enough options (like extra patties, bacon, bacon jam, roasted green chilis, pickled red onion, and even a fried egg or sausage on top) to push the price into double digits, 95% of the menu is under $10, and quite frankly, seems underpriced considering the quality of ingredients and preparation. We ordered a dozen items, plus a couple of drinks, and our bill barely broke the century mark.

It is an additional positive note that the burgers and sandwiches are not super-sized because that leaves plenty of room for the excellent fries…or chili fires…or even chili cheese fries, without feeling bloated. (Onion rings are also available.)

From the onset, Gaustad used quality bread from Full Circle Bakery. Unlike a lot of burger and hotdog buns, especially after the take-out or delivery car ride, these do not get mushy, nor do they fall apart. Between the bread, the sandwich ingredients include ground beef and hotdogs from Stemple Creek Ranch, sausages from Caggiano Co. and Yanni’s Sausages, chicken from Petaluma Poultry (Rocky the Range Chicken), goat cheese from Laura Chenel, with a few other ingredients come from Golden Gate Meats and BiRite.

Gaustad puts thought into everything he does, evidenced by the take-out containers sourced from Petaluma’s World Centric. The design of these containers does a great job at insulating the food while not over-steaming it, which can leave burgers and fries soggy.

“I worry about every burger that goes out our door, so I run tests myself,” said Gaustad. Because all of Scowley’s current business is take-out, Gaustad periodically tests his own take-out to make sure it can stand up to the delay that takeout causes between griddle and kitchen table.

“But, if we let you down, let us know and we will fix it. Nothing is more satisfying that having someone tell us, ‘We love your burgers,’” he said.

Although not something I would normally notice, the veggies in the salads and sandwiches were particularly fresh and crisp, and dare I say, even appetizing. This all made sense once we learned that Scowley’s gets their veggies from Feed Sonoma and Marin – Sonoma Produce.

“I can’t wait until things are back to normal so I can shop the local farms directly,” said Gaustad. “I am particularly excited to source some of our great local tomatoes.”

While on the non-meat topic, we have finally tasted our first Impossible Burger and were pleasantly surprised. Had we not had another beef patty to compare to, we very well might have been fooled by this faux beef burger. I have heard stories of customers calling in to a restaurant to complain that they received a meat patty when what they had ordered was an Impossible Burger, only to find out that was exactly what they were holding. I have no doubt those stories are true.

It certainly helps that Scowley’s does an excellent job with the preparation of their Impossible Burger. We went with just the standard toppings, plus cheese, although I was tempted to add bacon jam. We even chose the vegan house dressing and were thoroughly impressed with the entire package. That said, I know from experience that to make a processed food item taste this good usually means a lot of added salt, sugar and/or fat. I would guess that holds true with these faux burgers too so if you are avoiding meat based on your doctor’s orders, double check the ingredients of meatless burgers because they may not be allowed by your dietary restrictions either. However, if you like the taste of meat but avoid it for personal reasons, this will certainly do the trick. Scowley’s also offers the Beyond Burger but with that one being more widely available in both restaurants and grocery stores, we opted for the Impossible Burger this time around.

Scowley’s menu is quite a bit larger than it first appears at first glance because of how much fine-tuning you can do on every item. Whether one adds, removes or doubles up on anything from patties to veggies to bacon jam, the flavor combinations are endless. However, even though add-ons are abundant, I always recommend sticking to the restaurant’s suggestions for at least the first visit so one can get a good feel for what the chef is trying to present.

Starting with the drink menu, Scowley’s has a good beer selection, including a full range of suds from Moonlight Brewing and looks forward to adding more tap beers once indoor dining reopens. We also like that Scowley’s offers Mexican Coke.

As mentioned, the salads were excellent, with very crisp ingredients, and great dressing, whether it was the Caesar dressing on the Caesar salad or the honey mustard dressing on the Arugula and Goat Cheese Salad (with dried figs and pepitas).

One of Gaustad’s favorite items, the Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich has become a fan favorite and topped our list too. However, be forewarned that the spicy slaw is not for the weak of heart. The regular slaw is a tasty substitute that turns down the heat a bit, if spice is not your thing. The chicken itself was impeccably cooked and like all Scowley’s dishes, was the perfect serving size.

With two beef patties, grilled Andouille sausage, two slices of cheese and all the fixings, their signature burger is a powerhouse, to say the least. This time around, we opted for the standard cheeseburger and were quite pleased with the package. The Stemple Creek patty was well cooked and seasoned, and the bacon jam certainly did not hurt things.

Chorizo burgers always catch my eye, both because I love chorizo but also because these burgers tend to be a bit more creative than a normal burger. Scowley’s Spicy Chorizo Burger made good use of caramelized onion and avocado to complement the heat from the jalapenos. For those looking for a more balanced spiciness, this is the burger, while those looking for explosive heat should go with the Grilled Chicken Breast Sandwich.

Being big fans of cheese, we also have a hard time passing up on grilled cheese sandwiches, especially when, they come with a four-cheese blend like Scowley’s. At Gaustad’s suggestion we gladly added a slice of awesome applewood smoked ham.

I usually ignore patty melts because if I want ground beef, I order a burger and if I want Russian dressing and marble rye, I will order a Reuben. Thankfully, all the rave reviews on social media for Scowley’s Patty Melt meant it made it into our order. The grilled onions, house dressing and two slices of cheese, atop a grass-fed patty, all melted between excellent marble rye made this a spectacular sandwich.

Already pushing the surface area limits of our kitchen table, we held our dog order to just two of the six option and were happy with both. We already know we love Yanni’s sausage, so saved the Grilled Yanni’s “The Lamb Gyro” sandwich for next time. Instead, we went with the Grilled Smoked Hot Beer Sausage and Chili Cheese Dog. We particularly like that the Hot Beer Sausage was butterflied, which is how my dad taught me to cook sausages when they were going into a sandwich. We were also impressed with the Chili Cheese Dog, both as our first try of a Stemple Creek hotdog, as well as for the Lagunitas beer and jalapeno cheese sauce, which was not rubbery like a lot of cheese-spread sauces.

We were also incredibly happy with Scowley’s chili, which tenders straight-forward meaty and smoky flavors without the greasiness we often find in restaurant chili. As official chili judges ourselves, we have experienced a wide range of award-winning chilis but when it comes to a sandwich or fry topper, tend to prefer chili to be no fuss. Although I do not see it as an option on the menu, I am curious how this chili would go on top of one of Scowley’s cheeseburgers.

We also had the chili on an order of fries, which can be ordered stand alone or can be added to any sandwich for just $2. (Same goes for onion rings, which we did not taste this time around.) Speaking of fries, these were particularly good and for a delivery order all the way across town, arrived surprisingly crispy on the outside, and ideally creamy on the inside. This is one of those things that restaurants really worry about, so if you are going to order fries for pick-up or delivery, please understand that they are never going to be as crispy as what you would get in the restaurant, fresh from the fryer.

Once things open back up for indoor dining, Gaustad looks forward to taking on his role as ambassador, working the tables so that he can meet and get to know his guests. He hopes to create a comfortable space where neighbors come to visit and enjoy good comfort food. With quality ingredients, clean flavors and the kind of value that makes feeding any family affordable, we look forward to watching Scowley’s Burgers develop and grow.

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