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Make The Bucket in Eagle Rock your first choice for great burgers and fries
By Erica Wayne 03/13/2013
Remember the “Saturday Night Live” “Cheeseburger-Pepsi” routine with John Belushi as the grumpy proprietor? No matter what customers wanted, he’d bark back “Cheeseburger-Pepsi” to apprise them of the limited menu.
When I first made the acquaintance of The Bucket in Eagle Rock back in the late 1970s, it was pretty much like that, except that beer was also available. If you asked nicely, there was also deep-fried shrimp wrapped in bacon, even an occasional steak.
A stucco hut with a curving 10-stool counter in a space that's probably smaller than your kitchen and a lot less elegant, The Bucket’s been in business on Eagle Rock Boulevard since 1935 and currently has a Zagat rating of 22. When I first started going there, the restless clientele lined up waiting for seats to vacate was a diverse mix of garage mechanics, retirees and Occidental College folks, all at the mercy of then chef-owner Julio Maeso, whom I had nicknamed “The Mad Basque.”
When Julio was in charge, he provided a nonstop luncheon theater show. The entertainment was sometimes slapstick (I once saw him use a rubber baseball bat to go after a customer who had spilled a pitcher of beer) and sometimes verged on X-rated (Asked whether he was Sicilian, he responded by detailing the parts of his anatomy that would qualify for citizenship in various countries). But it was all done with good humor and at the insistence of an appreciative audience that goaded him into higher and higher gear.
The slogan “we do it your way” likely never occurred to Julio. It’s certainly the only restaurant in which my request for a double cheeseburger was turned down flat with the response “It’s too big for you.” Asking for a diet soda, I was told that it flattens the bust and that I would do better to have a beer. Not wanting to defend my anatomy in front of a happily expectant group, I meekly reiterated my preference. Luckily, Julio was feeling magnanimous and I received my soda. A friend who ordered beer was asked if she was married and, if so, whether her husband knew she was drinking spirits at midday in the company of strange men.
Julio’s been gone for almost two decades, but he’s still a legend. A question as to his whereabouts elicited a debate among the staff as to whether he was still alive; the chef said he thought Julio had died, but the waitress, (a post-Julio addition, along with a phone, credit card payments, extended hours and an expanded patio space that allows for more comfortable seating and waiting) had heard he was alive and living with his sister.
Whatever, eating at The Bucket is not nearly as much fun since his departure, when masochistic diners used to feel like well-fed extras in a Marx Brothers movie. But it’s still a unique experience. And the food, despite the limited menu, is damned good.
Julio was right: A double cheeseburger’s too much food for almost anybody. The single “Julio” ($7.50), a half-pound (that’s right, eight full ounces) hand-shaped patty loaded down with grilled onions, tomato, Romaine lettuce, pickles, mustard, ketchup, a choice of cheese and smothered in Julio’s signature sauce made up of strong doses of vinegar, mustard and garlic stands about five inches on its sesame-studded roll.
Gourmands can over-indulge with the well-named “Cardiac” (a pound of meat with cheese, bacon and grilled ham, onions and mushrooms — $12) as well as a number of other burger permutations, but they won’t find chicken, fish or veggie-burgers on the menu.
The Bucket’s French fries ($3) are probably store-bought, as are the huge, lightly-coated onion rings ($4). But the round fries ($4) appear to be cut from fresh, unpeeled potatoes on-site and are a real joy. Slightly thicker than a good kettle chip, they have more crunch than the traditional cut while retaining much of the flex. One thing’s certain; the heap of whatever side you choose will be huge and delivered piping hot from the fryer, although not as quickly as some might want.
Speaking of the fryer, the best seat in the house is still one of the stools (now only seven) surrounding the diminutive kitchen where you can watch the show. Julio’s work is now being done by a duo (and sometimes a trio) of cooks who grill and douse the beef, bacon, onions and mushrooms with the same garlic powder and Worcestershire used by Julio. The meat’s thick enough to be charred crisp but with a hint of pink when it comes off the griddle — no gray, rubbery patties at The Bucket. Ditto for the fried potatoes, onions, hot wings ($7.50) and “Julio shrimp” ($5), wrapped in bacon (with artificial crab, which I’m pretty sure is also a post-Julio addition).
The last time I saw Julio in the early ’90s, there was a “For Sale” sign on the door. When I asked if he was really planning to sell, he answered in typical Julio fashion, asking “Why? You wanna buy?” Then he proceeded to offer his opinion of the restaurant's future. Gesturing grandly (and almost knocking the burgers out of his clients’ hands in the diminutive space), he said, “They’ll make it beautiful. Put in booths. Tablecloths.”
Well, he was wrong about that. Julio’s shabby-chic (or is it just shabby?) ambiance was just too good to change, as was his cooking policy, now made permanent by the new owners on The Bucket’s menu: “We do not serve fast food; we serve great food as fast as we can.”
4541 Eagle Rock Blvd.,