Saturday, December 3, 2016     Volume: 17, Issue: 39

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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Chicken fingers crossed: California Grill sets the bar for chicken strips in Nipomo


I left California Grill with one major regret—I forgot to try their famous “Cali sauce.” It haunts me in my sleep. That fateful moment keeps replaying in my head over and over. 

“What kind of dipping sauce do you want with your chicken strips?” the cashier asked me. 

My answer was the same robotic phrase I utter every single time that question is thrown my way. 

These chicken tenders are too good to be true. But if this is just a dream, I don’t want to wake up.

“Can I have ranch and barbecue?” I thoughtlessly replied. 

I shouldn’t be so hard on myself though, I’m just wired that way. It’s basically been an ongoing word association test my entire life—you say “chicken,” I say “ranch.” Actually no matter what you say, I’ll probably say ranch. To be honest, ice cream might be the only food that doesn’t make me crave ranch dressing. 

But you really can’t go wrong with either ranch or barbecue sauce when it comes to chicken tenders (there are many ways you can go wrong with honey mustard). And the absence of Cali sauce did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying my meal. 

Still I remain curious aboout what the sauce tastes like, since it’s featured on more than half of the burgers at California Grill. The burger list is the first on the menu, which is written out on a large chalkboard by the cash register. Every burger at California Grill is topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles (unless requested otherwise). The first burger listed is the Cali (I wonder why), followed by the Classic, the Tosino, the Mushroom, the Ortega, the Wild West, the Teri, and the Veggie. 

The only two burgers that don’t have Cali sauce are the Wild West and the Teri. The Wild West comes with barbecue sauce and the Teri comes with teriyaki sauce. Oh I get it now, Teri is short for teriyaki. But by that logic, the one with barbecue sauce should be called the Barbie? 

Looks like everyone is texting their friends about how much they love California Grill.

I like that all the burgers start with the word “the”—each one could be the title of a Seinfeld episode. I was reminded of Seinfeld a second time when I saw a group of friends sitting at one of the booths. They weren’t even eating, just talking. California Grill feels like that kind of place—those casual restaurants you find in Seinfeld and other sitcoms where the characters meet just to discuss what kind of shenanigans they got into that day. 

And similar to those sitcom settings, there isn’t anything particularly special about the way California Grill looks—but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I like to believe that places like California Grill try to let the food speak for itself, rather than distract customers with flashy décor. Having said that, there is still an apparent effort being made to preserve a California-themed setting—surfboards hanging on the wall along with photos of the Golden Gate bridge, stuff like that. The table I sat at was next to a framed painting of a yellow VW bus—I picked it because it reminded me of the film Little Miss Sunshine (plus all the booths were taken). 

I usually limit myself to free water cups when eating out, but I decided to splurge on a small Dr. Pepper that day. Maybe it’s unfair of me to use the word “splurge” in this scenario, especially since the most expensive meal on California Grill’s menu is less than $10—the fish and chips for $9.89. But if you don’t mind smaller portions, the fish and chips kids meal is only $6.35. I almost considered getting the chicken fingers kids meal for $5.89, but I went all out for the $8.89 “adult” basket.    

Grab a strip
California Grill is located at 277 W. Tefft St., Nipomo. They’re open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Now you may have noticed that throughout this review, I’ve used the terms “chicken strip,” “chicken tender” and “chicken finger” interchangeably. Is there a fundamental difference between a chicken strip and a chicken tender that warrants a separation? And I wonder who was the first person to call them “chicken fingers” to begin with, and for what possible reason. But let the record show that I have not once used the term “chicken nugget,” which is clearly a separate entity.

No matter what you call them, I do recommend that you try the chicken blanks at California Grill. It’s difficult to praise chicken blanks without sounding pretentious—what can I say? The breading was exquisitely crispy? The shade of gold couldn’t have been more perfect had it been touched by King Midas himself? Just trust me when I say that California Grill’s chicken blanks are pretty blanking good. Part of me is tempted to order one of those custom made trophies for them: Best Chicken Blanks would be the inscription. If more people want to chip in for that, maybe we can afford a custom trophy shaped like a chicken blank too.

Caleb Wiseblood still has nightmares about forgetting to order Cali sauce. Send him tips for a better night’s sleep via Editor Shelly Cone at