I was in Fontario, near the Inland Empire’s biggest inland port and in the gray myriad of warehouses, when out of the night came something that looked like a cross between Vegas and Chuck E. Cheese.
Cowboy Burgers & BBQ looks like it’s some Hollywood set gone horribly wrong, with an old wagon sitting in the bushes near the drive-thru and dummies dressed like cowboys and Indians. In the gargantuan dining room, you find wagon wheels, saddles, hay bales and a mural of cowboys riding out of the sunset among palm trees and rocky desert mountains.
There are also sketches of such Western heroes as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, Buffalo in the Wind, Hollywood-styled cowboy John Wayne and Willie Nelson (well, he did write “Crazy” for Patsy Cline and is a kind of country music “outlaw”). Think New West cowboy rather than Texas cowboy—otherwise there would be no Indians on the walls.
There’s also the cheesy claw machine—which never picks up stuffed animals—parked in the corner with some guy so sure he’s going to get it this time, and the obligatory NO SHIRTS, NO SHOES, NO SERVICE sign (sometimes it has to be said, doesn’t it?). And all of it is surrounded by red, white and blue booths, with the bench and table placed far apart to cater to even the most expanding waistlines.
Cowboy Burger & BBQ starts off with the typical hamburger and fries fare, but also manages to ease in barbecued ribs and salads to make sure it isn’t easily pigeonholed as a fast-food joint. Dinner entrées show up on “special”—a dry-erase board sitting near the cash register—with items like stick-to-the-ribs pork chops and fried chicken, which is still fit for cowboys, though maybe a more on the side of “made from scratch” or homemade.
I’m the first one to say that I love eating things that aren’t healthy for me, so I’m skeptic about “homemade” anything, but I was pleasantly surprised by the hearty smell of barbecued flesh and non-assembly line burgers.
There are familiar things on the menu; the Western Cheeseburger may seem familiar to those who eat the Carl’s Jr. bacon version, but it’s even a little better. I know, I know . . . I couldn’t believe it either. Who could top that mess of spicy sauce, institutional-yet-crunchy onion rings, and that “charbroiled” patty? Well, it’s because I ate a burger at the Cowboy with enough char on it to know that Carl’s must be rushing its meat through a heat lamp.
I figured I should try something a little more cowboyish, so I also had the Chili Cheeseburger, cut in half and wrapped in yellow paper. The oddest thing was how neat and clean it was, wrapped so you could eat it without dribbling all over yourself on the first bite. All their combos are available with or without chili cheese fries (unlike most fast-food joints).
Dinner is lightly attended. With all the manufacturing and warehouses around it, you’d think the place would only be packed at lunch, but those who make up the dinner crowd look like some of the same workers who frequent the Cowboy during the noon rush, on a return trip with friends and family in tow to show off their culinary find. It’s cheap, clean—and hey, it got an “A” from San Bernardino County’s Division of Environmental Health Services. You should never overlook that in Fontario.
Cowboy Burgers & BBQ, 11673 Etiwanda Ave., Fontana, (951) 681-2020.