Why you should care
Because this hot chili-cheese-and-jalapeño glory pile is #getinmytummy good.
Your one hand holds the steaming bag of chili-filled goodness. The other hand tremulously approaches the white plastic fork emerging from the cheesy depths. Welcome to the saucy, luscious glory of your first Chuck Wagon Frito pie.
First, a Frito pie primer: Dozens of chips are smothered in hot chili and served right in the bag. Some chips stick their heads out, defiantly crispy, while others soften under the weight of beans and beef, curling into the bag’s curves and achieving the consistency of the best cornbread. On top of this glory pile: a gooey melt of cheese and fresh-cut jalapeños. Some associate Frito pies with desperate, soggy satisfaction at football games or stuffy-smelling roadside stops. They likely haven’t tried Chuck Wagon.
People buzz about, ripping hot dogs out of their brown paper bags, chili smeared over their cheeks.
Nestled in Sanger, California, Chuck Wagon is exactly three hours and 21 minutes from San Francisco, and three hours and 20 minutes from Los Angeles — but so worth the trip. Each visit is a voyage back to the days of locally owned fast-food joints. The outdoor seating is humble and efficient, and a small triangular building houses the kitchen and cashiers. People buzz about, ripping hot dogs out of their brown paper bags, chili smeared over their cheeks.
When the restaurant first opened in the 1930s, it was accessible only via a dirt road. Named for the wagon in a wagon train that carried cooking tools and provisions — “chuck” is cowboy slang for food; it also refers to a cut of beef between the neck and ribs — Chuck Wagon is now run by sisters Joanne and June Furumoto, whose father bought it in the 1970s. They hold tight to their history. Have they ever considered changing the chili recipe? Joanne’s response is simple: “No.”
Joanne is thoughtful and reserved. Beneath straight brown bangs, her round glasses are fogged up from the heat of the kitchen. It’s hard to get away: The stream of hungry customers is constant, even on a cold night like tonight. She tells me that the crowds at “Chuck Wag,” as some locals call it, are more or less dictated by the weather. The busiest months are spring and summer, when the Central Valley weather — notorious for being the exception to the California rule of 75-and-sunny — is most temperate. On busy days, Chuck Wagon can make upward of 700 chili fiends happy. Besides locals and the occasional road-trippers, Joanne tells me, she sees a lot of displaced Sanger natives who have come by for some Proustian rapture while visiting family.
Take Scott Galloway, who moved away in 1990 and now lives in Oregon. He’s here with his mother-in-law, Jean, and explains that, for him, the holiday chili-fix visit isn’t always enough. Luckily, Chuck Wagon has a solution — the chili brick, a frozen block of chili packaged in a foil container. Jean admits to tucking the chilled chili into her Oregon-bound baggage many a time. One desperate winter, she wrapped a chili brick in “so many layers of newspapers” and overnighted it to Scott. Fortunately, the brick arrived safe and ready to smother some fries.
Before letting Joanne take care of the woman drooling in line behind me, I sneak in one last, admittedly selfish question: Can I take the recipe home? Alas, Chuck Wagon’s ambrosial nosh is not for our kitchens. Laughing, Joanne tells me, “It comes with the building.”