An old time favorite comes back to life in Ojai
Indulge at O-Hi
By Nicholas Franklin 12/27/2012
O-Hi Frostie at Josephina’s Cafe
1205 Maricopa Highway
It’s been said by many that our sense of smell and its counterpart, taste, are more deeply intertwined with memory than any other sense. My first bite into the corn burritos from the new O-Hi Frostie at Josephina’s Cafe took me back, way back, to when I would sit with my grandfather in his truck, waiting to hear our number.
Suddenly my mind is flooded with a torrent of imagery. One day I bring our order and we eat — like men, silently — on his bench seat. The woven seat-cover is scratchy against my leg. And KHAY is playing Alan Jackson on his radio, over the noise of older kids skating behind us in the parking lot. This was an after-school ritual for years. It’s two years too late for us to enjoy this food together again, so for me, being able to summon that memory is priceless.
A lot of people are going to have their own version of that experience. For 53 years O-Hi Frostie was a place that played a far greater role in the lives of locals than is typical for a burger stand. The sliding windows, the fiberglass benches, the tables scrawled with the initials of thousands of teenage couples — all of it was saturated with memories. But all that disappeared in 2006 when the Frostie was ordered to vacate the premises so that it could be razed in the name of progress. As when the Top Hat in Ventura closed, to many people it felt like the end of an era and a sign of change in Ojai’s character.
So I was elated when I heard that former owner-cook Rick Henderson was pairing up with Michael Luevano, owner of Josephina’s Cafe, to bring back O-Hi Frostie. But before going, I had to tell myself that it wouldn’t be quite the same. It couldn’t. So I was hoping more than anything that the food would taste as it always did. Without the old location, what would O-Hi Frostie be if the food was off? I didn’t know what went into the signature red sauce; what if six years later the brands once relied on had gone out of business?
Those fears were put to rest a few chews into my first bite of the corn burritos. They are the same as always, still different from others in the county in that they have a signature crunch from being filled lightly with refried beans. The red sauce, which I’d most feared would be different, still has the tomato tang tempered with a bit of sweetness and mild chili and onion heat. Leaving the cheddar-jack blend to halfway melt over the top as it used to in the old brown to-go boxes made these a perfect re-creation of what once was.
This is no coincidence. The keys to that consistency are the contents of an old pea-green box full of yellowed recipe cards. “I’ve never wavered or changed anything,” Henderson told me, while leafing through the cards. “I follow these things to a T.”
This was also evident in the Frostie Burger, which is still a neat little burger with a unique taste. As always, the beef still comes freshly ground from Starr Market. The thin bun allows the patties to shine, but what makes it different is the proprietary sweet relish that has been used since the Frostie’s beginnings. Ample shredded lettuce and snappy pickle slices give a fresh, crisp texture. Henderson said it reminds him of the taste of an old Big Boy burger. I can’t comment on that, but I will say that if you have a big boy appetite, go for a double (or the Mile High Triple).
The menu is still trim, halfway realized in its resurrection. Henderson says that will change as the business takes root. “There’s only three of us (working here) right now,” he said. “Michael wanted to do a grand opening on January first but I said no way.” With corn burritos, beef taquitos, burgers, mini-chimis (small chimichangas with red sauce and cheese) and shakes, there’s enough at hand to satisfy, though.
Actually, taking the Josephina’s Cafe menu into account makes for many options. I figured that serving two menus was the product of compromise, but Henderson said that was his idea. “Not every mom and dad want to eat O-Hi Frostie food,” he said. Neither does my girlfriend (often, anyway), so it worked out well for me one afternoon to have falafel as a healthy option when I wanted to stuff myself with corn burritos.
As for the future, Henderson hopes they will outgrow this location within a year and find a way to get back on Ojai Avenue. For now, the new location works; there’s already kind of a ’50s diner feel to it. It’s an easy compromise with change when you sink your teeth into something that has been consistent and familiar for decades. But it’s not just participation in the legacy that elevates this above standard burger-stand fare. The unwavering, signature flavors will invite those unfamiliar to come and form new rituals that will be great memories.