“Chili represents your three stages of matter: solid, liquid and eventually gas.”
— From the TV show “Roseanne” (1992)
It had been a very long time since I had visited the Hoosegow, 2884 Ray Lawyer Drive in Placerville, in the back of the building next to Raley’s in Placerville. “Cleverly Hidden in the Back” is their motto.
Jim and Karen Watson have owned the Hoosegow for 15 years and have become well-known for not only their great food, but also their friendliness. Jim is usually the one taking orders, greeting people and explaining all of the plaques, signs, notes and pictures on the wall, while Karen is in the kitchen doing all the hard work (Jim told me that once).
Jim is a world champion chili cook and just a couple of years ago picked up the world champion award for salsa. He and Karen, who have been married for nearly 50 years, have traveled all over the United States to enter chili and salsa competitions and love to relate their adventures. Jim is also a direct descendent of James Watson, who arrived in Monterey around 1824. Karen is the genealogist in the family and she can tell you a lot of interesting tales about his ancestors.
“We have made some changes to the menu. We used to have certain specials every week, like Mexican food on Friday and grilled burgers on Saturday, but now nothing is carved in stone. There are 59 items on our menu, but if you have a half-dozen people who want Mexican food or burgers and call us in advance, we can probably do that. In addition to our barbecue, we recently bought a smoker and can do tri-tip, burgers and other things on it. We make our own burger and tri-tip seasoning blend, and even have it for sale so you can try it at home. We also sell a spicy tomato sauce called, ‘Baja Mariner Tomate-Rica.’ I used a bit in my world championship salsa. It is good,” Jim said.
“In addition to our regular hours, we will open up in the evening for a special event for groups of 35-50 people. Lately we have done a lot of these kinds of dinners for various organizations and groups. We will be feeding about 500 people at these dinners in the next three weeks, but there is still room if you have a group,” Jim added.
The Hoosegow menu contains 14 cold sandwiches, 10 hot sandwiches, four combo sandwiches, four soup salad, soup sandwich combinations, nine different salads, seven hot dogs, a garden burger and nine dishes featuring their famous “Coyote Chili,” with and without beans. To go with your meal they also serve sodas, ice tea, hot tea, coffee and lemonade, along with Hoosegow Pale Ale, draft and bottle beer and box and house wine by the glass. Yes, box wine.
“We are not wine people,” said Jim, “we looked around for inexpensive wines and then decided if box wine is so popular, we should add it.
“We used to serve chips or a side with all our sandwiches, but decided to lower the prices and let you buy the side or chips. It ends up costing the same or less and not all people want a side dish.”
Coyote Chili, which Jim has worked on for a long time is really good. So good, that when Huell Howser, the host of “California’s Gold,” stopped by for lunch when he was in town a while ago, he had seconds. They knew he liked it, but were delighted when he sent them a letter declaring it to be the “Best Chili in California.” It is posted on the wall, along with just about everything else they own.
If you are wondering, I stopped by because I love liverwurst and they make a great liverwurst sandwich, something I haven’t found anywhere else. I don’t buy it to use at home, because it comes in large rolls and is not really on my diet. So a trip now and then to the Hoosegow to fulfill my desire. This time Jim had me try some of the garlic potatoes as a side dish. The potatoes were outstanding. There is no such thing as too much garlic, Jim and I agree on that.
The Hoosegow is open from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (unless they are at a chili cook-off). They can be reached at 530-626-4722.