This classic Sacramento burger joint is the tastiest stop on the drive to Tahoe

Clockwise from left, chocolate shake, large chili fries, Hammer 4 and a Slammer DCC at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.
Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE

A good burger never goes out of style. For some, it’s Americana sandwiched between two buns. For Bill Taylor, proprietor of Willie’s Burgers in downtown Sacramento, it calls back to a more innocent era, a time where he and his then-high school sweetheart, Stephanie Taylor, would grab a couple of late-night burgers at one of Los Angeles’ most historic fast food stands. 

“We used to go down to the Original Tommy’s on Rampart [Boulevard] and stand in the parking lot with the pigeons eating this incredibly wonderful burger,” Stephanie recalled. “We were so enamored with the chili that whenever we’d fly back to Sacramento to visit our family, we’d bring a quart of it back home with us — and that’s never got out of Bill’s system.”

Screenshot of Willie's Burgers at 2415 16th Street Sacramento, Calif.

Screenshot of Willie's Burgers at 2415 16th Street Sacramento, Calif.

Screenshot via Google Maps

‘It’s the chili that makes Willie’s unique’

After graduating from college, the two eventually moved back to Sacramento, where they raised their three children, Lauren, Greg and Brooks. The flavor of an Original Tommy’s burger stuck with Bill, and as he continued to commute from Sacramento to Los Angeles for work, he realized that Sacramento was lacking in the late-night burger department. So, he consulted the experts. 

Bill Taylor at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

Bill Taylor at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE

In the late 1980s, Bill, with no prior restaurant experience, sat down with a former In-N-Out manager and asked a million questions. He took notes on everything from when to flip a patty on the grill to how he’d set himself apart from the more seasoned competition.

“He goes, ‘Hey, just keep it fresh and use a sauce that’s got a little bit more bite to it.’ So we use a Thousand that’s got a little bit more horseradish in it,” Bill told SFGATE. “First of all, we do everything really fresh. We cook it to order, and I think that's the secret to In-N-Out, to Tommy's. The idea was to capture those traditions and bring them back to Sacramento.”

In 1991, Bill opened Willie’s Burgers at 2415 16th St., an establishment inspired by his childhood nickname. It’s a small burger joint, but it’s known for big flavor, and it’s become a reliable Sacramento staple for more than 30 years. 

A customer holds a Slammer DCC at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

A customer holds a Slammer DCC at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE

In addition to its delicious burgers dressed with a sharp Thousand Island spread and fresh, hand-cut produce, Willie’s is also known for its white paper bags filled to the brim with generous portions of thin-cut, crispy french fries. 

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It’s also the perfect quick stop for a delicious meal as Interstate 80 connects to Highway 50, if you happen to be en route to Tahoe or another destination north. (Just take the 15th Street exit from Highway 50 if you’re coming from the Bay Area.) 

As far as Willie’s famous chili is concerned, its base is akin to the iconic burger and hot dog stands found in Los Angeles, and a nod to the more innocent days when Bill and Stephanie would enjoy date nights at Tommy’s while shooing away those persistent pigeons.

Willie's staff member pouring chili over fries at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

Willie's staff member pouring chili over fries at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE

“People argue about this. It’s actually the same chili as Tommy’s and Pink’s. People in L.A. argue over which is better, Pink’s or Tommy’s, but it is the same chili. Anybody can buy it, you just got to know what to do with it,” Stephanie told SFGATE. “But to me, it's the chili that makes Willie's unique. I mean, lots of places have great burgers.”

‘Our patties are a little bit bigger’

Other menu favorites include chili cheese fries and hot dogs with fresh slaw, but Willie's is also popular for its secret recipe for hand-dipped onion rings. Each ring is encased in a thick batter and deep fried until golden brown. The flavor is unlike any other. If you took the best state fair corn dog batter and married that with a warm funnel cake — you’d get the essence of an order of Willie’s onion rings.

“The onion rings, I sat there and video’d staff doing the deep fry after the onions were freshly cut. It took five minutes to make an order of onion rings,” Stephanie said. “So each one is hand-dipped. They don’t come frozen. It’s terribly labor intensive, but honest to God, those are the best onion rings I’ve had outside of L.A.”

An order of onion rings at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

An order of onion rings at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20, 2022.

Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE

Thirty-one years since opening day, Willie’s on 16th Street is still a stop for bar-hoppers, night owls and hungry travelers with its proximity to freeway exits and on-ramps. Behind the counter is a dedicated crew of employees, some who have worked for Willie’s since it first opened. It’s even a favored spot for some of Sacramento’s most decorated chefs. 

“One night, Bill and I went out to dinner with some friends from L.A., and we went to The Firehouse,” Stephanie said. “The chef came out and he said, ‘I heard Willie’s is in the house. We love Willie’s!’ All those big fancy chefs, they go to Willie's after their shifts. It’s really dependable and consistent.”

In 2004, Willie’s expanded to the Carmichael suburb of Sacramento, opening its largest location, near the American River at 5050 Arden Way. Then in 2016, Willie’s opened its third outpost in Old Sacramento on bustling K Street right on the Sacramento River. 

Exterior photo of Willie's Burgers located at 5050 Arden Way in Carmichael, Calif.

Exterior photo of Willie's Burgers located at 5050 Arden Way in Carmichael, Calif.

Courtesy of Wille's Burgers

While Bill and Stephanie are no longer married, each member of the Taylor family operates their own Willie’s establishment. Bill runs the original 16th Street hub. Stephanie oversees the Arden location, and their middle son Greg, along with his wife Rachel, steer the ship in Old Sacramento and offer craft beer on tap. 

“It's a public service. We brought these burgers to Sacramento long before In-N-Out dropped in the equation,” Bill said. “And frankly, our burgers have stood the test of competition. Our patties are a little bit bigger … our milkshakes have more butterfat content than they do. I’ve put theirs on a scale and ours on a scale and we’re about 40% more in terms of weight.”

Local customer grabbing the Slammer DCC on a tray with a Hammer 4 and large chili fries at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento CA, Nov. 20, 2022

Local customer grabbing the Slammer DCC on a tray with a Hammer 4 and large chili fries at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento CA, Nov. 20, 2022

Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE
Local customer grabbing the Slammer DCC on a tray with a Hammer 4 and large chili fries at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento CA, Nov. 20, 2022

Local customer grabbing the Slammer DCC on a tray with a Hammer 4 and large chili fries at Willie's Burgers in Sacramento CA, Nov. 20, 2022

Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE
Slammer DCC with a Hammer 4 and large chili fries. (Taras Garcia/Special to SFGATE)

Now in its second generation as a family-run business, Willie’s has truly earned its place as an anchor in Sacramento, known for serving a damn good burger. For Bill, that’s what it’s always been about.  

“That’s what makes owning a restaurant like Willie’s really, really important to me is the feedback and knowing that you’re part of a community,” Bill said. “I’ve got people who were coming into the store, bringing their kids. And in some cases, bringing in their grandkids. That’s not something they teach you in business school, but that’s what business is really about.”

Willie’s Burgers, 2415 16th St., Sacramento, open Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-3 a.m. Willie’s Arden, 5050 Arden Way, Carmichael, open Sunday and Monday, 10:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Willie’s K Street, 110 K St., Old Sacramento, open daily, 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.