The Central Calif. drive-in that inspired McDonald’s dessert

It’s just after 1 p.m. on the longest day of the year. The San Joaquin Valley heat hasn’t yet turned all the way up, and it looks like a thunderstorm is brewing over the eastern foothills, cumulonimbus clouds heaping upon themselves like meringue. 

Against this heat, Andre’s Drive-In beckons like an oasis. It’s a concrete and steel mid-century space ship that looks like it fell from the sky 65 years ago, smack dab in the middle of Bakersfield. As I wait for my food, I look at the giant curbside arrow — reminiscent of In-n-Out’s famed logo, which came out around the same time — pointing the way from the street as I wait for my food. 

Beyond the menu, the first thing you should know about Andre’s is that it should have been one of the original McDonald’s franchises, the first in the Central Valley. (As a reminder, it lives in the shadow of one today, right across the street.) 

After Andre’s turned down McDonald’s, it became a fast food innovator, responsible for some of our favorite eats.  

Immigrants to fast food pioneers

The story begins with Cyrille Andre, who emigrated from France to Bakersfield in the late 1800s to herd sheep. He went back to his home country for a spell, and married a woman named Marie. The pair then returned to Bakersfield to start their life together in 1910. They had six children and ran several businesses that were agriculture- and dairy-related. 

Many generations of Bakersfield (and California) residents have been greeted by the same Andre’s sign, which signals they’re about to partake in a meal from the birthplace of many fast food favorites. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

By 1946, three of Andre’s children, John, Joe and Mary, started Andre’s Dairy Bar inside a grocery store on Chester Avenue, the city’s arterial road just blocks from where Andre’s stands today. 

A few years later, Los Angeles relatives introduced the Andre family to brothers Mac and Dick McDonald. The brothers had converted their roadside McDonald’s Bar-B-Que stand in San Bernardino in 1948 into what we know today as ground zero for fast food — complete with drive-through service, plastic menu boards and sliding windows. 

As the McDonalds were getting their footing, the Andre siblings were growing and modernizing their business. They opened a fast food stand in the early 1950s, Quickie’s Snack Bar near the campuses of Kern Union High School (now Bakersfield High School) and Bakersfield College. In 1955, the first Andre’s Drive-In threw open its order window on Niles Street, the main drag that connects downtown to the east side of Bakersfield. The second, and now only, location opened on Brundage Lane off Chester Avenue in the summer of 1957.

“The McDonalds offered the Bakersfield territory to the Andres, who declined,” said an article in the October 2013 issue of Bakersfield Life Magazine, “a decision the family never regretted.”

Enter the French burger

Through the decades, Andre’s has several menu items that are both nods to the founding family’s lineage and remain unique to the restaurant — along with other items that have made their way into the fast food zeitgeist. 

Sitting on the grill and ready to go, the famous French burger at Andre's Drive-In in Bakersfield is the 65-year-old fast food icon's flagship meal. 

Sitting on the grill and ready to go, the famous French burger at Andre’s Drive-In in Bakersfield is the 65-year-old fast food icon’s flagship meal. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

The restaurant’s signature meal — never replicated by big fast food, it’s unscalable — is the French burger. The item is singular, if only for its obscene portion size and indelible French(ish) twist on an American classic. Two hamburger patties covered in melted American cheese lay side by side (not on top of each other) beneath a bed of shredded lettuce, pickles and spread on a buttered French roll, grilled to an enviable crisp. 

Heat radiated off of mine as I removed the forklift-worthy prize from the bag. It was swaddled in yellow paper and wrapped up giant burrito-style in aluminum foil. I undid the wrappers slowly, as if waiting for a golden ticket to pop out. What I got was better. Maybe it was the perfect heat and melt and crispness and gooeyness that happened all at once. Maybe I was hungry from the time I’d spent on the road to get there. Or maybe the gathering storm clouds that signaled something more sinister on the near horizon made me want to relish this food escape that much more. 

Unwrapped and ready to be eaten, Andre's Drive-In's famous French burger is a gooey, melty and generously portioned miracle right in the heart of Bakersfield. 

Unwrapped and ready to be eaten, Andre’s Drive-In’s famous French burger is a gooey, melty and generously portioned miracle right in the heart of Bakersfield. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

One Bakersfield local who now lives in Wasco, Selena Fuentes, explained to me why she drove 27 miles for the midday treat. “I get the French burger, always,” she said while waiting for her own. “Again, I’m not big on meat but it’s just overwhelmingly good. I have to make sure I have someone to eat it with, though. Today, I’m taking it to my mom.”

The ‘Big’ Big Burrito

“Overwhelmingly good” was the little mantra I used to keep pushing through this meal that was definitely meant to be shared by many. Next up was the “Big” Big Burrito, a menu item that the Andre family introduced in 1968 as the Big Boy Burrito. Soon after, the Southern California burger chain Bob’s Big Boy threatened litigation on the name and the “Big” Big Burrito was born. 

The super-sized burrito wasn’t the first in fast food lore. Taco Bell started serving its version in Downey, California in 1962. Andre’s giant version, however, did come a year before another famous giant burrito: Raul and Micaela Duran’s now oft-replicated version at Taqueria La Cumbre in San Francisco. 

Andre’s take on the giant burrito comes deep-fried, which I initially balked at. But with the encouragement of the current owner, South Korea-born Boung Choe — “It’s our other specialty,” she said — I caved quickly. 

Andre's Drive-In's lone cook Fred Oh grills up some of the 65-year-old institution's favorites on a hot Bakersfield Friday afternoon. 

Andre’s Drive-In’s lone cook Fred Oh grills up some of the 65-year-old institution’s favorites on a hot Bakersfield Friday afternoon. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

The burrito comes with a pile of hot sauce and Sriracha packets at the window, along with a fistful of napkins. And it is served churro-style, the fried end sticking out of the long, white paper sheath. I took a few sips of my soda to clear the palate from the French burger and tried to let it all settle, before dousing the burrito’s end with red and green sauce and taking a generous bite. 

The roof of my mouth immediately blistered and was rendered useless for the rest of the meal, my tongue soon to follow. The four-alarm blast of fried tortilla and scorching beans, meat and cheese lit up my esophagus, turning it into an exhaust pipe. I had to set it down as sweat from my brow pooled on the table. What a mess I was. Three minutes later, I picked it up again with similar results. Finally, after about eight minutes of nibbling the smoldering beast, the thing was cool enough to tame. 

Like the French burger before, it the burrito was gooey, melty and impossible to set down — also a meal built for multiple participants.

A third recommended menu mainstay that I didn’t have room for this time was Andre’s Western Bacon Cheese, a burger standout (served over a regular bun) that Bakersfield local Dane Perryman assured me is the first of its kind, anywhere.

“Probably the best burger in town, this Western Bacon is the original,” he told me, saying it predates other versions by decades; Carl’s Jr. debuted its own in 1983. “I’m also here for the fried zucchini, another Andre’s first — and best anywhere as far as I’m concerned.”

A still-standing California original 

There’s not a lot of time for owner Choe and I to talk as she works, switching between walk-up and drive-through guests with ease. Remarkably, there’s only a single cook working the flat top. He takes his time with each handwritten order slip, making every item to spec — each customer seems to have at least one custom tweak they’ve adopted over the years. It’s not a loud or chaotic environment but an economical one. There’s no seating inside, just the windows, the drink station and a grill.

The order window at Andre's highlights some of the restaurant's all-time favorites. 

The order window at Andre’s highlights some of the restaurant’s all-time favorites. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

To go to Andre’s is to go back in time. The allure of the lit-up rooftop Andre’s sign and the tail lights and people interacting car window to car window seems elusive, even as it’s happening. While the original McDonald’s is now a museum, In-n-Out’s OG is a replica and the first Taco Bell was plucked from its location and moved to the restaurant’s corporate world headquarters in Irvine, Andre’s is still standing.  

It continues to thrive — but not without challenges. 

“I want to keep Andre’s the same. Same food, same building, same feeling,” Choe says. “But it’s hard sometimes, it’s hard to keep younger people interested. Chains open around Bakersfield all the time, newer, with more famous food.”

Competition both local and international

It’s not just about the McDonald’s across the street. Choe mentions Jollibee, a Philippines-based multinational chain. It recently opened a store in Bakersfield that serves more internationally influenced variations on traditional fast food standards. 

“They have advertising,” she says. “People know about those places — but they don’t know Andre’s.”

As a passenger in a pick-up waits for their meal at Andre's Drive-In in Bakersfield, a McDonald's looms in the background. The McDonald brothers originally offered the Andre family one of the first of their burger franchises.

As a passenger in a pick-up waits for their meal at Andre’s Drive-In in Bakersfield, a McDonald’s looms in the background. The McDonald brothers originally offered the Andre family one of the first of their burger franchises.

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

At the same time, Choe says she understands her place in the Andre’s story, one that seems to have repeated itself. Like the Andre family, she and her husband are both immigrants. He was the first to come to Bakersfield. They met in 1991 and were long-distance for five years before they married in 1996. Soon after, she arrived in Bakersfield and “started my second life.”

The Choes had another burger stand by the airport, but in 2003, they started working at Andre’s for the surviving Andre siblings. In March 2006, ownership was transferred to the Choes. With intention, the spirit and the menu of the Andre family remains. 

“John Andre made a living on it,” Choe says. “He invented new things and he made a lot of decisions for this kind of food that spread out to the world in general. He made up the side order, and the pies are his, too.”

Oh yeah, about the pies. Everyone who’s ever had a McDonald’s apple pie likely has Andre’s to thank for that as well. The Andre family churned out house-made pie-like fritters, deep-fried and glazed, from the get-go. McDonald’s introduced their version in 1968, same hand-held half-moon shape and everything. 

Leave room for dessert. Andre's Drive-In has been baking fresh hand-held pies for more than 60 years in downtown Bakersfield. 

Leave room for dessert. Andre’s Drive-In has been baking fresh hand-held pies for more than 60 years in downtown Bakersfield. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

I didn’t think I had room, but, once more, recalled what loyal patron Fuentes told me. “You can’t leave out the pie,” she said. “I do the chocolate. They don’t have it every day or they run out. Today they did.”

The future of Andre’s

It’s appropriate that a place like Andre’s, one that has been both standard-bearer and innovator, remains in Bakersfield. By default or design, it’s a town that is able to sustain such endeavors, or at least keep them from being demolished, or embalmed and turned into memorabilia shells. Generations — pre-Dust Bowl to present — have found their way there. Some have stayed. Others outgrew it. Still others returned. In spite of the newness that keeps stretching the city’s borders, a handful of institutions at its core keep chugging along: independent, solitary and noteworthy.

Under the striped awning at Andre's Drive-In are some shady spots to enjoy a meal and think on the long, storied history of a still-going California fast food institution. 

Under the striped awning at Andre’s Drive-In are some shady spots to enjoy a meal and think on the long, storied history of a still-going California fast food institution. 

Photo By Andrew Pridgen

Yes, Andre’s represents a bygone time. The building itself is compact and filled with dramatic lines that make it a perfect place to cook, order and deliver food, a look back at how we came to consume meals today.

But at Andre’s there’s also a future that still may have a trick or two up its sleeve. As Choe bids me farewell, she leans in over the counter and mentions something she’s been working on. “I want to do an Andre’s kimchi burger,” she says. “Kimchi’s a probiotic, you know. It’s something I haven’t seen in a place like this and that’s what we do — we try to add to it, but not change too much. There’s already change enough around us.”

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