Mary B’s
1313 E. Harvard Blvd.
Santa Paula

Possibly more than any other city in the county, Santa Paula is the kind of place where you’ll find restaurants with long, storied histories. There’s Familia Diaz, owned and operated by the same family for nearly 80 years. Mupu Grill, which has changed hands countless times but still carries on, happily ensconced in the retro Main Street scene. And then there’s Mary B’s, where you’ll still find some of the best burgers and dogs in the Heritage Valley.

Back in the day (the date’s a little fuzzy; it’s widely believed to have been founded in the 1940s) it was known as Dirty Al’s, a little hot dog stand on Harvard and Eighth, owned by Al and Bonzel Hahn that became locally famous for its chili dogs. Mary Bevill started working there after she and her family moved to Santa Paula in the 1950s. Bevill would eventually take over the place in the late 1970s and rename it Mary B’s. It’s been in the family ever since.

Readers, a word of caution: Do not judge this book by its cover. To call it modest is an understatement. The merry red-and-yellow sign is the only bright spot on what is, frankly, a drab little shack. Inside it’s just one room, about the size of a standard kitchen, most of which is taken up by the grill and counter. The menu board has seen better days. The antique décor and wall of irreverent bumper stickers add a kitschy charm, but otherwise the place is kind of dingy. The focus at Mary B’s is on quality food; everything else is an afterthought.

Patrons who came in during a weekday lunch, most of whom were placing large orders to take back to the office, praised the joint for the fresh, made-to-order patties, “the best chili around” and consistently good quality of the food. Leaning against the benches, they chatted with new owner Sam Bennett III and his cousin and fry cook Summer Bennett (both great-grandchildren of the original Mary B; they took over for their grandmother, Peggy Alsup, in February) while they waited for their food. Santa Paula is a small, friendly town, and Mary B’s brings out the neighborliness in people.

Mary B’s does only a few things, but it does them well: chili, hot dogs, burgers, fries and onion rings. There’s bacon if you want it and a patty melt, too. And any of these items can be combined in any fashion. “If it involves a burger or chili, we can do it,” Bennett told us when we were considering our options. We ultimately went with a chili dog (a house specialty), a double western barbecue bacon cheeseburger, and a couple of basic cheeseburgers. The sight, scents and sounds of bacon and burgers frying definitely whetted our appetites.

We eagerly dug into our purchases when we got home, and while it’s true that “hunger is the best spice,” I believe our judgment was not unduly clouded. Juicy, flavorful, fresh-tasting, and still just a wee bit pink — exactly as a burger should be. Patties were big but not ridiculous, and I appreciated the lightly toasted bun. The onion rings were delicious and crispy. Mary B’s didn’t skimp on the bacon on my double western, either. Now, I’m not calling this health food … but for a cheap and fast burger joint the fare could have been a lot greasier; kudos to the fry cook.

Mary B’s serves top-quality foot-long franks, every inch delicious. Slathered in chili, onions and cheese, it’s the perfect meal for game day. Chili, in general, can be a subject of fierce debate: the spiciness, type of meat, beans or no beans, etc. What I will say for Mary B’s is that the chili is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s an earthy concoction made from ground beef with nary a tomato nor bean, heavy on the cumin and light on the heat. I might personally prefer something with a little more kick and some beans, but for some, this is chili done right. It went down plenty easy on my hot dog and fries. Maybe I’ll try it on my burger next time.

Mary B’s is only open 11-3 and it’s closed on Sundays, but if you can get out there for lunch, you won’t be disappointed. After 70 years in the business, these folks know what they’re doing.