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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| DISCOVER ORANGE COUNTY

A Burger, Please, With Extra Nostalgia

September 09, 2000|DENNIS ARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The sign outside boasts about the burgers, but in Wesley Collier's mind, Knowlwood will always be the home of the world's best ham sandwich.

Original owner Faye Knowlton would pile on the slices of hickory-baked ham for the cowboys from nearby Nohl Ranch and for farmers dusty from tending the orchards in what is now Anaheim Hills.

Collier, 85, was one of those farmers.

"Back then, every half-acre had orange trees," Collier said as he sipped a beverage at Knowlwood (5665 E. La Palma Ave. Call [714] 779-2501), just as he has almost every morning since Knowlton opened the place in 1957. "Things have changed a lot."

Changed indeed. Where once cows roamed and dust blew, you can now visit an arcade with more than 150 games, most costing only a couple of nickels to play. Down the street, where fruit used to hang from trees, people dangle from artificial rocks as they test their climbing skills without ever stepping outside.

And after all that, you can still step back into local history, if only through the photographs that hang on the walls of the latest incarnation of Knowlwood, Home of the World's Best Hamburger.

"Those photos," Knowlton says, "really show how it used to be."

A Peek at the Past

"That's me--the handsome guy on the end," Collier says, pointing to a black-and-white picture behind the booth he's sharing with Harold Weaver, 75.

Collier is pictured with eight smiling friends at a picnic table in the shade of an avocado tree. In the background is Knowlwood, then little more than a shack.

When Knowlton and her partner, Walter Wood, opened the roadside eatery 43 years ago, it was basically a fruit stand with a grill. There were four items on the menu: ham, BLT and grilled cheese sandwiches and those soon-to-be famous burgers.

"I cooked and scrubbed and raked and picked up cigarette butts and did just about everything else that needed to be done," says Knowlton, 77, now a Yorba Linda resident. "It was clean and I was friendly and they liked me, so it just grew from there."

In addition to local farmers and ranch hands, Knowlwood attracted Hollywood types making the trip to Palm Springs. Knowlton and her late husband, Roy, who quit as a trucker and joined her in the business when it started to take off, served Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Anthony Quinn, among others.

"Eddie Albert said I made the best BLT he'd ever eaten," Faye Knowlton says.

But it was Knowlwood's burgers that built its reputation. Her partner's brother, Gordon Wood, coined the phrase "Home of the World's Best Hamburger."

"He was one of those guys who boasted a lot," Knowlton says.

Knowlton seems prouder of the culinary innovations to which she lays claim, among them the turkey burger, the bacon cheeseburger and Irish nachos. The three are still on the menu 11 years after the family sold the chain of five restaurants, all of which are in Orange County.

Knowlwood's standard-bearer burger (originally 45 cents, now $3.39) is a one-third-pounder that remains a juicy delight. Other longtime favorites include the hot pastrami sandwich, the BLT and the French beef dip (all $4.69).

The menu now also includes entree salads and fish taco combos, including one made with salmon. Alas, the ham sandwich dropped off the menu years ago. Knowlton says she never really liked it. "Once you've smoked and boned as many hams as I have," she says, "you really don't want to think about eating one."

Knowlwood is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Climbing the Walls

A 9-year-old is scaling Clinton's Nose.

Sounds like Secret Service code, doesn't it? Or the setup for a political joke. But no, he's really up there, one foot resting on the left nostril, one hand reaching for a hold above the bridge.

Clinton's Nose is the name of an outcropping at RockCity Climbing Center (5100 E. La Palma Ave., Suite 108, [714] 777-4884). The boy is one of a handful of patrons working his way up a wall at the converted office and industrial space.

RockCity attracts serious rock climbers looking for an accessible workout (it has dressing rooms and a weight room, just like a gym) as well as first-timers looking to conquer the Face without falling on theirs.

Shawn Crawford, 34, manages RockCity and is an avid outdoor climber. He conducts classes and clinics at RockCity and climbs in places like Joshua Tree and Yosemite, but on this day, he's giving an indoor refresher to two brothers who haven't climbed in a while.

After a review of belaying--holding a guide rope for a climbing partner--they decide to try bouldering--climbing a short, overhanging "rock" face without ropes or a harness. Crawford concludes with two pieces of advice: be sure to pull a padded mat underneath you and "don't fall on your head."

For the next two hours, the boys boulder, belay and generally clamber up and zip down RockCity's varied terrain. There are no falls, just lots of smiles when they master a new route to the top.

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