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Costa Mesa

Double Double

March to the beat of your own drum. Generally, we talk about fancy-pants burgers, which makes sense because that’s what we like. There have and will continue to be exceptions to that rule not only because we see you burger-traditionalists, and we respect you, but also because not all delicious burgers need come topped with 27 syllables worth of cheese and exotic vegetation. Over the course of our handful of hat-tips to the simpler burgers out there we’ve even come to coin the phrase “California Style” which, if your memory fails is, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and Thousand-Island dressing. What we have managed to NOT do (until now anyway) is pay homage to the creator of that style. To give credit to the establishment who re-wrote the fast food bible that WackDonald’s imposed upon the world. To shout out the institution that is a culinary pillar of Southern California, and whose quality and consistency will keep them adorned in that accolade. Today friends, we are going to In ‘N Out.

Animal Fries

Animal Fries

This is a burger blog about Southern California’s offerings, and if you’re reading this (you are), you probably live in Southern California and you probably like burgers. If both of those things are true, I’d bet the farm that you don’t need me to tell you about In ‘N Out’s food. So, I won’t. It’s great. You know that. Sometimes I crave their food in a way that can only be cured by their food. You probably do too. In very few contexts, processed-pasteurized-American-cheese-food-product is pure joy and the greatest of those contexts is known as “Animal Fries.” None of this is news to you. However, you may not be rich with fun facts about the company that has become a staple to residents and a to-do list top-liner for everyone who visits Southern California. Let’s change that.

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If you haven’t read Fast Food Nation, you should; though it will probably have you questioning (and rightfully so) not only what you eat but also just how shameful you should feel about it. Though the whole book is informative,  the very beginning describes Southern California as the Fertile Crescent of hamburgers and how that came to pass, which, if you’re like me (fat), is simply fascinating. Ray Crock, the industrious entrepreneur who took McDonald’s from one popular restaurant to a National force, created a blueprint that nearly all other fast food chains modeled their businesses after: Prime convenient locations and plenty of them, profitability through extremely low costs of both food and labor, market saturation, and a franchise business structure. In N’ Out’s philosophy agrees with exactly zero of those things. They only have approximately 300 retail locations despite nearly 70 years in operation, are entirely privately owned by the family that started the business and have offered no franchises, take excellent care of their employees both financially and in terms of available benefits, and have higher food costs so as not to compromise the company’s quality standards. If that wasn’t enough differentiation, the diversity of the menu is nil (there are basically a total of 4 things: burgers, fries, shakes, sodas, though one has a couple of style options per category), every store looks identical, and the pro-Jesus culture is subtle but visible on the bottom of every cup. So according to the fast food model followed by most of their competitors, In ‘N Out does everything wrong. Somehow that doesn’t equate to failure. I implore anyone to find an uncrowded location at mealtime.
In ‘N Out is another solid example of “if you build it, they will come.” Uncompromising standards yield consistent quality, and that makes for consistently happy customers, who are loyal. This chain’s contribution to SoCal’s burger Mesopotamia is an important one, and one that I suspect will continue to enjoy slow and steady growth at whatever pace it chooses, as has been the case thus far. If it ain’t broke…
– Geoff Sawyer

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As we’ve already discussed, and will hopefully continue to explore into infinity, LA is heavy on the fancy burgers, and I love it. However, there is an entire social order of educated burger munchers who scoff at foreign cheeses and couldn’t care less what makes a brioche a brioche. These folks are traditionalists, and while I am certainly not among them, I empathize. Thusfar we at Hoodburger have focused more on the classier of southern California’s burger restaurants, and will likely continue to do so, but just so you all know that a corner of our hearts remains reserved for the dumpy spots too, this post is for all you no-frills just-good team members.

T.K. Burger has 8 locations scattered about LA and Orange counties, and one of them is conveniently located right across the street from the DMV of Costa Mesa. Convenient for me anyway, since there are few things besides good food that can alleviate the soul-strain of a 3 hour chill sesh with some of California’s most pleasant and well adjusted state employees (sarcasm alert). I had never even heard of this place, and its extremely unassuming facade led me to surprise when the young lady behind the counter told me there were 7 more of them. Old beach records decorate the walls and low ceiling, interrupted occasionally by the awkward lamp and photo of a sick tube (my attempt at bro-speak for “big wave”). With the exception of myself, the clientele dining in seemed evenly divided between flip flopped, tousled, potentially professional surfers and fruit-patterned linen adorned, probable-professional Jimmy Buffet fans.  There was seating for perhaps 20, and most of it was occupied at noon.

T.K. doesn’t have a “house” or “signature” burger, which in hindsight is no surprise. These guys don’t get particularly creative with their interpretations- they just keep it simple and do it really well. I went with the “Big Bargain Special” being the cheeseburger and fries combo which is top billed on the menu board by a long shot if you rank based on font size, and is reportedly “the thing that everybody gets” in lieu of a burger that T.K. claims as its own. I’m beginning to think that there is a ‘California style’ burger (though I have never heard it referred to as such) resulting from In-n-Out nailing the formula really early on, and everyone else whose intention was not to step way outside the box simply accepting that the code had been cracked and following suit. For those of you who STILL don’t know, that means lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions (red in T.K.’s case), American cheese if any, and Thousand Island dressing. Not particularly inventive even if you were the first to do it, but consistently delicious from day 1. According to the menu, all burgers come on a signature egg roll, which I found to be like a less chewy version of potato bread. The flavor of the bun was great but it was huge, and had a little too much presence in each bite proportionally. The beef patty was fine ground and cooked just short of well done, neither of which I typically support but this burger was not only very juicy despite being thin but had incredible flame grilled flavor. I’ve heard that Burger King actually sprinkles charcoal dust on its patties to achieve said flavor (anybody?) and they still fail miserably. BK should take cues from T.K. instead, because whatever their specific method is to make the beef taste so distinctly grilled is working better than anyone else’s means. All the veggies were cool, crisp, ripe and fresh, making this burger functionally a clinic on how to keep it basic and still be awesome.

So to all the burger purists out there in case you had not heard, T.K. definitely get’s a green light. As a certain obnoxious (though nearly always correct) television personality may have informed you, there is no shortage of diners or dives out there, and many of them have great burgers. My advice is go to T.K.’s before Mr. Terrible Hair shows up with the cameras, because he will, and you’ll regret having missed the era of no line around the block.