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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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TB American Kobe burger

So last week, at the end of a workday, probably about 6:00pm, the C.F.O. of the company for which I slave pops into my office to ask if I “like Tommy Bahama.” For those of you unfamiliar, click that link, or picture your dad’s most tan friend who was always talking about golf. He probably worked in finance or real estate. Now remember his shirt. That flowy silk & linen blend that managed to never wrinkle but did bear some appalling Hawaiian pattern and wooden buttons. Remember? Tommy Bahama is the brand that makes those, and not only is their clothing a far cry from anything I’d hope to be caught in, but the shit is expensive. Had this question come from ANYONE else, my obvious answer would have been a firmly unconditional “NO” but given that I know for a fact that a Tommy Bahama tag is peeking out of 80% of the things hanging in this dude’s closet (and he signs my paychecks) I squeaked a pekid “sure.” I happen to have a similar build to this guy (husky long-since football player type), which is probably why he thought of me and exactly why I should have seen it coming that he desired to aid me in the updating of my wardrobe. He handed me a $50 gift card that expired that day. I had about 3 hours to spend it, and I was looking at coming out of pocket an additional $50 for some awful shirt I don’t want because as I said, their shit isn’t cheap. “I hate to give it away but I gotta go pick up my boy” he said. Me: “Great, thanks. Hey how bummed will you be if I don’t use this? I might be here kinda late.” He looked at me as if I had just lit his Fifty Dollar bill on fire with an American Flag that I already happened to be burning. “Oh what am I talking about? I’ll just go now. This work can wait till tomorrow.” I could feel his blood pressure return to normal. Crisis averted, sort of. Now I just have to find the cheapest thing they have and wear it to work at least once.

Following a brief trip in the wrong direction, tacking another 20 minutes onto my already nightmarish commute, I found myself in Newport at some fancy strip-mall that functioned as a suburb to a huge mall, which is where google told me the Tommy Bahama store is. What google did not tell me is that THEY HAVE A RESTAURANT!!! Tommy Bahama has an “Island Grille” in Newport Beach, adjoined to its clothing store. Oh how my little heart sang when the hostess replied “yes, you can use that gift card here.” I had just gone from having to spend 50 of my own dollars on what would unquestionably be my least loved article of clothing, to being treated to a piggishly huge dinner alone (which is one of my favorite treats ever). Things were looking up.

$17 poke stack with capers, guacamole and mustard aioli. Sounds weird but it was great.

$17 poke stack with capers, guacamole and mustard aioli. Sounds weird but it was great.

I followed a young host who couldn’t have been a day over 15 through a bar where Joan Osborne’s twin who never made it sang 90’s radio rock covers to a crowd of drinkers and diners who could not have cared less. I would have felt bad for her except she glowed nearly as much as I did, still elated that I got food instead of terrible golf-wear. My server was prompt to bring me a menu and I was equally prompt at finding the burger on it, which actually sounded good. My head and the clouds were irreparably intertwined.

To be fair, this burger probably got graded very leniently not only due to the fact that I didn’t have the experience of paying retail price for it (it’s $16, and my appetizer was $17), but as I said, the joy of being able to report that I used the gift card while not adding any geriatric beachwear to my closet was not yet close to dissipating. That being said, it was pretty darn good. Tommy Bahama’s has 2 burgers, of which I opted for the American Kobe, which seemed the simpler of them. Rare Wagyu Beef, Aged Jack, tomato jam, watercress, guacamole and mustard aioli all came together on a surprisingly fluffy brioche, and aside from the beef not being particularly seasoned each ingredient was very complimentary of the others. The jack was very sharp (I’m guessing it was at least 2 years old) and they obviously broil it on the patty so it’s all warm and burnt. Yum. Tomato jam was more like a compote and not so sweet, guacamole was predictable (but who doesn’t like guacamole?) and the aioli’s flavor was delicate enough that it could be slathered on. These are not toppings that I necessarily would have combined but it really worked.

kobe burger guts

So: Tommy Bahama not only has shops where over-priced and overly horrendous casualwear can be acquired, they also have a small chain of over-priced restaurants that are totally decent. Does it feel like a chain restaurant? Absolutely. Like the Cheesecake Factory’s fancy big brother. Is the décor that which would be appreciated by a patron of their clothing stores? Duh. Will it be populated by those very same folks when you go (speaking of tan post-middle-agers who though have obviously made a good bit of money have unquestionably not spent any of it on some good taste)? Of course. The Island Grille does not have a shot at making my list of top picks, but they do have a solid burger, should you ever find yourself in possession of a gift card that you cannot fathom a use for.

– Geoff Sawyer

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