There hasn't been a better time to get ground beef stuffed in a bun than now. While Five Guys and the Habit have ramped up to aggressively chase the In-N-Out dollar, top-tier chefs such as Charlie Palmer and Marcus Samuelsson downshifted to walk among commoners with burger joints of their own. For Palmer in particular, the burger is the great equalizer, the middle ground where the restaurateur and his customers can agree to meet while weathering the Great Recession. For other chefs, it's the fastest way to hit the ground running. Which is the reason Joseph Mahon, formerly of Bastide and a known pop-up-restaurant tinkerer, is soon settling down in Fullerton to open up a so-called Burger Parlor. Like everyone else, he recognizes there's nothing to be misunderstood about a burger. He knows what 25 Degrees, the Counter, Slater's 50/50 and countless corner greasy spoons have already figured out: The fastest way to connect with your audience is to serve them burgers and fries.
George Makri also gets it. He owns G Burger in La Habra, a burger stand that straddles the comfortable center between the dives and the boutiques. His is a squat standalone building in a dead part of town, with framed splashed-paint art on the walls, groovy music and an open kitchen in which you can observe the construction of your burger to towering heights until it becomes a caricature of itself, a seemingly living, breathing thing desperately wanting to be eaten by Adam Richman or Guy Fieri.
I ordered a G Burger and asked what was in it. The uniformed counterman replied, "Everything!" And he meant it. In addition to salad greens, tomatoes, onions and the cheese of my choice, a G Burger can potentially contain a pile-up of everything on the toppings list, which includes teriyaki-glazed onions, Portobello mushrooms, slaw, grilled pineapple, a fried jumbo egg, pastrami, avocados, chili and, of course, bacon. The checklist common to the Counter and Fuddruckers doesn't exist here. You don't tell the counterman what you want; you tell him what you don't.
G Burger, www.gburger.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $8-$20. No alcohol.
Picturing a burger that would collapse the second I touched it, I asked for the kitchen to hold the pineapple and leave the chili and teriyaki onions on the side, yet it still reached to my chin. The final product arrived with a steak knife through the top like Excalibur. The char-grilled, hand-formed patty, nearly three times the thickness of In-N-Out's, extends past the perimeter of the bun, blotting out the greens piled underneath and forming a sturdy foundation for the rest. But despite the creation being taller than it was wide, everything stayed in place. The toppings seemed to have molecularly bonded either aided by the melting cheese or perhaps thanks to the friction of crispy bacon or the black-edged pastrami. Everything remained under a puffy high-rise bun, itself accounting for half the height.
It was a lovely burger, neither as greasy nor as messy as I initially anticipated. I'm glad I opted to have the chili separately, not because it wouldn't have added anything to the burger, but because tasting it by itself made for a better appreciation of its nuanced spicing. I poured the silky teriyaki-glazed onions onto an order of G fries, which Makri undersells by describing them as similar to In-N-Out's Animal-style fries, but with bacon. They're at least three times better than that. Utilizing thicker, crispier potatoes, sweeter chunks of grilled red onions, homemade Thousand Island dressing, a spackling of ooey-goeey cheese, a prodigious sprinkling of cracked black pepper, herbs and yes, bacon, the dish has a drive-through origin but a sit-down pedigree.
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The onion rings also come from more expensive red onions instead of the usual brown, hand-crusted in cracker meal to produce a pebbly, rustic crunch a few decibels noisier than the normal sodden, fried-from-frozen rings you are used to. And before I could taste more than three spears of his fried zucchini, my usually fried-foods-averse date managed to polish off the entire serving, leaving nothing but the coffee filter the bowls are lined with.
Sandwiches come in ever-escalating layers of sliced meat, and the French roll for the grilled-chicken sandwich can barely stop the char-flecked breast from popping out. But it's the burgers everyone comes for. And I do mean everyone. On the same trip, I saw men with intimidating tattoos, white-haired retirees and Asian college kids—proof again that a good burger is the great equalizer.
This review appeared in print as "The G Spot: George Makri's La Habra burger stand straddles the comfortable center between dives and boutiques."