I counted exactly two parking spots outside the Pocket Burger Shack, and I'm pretty sure one of them is actually for the tattoo parlor next door. The new restaurant is that small, with barely three tables butted up against the wall in a room with a maximum seating capacity of about six. If it didn't make a two-fisted burger fit for a king, you might consider the place a concession stand more than a restaurant. It inherited the "pocket" part of its name from Pocket Pita, the yummy gyro joint that used to occupy the space. I'm glad it kept that moniker because I couldn't imagine a better descriptor for it—it is the size of a pocket.
Surfer bric-a-brac adorns the wall, along with a few 3-by-5 prints of smiling family members at some unnamed beach hung by string and clothespin, but the Pocket Burger Shack's kitchen dominates the room. A Thai woman (who I believe is named Melissa) and her husband, a blond dude with a ponytail who doesn't speak so much as nod, man the deep-fat fryers, a griddle, a stove and a cold-prep station. When you eat here, even if you're outside at the oil drum repurposed as a round table, you'll hear the metal-on-metal clank of his spatula on that griddle and smell the simple, reassuring aroma of sizzling animal protein. He starts the burger from the same kind of standard frozen, machine-formed beef patties you might have bought from Smart & Final for your last Fourth of July barbeque, but what they manage to transform it into is somehow much more glorious.
For the house burger called "The Pocket," the truism that anything can be made better with a fried egg, crunchy bacon and melted provolone cheese turns into a revelation. These essential elements glue everything together and heighten the other toppings: the avocado cut into big wedges, the right amount of onion, the thick-cut tomatoes, and even the single sheet of leaf lettuce that doesn't do much except act as a moisture barrier for the griddle-toasted sesame-seed bun. And when you cradle this burger in your palms, peeling back the paper as you bite deeper and deeper, juices trickle down your arm. By the time you finish, you'll lick the drippings and conclude that this burger was made like a burger should—not slapped together, but rather constructed by someone who cared about what the end product will look and taste like. Even the standard shoestring fries that accompany each burger seem the best versions of themselves, lifted out of the oil golden and deposited into the basket still sizzling hot just seconds after the burgers are assembled.
The Pocket Burger Shack 16873 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-7771. Open daily 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Lunch for two, $11-$20. No alcohol.
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The Pocket offers other burgers and other sandwiches, including a grilled cheese and PB&J, but they really need to just serve that eponymously named burger and only that burger. In fact, it trumps a tri-tip sandwich the restaurant advertises on the marquee facing PCH. And the tri-tip is actually quite good, consisting of unnaturally tender steak cut into short strips, griddled with onion and peppers, doused with squirts of a too-sweet teriyaki and then dumped onto a spongy roll that's nearly blotted out by all that meat.
Truth is, though, I would not have gone all this way to Sunset Beach if the Pocket didn't also offer something called the Phuket Chicken Bowl. When you read the menu, the thing kind of just jumps out at you, telling you nearly everything you need to know about the owners. The dish is an autobiography by proxy and was just as I imagined it would be—a bowl of rice, boiled carrots and broccoli, topped with chicken strips colored yellow by turmeric, and drizzled with the same kind of lip-smacking peanut sauce a proper Thai restaurant would use for its satays. The bowl is good and gut-filling, but kind of basic and perhaps unnecessary in light of that burger.
It's actually not even the greatest Thai item the Pocket serves. On the sunny Saturday afternoon I went, they were experimenting with homemade egg rolls, fat golden cylinders bursting with ground pork and glass noodle, served with Thai sweet chile sauce, and presented three per order, each egg roll resting on a swooping leaf of lettuce so the skin on your finger doesn't get burned off by the hot oil. And for dessert, the Pocket Burger Shack makes a legitimate roti—a thick, oily Thai crepe rolled up into a stogie and sweetened with condensed milk. It's one of the essential roadside foods of Southeast Asia—and it's about time it found a place alongside its sister burger as one of the glories of PCH.